Stephen Kinnock: You have said many times, and I think many of us around this table share the view, that crashing out of the European Union on 31—
Mr Bone: Not everyone.
Stephen Kinnock: No, I said many. Sorry, I have lost my train now.
Mr Bone: You were talking about “crashing out”, which isn’t going to happen.
Stephen Kinnock: You keep interrupting. It is quite hard to keep a train of thought when you keep heckling from the sideline.
Chair: We don’t engage in heckling of questioners.
Mr Bone: When you say things that are—
Mr Bone: It is outrageous. That is not a term you should use in a Select Committee. You shouldn’t say “crashing out” in a Select Committee. You know that, Chairman.
Stephen Kinnock: I would argue that it is a very well established term to describe leaving without a deal.
Chair: Just to draw this little exchange to a close—apologies to the witness—Members are entitled to put the questions they want in the terms in which they want. If we were all to interject because we object to the terms in which the question is put, our sessions would be even longer than they are already. I suggest we allow each Member to ask their question and respect their ability to do so. The floor is with Stephen Kinnock now.
Stephen Kinnock: Thank you, Chair. The implications for our economy and national security and the Good Friday agreement would be very concerning. Do you agree that we are now much closer to that scenario than we have ever been?
Keir Starmer: No. For some time there has been a majority in Parliament against no deal. Parliament has spoken on a number of occasions, and it drove the initiative in March and April not only to seize the Order Paper but to pass primary legislation requiring the Prime Minister to extend article 50, which was a very effective way of preventing no deal. In the end, by the time the legislation was passed, the Prime Minister had already decided to extend article 50, so it did not have the effect that it might otherwise have had. Otherwise, it would have been an effective instrument to stop the Prime Minister from doing so.
My sense is that that majority is still there, and I hope that some of those currently in the Cabinet who may not be in the Cabinet in two weeks will join those who want to take action to prevent no deal. I think the numbers may change in the next couple of weeks.
Stephen Kinnock: But, on the other hand, the future of the Government is now in the hands of 160,000 Conservative party members, the majority of whom appear to embrace the idea of leaving without a deal. The candidate who looks highly likely to win has said that we will leave on 31 October come hell or high water. The legal default position under the terms of article 50 is that if there is no alternative on the table, we leave without a deal. Do you not feel that is stacking up towards massively increasing the likelihood of leaving without a deal on 31 October?
Keir Starmer: It certainly increases the risk. The legal default has been the same since article 50 was triggered—that has not changed. It was the legal default on 29 March and it will be on 31 October. That is neutral to who the Prime Minister is. The current Prime Minister for many months said, “It’s my deal or no deal; if you don’t vote through my deal, we will crash out without a deal.” That was the way she put it. I accept that an incoming Prime Minister might ramp that up. That is where the political fight is with Parliament, where the numbers are on preventing no deal. The risk has gone up.
Stephen Kinnock: Yes, the risk has gone up. Looking at the sequencing of events between the collapse of the cross-party talks and the publication of the withdrawal agreement Bill, was there anything in that Bill that had not been discussed in the cross-party talks?
Keir Starmer: I don’t think the Bill was ever published. I think what the Prime Minister did was to indicate some of the features that might be in the Bill.
Stephen Kinnock: Yes, there was a list of 10 points.
Keir Starmer: There was. I think I am right in saying it was never published. One of the issues that we had to grapple with in the talks was that we sometimes tried to explore a position—let’s say on customs—in ordinary language, and would ask the Government to look at what that would look like in a Bill. Suddenly, what you thought you had been exploring did not quite match up with what is in the Bill. I am not being critical of anyone—there is just often a gap between what people say they were trying to achieve and what is written in a Bill.
I do not think the Bill was there. Some of the things that were discussed were identified by the Prime Minister when she unveiled what she said was going to be in the Bill. What happened next vindicated one of my central concerns. On 14 March, a couple of weeks before we started the cross-party talks, the Prime Minister had a vote on the extension of article 50.
On her own side, only 112 MPs had followed her whip, and 188 had broken it. Throughout the talks, one of my central concerns on which I kept challenging the other side—a friendly challenge not an aggressive one—was whether they had the numbers on their side to carry this off. I was really worried that they never really had the numbers. The Prime Minister announced some of the features of the implementing legislation at the beginning of the week. By the Friday she had been forced to say she was leaving as Prime Minister. If ever there was evidence that our judgement call that she couldn’t in fact deliver was right, that was it.
That is not critical of her—they are just the numbers. That was that, because she showcased some of what we had been discussing and not all of it, and her own party decided that that was enough for them to require her to leave as Prime Minister. I have no doubt that the same would have happened if we had been standing alongside her. That deliverability was a massive problem. I always had in my mind the fact that 188 of her own side defied a three-line Whip on a simple extension, which was not particularly controversial and a lot less controversial than some of the positions in the implementing legislation, and I couldn’t see how the numbers were ever going to stack up.
Stephen Kinnock: This is a hypothetical question. If, for example, the second referendum option and the revoke option were not on the table and you had to choose between what was announced—you are right that it was not published—and what was presented by the Government as the key features of a withdrawal agreement Bill and crashing out without a deal, presumably you would choose the WAB over leaving the EU without a deal.
Keir Starmer: Well, obviously that is not the circumstance. There are other options and therefore that has never been a choice we have been presented with. Yes, of course leaving with a deal is better than leaving without a deal, but one has to be careful how far you take that, because the current Prime Minister’s approach was obviously not to bring Parliament into the process during any point of the negotiations. Even the call to us to have cross-party talks was after 29 March. It wasn’t eleventh hour; it was after midnight. Therefore, there was no consensus about what a deal might look like and no attempt to build that majority. If the simple proposition is that leaving with any deal is better than leaving with no deal, that would require all of us to sign up to any deal even if it is a Canada-minus-minus-minus, because it had the word deal written at the top of it. In other words, it takes the whole critical role of MPs out of it altogether, because you are simply saying, “As long as you have got something that has deal written at the top and it is signed by the 27 and us, we will have to vote for it in the end.” It seems to me that that removed any effective scrutiny or challenge in Parliament.
Stephen Kinnock: Some have characterised the decision not to back the withdrawal agreement Bill as allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Would you agree with that characterisation?
Keir Starmer: The political reality is that the implementing Bill fell because, within days of announcing it, the Prime Minister was taken out.
Stephen Kinnock: Do you think the timing was problematic, because of course it was done just a few days before the European Parliament elections? Perhaps all parties were at their most partisan at that time.
Keir Starmer: Possibly, but the idea that the Prime Minister would bring just a few votes to the table and the Labour party would provide the bulk of the votes, and that that would be a happy arrangement that would leave in her post, is not realistic. In other words, the first test of the implementation legislation was, “Have you got your own side on board? If so, what then can the Labour party add?” And the Prime Minister did not have her own side on board, because she announced some of what we had been discussing and the reaction of her own party was to say, “We no longer want you as our Prime Minister.” Therefore, she hadn’t got over the first hurdle of ensuring that she had enough of her own banks to begin a meaningful discussion with us about the passage of the Bill. We said we wouldn’t support it but, frankly, whatever we said, her own side had already formed a judgment on that pretty swiftly, and within a week she had resigned as Prime Minister.
Stephen Kinnock: I have one final question. I asked Mr Lidington earlier if he would be comfortable sharing the documents with the Committee that were provided by the Government to the Labour side and I just wondered if we could ask the same question in relation to documents provided to the Government in response to their proposals by our side.
Keir Starmer: I heard what David said and I think the sensible thing is for David and I to talk about it. I would obviously need to check on my side as to what our approach would be, he obviously wants to check with the other Ministers, and we need to refresh and remind ourselves what the documents are. That seems a sensible course of action.
Stephen Kinnock: Many thanks.