George Freeman urges the Government to work across all parties to deliver an orderly withdrawal from the EU

10th January 2019

George Freeman speaks in the debate on the Withdrawal Agreement and warns that public trust in our politics and parliamentary democracy is dangerously low and urges the Government to work together across the House to deliver a Brexit we can be proud of.

I will speak about public trust in Parliament as a backdrop to this debate. I hope you will indulge me, Mr Speaker, if I start by paying tribute to our former colleague, the late, great Mark Wolfson, who served Sevenoaks with great distinction between 1979 and 1997. He was a great friend and parliamentary mentor to me.

I approach the debate with the clear principle—a principle that long ago inspired me as the great, great, great, great nephew of the “Grand Old Man” Gladstone—that because of a great and glorious truth, this Parliament is sovereign. I still believe that elected MPs, as the sovereign representatives of our constituencies, serve in the highest office, and that to be elected to this House is one of the great privileges and responsibilities that our citizens can bestow. This is a moment to remember that.

Parliament is the institution that, more than any other, defends the liberties and order that we enjoy. Parliament historically defied the tyranny of the King, and in the 19th century, it was Parliament that granted rights to so many who had been denied them. Parliament said that all of us are entitled to equal human rights. In moments of crisis, Parliament has always come together, with parties coming together to put country before party. It is now Parliament that confronts this crisis and the biggest decision facing our generation. It is a decision that will redefine Britain’s place in the world and, almost more importantly, the trust of a whole generation in our democratic Parliament and politics.

Parliament—yes, a majority of us in this House—decided to ask the people, and in June 2016, they gave us their answer. For that reason, I remain deeply opposed to a second referendum. The people have spoken and it is our job to implement their instruction. However, that instruction was not clear. People voted to leave by a narrow margin. In my constituency, 58% wished to leave, but nationally the result was 52% to 48%. That is not an overwhelming, thumping majority—it was a narrow margin. Many of my constituents who voted to leave said to me, “George, I voted to join a common market; I did not want to be in a political union.” Those people who voted to leave wanted to be in a common market. I put it to the House that there is no majority in the country for taking the result as an instruction unilaterally to pull ourselves out of all European institutions, including by cutting ourselves off from the single market. That is not our mandate, although we do have a duty to implement the will of the people we serve.

Public trust in our politics and parliamentary democracy is at a dangerous low. As well as getting the outcome right, we must ensure that we conduct ourselves in the spirit required of the day—a spirit of repairing the damage done by that appalling referendum campaign, reuniting a divided nation, and restoring trust in Parliament and parliamentary democracy, not least for those who did not get to vote in that referendum and the people whose futures and interests we will shape.

I voted remain in 2016, and as a Minister responsible for a £60 billion industry employing 250,000 people, in which not one man or woman I could find supported leaving, I felt that was my duty. As the MP for Mid Norfolk, I was—and remain—deeply worried about the impact of this decision on our economy and on the economic prospects of my citizens and constituents. However, I always vowed to respect the result, and I have done so ever since the referendum.

I may have voted remain, but in the previous Parliament and the coalition I was one of the leading champions of European reform. Colleagues may remember that I led the Fresh Start Group report, warning of the dangers of Europe’s precautionary principle on holding back UK leadership in science and innovation, which threatened to risk a European dark age at a time when the world is embracing extraordinary technologies in agricultural genetics, accelerated access for new medicines and genomics. Such technologies can transform the life chances of our global citizens. It is a time when we in the UK, through Europe, could lead on taking those technologies around the world. I fought this battle as a Back Bencher and then as a Minister, but the plea for a more innovative and enterprising Europe fell largely on deaf ears.

Yes, I was a remainer, but one who understood all too well the flaws of the European Union. Let no one accuse me of being a lily-livered, root-and-branch pro-European—I am not. [Interruption.] And neither am I a snowflake, as someone chunters from my side of the Chamber. I wanted Britain to lead the reform of Europe so that we, together with Europe, could embrace the extraordinary opportunities for UK science and innovation around the world in agri-tech, health-tech and clean-tech; in food, medicine and energy; to feed, heal and fuel; and to take around the world the technologies that this country leads in, and that, with our European scientific partners, could help to accelerate global development.

The people have spoken and now we have to deliver. The truth is that all parties are split. It is a truth that Opposition Front Benchers would do well to confront. I know that it suits them to position themselves as remainers in London and the south-east, and as Brexiteers up north, but the truth is that all parties are split. I believe that we ought to be pursuing this in the spirit of cross-party co-operation. In my view, we always needed a cross-party council of Brexit, and I was appalled to hear the other day that the shadow Brexit Secretary has apparently received no contact from Ministers about the possible basis of an agreement. It seems to me that unless we reach out across the House, listen to the electorate and signal that we will put party behind country, we are unlikely to find a solution. We have less than 100 days. We are running out of time. There is an angry mob outside Parliament, and they speak for an angriness in the nation. We need an orderly withdrawal.

Despite our differences, it seems to me that we are all agreed on one thing: this deal is not perfect. I have said so myself and I have many reservations. I had hoped that the Prime Minister would come back from Europe before Christmas with a concession on the backstop. She has come back with a concession, and I hope that there will be more before the vote next week. Let me be clear that I have supported no deal as an option for two and a half years in order to get the best deal. The negotiation is over. In my view, it would be woefully irresponsible of the Government to pursue no deal. I will do everything to ensure, yes, that we leave the European Union with an orderly deal, but not with no deal. When I hear Lord Wolfson, an ardent Brexiteer, warn as the chief executive of Next that the cost of food and clothes—basics that our constituents rely on—would go up dramatically with a no-deal Brexit, when I hear the Royal Society warn that a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic for our science and when I hear the National Farmers Union warn that British agricultural would be hit without a deal, with a potential trade embargo affecting our £3 billion food export industry, please do not accuse me of “Project Fear”; this is serious “Project Business” for the people we serve.

If the Prime Minister’s deal does not pass next week, it seems to me that we need a plan B, and I have made it very clear that I personally support colleagues on both sides of the House pushing for the European Free Trade Association model. It would give us access to the single market, but we would be out of the customs union and we would have freedom to do trade deals and to take back control of farming and fishing. Yes, it has a problem, which is free movement, but remember that it is the free movement of workers, not citizens, and I believe that it would require—I relish this—a bold package of welfare eligibility reforms, along with skills and training reforms, here in the UK.

I will, with a heavy heart, vote for this deal on Tuesday, because we are now in the dying stages and leaving with no deal is unconscionable, but I beg colleagues to ask their Front Benchers to work together across the House in pursuit of something we can all be proud of.



Intervention in the same debate

Will my right hon. Friend address the worries of farming families, communities and industries up and down the country facing tariffs on their products going into Europe? This is a £3.15 billion industry facing a very serious tariff threat.

I was going to get on to food, and I will do so immediately as I have been prompted. We run a massive £20 billion a year trade deficit in food with the European Union, and tariff-free food competes all too successfully against some elements of our farming industry. I want the Government to choose a tariff structure on food that provides lower overall tariffs against the rest of the world but produces some tariff against EU production so that we will produce more domestically. I want to cut the food miles. I want to see more of our food being produced and sold domestically. Our domestic market share has plunged seriously during the time we have been in the European Union. I think it was well over 90% in 1972 when we entered, and it is now well under 70%. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot get back there.