Why I Voted to Support the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement

Today, I voted to support the Prime Minister's deal. While the deal was ultimately voted down, I think it is important that I explain my thinking behind what was a difficult decision, but one I honestly felt was in the best interests of my constituents in Copeland.  

I should first give a little context. In 2016, I voted to leave the European Union, not as the Member of Parliament for Copeland - for I had not then been elected - but as a resident, and a parent to four daughters.

While I do not use the term 'Brexiteer' to describe myself (my interest is always in focusing on what binds us, not divides us, and as such I see myself as a proud Brit, nothing more, or less), I voted to leave because I am proud of and desperately ambitious for our country.  This pride and ambition is not based on some out-of-date, rose-tinted nostalgia, but on fact.

It is, for instance, a fact that the success of our country, and our place in the world, was established well before we joined the European Union. One could even argue that since then, the EU has owed more of its success to our membership than we do our success to being members of it.

Our nation's long-standing status as a key global player is in no small part rooted in the North of England's contributions to industrialisation and innovation in the 19th century. However, as we all know, in recent decades the North has not seen the investment, particularly in our infrastructure, that it requires to return to its full potential. Here in Copeland, we are reminded of this every day as we board our tired trains, or wend our weary way through the farmyard bottlenecks of the A595.

I am of course very much aware of the stakes involved in the national-level debates around the content of the Withdrawal Agreement. I am just as determined as anyone to see us take back full control of our laws, our borders, and our money. And while I was happy with much of the deal - it ends free movement; it ends the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK; it ends the vast financial contributions to the EU's budget; it allows us to leave the Common Fisheries Policy and the Common Agricultural Policy; it protects citizens' rights both here and in the EU, which means that the benefits of healthcare and pensions and other important matters will be protected - I had, like many of you, and like many of my colleagues, reservations about the Irish 'backstop' arrangement.

However, as much as I paid close attention to these debates, and have made my concerns about the backstop known to the Government, and to the Prime Minister personally, I have also been incredibly conscious of the need for a deal that does not scupper the chances and opportunities of Copeland, which has a very particular set of economic circumstances. That is, we are remote, coastal, sparsely populated, and overwhelmingly dependent on two industries in particular: nuclear and agriculture. 

If the outcome, the aim, the very prize of Brexit, is a more successful country, then I specifically do not want to risk a 'no deal' outcome undermining the supply chains, market-access and investments and projects which are absolutely at the heart of our social and economic life, not only across the country, but also here in West Cumbria. Given that no suggested alternative deals are simultaneously better for us and also agreeable to the EU, it really is a case of it being this deal, or no deal, or a people's vote. Here's why both 'no deal' and a 'people's vote' are unacceptable outcomes. 

To my mind, it is crucial that people and businesses on both sides of the channel have the time, through the implementation or transition period until December 2020, to adjust to the economic circumstances of being outside the EU.  For our businesses here in Copeland, this time to adjust is essential. This is especially the case for nuclear and farming.

On 29 March, our nuclear industry will exit Euratom, and move to a UK regime under the Office for Nuclear Regulations. The extra time afforded by a transition period will ensure that all the safeguards officers, procedures, and equipment are in place, and also that the bi-lateral agreements will be in place with other countries.  Given the international collaborative nature of the nuclear industry, the time to establish all this is absolutely vital.

I cannot understate how important it is to have a deal in place for our local nuclear economy here in West Cumbria. Twenty-seven thousand of the eighty-seven thousand people working in the UK's nuclear industry live in Cumbria. Just about every household in Copeland have a family member working in or for a business connected with the nuclear industry and that is why I want the security that this Withdrawal Agreement brings.

This Government is the first in a generation to be constructing new nuclear, at Hinkley Point, and I am determined that we'll also get Moorside built in Copeland. In fact, at this week’s Prime Minister's Questions, I once again brought the future of Moorside to the Prime Minister's attention, and she confirmed the Government are considering options for how to secure the site’s future. The prospects of this project are much brighter against a backdrop of a stable economic environment.

But for me the future of our local nuclear community is not just about Moorside. I am also keen to see West Cumbria be the site of more research and development on advanced and small modular reactors, and the source of more exports of our current decommissioning operations, increasing the export of the skills, components, products, and processes that are working well at Sellafield and being developed by our superb nuclear supply chain. All these will also require the same stable economic backdrop which the Withdrawal Agreement would ensure.

Equally important for Copeland is ensuring stability for our farming industry. Having consulted with the National Farmers' Union, I am very concerned, in particular, about the prospect of high tariffs - 46% on lamb, and 65% on beef - on the 60% of our food exports that we send to the EU, if we were to leave under 'no deal' and resort to WTO rules. Such tariffs would be punitive for our hard-working farmers. In voting for the agreement, I was hoping to ensure an end to the Common Agriculture Policy, which would delight many of our local farmers, and open the way to a farming policy that works for Cumbria, helping us avoid the damaging tariffs which a no-deal scenario will make more likely.

So these are the reasons why I was not comfortable with entertaining the prospect of a 'no-deal' exit from the European Union. I simply think that this option would constitute an unconscionable risk for our local community and economy. I therefore voted for the Government's deal, because, while I was in principle unhappy with the backstop arrangement, I am in practice very concerned to avoid the negative consequences of a no-deal Brexit here at home in West Cumbria.

However, I should also mention why I am opposed to the idea of a second referendum, or 'people's vote', as suggested by a significant proportion of constituents writing to me about Brexit. I have always felt that this was a bad option, for two reasons.

First, the result of the 2016 referendum already answered the question, and a re-run would be a slap in the face to the people who won that referendum. Second, if there was another referendum, there would almost inevitably be calls for a third by the losing side. It would be unlikely to achieve anything other than destabilising our democracy, and further deepening divisions across the country which we desperately need to heal. Our common good and future lies in finding common ground, not in hardening our newly-wrought differences.

I have always maintained I am a West Cumbrian in Parliament, not a Parliamentarian in West Cumbria. My priority is always what I feel is best for our specific situation here in West Cumbria, which is as unique in its challenges as in its opportunities. In my view, the Withdrawal Agreement is, in the end, what is best for our specific situation here.

I think it is helpful to view the Deal as simply a skeletal framework, rather than a full-bodied expression of what our future relationship with our European neighbours will be. It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to build on that framework, to put flesh on its bones. In particular, following the assurances of the EU that they, like the UK, do not want to see the backstop become a permanent feature, I feel the decision I made was the right one, for Britain, and specifically for Copeland. The Withdrawal Agreement gives us the stable conditions under which we can make our own success, whereas I feared that a 'no-deal' scenario would give us unstable conditions which could undermine our efforts to make our own success.

I understand that we live in very polarised times, and that, from 'hard-brexit' or 'remain' perspectives, the deal I voted to support may be seen as a 'worst of all worlds' compromise. However, I really do feel that talking of 'best' and 'worst' options is rather too abstract and theoretical. I think we need to instead be focused on finding the common ground, the unity, and the overlap between what is principled and what is practical. In my view, the Prime Minister's deal was by no means ideal in abstract principle, but it is realistic in practice, taking into account at once the actual context of the EU as our main trading partner, and the actual context of our circumstance here in West Cumbria.

Ultimately, and after a lot of study, consultation and thought on the issue, including reading the many hundreds of emails and letters I received from constituents on the topic, I acted in what I believe to be the best interests of the Copeland community, taking into account not just the principles of what people like myself voted for when we voted to leave, but also the implications, in practice, of a 'no-deal' scenario for our Copeland community. This is why I am willing to stand by my decision. It wasn't an easy one, but I feel it was, ultimately, right in its pragmatism.