House of Commons
Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con)
May I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on his speech, on his prudent and sensible stewardship of our economy at this difficult time and on the extraordinarily clear way in which he expressed his intent?
I should remind the House that I was a staunch remainer. I campaigned vigorously to remain, and I would certainly do so again. I am proud that my constituency voted to remain by 53%. I am personally deeply saddened by the result of the referendum, and I believe that our wonderful country made an historically bad decision that we will long regret. However, the country voted to leave the European Union in the referendum of 2016—the biggest democratic exercise in our history. I am first and foremost a democrat, and I believe strongly that that vote must be honoured.
At the time of the referendum, the then Prime Minister, my friend David Cameron, assured the country that the result would be respected. I echoed that assurance at the last election and confirmed that, however much I regretted it, I must support the democratically expressed wish of my country. I wish to make it clear that, while there are serious disagreements on both sides of the House, I believe we all have the best interests as we see them of our country at heart, and that we fight the good fight with confidence but also proper respect for those who hold long-standing views that are very different.
I was very taken with the speech by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the beginning of the debate, and I wish to pay the warmest tribute to her for her tremendous courage, doggedness, diligence and determination to arrive at a deal in the national interest. I believe that she has achieved in this withdrawal agreement an essentially pragmatic compromise, which she rightly justifies as being a realistic conclusion of that which is possible. I hope the House realises that there will not be a better deal on offer and that, if this arrangement is voted down, no different deal will miraculously appear and there will be a profound period of uncertainty and risk that we might crash out with no deal, which would, by common consent, be a disaster for our country.
At the end of the day, this withdrawal agreement will leave almost nobody satisfied, but it gives all sides of the argument something. It is not a perfect deal, and it was never going to be, for that is the nature of a complex negotiation. It is indeed a compromise, and it would be a fatal mistake, as the Prime Minister said, to let the search for the perfect Brexit prevent a good Brexit.
It is also important for the House to acknowledge that the Prime Minister, by ignoring the strident noises off, under immense pressure from all sides of our own party and the House, has managed to temper these negotiations in such a way as to ensure that we will be able, in time, to retain the closest partnership with our European friends and allies. However, I remain deeply anxious that a no-deal Brexit or a second referendum, which would likely be inconclusive after a vicious and harsh campaign, might push Britain into the kind of loathsome and hateful partisan bitterness that now so disfigures American public life and is so damaging to its democratic settlement and political discourse. We do not want that in this country.
What will be achieved by support for the withdrawal agreement is one thing but, as the House knows, there are years of hard and difficult negotiations ahead. After the most careful thought, I have concluded that what is proposed in the withdrawal agreement substantially delivers on the referendum result and must thus be honoured. It is clear that, under these arrangements, the United Kingdom will be leaving the political union, ending free movement, leaving the customs union, leaving the common fisheries policy and the common agricultural policy, ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and regaining the chimera of our sovereignty. The agreement is thus entirely deserving of the House’s support.
The right hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his speech that he believes the country made a mistake in the referendum that it will regret. How can he, in his conscience, not continue with that argument and persuade people that the best place for us is within the European Union?
Sir Nicholas Soames
I tried at length in my own inept way to explain why that was the case. I believe that the Government must honour the result of the referendum, democratically expressed in the biggest electoral exercise that this country has ever had, and not to do so would be a disgrace. In my view, this plan has very carefully and very cleverly managed to separate Britain from the European Union—46 years of combined earnest endeavour and legislation—with, frankly, miraculously minimum damage to each side. We need to keep it that way for this is a golden prize, given the circumstances. It would be extremely ill-judged to throw it away, which, above all, would be contrary to our national interest.
I am confident that we can then move on to building a stable future framework, as clearly set out by the Chancellor, which will formalise the great importance of our future relationship with our European friends, allies and partners. There is only one agreed proposal on the table. We owe it to our country to lay aside our differences, to accept that our great national traditions of pragmatism, common sense and compromise have never been more vital than now and then to come together, as the Prime Minister said, as “one Union of four nations”, to reassert the confidence that we should most definitely have in the opportunities that lie ahead for our nation’s future, if only we can grasp this nettle and move on. It will be the experience of many right hon. and hon. Members on all sides of the House of Commons that most of our fellow citizens devoutly wish us to get this done and to focus on the things that they really care and worry about daily—schools, policing, the national health service, transport, the environment and just getting from A to B—and all the other issues that, inevitably, have not had the attention they should have had as the Government have had to focus so much of their necessary effort on coming to this moment.
I am approaching the end of my parliamentary life. I am truly sad beyond words that our wonderful country has reached this pass, but I feel very strongly that we really must not reject this agreement and thus go back to square one, which would mean perhaps another deeply divisive and very unhappy referendum. In turn, that would mean the most damaging uncertainty economically and continuing division that will inevitably threaten the jobs and lives of our constituents and investment in our economy. I am afraid above all that the House would earn the undying contempt of the British people if it does not have the courage and vision to grasp this deal, however we may feel about it, in the interests of the greater good.
I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House remember Lewis Carroll’s wonderful poem, “The Hunting of the Snark”. It includes these lines, which I believe are appropriate:
“But the principal failing occurred in the sailing,
And the Bellman, perplexed and distressed,
Said he had hoped, at least, when the wind blew due East,
That the ship would not travel due West!”
To coin a phrase from a greater, kinder and more resolute period in our national life, “Come, let us go forward together and settle this now”.