My position on the proposed Brexit Withdrawal Agreement

There is understandably significant strength of feeling on all sides of the debate as we enter the final stages of these negotiations ahead of leaving the EU on 29th March 2019.

The Prime Minister was right to assert at the CBI on Monday the importance of not indulging in ‘political theory’. Brexit is about people’s livelihoods, their jobs and their prosperity. But it is also about trust and respecting the result of the referendum.

I remain unhappy about significant parts of the proposed Brexit deal. I would find it difficult to support should it come to Parliament in the current form.

As I said on the BBC and ITV last week, the Withdrawal Agreement puts key commitments previously made by the Prime Minister at risk. Under the proposed Northern Ireland backstop, the UK will enter into a customs union with the EU – perhaps indefinitely – from which we may have no unilateral right to leave (Article 20, page 330). The two main parties – receiving 82 per cent of the vote share – fought the recent general election with a commitment to not being members of the single market or customs union as we exit the European Union.

As a former Northern Ireland Minister, I care sincerely about preserving the union of the United Kingdom. I am concerned that a different regulatory regime for Northern Ireland – where a part of our United Kingdom would stay aligned to some rules of the EU single market – would call the future of our precious union into question (European Commission Fact Sheet on the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, page 1). Allowing this would renege on a key commitment made by the Prime Minister at Lancaster House in January 2017 to ‘ensure that no new barriers to living and doing business without our union are created’.

The Prime Minister insists the backstop is nothing more than an insurance policy and the challenges presented by the Northern Ireland question will be best addressed through the future relationship. This future relationship will be implemented in separate legislation, which will not be finalised until after the UK’s exit from the EU.

Nonetheless, I recognise that the Prime Minister faces an extraordinarily difficult task. The language used by some of my colleagues towards her is unacceptable and does nothing to further constructive debate. Mrs May is working hard to deliver on a deal that she believes is in our national interest. Many people simply want her to ‘get on with it’ – though of course we all have different views as to what exactly ‘it’ means. I am not one of those who have handed in a letter calling for a vote of no confidence as I believe it would be disruptive to have a leadership challenge at this time. All efforts should be focused on the deal. 

The withdrawal agreement is the culmination of several months of intense negotiations to ensure an orderly exit from the EU. This includes welcome provisions to hold a transition period to ensure businesses only have to adjust to one set of changes and to protect the rights of EU nationals in the UK and Britons in the EU to continue living, working and studying.

Parliament gave the British people the final say on the UK's membership of the EU and the result must be respected, even if it was unexpected by some.

In all this, those of us who share the concerns outlined above – and we are many – are hopeful that the Prime Minister will raise these with the European Commission and point out that without these issues being revisited and amended there is little chance of getting this deal through Parliament.