Kenneth Clarke – 2019 Speech on Brexit

Below is the text of the speech made by Ken Clarke, the Conservative MP for Rushcliffe, in the House of Commons on 27 March 2019.

join those who have congratulated my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) on giving us this opportunity. At last we are seeing, as we go along, that the House is moving into a mood where it is going to be possible to end the catastrophic shambles of the last six months. We are beginning to talk about actually being able to take decisions founded on some sort of cross-party consensus and some search for a majority that can be sustained through the difficult and long negotiations that will be required to reach agreement on our final relations with the European Union. It seems to me that it is up to the House to respond to that properly and deal with this procedure, with a willingness to compromise with one another and move towards some eventual binding recommendation to the Government about the way in which things should be conducted in future. I shall certainly approach this in that way.​

My right hon. Friend has also helped the Government, although they are bitterly resistant to what he has done, raising absurd constitutional arguments, which are complete fiction and which they could have remedied easily if they had put down their own proposals for having indicative votes, as they told us that they were going to two days ago. This hair-splitting thing about it being the Government who should table business motions, and not Back Benchers, is a completely piffling irrelevance. He has actually helped them considerably: I have never seen the right-wing members of the European Research Group more apparently panicked by the way the House as a whole is moving. They are demonstrably in a minority, their dreams of a no-deal departure are fading, and despite their frequent meetings with the Prime Minister and their gliding into Chequers at the weekend, they are beginning to peel off one by one, having first rebuffed it.

I congratulate those who put this process together and those Ministers who resigned to get this pressure going and bring us nearer to reality, and I will turn now to the substance of how I am going to vote. As I have said, I will vote not for my first preference—I will when it occurs—but for that which I can live with. Unfortunately, I think we are doomed to leave the European Union within the next two or three years. My duty now is to exercise my own judgment as to what is in the national interest, will minimise the damaging consequences and will perhaps save some of the better features for future generations.

As I have said before, the obvious compromise is, unfortunately, to give up the political European Union and leave the political institution and remain in the common market, as the public still call it—the customs union and the single market—thereby avoiding problems at the borders and for business, ensuring the smooth running of trade, and so on.

Angus Brendan MacNeil rose—

Mr Clarke

I am sorry, but I cannot give way. I would like to—I have been collaborating with the hon. Gentleman—but I must take notice of time.

Under such a compromise, we would continue to enjoy the economic advantages of being in the biggest and most prosperous international free trade area in the world and begin to reconcile the 52% with the 48%. Most sensible members of the public, however passionate their views, be they remain or leave, could see the sense in coming together around such a compromise. It was the main Eurosceptic demand 20 years ago: leave the EU but not the common market. If we solved that, we could begin to repair the dreadful political mood in the country.

I will vote for revoke whenever it appears, because that is my personal preference, but that is self-indulgence, and I will support—[Laughter.] If we get a majority, I will be delighted.

Angus Brendan MacNeil rose—

Mr Clarke

I will not give way to my fellow collaborator on revoking.

I will support common market 2.0 and anything that resembles it, though I will not dwell on it further, as I have already dealt with it. I come then to my motion (J). ​As I have already indicated, it is not my first preference—the two I have already named are my preferences—but it is tabled to maximise support in the House so that we can move on Monday towards our really taking control and actually putting the Government, though they do not accept it, in a much stronger position than they are today when it comes to the future negotiations.

Motion (J) advocates a customs union only—a permanent customs union, I point out to the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), who intervened earlier on this point—and would keep the minimum needed for frictionless trade and an open border in Ireland. We would also need some understanding or moves on regulatory convergence, but that does not need to be dealt with at this stage. If we start with the premise that we will be permanently in a customs union, it would bring greater clarity to the next stage—the really important stage—of the negotiations. I think that every other EU member state would be ready to accede to that, and it would improve the climate of the negotiations.

The motion is designed to appeal in particular to Labour Members who are demanding it and to my more cautious right hon. and hon. Friends in the Conservative party. Those who have hang-ups about rule-making and use medieval language about vassal states and all the rest of it are talking about the single market. Motion (J) does not include the single market. The customs union guarantees a reasonably frictionless relationship and the possibility of completely open trade in the future, and leaves all the other things to be decided in the negotiations.

Greg Hands

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr Clarke

No, I will not.

That is the basis on which I tabled motion (J), and I commend it to the House. Members may prefer a different motion; I shall vote for several. I think that we should all vote for as many of the motions as we can, and then we will see which is the strongest. We will not be dismissed by the more fervent members of the Government saying that they have all been defeated, and none of them secured an individual majority. On Monday, we could move on to how we sift them out.

Above all, for Labour Members this will, I hope, pave the way for allowing the withdrawal agreement to go through, because their main argument is not about the contents of the withdrawal agreement but about the “blind Brexit” that worries them so much. Even in motion (J)—if we cannot get a stronger one—there is not a blind Brexit any more. Labour Members could at least abstain, so that we could secure the withdrawal agreement and then move on to what really matters—the serious long-term negotiations on the big issues, which we shall have to handle much better than we are doing now.

My last word is this. If we fail, and if we are faced in a fortnight’s time with no deal, I think the feeling in the House is so strongly against that outcome that we must all vote to revoke at that stage. A great many members of the public will probably think that we have got ourselves into such a mess that it might have been sensible to do that anyway. We should stop now, sort out what we are doing, and perhaps start again if the House is still enthusiastic about leaving. However, I ​hope we can avoid that conclusion by demonstrating that Parliament is capable of orderly debate, reasonable conclusions, and contributing to the better governance of this country as part of this process—including, I hope, my motion (J).