My thanks to all those constituents who got in touch with me about the Brexit trade deal that was agreed on Christmas Eve and the vote that took place in Parliament on the 30th of December.
I wanted a deal because I had heard in evidence to the Brexit select committee (which I chair) from those who would be most affected how bad No Deal would be for their businesses.
I voted for the Bill implementing the Agreement with the EU for the very simple reason that the only alternative was No Deal. If the Agreement hadn’t passed in the House of Commons then we would have left the transition period at 11:00pm on the 31st December with nothing in place.
Having campaigned throughout the Brexit process against No Deal, it would have been extraordinary to have voted in favour of that outcome. Crashing out with No Deal would have been even more damaging for the economy and made life even more difficult for many British businesses than Brexit will do anyway, with tariffs hitting industries from farming to manufacturing, increasing food prices and putting jobs at risk when unemployment is already rising sharply. The Office for Budget Responsibility had said that a No Deal Brexit would have resulted in a 2% hit to the UK economy next year.
On the case for abstention, I heard what was said but in the end politics is about making choices rather than avoiding them. Our European friends, including in Ireland, wanted the deal to go through and the blunt truth is that those MPs who either voted against or abstained actually wanted the deal to be approved as well. Almost none of them were in favour of No Deal. And therefore, as Keir Starmer pointed out in his speech, those who abstained were relying on those who did vote for the Agreement to get it through. Or to put it another way, if the votes of those MPs would have made the difference between the Agreement passing or not then I think they would have voted for it. I make this point because it reveals the truth about the choice we faced and saying that it would have gone through anyway misses the point. So it was actually a difference of view about tactics as opposed to principle.
Does voting for the Agreement make us somehow complicit in Boris Johnsons version of Brexit? Absolutely not. I am still opposed to Brexit, It was the wrong decision for our country, but we lost, we had left and it had already happened. The question facing the House of Commons on the 30th December was not therefore ‘Do we support Brexit?’ but rather ‘Do we want a Deal or No Deal?’
Will our vote prevent us from criticising the adverse consequences of Brexit itself and the weaknesses of the deal? Again, absolutely not. I will continue to do so. Those consequences will rest with the Prime Minister and the Leave campaign who promised us the earth and have instead undermined our economy. Brexit will be bad for future growth at a time when we are already facing an economic crisis because of Covid.
The Agreement has secured some things but it’s also missing many others. It is a thin deal and we will begin to see the real consequences of Brexit from the start of the new year. It will, however, make things slightly less bad than they would otherwise be for some important parts of our economy who desperately wanted to avoid tariffs.
Now we have left the EU, the question is what kind of relationship do we want to have with our biggest, nearest and most important neighbours in future? I think we should be looking for as close an economic and political relationship as possible because that’s in everyone’s interests. As well as being much better for jobs, investment and families, we need to work with our European friends on the great global challenges we face like fighting coronavirus, tackling dangerous climate change and protecting our security. So, whatever happens, I don’t think this will be the end of negotiations with the EU, but in fact the beginning of a new relationship.
You can find below links to the speech I made in the debate on the Agreement and to the report the Brexit select committee has produced on it.
Hilary Benn MP