The speech made by Hilary Benn, the Labour MP for Leeds Central, in the House of Commons on 30 December 2020.
May I draw attention to the fourth report of the Brexit Select Committee, on the agreement, which was published this morning? The Committee’s wonderful staff worked really hard over Christmas, but we have not had the opportunity, in three days, to produce a fuller report, and I did write to the Leader of the House about giving the Committee a bit more time to complete the task that was given to us just under a year ago.
I will be voting for this Bill to implement the agreement today, because, quite simply, the alternative is no deal. I recognise that others in the House will abstain or vote against, but if we were in the position where every one of their votes were required in order to get this Bill, and therefore this agreement, through, I cannot believe that any of those colleagues would actually choose no deal, with all the damaging economic consequences it would bring, over a deal. That is why, in the end, the Prime Minister realised that he had no alternative but to get an agreement. This is not a vote about whether we support Brexit—I do not, but it has happened. This is a vote about making a bit better of a bad job.
There are aspects of the agreement that will be welcomed: the absence of tariffs, which has been referred to; the agreement on healthcare; the level playing provisions, which seem pretty reasonable to me; and our having access to some of the information that we require for our security. But we must also be honest about what is missing from this agreement and what that will mean. It does not deliver frictionless trade. It will impose checks, costs and red tape on British businesses that export to Europe. Frankly, I was astonished to hear the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on the radio the other morning apparently praising red tape as a benefit because it will make British businesses get “match fit” to trade. That is certainly a novel economic theory and it does not reflect the Conservative party as we previously understood it. The agreement offers no certainty yet on data transfer or financial services, which are so important to our economy. We did not get what was sought on conformity assessments, rules of origin, mutual recognition of qualifications, or reduced sanitary and phytosanitary checks. There is, as of this moment, no agreement yet on Gibraltar.
Why has this happened? It has happened because from the start the Government were faced with having to choose between sovereignty, on the one hand, and the economic interests of the country, on the other, and however hard they tried to pretend that they could have the best of both, that was never possible—a trade-off would always have to be made. We see that in the agreement before us, which is long and complex, rather like Brexit itself, and the full implications of both have yet to be revealed.
Today this Bill will pass, and tomorrow the process of leaving the EU will be complete, but the day after we will need to look forward, because a new question will confront us as a nation: what kind of relationship do we now wish to have with our biggest, nearest and most important trading partners and friends? The other reason why I will be voting for this Bill today is that, for all it has failed to secure, it at least provides a foundation on which, in the years ahead, we can build what I hope will be a strong economic and political relationship with our European friends. I hope, as we move beyond leave and remain, we will now be able, as a country, to come together to do exactly that.