Parliamentary Update

As well as responding to the enormous number of constituents who’ve contacted me about almost every aspect of Brexit and the Government’s handling of this issue over the last three (and more) years, I’ve also provided website updates at key stages throughout this historic process.

Whether on my decision to vote against triggering Article 50 back in early 2017 (because it was clear the Government had no plan or negotiating strategy in place); or the reasons behind my intention to vote against the EU Withdrawal Bill when it was first due be voted on by MPs last December (see here and here); or indeed the update I provided shortly before the UK was originally due to leave the EU at the end of March, I’ve always sought to carefully set out the position I had reached after extensive communication with constituents and the local business community, and following very significant deliberation on my part.

I did this in most detail when I led the debate in Parliament on three Brexit-related e-petitions on 1st April, (including that which secured over 6 million signatures), and there is more information on some of my extensive work on this wider issue available on my website here and on the Parliament website here.

Given recent turbulent events in Parliament – which I fully appreciate can appear completely arcane and often unintelligible to those looking in – I therefore thought it would be helpful to try and set out what has happened over the last few weeks, and the positions I have taken on each of these issues.

Prorogation of Parliament

At 1.40am this morning, during what is one of the most important periods of our country’s history since the Second World War, Parliament was formally ‘prorogued’ – or suspended – by the Government until 14th October.

In layperson’s language, this means the Prime Minister, and those who serve in the Government, cannot be held accountable for their decisions – on Brexit, or indeed on any other issue – by democratically-elected MPs for five weeks, and this closure comes only a matter of days after we returned from the summer recess.

In practical terms this means, for example, that in the almost twelve weeks between becoming Prime Minister on 24th July and when Parliament is due to sit again on 14th October, Boris Johnson will have faced Prime Minister’s Questions just once. It also means there will be no debates, no urgent questions, no scrutiny of individual Ministers – either in the Commons or as part of Select Committees’ work – nor any opportunity for MPs to table written questions on behalf of their constituents.

Equally frustratingly, it means that a number of important pieces of legislation that were yet to complete their passage through Parliament – including those on domestic abuse, animal cruelty and no-fault divorce – have now ‘fallen’ and will have to go through the entire Parliamentary process again before they can become law, if indeed they are reintroduced.

Whilst backbench MPs had no vote on the prorogation of Parliament, I have made my total opposition to this outrageous move quite clear, in signing the cross-party ‘Church House Declaration’, by joining this demand from fellow Labour MPs that the decision be reversed and by refusing to take part in yesterday’s prorogation ceremony – because, whatever the Prime Minister might claim, this move was quite clearly intended to sideline elected representatives and thereby avoid scrutiny of his reckless Brexit policy, his Government’s actions and/or failures to act.

Of course, this unprecedented attempt to avoid being held to account by democratically-elected MPs has not been not restricted to the Prime Minister. As a member of the Treasury Select Committee (of which I have today been appointed interim chair), I was expecting to have the opportunity to question the Chancellor yesterday on the one-year ‘Spending Review’ he announced to Parliament last week. It is standard practice for any major Treasury event – such as a Budget or Spending Review – to be scrutinised shortly afterwards in this way, but we were simply told on Friday that he was not available and that no other Minister was able to attend in his place.

Whatever anyone’s views on Brexit or political persuasion, I think this entire episode marks a deeply troubling erosion of our democratic norms, and can only be regarded as having set a dangerous precedent for any future Prime Minister that wants to avoid the scrutiny, challenge and accountability that living in a Parliamentary democracy entails.  This is certainly not the ‘taking back control’ people were promised back in 2016.

General Election

In the space of the one week that MPs were back in Parliament after the summer recess, we were asked by the Prime Minister to vote in favour of holding an early General Election twice – once last Wednesday, and again yesterday evening.

We are led to believe this General Election – had it been backed by the required threshold of two thirds of MPs to go ahead – would have been held on 15th October, just days before the next European Council (or EU summit) on 17th-18th October and just two weeks before the UK is due to leave the European Union at the end of the month.

I did not vote for this early General Election for a number of reasons. Firstly, because I think it is absolutely ludicrous to suggest that the best use of the Prime Minister’s time over the next five weeks would be to spend it focussed on a domestic election campaign, travelling around the country trying to win people’s votes – instead of actually knuckling down and achieving the deal with the EU he says he wants to secure in the weeks that are left.  He should be laser-focused on delivering this, not wasting yet more valuable negotiating time electioneering.

Secondly – like the majority of MPs – I wanted to ensure that the Prime Minister could not try and use a shutdown of Parliament and an early General Election to force through a disastrous no deal Brexit (for example, by moving the date of the election once Parliament was prorogued). I therefore could not support a General Election taking place until it is clear that a no deal scenario has been avoided at the end of October (more on which below).

Finally, I think it is completely wrong to try and set up a General Election on a single issue, which will actually do nothing to resolve the appalling Brexit mess we are still in. A General Election should be about who people want to run the country over the next five years, about the future of public services like schools, the NHS and social care, and about a whole range of other vital concerns – such as climate change, what we do to end the use of foodbanks, or how we invest in public transport – to take just some examples.

All of these issues risk being completely drowned out by a Brexit General Election, with the public potentially not having the opportunity to vote on other important concerns for another five years.  It does of course also remain entirely unclear how anyone could be expected to vote on a single-issue Brexit election before the Prime Minister has come back from the EU with the new agreement he states he is pursuing, and therefore what they would actually be voting on.

Brexit

And, to turn to the issue actually at hand, my position on Brexit itself remains clear.

All of the evidence indicates that the North East will be hardest hit by any form of Brexit, and it is irrefutably the case that a no deal outcome would cause significant and potentially irreversible damage to our region. This is hardly surprising given that 63% of the North East’s exports currently go to EU countries – trade which currently supports many, many thousands of good local jobs.

Indeed, as the North East Chamber of Commerce – which represents over 3,000 of the region’s firms – very recently reminded local MPs: ‘a no deal outcome would cause significant harm to our region’s economy. The European Union is the North East’s biggest trading partner. Our exporters rely on free and frictionless trade in order to operate in complex, fast-moving supply chains. The sudden dislocation, imposition of tariffs and instability created by no deal would not only hurt businesses in the short term, but would significantly undermine our competitiveness in the long term.’

And yet we now have the ridiculous situation – as I highlighted in Parliament last week – whereby the Government is spending £100million on a ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ publicity campaign, whilst refusing to publish its ‘Operation Yellowhammer’ documents on the potential impact of a no deal Brexit because Ministers know just how politically damaging making this information public could be.

It has always been nonsensical to suggest that leaving a no deal Brexit ‘on the table’ has somehow increased the UK’s leverage during these negotiations – because nobody has been able to explain how threatening to drive our own economy off a cliff can possibly represent a bargaining chip when conducting an international negotiation. I am equally angry that the Government – many of whom would be entirely insulated from the impact of a no deal Brexit – believe it has been appropriate to effectively leave my constituents’ jobs and businesses ‘on the table’ as part of this process.

It is not my role as an MP, charged with acting in the best interests of my constituents and those of the nation as a whole, to knowingly allow this sort of damage to be inflicted on people’s livelihoods – and nor is it my role to go along with a policy I know will lead, for example, to increases in food prices (as the Governor of the Bank of England confirmed to me last week), or shortages of lifesaving medicines.

And, despite suggestions to the contrary, it is simply not the case that there is a democratic mandate for a no deal Brexit, because those advocating leaving the EU back in 2016 quite clearly stated, for example, that: ‘Taking back control is a careful change, not a sudden stop – we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave.’

I have therefore always been implacably opposed to us leaving the EU without a deal, and consequently voted last week to support the cross-party legislation (or ‘Bill’) led by my colleague Hilary Benn MP, which aims to avoid this situation.

This legislation, which successfully passed through all of its Parliamentary stages this week, does not prevent the Prime Minister from being able to reach a new agreement with the EU before we are due to leave – but it is intended to prevent the UK from crashing out of the EU on 31st October without any form of deal, by giving the Government until 19th October to either seek and secure the approval of MPs for an EU withdrawal agreement, or to leave the EU without one.

If neither of these outcomes can be achieved, the Prime Minister is now required by law to seek an extension of the Article 50 process for a further four months to ensure that any exit from the EU is an orderly one. If it is possible to achieve an EU withdrawal agreement after 19th October, or the House of Commons decides the UK should leave the EU without a deal, the Prime Minister can withdraw or change his Article 50 extension request.

And it has been my view for quite some time that, given the length of time that has now passed since the EU referendum, whatever EU withdrawal agreement is agreed to by Parliament must then be put back to the British people for a final, binding, confirmatory public vote. I made clear to the former Prime Minister that I was prepared to compromise by allowing her withdrawal agreement (which I knew would damage my constituents) to pass through Parliament with this condition attached, and that remains the case for any agreement the current Prime Minister is able to achieve.

It is clear that we do need a democratic resolution to the Brexit deadlock that has consumed and divided our Parliament and indeed country for almost three and half years – but that democratic resolution must be about Brexit, and Brexit alone, otherwise we will be absolutely no further forward.   If – after the last three and half years – the majority of people still wish to leave the European Union with the viable deal that is on the table, they will vote for that outcome.