Caroline Spelman – 2019 Speech on Brexit

Below is the text of the speech made by Caroline Spelman, the Conservative MP for Meriden, in the House of Commons on 1 April 2019.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who was a very good Minister in the coalition Government.

I am very keen that the voice of the world of work should be heard in this debate today. Last week, with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), I co-chaired an industrial coalition. A huge range of industries and trade organisations evaluated ​the options before us, and they are going to inform how I will vote this evening. The British brand has been badly damaged, they said. Brexit has changed international perceptions of our country.

The CBI and the TUC were very clear that they want Parliament to compromise to find a way forward. No deal or a Canada-style relationship with Europe would not, in their view, be workable. They warned us that the trade we do with our near neighbours is very different from how we trade with more distant partners. Trading with Canada, for example, could necessitate the completion of up to 12 pages of customs forms. They estimate that that could cost British business an extra £2.5 billion annually, and that would of course hit small and medium-sized enterprises hardest of all.

There are big problems, businesses said, with mini extensions of article 50, because they cannot properly function on such a short-term planning cycle. Car factories in our constituencies are shut down this month in anticipation of the disruption of Brexit, and the workers have been urged to take their annual leave this month. They cannot suddenly open the factories and shunt the annual leave three weeks later. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders would prefer an 18-month to two-year delay to article 50 just to give business a chance to adjust. It said that we cannot keep marching up to the top of the cliff.

The TUC and the CBI again made clear the threats of a no-deal brisket that would—[Laughter.] I had a go at cooking that yesterday, Mr Speaker. A no-deal Brexit would put thousands of jobs at risk. This is not just about jobs; I remind the House that it is about the thousands of Brits abroad who will not be able to fund their own healthcare in the event of a no deal and are receiving notice of that now. I appeal to the Government for contingency funding to help those vulnerable individuals, but again mini extensions do not help them much either.

I have consistently supported the Prime Minister’s deal. Business says that it is workable and would give clarity. I will continue to support that deal if it comes back for another vote, but without enough support in Parliament we have to consider the other options. I will vote in favour of two options. I will support the proposal for “a” customs union. There is a big difference between “a” and “the”. The withdrawal agreement already provides elements of a customs union and that is something that both main parties supported in different forms at the last election. While the Conservative manifesto stated we would

“no longer be members of the single market or customs union”

we did commit to seeking a

“deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement”.

I will also vote for the proposals setting out common market 2.0, which builds on the EFTA model put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). We helped to set up EFTA: it offers preferential trade with the EU, recourse to an EFTA court for trade disputes and the right to pull the handbrake on migration.

All the options have their critics. However, an agreement on customs with the EU would work for business and help to safeguard jobs—​

Mr Fysh

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Dame Caroline Spelman

I am afraid I do not have time to do so.

We must weigh up the pros and cons of all options before us. However, given the large manufacturing footprint in many of our constituencies, the impact on jobs must be a key factor. If jobs are lost—

Mr Fysh

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Dame Caroline Spelman

No, I will not give way.

If jobs were lost so that we could have a more flexible trade policy in the future, I would find that way forward very difficult to support. The critical issue for business is the need for frictionless trade with our principal market.

Mr Fysh

Will my right hon. Friend give way on that point?

Dame Caroline Spelman

No, I have now said three times that I will not give way.

For the automotive industry, just-in-time manufacturing is critical. Some 1,100 lorries a day pass through Dover. Many firms do not have warehouses to store parts. The lorries are their warehouses. Any logistic disruption at the border is damaging. While I was out canvassing in my constituency, a small business owner explained how 15% of his trade is with the EU, and that is at risk. If he loses that trade, he has to make two of his people redundant.

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) that a customs union alone provides 90% of a solution for a frictionless border. People have been understanding on the doorstep, but they expect Parliament to come together now across parties and find a compromise. Our children’s future will depend on the quality of the compromise we achieve, and we must not let them down.

The votes tonight will help to shape phase 2 of the Brexit process when we negotiate that future trading relationship. However, we cannot get to phase 2 without phase 1. That means accepting the treaty, which allows us to leave in an orderly fashion, and I urge more colleagues to do so.