Last Sunday, Parliament prepared to hold a series of votes of huge importance to the Brexit process. The menu of choices before MPs was extensive and, in some cases, had far-reaching and long-term implications for the way the UK is governed.
MPs were invited to back an amendment which would have given Parliament unprecedented power to direct the government to extend the Article 50 process — frustrating Brexit and deferring the difficult decisions which remain to be taken before we leave the EU. They voted not to do so.
MPs could have opted to seize control of the parliamentary timetable from the government in order to hold debates on matters such as holding a second referendum. They voted not to do so.
However, Tuesday’s votes were not just about what Parliament did not want. Crucially, after months of passionate and often divisive debate, MPs sent a clear message about what they did want. By a majority of 16, they said that, with changes to the Northern Ireland backstop, they would support the deal that I agreed with Brussels to take us out of the EU. Significantly, the amendment that MPs voted in favour of carried support from across the Conservative Party. My colleagues — who had found themselves in different division lobbies in recent months — stood together, united in support of a single proposition.
Combined with measures to address concerns over Parliament’s role in the negotiation of the future relationship, and commitments on workers’ rights and environmental protection — in law, where need be — I am now confident there is a route that can secure a majority in the House of Commons for leaving the EU with a deal. This represents a significant step towards delivering Brexit and fulfilling the instruction given to us by the British public. Now that same British public wants us to get on and finish the job.
I’ve spoken to people from every side of this debate. While a few people at either end of the argument continue to shout loudly, the vast majority just want MPs to set out a clear plan that will get Brexit through Parliament and allow us to embark upon the next chapter of our national story.
I’m committed to doing just that. It’s why I’ve asked MPs to work through the February recess, so there is sufficient time to complete the many legislative tasks at hand. It’s why I’m continuing to work with, and listen to, politicians from all parties, the leaders of our biggest trade unions and senior figures representing the businesses that power our economy and provide jobs for millions of British people. And it’s why, when I return to Brussels, I will be battling for Britain and Northern Ireland. I will be armed with a fresh mandate, new ideas and a renewed determination to agree a pragmatic solution that delivers the Brexit the British people voted for, while ensuring there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That is what Parliament instructed me to do on Tuesday night.
Although Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn didn’t vote with us, he also believes the potential indefinite nature of the backstop is an issue that needs to be addressed with Brussels. That is exactly what I’m doing. I reject the charge that seeking alternative arrangements for the backstop constitutes “ripping up the Good Friday Agreement”. As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, I would never do anything to put that union at risk or jeopardise the hard-won peace.
The EU has already accepted the principle of “alternative arrangements” superseding the backstop, should it ever be required. And Graham Brady, whose amendment MPs united around, made it clear that, while replacing the backstop with alternative arrangements was one option, he would also be happy with the current backstop if there was a time limit or unilateral exit mechanism. So to suggest that we intend to break our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland is simply untrue.
Nor do I have time for those who believe the verdict passed by the British people in 2016 should be overturned before it is even implemented. This week, the leaders of the campaign for a second referendum had the chance to put their plan before the House of Commons — but they recognised there is no majority in this Parliament to hold another vote. Indeed, I believe there never will be.
When the House of Commons refused to support the withdrawal agreement, I listened — I pledged to think again, and go back to Brussels to secure a plan that Parliament can stand behind. Now it’s time for MPs demanding a second referendum to do the same — listen to the House and, instead, put your efforts behind securing a better Brexit for all of us.
Because the UK is leaving the EU. The clock is ticking, and negotiating the changes MPs want to see will not be easy. But if we stand together and speak with one voice, I believe we can find the right way forward.
I’m determined to deliver Brexit, and determined to deliver on time — on March 29, 2019. So let’s put aside our differences and focus on getting the deal over the line. Brexit offers great opportunities for our country. It’s up to all of us at Westminster to make it work.
Theresa May is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. ©The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019