George Howarth – 2019 Speech on the Withdrawal Agreement

Below is the text of the speech made by George Howarth, the Labour MP for Knowsley, to the House of Commons on 12 March 2019.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah). He made a thoughtful, fluent and principled speech and I commend him for doing so.

Back in January when we were debating this matter, I said that the Government had no majority, no authority, and no longer served any useful purpose. If that was debatable in January, it is now an absolute certainty. I am afraid that the debate we are having only reflects the mess that the Government have got themselves into on this issue.

I want to be brief so I will not repeat a lot of the things that have already been said. I just want to make a couple of remarks about where the public are at and where they were at the beginning of this process, which leads on to the debate about whether a consensus is possible. I do not mean this in any critical way, but the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) called for consensus, the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) called for consensus, and—in a slightly different way—the hon. Member for East Surrey ​just made a plea for a kind of consensus. The difficulty is that they all mean something entirely different. The right hon. Member for Loughborough means a consensus around the Prime Minister’s deal, the hon. Member for East Surrey wants a pause so that we can think about whether other options could be considered, and the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood basically wants us to come out without a deal. In each case, there is no possible basis for consensus.

When we started this process, I noticed that there were three different strands of opinion in my constituency, and Knowsley is not unique in that. The first strand was made up of people who voted to leave and wanted to leave on any basis it was possible to achieve, including without any kind of a deal. Secondly, there were those who agreed more with me than with anybody else, who felt that we had made a historic mistake in voting to leave in the referendum and were looking for a way to reverse that process. Finally, there was a group of people in the middle who simply wanted to get on with it, although they were not specific about what it was they wanted to get on with, other than the fact that they wanted to leave the European Union—and the Prime Minister has built her entire negotiating strategy around that one group.

The difficulty is that that one group, which is also reflected in this House, cannot definitely be said to be on one side or the other when it comes to any specific deal. Yes, these people want to leave, but they do not necessarily want to leave on any terms put in front of them, and they certainly do not want to be part of a deal that makes them, their families and their communities worse off. The problem is that any solution has to involve a strategy that brings at least two of those three groups along with it, but I am afraid to say that what the Prime Minister is offering at the moment does not bring any one of those groups along fully, as we will see reflected in the Division Lobby tonight.

It would be reasonable to challenge me on what I think should happen. All I can say is that at the beginning of this process, after we triggered article 50, I would have voted for a deal that I thought would not do too much damage to my constituents; that is where I started from. Frankly, I am now at the point where I will vote, if I get the opportunity over the coming days, for no deal because I think that it would be disastrous for my constituency and our country. [Hon. Members: “Against no deal.”] Sorry, I will vote against no deal; that was a Freudian slip. I will also vote for a second referendum if the opportunity arises, and I will certainly vote for the extension of article 50. We have to get somewhere with this. If we do not, the only option left will be to say to the people, “Is this what you really want?” And we are rapidly reaching a point where that is probably the only option left.