Ivan Lewis – 2019 Speech on the Withdrawal Agreement

Below is the text of the speech made  by Ivan Lewis, the Independent MP for Bury South, in the House of Commons on 12 March 2019.

Public dissatisfaction with this place has never been greater. It is true that, when the country is so divided on Brexit, it was always going to be the toughest of challenges to earn public confidence and respect, but the failure of leadership in both the major political parties, coupled with the rigid ideological dogma of some Members, has made the situation far worse than it needed to be. Party and dogma have sadly been put ahead of country.

I have been consistent throughout. I believe that the result of the referendum has to be respected. A belief in the central importance of democracy and the dire consequences for progressive politics if we were to ignore or attempt to subvert the result mean that we must leave. Holding a second referendum would, irrespective of its result, fuel a dangerous right-wing populism in our politics that would be likely to lead to long-term ​right-wing Governments in this country. However, the basis on which we leave and engage with the EU in future is all-important. It will shape our destiny for a generation. It must protect our economy, the standard of living of our constituents and our security. We also have a solemn duty to preserve the United Kingdom, which should only ever change through explicit public consent, and to protect the peace in Northern Ireland, which remains fragile—we should never forget that.

The deal we are being asked to support tonight was overwhelmingly rejected back in January largely, but not exclusively, because of the Northern Ireland backstop. The Brady amendment passed by this House gave the Government a clear instruction that the backstop must be replaced in the withdrawal agreement by alternative arrangements; this has not happened. Some propose a time limit; this has not happened. Others wanted us to be able to unilaterally leave the backstop if negotiations fail; again, this has not happened. So none of the conditions laid down by the vast majority of the original deal’s opponents has been met, and this has been starkly underlined by the Attorney General’s legal advice of this morning.

As I have said, I believe we do have a duty to implement the referendum result and leave the EU, and I will only support a minimum extension to article 50 which would ensure that we were not obliged to participate in European elections. Therefore, I will be willing to consider supporting this agreement, for all its perfections, if only the Government were willing to be clear about their aspirations for our future relationship. For the sake of trade, jobs and living standards, that has to include a customs arrangement of some kind with the EU. That could, but need not, be membership of the customs union itself. Not only is that the best way of securing economic stability, but it would guarantee that the backstop is consigned to the dustbin of history. The best means of achieving this is Common Market 2.0, with the UK moving into the EFTA pillar of the EEA and joining a comprehensive arrangement with the EU, maintaining a common external tariff with frictionless trade and no hard border in Ireland. We would seek to maintain the closest possible economic relationship with the EU without the political integration which the majority in this country opposed very clearly in the referendum.

The time has come to put this, along with other potential solutions, to the House so we can indicate where a majority can be secured. We know what the majority are against; the time has come for the majority in this place, free from the constraints of party Whips, to make it clear what they are for. That would truly be acting in the national interest.