Deciding whether or not to support the Prime Minister's withdrawal deal has not been easy. I have received 1,000s of emails and letters and spoken to many people urging me to vote one way or the other. I therefore wanted to take the opportunity to set out to you my thinking about what I believe to be the advantages and disadvantages of the Prime Minister's deal, and consequently, how I intend to vote.
As you are aware, because a majority of people voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, an overwhelming majority of MPs of almost every political party, myself included, voted to trigger article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which means that the UK will leave the EU on 29th March 2019. As a result, the past two years have seen the UK Government involved in complex negotiations with the EU. These negotiations have culminated in the proposed Withdrawal Agreement. It is important to acknowledge that any deal involving a negotiation between the UK and 27 other countries (each with their own aims and agendas) will inevitably result in difficult compromises.
Having read through the Withdrawal Agreement and the accompanying documents, it is fair to say that it is very far from being a perfect deal. I can think of several changes I would like to make to it, and together with other MPs, I asked Ministers to return to Brussels before Christmas to ensure that this deal really is the very 'best' deal.
Although I voted for 'Remain' in the referendum, I have always believed, and consistently stated, that the referendum result, and the majority vote by the British people to leave the EU, should be respected, and that we must now leave the EU. The Prime Minister's Withdrawal Agreement, first and foremost, ensures that we do indeed leave the EU, and it provides that certainty straight away.
The Withdrawal Agreement also guarantees greater control over immigration. The issue of freedom of movement - the migration of people within the EU and to the UK - was one of the central issues in the 2016 referendum debate. Regaining control of our borders is delivered by the Withdrawal Agreement. It will allow the UK to introduce a fairer, more transparent, and better-controlled immigration system (perhaps an Australian-style points-based system) that will enable us to better control our borders, whilst at the same time welcoming people from across the world who have the skills that our economy and public services (including the NHS) need.
There is then the issue of the so-called backstop. This is one area where things could have been dealt with very differently and, in my view, more effectively by the Government. The Government could have rejected the principle of a backstop in December 2017. However, the desire to move discussions forward at that time appeared to take priority, as did important considerations about the need to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and maintain peace in Northern Ireland. As a result, considerable effort has been spent working out a satisfactory means of avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Eire whilst at the same time avoiding a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
However, the main concern about the backstop is that, once triggered, the UK could not come out of it unilaterally. Instead, it needs agreement by both sides that a satisfactory alternative way forward has been agreed. The fear would be that the EU would be in no rush to end that arrangement, given that being in the customs union prevents the UK from having its own trade deals or setting its own trade tariffs, and therefore potentially gaining competitive advantage over other EU states. I share these concerns, and have concerns about any deal that could damage the relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The backstop arrangement, as proposed, is far from ideal, but the backstop would only be triggered if no final trade deal is agreed before the end of the transition period when the UK is due to leave the EU. Even then, the UK can choose to extend the transition stage instead. I have also come to the view that the EU would not be keen to allow the backstop to last for long. It gives Britain the benefit of tariff-free access for goods to the EU, but without the free movement of people (stopping uncontrolled migration to Britain from other parts of the EU) - something that would also be very appealing to a number of other countries who are members of the EU who have public concerns about migration.
As a result, the political reality, I believe, would mean that the EU would be quick to work with the UK to find a way out of the backstop and move towards a more permanent trade deal.
We should also be mindful that the Withdrawal Agreement is purely a bridging deal, which secures the terms of our exit from the EU and a temporary transition phase. It is not a definitive future settlement of our relationship with the EU, which is yet to be negotiated. With the transitional deal agreement in place, the way would still be set for an ambitious free trade agreement to be negotiated between the UK and the EU. This free trade deal would begin at the end of the transition period - and could provide an agreement that protects both jobs and trade, whilst also giving us the freedom to make our own laws and set our own trade policy.
If, on the other hand, Parliament collectively decides to vote against the agreement, I fear that we would face an extremely uncertain time, with, I believe, what are on balance, some less favourable outcomes and choices. For example (and I set out the options in brief below):
A new referendum: While appealing to some, I believe this would be extremely divisive, with many, who voted leave, angry that their voice, once expressed, is being ignored. There would be much arguing over the question, and endless debate over the outcome. It should be remembered that, not only has the EU moved on, to the extent that 'Remain' may well no longer exist in the sense of the current status quo (i.e. the British rebate and veto may be lost), but also the possible options for 'Leave', and our future trading arrangements, are equally uncertain. If the 2016 referendum was divisive, it would be nothing compared to a second one. Fundamentally, I am a democrat and my side (Remain) of the 2016 referendum lost, and I believe that we should uphold the democratic result of that referendum, and not seek a second referendum in an effort to reverse the outcome.
No Brexit: I know that some would welcome this, but if there was a decision to reverse the outcome of the 2016 referendum, it would leave a large portion (and in fact a majority) of the people of Suffolk and the UK, who voted to leave, feeling that their views had been ignored. No matter what we may think of the referendum result, it would be hugely damaging, and undemocratic, to try to stop the UK leaving the EU. Lord (Paddy) Ashdown (who sadly died recently), the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, and a strong supporter of Britain remaining a member of the EU, put this well, when he said: "I will forgive no one who does not respect the sovereign voice of the British people once it has spoken, whether it is a majority of 1 percent or 20 percent. When the British people have spoken, you do what they command. Either you believe in democracy or you don't." (BBC 1 Referendum Night Programme, 23rd June 2016). Lord Ashdown was wise in many things and those who seek to reverse the result of the referendum would do well to heed his words.
The Norway Option: Some have suggested that we could move seamlessly into the European Economic Area and possibly EFTA. This has benefits for UK jobs and businesses, but would involve accepting the free movement of people (uncontrolled migration to the UK), and acceptance of EU rules, with no say in how those rules are made. Permanent (as opposed to temporary) membership of the European Economic Area (which is my understanding of the Labour Party position) would not be in the spirit of the referendum result and the 'taking back control' from the EU that the majority of people voted for, as it would leave many UK laws permanently controlled by the EU. Crucially, there is also little certainty that the EU, or indeed Norway, would agree to this, particularly at this late stage in negotiations.
No deal: Some have expressed a preference for this clean break. There is certainly much the Government could do to mitigate the economic impact of no deal, such as unilaterally abolishing trade tariffs, creating 'free ports', cutting taxes and increasing public spending to keep the UK economy afloat as it struggled to adapt to the new trading conditions. But none of this would be guaranteed to prevent an economic rupture, potential recession and increased unemployment in Suffolk and elsewhere in the UK that would probably result in the short to medium term. We do not entirely know what impact would be felt by a no deal scenario, but when there is another viable option on the table in the form of the Prime Minister's deal, that delivers on the referendum result in ensuring that Britain leaves the EU, I believe it would be undesirable to wait and find out.
Considering all the options, and weighing up the potential advantages and problems with each of the alternatives, has not been easy. In coming to my decision, I have both read and listened to the views of hundreds of Suffolk residents and also listened carefully to the national debate. I have also repeatedly asked Government Ministers to push for improvements on the current deal, particularly regarding the 'backstop' arrangement and Northern Ireland. However, Ministers have been adamant that the EU will not re-open negotiations, and despite its inherent compromises, this is the best deal available to the UK.
I know that many people have been left extremely frustrated by the way that this process has been conducted, and I share some of those frustrations. However, the decision as to how to vote on the withdrawal agreement can now only be made on the basis of what options are currently available to us, and not what we would have liked them to be in an ideal world, or according to our own visions of what a perfect deal would look like.
Having weighed up all the information available to me, I have concluded, that on balance, the Prime Minister's Withdrawal Agreement, imperfect as it is, represents the most pragmatic way forward at this moment. It does ensure that we leave the EU, it does ensure an end to freedom of movement of people - allowing for better control of immigration to the UK - it does protect our trade with the EU and the jobs and businesses that rely on this, and it does pave the way for an ambitious free-trade deal to come into force in the future - all things which I believe were central to the referendum and the result that was voted for by the majority of the people of Suffolk and the UK. On that basis, I shall, on balance, and as a pragmatist, be voting in favour of the Prime Minister's deal.
Obviously, the potential options and my position, may, by necessity, need to be re-evaluated if (as is widely expected) Parliament rejects the Prime Minister's deal, but I hope you better understand my thinking in reaching a decision on how to vote this week.