Motion to Take Note (3rd Day)
Moved on Wednesday 9 January by
That this House, for the purposes of section 13(1)(c) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, takes note of the negotiated withdrawal agreement laid before the House on Monday 26 November 2018 with the title Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community and the framework for the future relationship laid before the House on Monday 26 November 2018 with the title Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
Relevant document: 24th Report from the European Union Committee
My Lords, before we commence the adjourned debate, I observe that we have a lot of business to get through today, and I respectfully remind contributors from the Back Benches that the advisory time limit is six minutes. With the greatest of gentleness, I point out that when the clock shows “6”, this has a certain significance: it means time is up.
My Lords, as we embark on the third day of our deliberations, and the House of Commons approaches its penultimate day, I think there is not a single Member of your Lordships’ House who would not agree with the Prime Minister’s comment today that we are in uncharted waters. I would take that analogy further and say that the ship of state is at the moment adrift in a dangerous sea, with storm clouds building and with some dangerous rocks around.
If I talk about dangerous rocks, I refer noble Lords to today’s copy of the Times: just look at the stories of the world in which we live. We have President Trump threatening to devastate the Turkish economy if they invade the Kurds. We have the al-Qaeda affiliate that has now occupied or is moving on Idlib and taking over that province, so that threat has reappeared on the scene. We have the continuing drama of the Sunni-Shia conflict and the conflict in Yemen, which so tragically continues, and the continuing drama involving Mr John Bolton, who is reported in the Times today to be considering that the United States might bomb Iran, in retaliation for an attack that it thinks was carried out on US facilities in Iraq.
At the same time, closer to home we have the rise of the far right. We have the AfD party in Germany, which I see has already decided to adopt the policy of abolishing the European Parliament and is considering whether to launch in its election campaign, for the upcoming European elections, a policy of Dexit—which I suppose stands for Deutschland exit and Germany leaving the European Union.
The instability all around could not be greater. It has coincided with the shutdown of the American Government. Many of your Lordships will have received an email today, as I did, to say that the US minister counselor in the US embassy is unable to come to the House today because, while the shutdown goes on, she is not now allowed to interact with public meetings. Presumably, the great diplomatic scale and force of the United States around the world at the moment is pretty well paralysed.
To top it all, we also have reports from a new activity, of which I had never heard, called Redfish, which appears to be a Russian-sponsored invasion of social media. Using the ignorance of those people taking part in it, Redfish promotes damaging videos and YouTube presentations that are watched by anything up to a quarter of a million people. It is, presumably, a re-creation of what actually happened in the US presidential election and also, I dare to suggest, in our own referendum campaign—namely, of Russian interference and trying to achieve their own policy objectives in that way.
At the same time, we move against an unchanging background of mass migration of people and the threat of climate change, which raise enormous challenges. Against such a background, it seems to me that it is a matter of urgency for this country no longer to be lost and uncertain and failing to give the leadership that we should to our own people and to our country. We need to come together to resolve Brexit.
Everybody will know that I am a remainer. I believe that the outcome of the referendum was a tragedy, but I do not believe that it is possible to go back now. Europe has moved on. We wanted a larger, but looser, Europe. It is not looser; it is enlarged, but it has continued to try and run in the same centralised way as before. There is more majority voting. We would be stuck with the freedom of movement, and I believe that, if we did try to go back, we would be under pressure to join the euro and Schengen as well.
I look across the Chamber and pay tribute to the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition. She made a very good opening speech and managed to criticise everything that we are trying to do. We know that the Motion that she has tabled says that the Opposition are against no deal and against this deal. We wait to hear what they are in favour of—because there is of course a complete silence. That was cleverly and accurately identified by Mr Andrew Marr in the programme with Mr Jeremy Corbyn yesterday. Mr Corbyn was calling for an election, and Mr Marr immediately said, “Well, if you have an election, what are you putting in your manifesto about the issues over Brexit?”—to which there was a deadly silence.
There is plenty to criticise in the proposed deal. Anybody can find difficulties and issues that do not entirely meet the objective. However, overall, the main objectives have been met. When we discussed this in the days before, in the debate that was truncated, it was the worry about the permanency of the backstop that seemed to concern most people. There have been improvements on that, and perhaps we will hear a further Statement later today that will help to clarify that.
I want to make one point, in advance of my noble friend leaping to her feet. It is simply this. The best speech I have heard in these debates was made by the most reverend Primate, whom I am delighted to see in his place. He said that we have a moral responsibility. Of course it is right that the other place has to take the decision, but we have a moral responsibility to advise—and this time we want to go forward as a country. Too much anger and too much hatred have developed over this. We need to resolve this matter now. We need to respect the majority decision, but we need respect for the minority as well. I hope that those on the Benches opposite will see that the opportunity to come together, agree a deal and go forward is in the national interest. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, will pick up that opportunity.
My Lords, I do not think that is for me to do, but no doubt my noble friend Lady Hayter will comment on what the noble Lord has said. He knows that I have huge respect for him. I want to touch on the legal issues, I am afraid, as I did when I spoke on 5 December.
The principal point I made then was that the so-called temporary arrangements could not be relied upon to be temporary under the wording of the withdrawal agreement and political declaration. No amount of aspiration that the Northern Ireland backstop would be temporary could achieve that without an actual change to the legally binding language of the withdrawal agreement, and the only way of changing the effect of the legally binding withdrawal agreement was by another legally binding agreement or amendment. Despite the Prime Minister’s pilgrimages to Brussels, no such legally binding agreement, or amendment to the withdrawal agreement, has come about. Further warm words of aspiration will not change the position.
As I said then, noble Lords may be prepared none the less to rely on those expressions of hope and take the risk that in the end it will all be all right. I also said that for myself I did not believe that comfort could be taken from legal arguments—for example, about the best endeavours obligation and the arbitration arrangements. I need not elaborate further on those arguments, which are set out in the speech I made. Nothing has changed, in my view.
There is, I suspect, a new argument to be advanced by the Government that reliance can be placed on Articles 60 or 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. As to Article 60, under which a treaty could be terminated for “material breach”, precisely the same problem arises from proving a breach of the general good faith obligation, particularly when that obligation is qualified—a point I did not make before—by the following words:
“and in full respect of their respective legal orders”.
Nobody has explained quite what that means, but to me it would mean that, so far as the United Kingdom is concerned, the respective legal order of the United Kingdom is that Parliament’s will must be followed, and in the European Union it is not much different so far as the European Parliament is concerned. That seems to be an additional reason why it would not be possible to say that good faith had not been followed in the negotiations.
As to Article 62, under which a treaty might be abrogated by,
“a fundamental change of circumstances”,
it is clear that the entry into force of the backstop can hardly be described as a fundamental change of circumstances, as it is expressly foreseen and envisaged in the withdrawal agreement. That is not what “fundamental change of circumstances” means. That is very clear.
Today we have seen the letter from the two Presidents—President Juncker and President Tusk—and the letter from the Prime Minister. I do not see them changing the legal situation on the backstop; nor, I see from the Attorney-General’s letter, does he. He says in paragraph 2 that,
“they do not alter the fundamental meanings of its provisions as I advised them to be on 13 November 2018”.
Your Lordships will have seen that very clearly.
The letter from the Presidents does repeat warm words. It also repeats—this is most important—the legally correct statement that if the backstop is triggered it would apply,
“unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement”.
Those are really important words. They mirror precisely what is said in the withdrawal agreement, in particular the final sentence of paragraph 4 of Article 1, and much reliance was placed on that, rightly, by the Attorney-General in the letter that the House has seen. That is the fundamental point. The position is that, unless and until a subsequent agreement takes place, the backstop will continue to exist. It may be that a political agreement can be reached. That is not the point that I am dealing with.
It is clear, of course, that the EU was pressed to give Mrs May something, but this is the best it has produced, and it says more by what it does not say than by what it actually says. Only a new agreement at the end of the discussion on the political declaration will bring the backstop to an end. That is what I wanted to say about the events that have taken place since we last debated this issue.
I want also to mention briefly the other legal topic, which has been touched on in previous speeches to some extent, which is in relation to issues of justice and security. On security and criminal justice, reference has been made already, for example by my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton.
But so far as civil justice is concerned—and commercial matters—there is much less. As the House has already been told, there is nothing in the political declaration that calls for co-operation in that field. Nor will it be a solution, in the critically important area of enforcement and recognition of judgments, to rely on the Lugano treaty. I could explain the detail of that but, essentially, there were difficulties in and problems with the original Brussels convention, including the rather charmingly named Italian torpedo—not a form of sandwich, as many may think—it gave rise to. That was fixed, but not in the Lugano treaty.
Finally, I refer to the absence of any real provision in relation to legal services. I declare an interest as a practising lawyer and a member of a firm that practises across boundaries. The arrangements that there are in relation to legal services in future are far from satisfactory.
My Lords, soon after the referendum, a number of my colleagues from across the House and the other place and I received a courteous and timely invitation to a lecture at the Norwegian embassy. Delivered by a young professor, it was about the lessons learned by Norway in negotiating with the European Union as a third party. The professor talked about around eight principles, but I remember this one best: he said very clearly that European Union member states were never unified on what they discussed and agreed among themselves, but when it came to dealing with third parties, there was always total unity, which never changed. Among many others, that seems a lesson that the Government should have learned during the past two years of negotiations.
A key lesson is that 16,141,241 people voted to remain but were written out of history and out of any interest from the Government almost immediately. Today, that is still the rhetoric of the Government. They have done absolutely nothing over the past two years to bring this country together. It required a private citizen and the Supreme Court, not Parliament, to get us all involved in the Article 50 process. We saw highly questionable ministerial appointments to the Foreign Office and DExEU, both individuals having now resigned and given up on the course on the way through. We know that when we used Article 50 to serve notice to the European Council, we had no plan whatever, just a number of red lines written down, which very much restricted future negotiations. We agreed immediately the schedule of proceedings for the agenda during that Article 50 period, which we are still in; without question, that put us at an immediate disadvantage. We still hear loose language, the most recent example of which described EU citizens of this country as “queue-jumpers”; I find that inexcusable and disgraceful. We have had two years of an elite EU team, as seen on the world stage, versus a shambles of amateurs. That is how this is seen across the globe. It gives me great grief as a proud European citizen of this country.
I want to get on to the question of where we go from here if this agreement is successful. We hear a great deal from industry about certainty. My unshakeable view is that, as we move into a transitional period—if we do so—there will be even greater uncertainty. We originally had 21 months, which the Government agreed with no question whatever, even though there is no chance of an agreement on that timescale—it could be 33 or 45 months under the withdrawal agreement. Let us remember: the Korean agreement took eight years; the Canadian agreement took eight years; the Japanese agreement started in 2013 and has still not been implemented; the United States deal could not be agreed. Only Greenland’s withdrawal from the EEC was agreed in a period of some three years, and was far less complex than anything we are going to enter into.
It will be complex because our agreements will include, I hope, services, security, data and a number of other areas not included in many of these deals. We also have a whole host of other issues that will be brought up by EU member states when we are a third country—not least by Spain on Gibraltar, which we have been warned about. There will be further issues around the Irish border and fisheries, which interests me particularly. It is certain that our fishermen and that industry will be sold out, as the European Union has made it quite clear that it will not agree trade terms of any sort—on fisheries and elsewhere—unless access and quota arrangements are maintained.
It is also clear that there will be the same red lines from the European Union on the single market and the four freedoms. We are certain that those issues will still be there. We also have to reach agreement with some 36 legislative Assemblies, not least the European Parliament, which will take considerable time.
This agreement seems to me not one that provides certainty to industry or to the political community, but one that provides another period of uncertainty where we do not know where we are going and where we cannot agree deals elsewhere in the globe until we know our relationship with Europe. What we do know is that there will be very few trade deals done until we resolve our relationship with Europe, that there will be no freedom of movement for British citizens within Europe, and that this country will be impoverished.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and I agree with much of what he said. This is obviously a crucial moment for the outcome of this negotiation. It matters a lot to this country, and it matters a lot to this House. The delay in December was neither justified nor wise, compressing as it did a significant number of consequential decisions into a short space of time. But, alas, procrastination has marked the Government’s handling of this negotiation from beginning to end.
It is not for this House to determine the outcome. That is for the other place. But it is necessary that we should express a view—we should have our say. Merely taking note of a deeply flawed and deficient deal which the Government propose to this House would be hardly fitting.
The Prime Minister tells us that this is the best deal we will get. She may be right, within the parameters of those infamous red lines, which she imposed without any authority from the Cabinet, from Parliament or from the 2016 referendum. If you exclude continued membership of the customs union and single market from the outset, and you continue to demonise the European Court of Justice, that is what you get—and a pretty poor thing it is. Moreover, you get the backstop. I have now had two letters on that from the Leader of the House, for which I am most grateful, which seek to reply to my question as to whether anything that has been said since the Prime Minister reached agreement on the deal has actually caused the Attorney-General’s advice—that we cannot exit from the backstop unilaterally—to be varied.
The key phrases are now set out in the exchange of letters and the Attorney-General’s advice. The Juncker-Tusk letter says that,
“we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement”.
The Attorney-General says that they—that is, all the things that have happened since December,
“do not alter the fundamental meanings of”,
the withdrawal agreement provisions,
“as I advised them to be on 13 November”.
That is pretty clear, you would think: it is a rather long way of saying that nothing has changed, but that is what it is.
The idea that exiting without any deal at all should be an even faintly acceptable outcome can surely not survive a reading of the economic analysis provided by the Government, the Bank of England and the NIESR. Finally, the Government have realised—as they did not when they first started to trot out the irresponsible slogan, “No deal is better than a bad deal”—that it is pretty disastrous. It must therefore be right for both Houses to state their categorical rejection of that outcome. It would be right, too, for the Government to state now that they will honour and act on such a rejection, and not play around with the false oxymoron of a “managed no-deal exit”.
The hard fact is that, if you look through the copious documentation we have now received, you will see not a single area of policy where what is now on offer can be said with any confidence to be better than what we have as a member. For prosperity, security and our global influence, we are clearly better off as a member. In most areas, the outcome is clearly negative. Can anyone seriously doubt that we will be less influential in Washington and Brussels, or in Beijing and Delhi, or that we will find ourselves with a much lower trepidation index—the measurement that determines whether other countries hesitate to kick you on the shins or to decline your representations? That is why I will not hesitate to vote for the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, which is a clear but respectful message to the other place.
What happens if the other place votes tomorrow to reject the deal? The case for then submitting it to the electorate is, in my view, compelling. I have no liking for referendums, but it was the Prime Minister of the day, David Cameron, who forced that decision on us when he decided to play Russian roulette with one of our major national assets. I do not believe we can escape that trap without another public vote, particularly now that so much more is known about the consequences of leaving than was known in 2016.
Will such a vote be divisive? Of course it will. However, I believe that the outcome of such a vote, whichever way it goes, will be more likely to achieve closure than the agonisingly protracted negotiating agenda set out in the Prime Minister’s deal.
Like others, I return to the scene of the accident to discuss this deal. I do not think that I imagined hearing the Secretary of State for International Trade on the radio this morning say that it was the “least damaging” way of leaving the European Union. I thought that it was a pretty spectacular example of how to pay a compliment.
I will make two points about assurances and two points about threats. I have no difficulty accepting that the backstop is temporary—or that “temporary” is a word in every known European language. I am sure that we can find ever so many examples of the President of the Commission and the President of the Council smothering the word “temporary” in warm milk and honey. That is not really the point. The point was made with pellucid clarity during our aborted debate before Christmas, when my noble friend Lord Howard pointed out that under Article 50 we have the unfettered ability to leave the European Union, but we cannot leave the backstop without the agreement of 27 members of the European Union.
The second assurance touches on that. We are told that we should not worry about the future because everything is taken care of in the political declaration. However, the political declaration is a bucket list. If you look up “bucket list” on the internet, the first thing you get is “abseiling down a waterfall”. At least that is not in it, but everything else we could conceivably want is put into that bucket list—with no guarantee that any of it will be deliverable.
The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, made a remarkable speech before Christmas about the future of research and science if we leave the European Union under any terms, even with the backstop. There are no guarantees about what will happen to our research community and to universities in the future. That is why all the university leaders have written to us expressing their grave concern about what is happening.
I turn to the threats. The first threat, which has been touched on already, is the suggestion that if we do not accept this less than perfect—I think that is the polite way of putting it—deal to leave, it will be no deal. It will be what the Leader of the House of Commons called—as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, this is a somewhat oxymoronic concept—a “managed no deal”. It will be managed presumably with all the competence we showed in dealing with the change in railway timetables last year; with all the competence, panache and swagger we showed in dealing with a drone at Gatwick; and with the competence we showed last week in managing a traffic jam in Kent—now there is a big thing to do.
I am sure that most members of the Cabinet agree with the Secretary of State for trade and industry, who said that it would be damaging to this country—and I cannot believe that the Prime Minister, too, does not believe that it would be damaging to us. So why on earth are they flirting with it as a way of trying to press us all into doing something which most of us think would be extremely unwise and would keep the debate about the European Union going indefinitely—because that is what the political declaration is all about?
The other threat is the idea that unless we vote for the Prime Minister’s proposal, or leave without it, the country will be divided for the foreseeable future. What the hell do we think the country is at the moment? I have never known it so divided. This is partly because of decisions taken to try to manage members of a part of the Conservative Party, my party, who have for years, with commendable fortitude—although I think they are wrong—worked away to get us out of the European Union. We could deal with the idea that if we vote for this deal on April Fools’ Day people will sit around on the village green singing “Kumbaya” and holding hands—or perhaps, in the presence of the right reverend Prelates, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”—but the idea that this will end the debate is for the birds. I am afraid that this argument will pollute British politics and British society for a long time to come.
As I said, I recognise the fortitude, determination and intellectual honesty of some of my noble friends who have pursued this over the years. They have, to borrow from Iain Macleod, schemed their schemes and dreamed their dreams. But now we wake up to this terrible shambles—never glad, confident morning again. The trouble about civil wars—even civil wars in political parties—is that they do one hell of a lot of collateral damage: in this case not just to the Conservative Party but to the country. I feel passionately that in the days ahead we should do what we can to limit the amount of collateral damage. Even though we cannot do it completely and even though we recognise that there will be an impact on British politics for the foreseeable future, we should at least try to do it in a way that does not make this country poorer or less influential in the world, and in a way which will enable us to look our kids and their children in the eye in the years ahead.
My Lords, leaving the European Community after more than half a century of membership is clearly an enormous and testing task and, as noble Lords have already indicated, the Government are scarcely showing themselves up to it. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord King, who indicated that we do this in the context of an international situation in which there are many shocks so that we are bound to find it difficult to make progress on certain aspects of international relations. Getting new trade treaties in this context is fraught with real problems. We all recognise that many international powers are talking rather more about protective tariffs than about opening up fresh opportunities for trade with the UK and economies like it. The challenge of coming through this process with any degree of success is enormous.
As a Treasury spokesman for my party in normal circumstances, I intend in this debate to concentrate on economic issues. At the end of the day, our fellow citizens look to Parliament and the Government to provide a context in which they can work successfully, earn what they are entitled to earn and get rewards from the economy. The great danger is that the Government are pursuing a strategy which puts that in doubt. I recognise that economic forecasting is much disparaged in many quarters, but we cannot discount the significance of so many sources of serious economic analysis which demolish the case for no deal. It should never have been on the agenda. The Government have a bounden duty to make sure that we do not leave the European Community with no deal. Sources that identify just what that would mean include the Governor of the Bank of England, who said that if there is no deal the country will suffer as much in the next decade as it has in the period since the great global financial collapse.
The search for no deal is the Prime Minister truckling to the small group of die-hard right-wingers in the Conservative Party who see some vista of great achievement the moment we are free from Europe. They turned their position in the rigid red lines which made it so difficult for the Prime Minister to achieve any reasonable deal with Europe. We may be the fifth-largest economy in the world, but we have considerable programmes at home at present. We can ill afford putting at risk some of our outstanding existing opportunities. I point out the obvious issue: we have played quite a considerable leadership role in the service industries in Europe, as we would expect, given our expertise and the significance of the service industries to our economy, but there is nothing in the proposals which are emerging under the Government’s scheme for any progress in that area.
It is quite clear that we have to think in very different terms. My party will emphasise that we intend to present proposals, when we have the opportunity, to participate in a permanent and comprehensive customs union with a British say in future trade deals and we will deliver a strong relationship with the single market to guarantee that the UK does not fall behind the EU in rights for workers and consumers and in the protection of the environment. We want a deal that puts jobs and the economic position first, and we trust that this House will support our amendment today against a background where we hope the other place will support progressive positions tomorrow.
My Lords, I cherish my European citizenship and regret its loss when or if—dare I say it?—Brexit becomes law. I identified myself as a British patriot and a European when I went to Berlin and other war-torn cities on the continent with little more than £5 in my pocket at the age of 17. I stayed with social democrat families who welcomed me into their homes. Europe is part of my DNA; it transcends treaties and bureaucracy.
For a time, I sat in the European Parliament, but preferred Westminster. This is not the first time that the Tory party has torn itself apart on this issue. As Speaker of the Commons, I watched the Tory party tear itself apart during the Maastricht debates. I feared the worst when David Cameron allied his party with the far right in Strasbourg and even more so when he caved in to his right-wingers and media pressure by calling the 2016 referendum. He thought he would win but has said since that he did not mind losing. I did mind.
Theresa May, whose tenacity commands respect, has been struggling to keep her party together ever since. Her Government stumble from one expediency to another, unimpeded by a dithering leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition whose only consistency is evasion. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, was right the other day when she related the current drift and national crisis to the period of 1940, but there is a major difference. At that time, the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition gave leadership. He carried his parliamentary party with him and people in the country knew of his commitment and supported it—that is the difference.
I am not a devotee of referenda. I rather enjoy general elections, but general elections are not single-issue events—they cover a host of issues. A general election is not the way to settle the European question. After two years, we are now more aware of the minuses and pluses and the people must determine this single issue. I urge Back-Benchers in the Commons to reject the pretences of Ministers who say—I quote Dr Fox, the International Trade Secretary—that a second referendum would put us in,
“unprecedented territory with unknown consequences”.
We have been wandering in the wilderness since Mrs May lost her majority in the election. I wonder how high Dr Fox was flying when he dreamed that one up. In my book, if a democracy cannot be allowed to change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.
When the Minister winds up, will he say what the Government are afraid of in refusing a people’s vote? In answering that question, will he please explain to young people who have reached adulthood why they do not have the right to be heard on an issue that our generation has manifestly bodged? Brexit will shape these youngsters’ futures for the next 50 years—not ours. I have no children or grandchildren; my quality of life will not be affected. I am all right, Jack. But what about the Jacks and Jills out there? Are they to be stripped of their rights on the whim of those who peddled rubbish in the referendum and are afraid to be challenged in another?
I was a government Whip when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. He said that anyone who claimed that membership of the European Community was a black and white issue was either a charlatan or a simpleton. I leave your Lordships to adjudicate on that one. Which brings me to Mr Boris Johnson: his campaign bus did not proclaim, “Say yes to no deal”. We were promised an easy ride with a cash bonus thrown in. The question on the ballot paper did not ask us to choose between a hard or soft Brexit, a Canadian or a Norway-plus deal, or a deal that would separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Nobody dreamed that we would be frantically preparing for worst-case scenarios. We are now paying the price for a referendum that was dominated by falsehoods. Brexiteers promised the world but ignored the social and political realities festering in our own country. Now, Parliament is convulsed, Whitehall is pulverised and Downing Street has become a drop-in for chilled wine and persuasive chats, while industry and business are alarmed and our friends and allies are bewildered. Who can possibly blame them?
In yesterday’s Sunday Express, Mrs May said:
“Some of you put your trust in the political process for the first time in decades. We cannot—and must not—let you down”.
But voters were let down—all of them. Both sides failed to focus on the issues that mattered most to them. Look at the Electoral Commission report. It said that many voters were unclear about the consequences of victory for either side and did not know the answers to questions they expected to be at the heart of the campaign. Both the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition should heed that report and listen to the voice of a young generation, who have a right to be part of the decisions affecting their future.
Many years ago, a debate took place in the Commons that changed the course of the war. Back-Benchers played a pivotal role then and I hope will do so tomorrow. My message is: Back-Benchers arise and forget your party allegiance. The national interest demands it.
My Lords, I am honoured to speak after the noble Baroness—honoured and a little daunted. This is the first time I have spoken on this issue. I therefore want to say something about my context of Lincoln and then consider what a Bishop might usefully add to this debate.
As your Lordships know, Lincolnshire is one of the parts of the United Kingdom that voted most emphatically in favour of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, with 66% voting to leave. I have thought hard about why that should be the case. There are the obvious reasons—the tip of the iceberg, if you like. Nationally, these would be described in terms of sovereignty and immigration. We who live and work in rural Lincolnshire are prisoners of our geography. The countryside comprises a series of sparsely populated settlements, disconnected from each other, where you learn to fend for yourself.
However, we are also heavily influenced by our history, in which, over the centuries, external forces have sought to take control of our land and laws, sometimes against our best interests. Over the centuries, people have come to demand money with menaces, to conquer, to trade, to work and, in more recent years, to seek refuge and a better life for their families. Sometimes the people of Lincolnshire have fought back; occasionally we have even grumbled; but most of the time, as a generous people, we have gone with the flow of all this and adapted.
But then there is the part of the iceberg under the water. There has been an international rise in populism playing on fear, with its accompanying narrative of the purity of what it means, in our case, to be British or English. There is also a naive view of democracy as plebiscite: “the people have spoken”. You do not need to be a polling expert to understand that people vote in elections and referendums for a variety of reasons—some noble, some flawed. The questions in the lanes of Lincolnshire—I was in a fen village near Holbeach last Sunday—appear to be: “Why is it taking ‘them in London’ so long to sort this out?”, and, from some more nuanced people, “Why can’t we explore some kind of compromise to get this done?”
I have heard almost all the speeches in this debate and am grateful for their differing perspectives. I have heard quite a lot of rhetorical certainty when we really know that the situation is extraordinarily complicated and confusing. Over the years the Church has learned and is learning, sometimes quite painfully, to manage diversity and difference, and it does so by recognising the compromised nature of our institution. I hope that the most reverend Primates in front of me will forgive me if I say that this side of heaven, the Church is not perfect.
One former Member of your Lordships’ House who knew Lincolnshire well, Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, began his ministry there. Ramsey was a brave and challenging thinker and spoke out clearly against injustice, including homophobia and apartheid, but in those early years in Lincolnshire he counselled the Church of England to understand itself more carefully as a compromised body. He wrote that the Church of England’s,
“credentials are its incompleteness, with tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy; it baffles neatness and logic ... for it is sent not to commend itself as ‘the best type of Christianity’ but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died”.
The Church of England has always had to manage difference and diversity, and still needs to do so. Whatever happens over the next few days, weeks and months—and no one knows what will happen—I suggest that, as a nation, we need to recognise that we are profoundly divided and need to manage diversity better, with respect and humility. The regret Motion as worded presents problems for those Members of your Lordships’ House who might agree with the sentiments about a no-deal Brexit but are less inclined to dismiss the Government’s withdrawal agreement in the absence of any worked-through alternative. For that reason, your Lordships should not be surprised if they see Members of this Bench voting in either Lobby or choosing to abstain.
The people of the United Kingdom, just like Bishops in the House of Lords, are a mixed bunch. We are in this together and we need to remember and practise the art of listening and compromise to become, over time, the best nation we can be.
My Lords, I first draw attention to my interests as set out in the register, in particular as chairman of the British Insurance Brokers’ Association.
It is no secret that I greatly regret the result of the referendum. In common with the Prime Minister, however, I believe it is right that we respect that result. I recall what one of my political colleagues in Bristol, the late Tony Benn, wrote in an open letter to his constituents in January 1975, which was reproduced in the Spectator:
“We should all accept the verdict of the British people, whatever it is; and I shall certainly do so”.
Having found himself comprehensively on the losing side, he was as good as his word even though his views on Europe never changed. I now find myself in an equivalent position. I want to follow up the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln, particularly in his appeal for respect and humility. We must all, however, be increasingly conscious of the real and present danger of a “no deal” or “cliff edge” Brexit on 29 March.
It is possible, perhaps even probable, that the withdrawal agreement and the accompanying political declaration will not be accepted this week. We may not relish that outcome but we must be ready for it. In the space of a week, the House of Commons has effectively indicated on two separate occasions that, in the event of the agreement not gaining majority support, a so-called no-deal Brexit would not be an acceptable outcome. That is why I believe we must now move into the transition or implementation period, in particular seeking to ensure that our financial services sector—which I would argue is the jewel in our economic crown—will continue to enjoy, at the very least, the kind of access to EU markets that it currently enjoys.
One of the most inspirational memories of my lifetime has been the people’s uprising that brought down the Berlin Wall. Even as we leave the institutions of the European Union, let us not—please—get back into the business of building walls. We know where that leads and it is not to freedom.
There is a method, clearly set out in Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, for a nation state to leave the European Union, and it has been followed. This country signed that treaty in good faith and, as is our habit, we have behaved honourably as we sought to disengage ourselves from it. That required us to negotiate with our EU partners, again in good faith, then to come to an agreement that would maintain both trade and good will. That is precisely what the Prime Minister has achieved.
The agreement may not be perfect, but no agreement ever was, is or will be. We hear a great deal of assertion about what the people voted for in June 2016. The fact of the matter is that the proposal on the ballot paper in the referendum was for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union—no more, no less. The leave campaign did not present a detailed manifesto and there was no menu of choices: soft Brexit, hard Brexit or no deal. The agreement secured between Her Majesty’s Government and the European Union is wholly consistent with the referendum result.
The general election in 2017 saw both major parties, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, committed to respecting the referendum result. Both increased their share of the vote substantially; between them, they received over 80% of the total votes cast. None the less, there is a full spectrum of opinion, both here and among the wider electorate, and we must take great care not to exacerbate social and political divisions at this difficult time. In the vile treatment of Anna Soubry and others, we see the consequence of overheated and hyperbolic rhetoric. As the right reverend Prelate said, this is a time for calm reflection, not hysteria, and certainly not antagonism.
The Prime Minister seeks to build a consensus and move on. I believe we should wholeheartedly support her in that. If Parliament rejects the agreement, we are heading into uncharted waters, as my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater reminded us so eloquently at the start of today’s debate. Brexiteers risk losing Brexit. Remainers risk losing everything. This is no time to be playing with fire. In the great British tradition, let us compromise, come together and move on.
My Lords, we have seen a very long and extended debate. There are lots of things I wanted to cover, but will now not do so, as they have been so eloquently dealt with by previous speakers. I have continued to take an interest in the challenge of Brexit and the Northern Ireland peace process, and it is not the backstop that I object to in the withdrawal agreement. I supported the Government agreeing to the backstop in the agreement they initially made in November 2017, so I do not object to it now.
In many parts of the country, including the area I regard as home—the north-east of England—the Brexit vote was driven by a sense of loss: loss of industrial jobs, opportunity, prospects and prosperity. We have to appreciate that sense of loss, and do so with leadership that offers some answers and ways forward, rather than simply encouraging people to find something or someone to blame.
The referendum was not exactly this country’s finest hour. Once the vote had taken place, it was clearly a choice between a complete break, with all the consequences of a hard border between the north and south of Ireland, and huge economic and industrial disruption, or a rule-taking Brexit, in which we left legally speaking, but still obeyed most of the rules and had to make financial contributions. It was, in the words of one of my colleagues in the Commons,
“a choice between a Brexit that raised the question of what is the price, and a Brexit that raised the question of what is the point”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/1/19; col. 456.]
We cannot have all of the current advantages of EU membership at the same time as the freedoms promised by the leave campaign. That the Government have never been honest with the British people is at the heart of the chaos and disillusionment we face today. This debate seems to have been going on, and has been going on, for more than my political life. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, mentioned being in the Whips’ Office in Harold Wilson’s time. My father was in the Whips’ Office with her, and I was hearing all those arguments at home. As always, the chaos and disillusionment are not because of putting the national interest first; they have far more to do with the internal politics of the Conservative Party. We know that whatever happens, there is now to be a long period of debate and negotiation in front of us. If the Prime Minister wins, the political declaration demonstrates that long, tortuous process.
In these circumstances, I wanted to speak about something I raised with the then Secretary of State, David Davis. He was not able to deal with it, saying he did not understand, and would see me about it. I perfectly understand he was too busy, but I then asked Parliamentary Questions. I was interested in how the Government were going to engage with the British public about the issues that matter to them when they voted, and how they wanted the Government to move forward. If we have learned anything in the past few months, I hope it is that democracy is changing. Those of us involved in democratic institutions have a particular responsibility to work on renewing how people participate in democracy and express their views. Voting, on its own, in general elections or referenda, is no longer enough.
Brexit is the most significant decision of this generation. It is also one of the most complex set of decisions I have experienced. This is a prime opportunity for us to develop more deliberative democracy. I have become convinced that we need a second referendum, for reasons others have mentioned, but also because we have not effectively involved the public in the considerations about Brexit. The Constitution Unit at UCL held a citizens’ assembly in 2017 over two weekends, first identifying the issues, and then looking at those issues and potential ways forward. All the participants talked of how much they got out of the process, their learning, and how useful it was. I hoped the Government would learn from this, and indeed from other countries that effectively use deliberative democracy in the consideration of difficult issues. Who would have thought that the Republic of Ireland would agree gay marriage and abortion legislation in referenda? It did it through a deliberative process.
The Government have been so inwardly focused that they have missed ways of moving Brexit forward in a way that includes those people who voted in the referendum. The public are fed up. They continue to feel they are irrelevant in the debate, and that they will pay the price of this deal. Let us be honest: they have been let down, and we cannot guarantee their prosperity in the future with this deal. Let us stop the threats and intimidation, and recognise that things are so different from what people were promised during the referendum, or indeed during the preparations for Article 50. We now need to involve the public in the issues and ways forward in a deliberative way, through such exercises as citizens’ assemblies. The Irish used them to construct the question. Maybe we have to have the courage to involve people in this way in setting the question for a new referendum. Contrary to what many say, I believe that if we do that we might just begin to restore faith in democracy.
My Lords, democracy did not start and finish on 23 June 2016. For those who say we must at all costs respect the result of the referendum, does that mean that whatever the deal, whatever Prime Minister Theresa May or some other Prime Minister might come up with, we have to go through with it, however unpopular that agreement is to both the remainers and those who support Brexit—and, indeed, however misleading, manipulative and incorrect the claims of the leave campaign? Does it mean that one referendum binds us for evermore on an issue? Do we not have a parliamentary, representative democracy? Do our MPs not count? This Government, in this 21st-century UK democracy, say that only one vote counted—in June 2016. A new referendum on a new issue—the acceptability of the EU deal currently offered by the Government—is now said to be anti-democratic and a betrayal as it does not respect the decision taken in the summer of 2016.
I am a Liberal Democrat, and it has to be said that we often encourage referendums. But I tell your Lordships this: I do not have any great enthusiasm for referendums. I never have had. That has been emphasised by my position as a Scottish Liberal Democrat. Generally, I would support them only to give authority—the authority of the people of this country—to a major constitutional change that the Government of the day want to implement. I do not much like them being used to test the waters when a Government or party are unclear or divided. I do not like their consequences when the result is desperately close: 51.9% to 48.1% is desperately close and has left a nation very divided. With the Scottish referendum on independence, 55.3% versus 44.7% felt very divisive and very close.
In the current circumstances, a second referendum, a people’s vote, a new referendum on a different question on the detail of the deal, is entirely legitimate. Remember that Theresa May was once a campaigner to remain. On 25 April 2016 she said:
“In essence, the question the country has to answer … whether to Leave or Remain—is about how we maximise Britain’s security, prosperity and influence in the world, and how we maximise our sovereignty: that is, the control we have over our own affairs in future”.
She went on to answer her question by saying that the case for remaining was the stronger. She referred in her speech to how Europe stumbled towards war in the last century. She talked about a hard-headed analysis and confirmed that, on security, trade and the economy, we should stay in the EU. So before she lapsed into the language and rhetoric of “Brexit means Brexit” and “no deal is better than a bad deal”, she was very clear that our “destiny”—again I use her word, not mine—was better inside the EU. Those are strong words, and very different words from those we hear today.
What happens next? There are no strict rules on any of this, and certainly no written rules. It seems that the UK desperately needs those written rules now more than ever, but there is no written constitution in this country. So where from here? I still hold the memories and bear some of the scars of the Scottish referendum. As I mentioned, it was never the outpouring of democracy that some, especially in the SNP, like to suggest. It was divisive and damaging.
If it had gone the other way, I say this: I am totally convinced that some of the unionists opposite me today, who—whether as Brexiteers or government supporters—strongly oppose a new referendum on the EU issue, if there had a been a yes vote on independence would have been strongly supporting a second referendum on the detail of that independence vote, to try to keep Scotland inside the UK, highlighting the divisive, damaging consequences of a disastrous deal. Such is politics in times of turmoil.
What Theresa May could have done before Christmas, when she realised she was going to be defeated in Parliament, was surely call a second vote, a new referendum. A win-win situation for her, you would have thought. Either the Prime Minister would get the backing for her deal from the people of Great Britain, or we remain in the EU—the position which she supported and perhaps somewhere deep down still does support. Her alternative is ploughing on. Is that better? Why does she do it? Is it better for the Conservative Party? Is it better for the Government? Is it better for the people of this country, better for our future? We shall see—but I see no sign of it being better.
“Accept the deal”, she says. And if we do not trust her—and it seems clear that we do not, either in this place or in the other place—we are no longer at the kicking the can down the road stage of all this, are we? It seems that we go closer and closer to the edge of the cliff and, unless Parliament intervenes, we might all together go over the edge of that cliff. This is high-noon, high-wire madness. It is not good government, it is a derogation of duty. It is done because the Prime Minister has lost sight of her duty to act in the best interests of the nation, and instead is desperately trying to hold together something, I know not what: her Ministers, her party, maybe in her own mind our country. Already over 100 of her MPs believe that she is not the best person to lead her own party, far less our country. It is highly possible that with a new referendum she would win support—
I will draw my remarks to a close. I do not believe that a new referendum, whatever the question, would support a hard Brexit—so the result would either be the Prime Minister’s deal, or remain, which the Prime Minister campaigned for. Would that be such a terrible result for her and for this country? Should we not build consensus in this country for a way forward that unites, not frightens and divides?
My Lords, ever since the referendum on leaving or staying within the EU, the United Kingdom has had a tortuous time, irrespective of what position you take in relation to that particular vote. Much of the debate has rotated around Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic border. I speak as one who in the first 16 years of my life lived within walking distance of that border, and today I reside about a 15-minute car drive from it. I know other Peers from Northern Ireland could say similar, so we are well acquainted with the border in every respect. It is in our DNA.
I suspect it will not come as a massive surprise to anyone in this House that I and my party, namely the Democratic Unionist Party, are opposed to the Prime Minister’s proposals for withdrawal from the European Union. It is patently clear that Northern Ireland is to be treated differently from other regions of the United Kingdom. From the beginning of the negotiations we have set one red line for the Government: that there could be no new border in the Irish Sea, thus undermining the economic and constitutional position or integrity of the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland trades more with the rest of the UK than we do with the Republic of Ireland, the rest of the European Union and the rest of the world combined. The latest figures for total sales by Northern Ireland companies make interesting reading. Within Northern Ireland, they were £45.2 billion; to GB, they were £11.3 billion; and to the Republic of Ireland, they were £3.9 billion. These figures speak for themselves.
The DUP secured the inclusion of paragraph 50 in the joint report published in December 2017. The paragraph states that the UK,
“will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with”,
the 1998 Belfast agreement,
“the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market”.
Some of the architects of the Belfast agreement—I was not one of them—tell me that the present proposals drive a horse and coach through it; at the same time, the Government say that their design is to protect that very same agreement. It is abundantly clear what the EU’s intentions have been since the publication of its legal interpretation of the joint report. It sought to sever and divide the internal UK market. At the time the legal interpretation was published, the Prime Minister was clear that such an interpretation was totally unacceptable. We agreed entirely with those objections; our position has not changed.
The publication of the Attorney-General’s advice demonstrated why there was such reluctance to publish it. The advice was devastating in its contents. It said that the backstop will come into force on the conclusion of the transition period,
“while negotiations are continuing for an agreement that supersedes it and ‘unless and until’ that ‘subsequent agreement’ is applicable”.
Northern Ireland would remain inside the EU’s customs union. The Commission and the European Court of Justice would continue to have jurisdiction over Northern Ireland’s compliance with those rules. Therefore, goods passing from GB to Northern Ireland would be subject to a declaration process. Northern Ireland remaining in the EU single market would mean that, for regulatory purposes, Great Britain is essentially treated as a third country by Northern Ireland for goods passing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. The backstop would continue indefinitely and cannot be exited by the UK. The Attorney-General’s words were clear. He said that,
“despite statements in the Protocol that it is not intended to be permanent, and the clear intention of the parties that it should be replaced by alternative, permanent arrangements, in international law the Protocol would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement took its place, in whole or in part, as set out therein”.
We are told much about the backstop. Allegedly, nobody wants it; why is it there, then? Furthermore, who is going to construct the apparatus on the border? Nobody wants that—Europe does not, the UK does not and no one in Northern Ireland wants it, so who is going to construct it? We await with interest.
The belligerent attitude of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland has proven to be downright unhelpful. The Irish Independent reported in an article of 20 July 2018 that Leo Varadkar had ordered the Revenue Commissioners to stop preparing contingency plans for the return of a hard border under Brexit. He told revenue officials to stop investigating technological Brexit solutions. The article said:
“The work had begun under former Taoiseach Enda Kenny and ex-foreign affairs minister Charlie Flanagan”.
Again, there is proof that the Republic of Ireland’s Prime Minister has been and continues to be obstructionist in every way that he can. Instead of working in the best interests of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, he is more content to meddle and make things as difficult as he possibly can.
My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Hunt, I propose to confine my remarks to the subject of the referendum and what should happen now. I do not much like them, but I believe that a referendum can be a valid instrument of democracy, used rarely and with care, for really big issues on which the nation is divided. The Independent Commission on Referendums recently suggested that only issues of sovereignty and constitutional change should be covered and I agree. Referendums are always dangerous, however, because the Government of the day forfeit control. As we have seen, once triggered, they can move in unexpected directions with unpredictable results.
It is vital to recognise that referendum democracy and parliamentary democracy are different animals. They do not sit easily together. They have different blood groups, and to inject a referendum into our parliamentary processes, especially on complex and protracted matters of uncertain outcome, is indeed hazardous. Once embarked upon, it needs to be carried through with respect and consistency and, above all, it must be honoured. I recall that the Welsh referendum, not mentioned so far today, was passed with a majority of 0.3%, but getting a result is part of the main point of a referendum.
At the outset, the Brexit referendum had the almost unanimous support of the political parties. They agreed on the unconditional nature of the question asked and undertook to support and implement the outcome—promises ratified in the subsequent general election. Since then, many in Parliament, of all parties, have resiled from that commitment, and that is the cause of our present difficulties. Negotiations with an ill-disposed EU, hard enough to pursue with the backing of a united Parliament, have been sabotaged and frustrated by Parliament itself. We are gridlocked and self-indulgent, and it is not a proud day for parliamentary democracy. Parliament is now defying its own electorate. Worse than that, we are invalidating the referendum as a credible instrument of democracy for the future.
Of course, in the delivery of day-to-day decisions such as we take in this place, with our general debates and our legislative processes, changes of mind form a natural part of the continuum of politics, but a referendum is different. It is, as we all know, a one-off decision-making process, in which Parliament abrogates its responsibility in favour of the electorate to answer a specific, clear question. For us then to ignore that answer is, to put it mildly, unworthy. We have no right to put our widely varied interpretations on what the electorate really meant. To suggest instead that we should hold a second referendum, before the outcome of the first has been delivered, is to add insult to injury. “Wrong answer”, as they say in Europe, “Try again”. That has never been our kind of politics. As the SNP once so helpfully reminded us, a referendum is generational in nature. They are not buses. If you miss one you cannot say, “Don’t worry, there’ll be another along in a minute”.
Why hold another referendum now? I heard an MP say on television the other day that the electorate should be asked again “now that they know what Brexit looks like”. But we do not know what Brexit looks like. The deal as it stands could yet be changed in further negotiations, and anyway it has never been clearly explained to the electorate. It is changing day by day, as a blizzard of further amendments and other wizard wheezes are churned out in another place. What really matters is what the terms of our future relationship with the EU will be, about which we know nothing at all, except that the negotiations will be a nightmare. What would the question be? I have not yet seen or heard a single suggestion of a question that would be clear, balanced and unconditional, as the last one was. What would it settle? I do not believe it would settle anything, except to leave a legacy of bitterness. A second referendum cannot just wipe out what has already been decided. Why, then, is it proposed by so many? I see it as a subterfuge, one that dresses up as a virtue what is really an escape route through which its promoters are trying to wriggle out of the promises they made in 2016.
I voted remain in the referendum, and I respect the opinions expressed by others on this and other issues, but I believe that fulfilling the pledges we made then is a debt to the electorate that we must pay. That has a greater chance of closure than to leave an open wound. I see this as a matter of principle, and one that goes wider than Brexit. Our purpose now should be to honour the outcome of the referendum. That is not just the right thing to do; it is also, I venture, the moral thing to do. We should prepare now, urgently, to leave the EU, as the law provides, on 29 March—with or without a deal. Only then can the nation start to come together and our parliamentary democracy restore its self-respect.
My Lords, I want first to focus on what may appear a parochial issue: the role of this House in the next few weeks. If the Government lose tomorrow, we are on course to crash out of the EU without a deal within three months. Yet, as a Parliament, we have nowhere near set up the legislative framework or regulatory order that will be needed for British business, agriculture or society as a whole to operate at home and abroad. When will the Government set out clearly their proposed sequencing and timetable for the scrutiny both of primary legislation required prior to Brexit and the large number of statutory instruments that we require to pass by the time we leave? That is a question that Ministers in various different contexts have dodged frequently over the last few weeks. Without this, we will, frankly, be in legal chaos. In primary legislation, we have at last restarted the Trade Bill, which is inadequate and incomplete. Yet we have not seen the Bills on migration. This House has not yet had sight of the Agriculture Bill. We need an environment Bill and the Fisheries Bill. On top of that, we have several hundred statutory instruments to pass to make sense of Brexit—if, indeed, we leave on 29 March. Only about 10% of those statutory instruments have been passed so far.
All that must be done within the next 10 weeks. That is a nigh-impossible task. I ask the Government: how are they going to manage it? When will they tell the rest of the House how we are going to manage it? Or do they have a different plan? Do they intend, perhaps, to recognise at last the folly of putting 29 March in primary legislation in the withdrawal Act? Alternatively, are they proposing to deal with it by emergency regulation and emergency legislation? In other words, do they intend to operate in the next few weeks government by decree? Does it mean that taking back control means, in effect, that we subject ourselves to a system of Napoleonic edict by the current Government? The role of this House and the other place, in looking at that legislation, is vital in order that we have a climate and legal structure in which to operate.
When the referendum result came through, like others, I was deeply saddened. But I did not immediately think that this must be overturned. Instead, both personally and as chair of one of your Lordships’ EU sub-committees, I focused on the options available to us for a new relationship with Europe, particularly in relation to trade. Just over two years ago, my committee produced a report looking at the various options: the Norway option, which would be the least disruptive; a customs union; a free trade agreement; a comprehensive association agreement; and, indeed, dropping out on WTO terms. The fact is that, nearly two and a half years later, all those options are still open to us. We do not know which form of trade arrangement we shall make with our leading trade partner. We are no further forward.
This is the result of a combination of incompetent negotiation and bad timing. We triggered Article 50 too early, without having a plan. We accepted the EU’s sequencing, so that there were issues in the withdrawal treaty, such as the Northern Ireland situation, which should not have been in the withdrawal treaty and are now holding up any agreement. In other words, we have spent two and a half years hung up on the wrong issues. There is no clarity to answer the questions the majority of the population and of businesses are asking. What will be the system of trade? What will be our human rights? What will be our system of security post Brexit?
The two major parties are split on this issue. The House of Commons is in gridlock and acting like a school playground. The country is much more bitterly divided now than it was during the referendum. Accusations and counteraccusations of betrayal will arise however we now deal with this issue. But the reality is that the political class, which includes all of us, has let the population down. We have comprehensively failed, in the two and a half years since the referendum, to point the way forward. The only conclusion I can draw from that is that we need to return the issue to the people—not as a subterfuge or a way to get out of earlier decisions, but as a way to face the future with the support of our population.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. He and I have worked closely together in the past and I hugely respect his views, even if I disagree with his final comments. We have listened to some highly intelligent, wise and thoughtful contributions, and it is an honour to be a part of this important debate at this point in our history.
Before I comment on the options facing the other House tomorrow, I will endorse what others have already stated: the mood of the public is growing increasingly impatient with the endless, repetitive debate on this topic and the media’s constant, often unhelpful, analysis, particularly that of the BBC. It is dominating every conversation. It is a complete distraction. It is delaying progress, not just on Bills in this House, as we have heard, but in every sphere of life, including investment by the business community. In my view, any further procrastination could lead to significant unrest. Most people I speak to are bored with the topic. They just want a decision; they want to move on. We and Members of the other House need to pay attention to the current mood of the people.
I have been considering the options if the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected tomorrow: Parliament takes control; we have another referendum; we crash out without a deal; or there is a vote of no confidence, which might result in a general election. I am not even going to consider the last option. It would be a complete humiliation and a disaster.
Let us suppose that the PM loses tomorrow and Parliament takes control to decide on the terms of the deal. I have the utmost respect for my good friend the right honourable Hilary Benn, but do we really believe, with the shambolic state the parties are in, that Parliament is capable of negotiating a better deal? As we have heard, the Conservatives are engaged in open warfare, Labour in covert warfare; the SNP is navel-gazing; and the DUP is discredited. I have not thought about the Lib Dems. Besides, this would result in having to delay Article 50 and would add significantly to the current uncertainty. What would be achieved? The only possible alternative would be a customs union arrangement, a variation on Norway or Canada. That would involve permanently accepting EU rules and trading terms over which we had little or no influence—the very issues of concern about the backstop.
So why not have a second referendum? That is the last thing we need, in my view. The country is divided, fractured and tense. As others have stated, we have had two years of uncertainty. This is of particular concern to the business community. To perpetuate this state of affairs would be irresponsible and achieve nothing.
How often have we heard the statement that the people did not know what they were voting for the first time round? They knew exactly what they were voting for. They were fed up with the loss of sovereignty, being controlled by the ECJ and the impact of migration. They may not have fully understood the consequences of leaving but they made a decision. We need to honour it. The second statement I often hear—we have heard it today—is that it was not a conclusive vote: 52 to 48. Most of us expected it to be much closer and were shocked when we woke up on 24 June to discover a 4% margin. In Switzerland, which holds referendums and where we have friends, such a margin would be conclusive.
We do not need another referendum, even on the terms of the deal. The same political arguments would be made and voters would be even more confused. In any case, what would it achieve? Would we reverse the decision and cancel Article 50? The reality is that we have been half-hearted about our EU membership for a long time, playing hokey-cokey. Most of us were very comfortable with our membership of the Common Market but the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties, with their desire to integrate fully, were a step too far for most of the British people. If another referendum were to take place, it would have to be on the basis that a vote to stay would involve embracing fully the European Union and its centralisation policies on economic and monetary union, the single currency and the authority of the ECJ and the Commission, surrendering our sovereignty in the process. We are not going to do that. We cannot have a second referendum to stay in on our current terms now. Dissatisfaction with the current arrangement led to this mess. We sent David Cameron off on his bike and he failed. The people have spoken and we need to move on. Another referendum would create even more confusion, division and delay.
So why not just crash out? For my constituency base, the farming community, it would be turmoil, particularly for the livestock sector. Those responsible for managing the pasture lands of our country, who produce milk, beef and lamb, are dependent on EU markets. Some 40% of our sheepmeat, the highest of any commodity, and 36% of our beef crosses the channel. That is an essential counterbalance to the power of supermarkets here in our home market. I was at a farmers’ meeting near my home last week. They are concerned about three things: the loss of direct support, which we will debate when the Agriculture Bill eventually comes to this House; the rise in the popularity of veganism, which they see as a real threat; and the risk of a collapse in markets as a result of no deal. Many businesses might not survive that triple whammy without serious government intervention and support. I am delighted that Michael Gove, the Defra Secretary, feels the same way. There is nothing appealing about another decade of austerity, which I believe would follow.
I too voted to remain but if noble Lords accept my premise that a second vote would just prolong the agony and create further confusion, that leaving with no deal would lead to financial turmoil and that reversing the decision would not resolve our deep-seated suspicions about the EU, the only question that remains is whether the deal is good enough. It was never going to be possible to negotiate a perfect deal. The only possible solution to the thankless task the Prime Minister inherited is that both sides of the opinion—those who want to remain and those who want to crash out—are equally disappointed. Remarkably, I think that the Prime Minister has achieved that objective. I hope and pray that the Commons will have the common sense to endorse the deal tomorrow. To reject it will perpetuate the current uncertainty and achieve nothing, in my view. As other noble Lords have said, we need to move on, look forward and negotiate with pace to avoid the backstop.
My Lords, I declare my European interests as detailed in the register and my membership of the European Parliament for 10 years in the 1980s. I must start by stating clearly that if I were a Member of the other place, I would vote tomorrow for the withdrawal agreement negotiated by the Government. I was due to speak in this debate in December when we were adjourned. It was, I think, a mistake by the Government not to put the deal to a vote then, and, as a result, we have lost five weeks. But the arguments for supporting the deal remain unchanged.
I voted in the referendum to remain but, with great sadness, I have long since had to accept the result. We must recognise, however, that the economy has already suffered. We have not had the investment or growth that we should have had in the past two and a half years. But both major political parties are committed to honouring the referendum result, and we are leaving. The Government have had the unenviable duty of carrying out the narrowly expressed majority view of the British people to leave the institutional structures of the European Union while minimising the damage to the economy and to the finances of the country.
From the beginning of this process, it has been widely recognised that a transition period will be absolutely essential for all the multiple adjustments which our citizens and businesses must make. If there is no withdrawal agreement, there is no transition period, and all but the ultras recognise that to leave without a deal would be extremely damaging to this country’s interests.
There have been many excellent speeches in this House and in the other place urging a cross-party approach to this matter. This is not a moment to indulge in party-political tactics. Whatever our views on remaining or not in the EU, whatever our party, whatever our previous positions on particular parts of the agreement, we must all now accept that our Government have negotiated a withdrawal agreement which allows us to leave on 29 March in an orderly fashion and with a transition period until the end of 2020 extendable for up to two years.
Of course, the withdrawal agreement contains the now infamous backstop. But it is not widely understood that the backstop is in fact rather advantageous to this country. We have access to the single market; we leave the common agricultural and fisheries policies; we end free movement of people; we make no financial contributions. Surely it is beyond doubt that the EU will not allow us to remain in this privileged position a week or a month longer than absolutely necessary. It is most unlikely that we will ever get into the backstop anyway.
What is so often forgotten in much comment in the press and elsewhere is that a Canada-plus, a Norway-plus or a Common Market II all need a withdrawal agreement before we can even begin the serious negotiation. The European Commission has said, and repeated today, that it wishes to start the process of the talks on the future relationship as soon as possible after the agreement is passed by the other place. So it is clearly in the national interest to agree this deal and move swiftly to the real and much more difficult negotiation on the future.
It is dispiriting to hear so many Members of both Houses criticising the deal. Some are motivated by actually preferring no deal. Some are motivated by wanting a second referendum. I do not support either of those outcomes. If the deal is rejected tomorrow by the other place, it will, I think, become inevitable that we will need to seek a three-month extension to the Article 50 deadline, and a rejection will almost certainly increase support for a second referendum in the country.
Too much of this debate is driven by ideology and not by common sense. This is a moment when we must be pragmatic. We must agree an orderly departure. We must negotiate a very close future economic relationship with our neighbours and most important markets. This House has been most effective in the past when it devises cross-party agreements. As a House, we must be clear that we cannot allow the country to leave the EU without a deal. If, or when, the other place agrees the withdrawal agreement—which in the end it surely must—I hope that cross-party groups or committees from both Houses will make serious recommendations on the best future relationship with Europe.
In the meantime, I urge the Members of the other place tomorrow to abandon their hopes for no deal, for a general election or for a second referendum, and to support this country’s Government at this most difficult time.
My Lords, it looks like Brexit is effectively over, thanks to the mature good sense of the British people and the British Parliament. The question now is: what next?
First, we need to end Brexit democratically. If the Prime Minister has any qualities of leadership, she will call a referendum rather than wait for one to be forced upon her by the House of Commons.
Secondly, we need urgently a plan to rebuild Britain and to tackle the social crisis that led to Brexit. There must be a real end to austerity: we need to build houses, improve the NHS and train our young people, especially those who do not go to university. We need a federal constitution for the United Kingdom and a new settlement for England, which is currently run like a colony from Whitehall.
Thirdly, we must rebuild Britain’s place in Europe. We need to lead, not leave. We must stop, once and for all, being half in and half out, and fulfil the vision of our country’s greatest leader, Winston Churchill, who saved Europe and inspired the European Union—a free union of free peoples that has successfully promoted the peace and prosperity of Europe for two generations, and which we are taking for granted at our peril.
I was recently in Dublin discussing the consequences for Ireland of Brexit. On the wall of the General Post Office, scene of the bloody 1916 Easter Rising against Britain, are these words of Seamus Heaney:
“History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme”.
Today, we have a once in a lifetime moment to do the right thing for our country.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and I will attempt to imitate his brevity. I spoke in this debate before Christmas and simply want to ask the Government a question and to make one comment.
Why do the Government not, even at this late stage, make an agreement with the EU 27 simply about the status of EU citizens here, which would be reflected for UK citizens in the EU? As the Minister knows, several countries have come up with their agreements: Italy, France, the Netherlands and Germany. It would be a small, easy step for the Government to take and would show that they were compassionate and humane. The Minister may shake his head, but there is simply no will on the part of the Government to address this. They could have done so early on and got it out of the way. I look forward to hearing in the Minister’s reply the Government’s reason for not doing so.
My comment is that I am very tired of hearing what a divided country this is and that that is why we cannot have another referendum. The country is divided mainly along generational lines. I am sure that the House is as aware as I am of the figures for those who voted. Of 18 to 24 year-olds, 61% overall, and 80% of young women in that age group, voted to remain. Why does this generational divide matter? Because those young people have their whole economic future before them. The old people who voted leave do not: they are picking up their pensions. In my view and, I would hope, that of most parents and grandparents here, young people have a greater right to express their views on this issue. In fact, I would not have given a vote to the over 65s at all—and I declare myself as being in this group. Our future is as grandparents, and that is it. So we owe young people a second referendum. The country is in a total mess and the least we can do is enable them to have their voices heard.
My Lords, I do not want to add to the volume of speculation about what will happen tomorrow or a day or two after. The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, expressed clearly my position on what should happen: the withdrawal agreement, or an amended successor to it, should be made subject to a vote of confidence, and if the Government lose it there should be a general election. That is the clean and British way but whether it will happen is in the hands of the gods at the moment.
I hope to add value today as an academic, and in this no doubt Utopian quest I should like to make three quick points. First, it is wrong and misleading to describe people’s behaviour in ways that they would not themselves recognise. We should not label the leave vote as the vote of the left-behinds or the ill-educated. These phrases have a certain descriptive accuracy and draw attention to the damaging legacy of austerity and insecurity, as well as to faults in the education system. However, it is wrong to say that 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU because of these things. That is not only condescending but to deprive voters of agency. No one will tell you, “I voted to leave because I was left behind or badly educated”, but they will give a reason, and unless these reasons are taken seriously and not just seen as the effects of a cause, we seriously misconstrue human behaviour and risk drawing wrong conclusions on policy.
Secondly, it is absurd to explain the referendum result by saying the leavers were misinformed. No doubt they may have been on financial matters, but this explanation leaves out the whole history of our relationship with the EU. That we are likely to be the first country to leave cannot be separated from our lateness in joining, our motives in joining and the persistently low levels of support for the European Union, as revealed by the Eurobarometer, and particularly for its political implications.
In today’s FT Wolfgang Münchau writes that he is,
“constantly amazed by the inability”—
of the remainers—
“to make a positive case”.
The explanation lies in their inherently economistic view of the EU—it is a matter of benefits and costs. Very rarely has there been enthusiasm for Europe as a cause.
Finally, a bit of political economy may help. The single market was a Thatcherite initiative of 1985. The Maastricht treaty, which set up a single currency—from which, of course, we opted out—followed in 1992. The simultaneous deepening of economic integration and the widening of the economic union to include 28 countries without a parallel strengthening of the political institutions was a fundamental mistake. Free trade in goods is one thing; free trade in capital, financial services and labour and a single currency require a degree of political integration—in short, a European Government—which some aspired to but which has never been realistic. The economic cart should never have been allowed to run so far ahead of the political horse.
Why was it done? The political reasons have been well rehearsed; I want to emphasise the faulty economic logic. Widening and deepening came at the height of faith in the free market and mistrust of government. Completion of the market, economists preached, would maximise efficiency. The only macro policy needed was an inflation target, whose achievement could be reliably left to an independent central bank. There was no need for a European Government, just the appropriate legal and regulatory framework. This delusion has been the cause of most of the EU’s trouble.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who is not in his place, would say that that is why we must push for a European federation now, to which I would reply that we are not ready for one and neither are most members of the European Union. The German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble recognised this when he proposed a multi-speed Europe in 1994. His argument was that different member states had varying appetites for integration and that a core Europe consisting of Germany, France and the Benelux countries should federate, leaving others in a looser union to catch up with the core if and when they were ready for it. We would have been saved a huge amount of trouble had that proposition been acted on.
I voted remain because I wanted Britain to push constructively not for a federal Europe, but for a multi-speed Europe. I still think this is the only way the EU can be made to work and the only way we could have worked with it, but our voters were asked to decide on the basis of what was, not what might have been or what might be. We should respect their decision, and for the time being, at least, we must watch the European Union’s struggle for coherence from the sidelines.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. As always, I listened with intense interest to his contribution. I say today with great sadness but with absolute conviction that the agreement so painstakingly negotiated by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister stems from dreadfully flawed advice and is nothing short of catastrophic. I am on record in your Lordships’ House as recognising the pain felt by many of your Lordships following the referendum result and, in consequence, I always hoped that a compromise that reflected the narrow win by leave was achievable, but today we are asked to take note of an agreement that, to my mind, is worse by magnitudes than anything I could have imagined.
Whatever redeeming features may be embedded in this agreement, and I accept that there are some, I touch today on two aspects that, for me, are quite impossible to accept. Under this deal, we would need to match all and any trade concessions offered by the EU to third countries. However, the obligation of those third countries to reciprocate would apply only to the EU 27 and not to Britain. Put another way, our home market would be at the disposal of EU trade negotiators to use exclusively for the benefit of the remaining EU 27. I wonder how a country such as ours could even contemplate such political and economic suicide.
No one, I think, quarrels with the notion that the first duty of the state is the defence of its citizens. Here I rely on the authority of others in concluding that the withdrawal agreement degrades, perhaps fatally, our ability to discharge that duty, through undermining our place at the heart of NATO and the functioning of the vital Five Eyes alliance. This alarming threat has led Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, to join forces with the former Chief of the Defence Staff, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, to raise this issue in the starkest terms.
It is surely beyond argument that the UK is legally and morally entitled to withdraw from a European project that keeps evolving in a direction in which British voters do not wish to go. I think the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, touched on this. That direction is constantly rehearsed by the functionaries of the EU, who make no secret of their federalist ambitions. The same applies to some, but not all, of the political leaders. Remain-minded people here are entirely silent on the implications of this country becoming part of a federal EU. Either they are too craven to admit to wanting such an outcome or they cherish the hope that somehow it will not happen. I find neither position deserves respect. The late Richard Crossman said:
“The amount of enthusiasm for federal union in any country is a measure of its defeatism and of its feeling of inability to measure up to its own problems”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/6/1950; col. 2039.]
Many noble Lords are given to adorning all discussion on a clean break from the EU on WTO terms with the words “unthinkable”, “crashing out”, “disastrous”, “chaos” and more of the same. I wonder whether they paused over the Christmas break to read a wide assortment of contributions from highly capable entrepreneurs and industrialists who take a different and opposite view. Only last week, my remaining noble friend Lord Finkelstein was politely corrected by the hugely distinguished Mr Shanker Singham and others who really understand international trade. Outstandingly successful British manufacturers such as Sir James Dyson or my noble friend Lord Bamford confirm how little we have to fear from a clean break. I respectfully suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake—I do not know if he is in his place—is wrong to imply that only people of means are relaxed about a clean break. I could point to scores of small entrepreneurs who share my view.
I predict, I hope wrongly, that when the noble Baronesses, Lady Ludford and Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, wind up—neither of them, I think, would claim to have even passing personal experience of trade or national security—they will ignore or repudiate the advice of those whose long and distinguished careers confer on them unparalleled authority.
For most of my adult life, I have chaired a diverse SME family business and my personal interests are detailed in the register. I have traded in some 50 countries in the world. Although my preference would be for a deal such as Canada-plus-plus-plus, I harbour no fears about the future under WTO terms—139 other countries manage it without extravagant distress. Do I pretend to know what is in store for my family business outside the EU? Of course I do not; no one does. Do I think everything will be better? Possibly not, but of this I am perfectly certain: it will get worse if we stay shackled to a sclerotic and moribund EU.
The point is that we are up for it and ready to seize the opportunities the future brings. The referendum result was a rebellion against a cast of unaccountable EU officials, whom power has corrupted and who visit pain, misery and financial hardship on the most vulnerable throughout the EU. What is there to like about this construct, over which there already hangs a sense of decay and morbidity? With or without a deal, this ghastly saga must end now so that we can begin once again to build bridges, revive old friendships and look once more to the world outside, where real growth resides.
My Lords, in February 2016, almost three years ago, Britain was at the top table of the world, a truly global economy and the fastest-growing economy in the western world. Prime Minister David Cameron had been in office for six years, he had built up a reputation and relationships globally and he had standing and respect. Look where we are today: our growth rates have dropped sharply—we have the lowest forecast growth rate for the next five years of less than 2%. Where is David Cameron now—the man who disappeared with his tail between his legs the day after the referendum?
UKIP had a major role to play in the referendum. People forget that, in the 2015 general election, UKIP polled 12%. Look at where it is today, with one discredited leader after another over the last three years. The party has basically shown its true colours, with Tommy Robinson now an official adviser. As for Nigel Farage, that snake-oil salesman, what is he doing now? He is captain of his old school Dulwich College’s old boys’ golf society.
The two previous nationwide referendums, to remain in the European Community in 1975 and to stay in the current voting system in 2011, were won by approximately two-thirds, or 67%. Now, the country is being held to ransom by this big figure of 17.4 million—a figure thrown at us by Brexit supporters every day—the largest turnout in history. We have to implement and execute the will of the people. Let us keep this in perspective: 17.4 million makes up just 37% of the voting population. Now the whole country is being held to ransom by the tyranny of the 52% majority. What about the 16.1 million, the 48%, who wanted to remain? Are they to be completely ignored as if their will does not count? Is it a question of who won and who lost?
The argument against a second referendum is that it would divide the country. The country is already completely divided, Parliament is divided and both major political parties are divided. How much more divided can we get? The other reason we are given is that Parliament voted for the referendum to take place. I have kicked myself so many times that Parliament did not take the referendum Act seriously. Then we are told that both major parties included implementing the referendum in their 2017 election manifestos—the Liberal Democrats did not. Now there are threats, including from former Cabinet Ministers, that if we overturn the result of the referendum we will undermine the whole of our democracy and there will be no trust in politicians or Parliament ever again.
The whole country is being held to ransom by something that took place two and a half years ago. Since when does democracy bind us to a point in time? Democracy is dynamic. Democracy is about changing your mind when the facts change or if new information emerges that you did not know before. Look at how much has changed in two and a half years. We did not know until a year ago how difficult it was going to be to negotiate Brexit. Since the election in 2017, it took a year and half to agree three items from the 585-page withdrawal agreement.
During the referendum, hardly any mention was made of Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland backstop has become the Achilles heel of Brexit and the biggest issue in the Prime Minister’s deal. It is a circle that cannot be squared: if we want to preserve the precious Good Friday agreement and preserve peace; and if we want to preserve the union by not having Northern Ireland treated separately from the rest of the United Kingdom. We are stuck with this backstop. Brexit is threatening our precious United Kingdom.
Brexit has also threatened our constitution—the balance of powers between our Executive, our Parliament and the judiciary. All those elements have been stretched to their limits. Today, we do not have a Government of the people, by the people, for the people; we have a Government who have set their own red lines—leaving the customs union and the single market and no more Court of Justice. It is a Government who have tried to bypass Parliament at every stage. They tried to implement Article 50 without Parliament. It took Gina Miller and my noble friend Lord Pannick to go to the Supreme Court to win that case. The Government tried to stop Parliament having a meaningful vote, and the Commons had to fight to get it. They also tried to bypass Parliament by not releasing the legal advice, but they were eventually forced to do so and had to admit that the UK cannot unilaterally leave the backstop.
Accepting the Prime Minister’s deal would be the worst of all worlds. We could be tied to the customs union and EU regulations—to infinity and beyond—without a say at the table. However, it is also a blindfold Brexit, with a 26-page wish-list declaration—a list of best efforts. Already, even before the start of the two-year transition period, the subject of Spain and Gibraltar has been brought up, and our fishing rights are already being talked about. My noble friend Lord Kerr said that it has been a wasted one and three-quarter years where the cart has been put before the horse. The framework has not been built, and we are left with a blindfold Brexit. Norway/EEA/EFTA/European Community version 2 would be the least worst option.
Around the world, people are saying, like Professor Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School:
“There is little doubt that the United Kingdom’s separation from Europe will reduce its competitiveness for the foreseeable future”.
The argument that we can go global on trade by leaving the European Union is nonsense. We are already global, with 50% of our trade being with the European Union. Another 20% of our trade, including with Japan, is done through the European Union. The EU has far bigger clout in negotiating free trade deals than we do, and we should dream on when we talk about doing a free trade deal with India. It has only nine free trade deals around the world and not one is with a western country, let alone one with a hostile immigration policy.
We have benefited from being in the EU. We have had our cake and eaten it too. We have not been in the euro or in Schengen. Every analysis shows that by remaining in the European Union we would be far better off economically and in every respect—for example, in having access to people, with our 4% unemployment rate and labour shortage.
If we are putting our nation first, why are we forcing ourselves to implement Brexit, when we know that it will be worse for our country and the world says it will be worse for our country? People are much more informed than they were. We now know the reality of the ideological, utopian, crash-out-on-WTO-rules world of the Brexiteers, let alone the false promises made during the referendum. The polls consistently show that the people want a say and would vote to remain. You can fool all the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time.
The European Court has said that we can unilaterally withdraw from Article 50. That would be the fairest, most democratic thing to do, particularly for our youth, over 2 million of whom were not old enough to vote two years ago. The vast majority want to remain, including two of my children. We cannot deprive them of their future. It would be the fairest and most democratic thing to do, and the youth will turn out. This time it will be a vote not of 17.4 million but of more than 20 million. We need to take back control and I want my country back.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. I would like to support this withdrawal agreement and political declaration, and I would like to support our brave, determined and dedicated Prime Minister, who has worked so hard to try to deliver the promises of the leave campaign, but in all good conscience I am afraid that I cannot do so.
I have agonised over this and respect colleagues who are so frightened by the outrageous threats of no deal that they will support the proposals, despite believing that they will damage our country, but I am convinced that this would not be in the national interest. It is truly alarming to witness the peddling of fantasies and misrepresentation of reality that have permeated our political discourse. I will support the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and that will be consistent with every vote that I have registered in the whole Brexit debate.
The red lines of leaving the customs union, single market and ECJ jurisdiction are totally incompatible with the Good Friday agreement unless we impose a border in the Irish Sea that disunites our United Kingdom. That is what the backstop is about. Ending free movement and being able to agree new trade deals outwith the EU are incompatible with protecting our integrated supply chains, manufacturing jobs and services sector. These are real-world realities not explained to the country at the time of the referendum or the previous election.
We are here today because 17.4 million British people —37% of the 2016 voter base—voted to leave the EU. Parliament was apparently instructed by this advisory referendum to obey its result come what may. We are asked to believe that the instructions given to Parliament by these 17.4 million citizens, out of a population of 67 million, on the basis of promises that cannot and will not be delivered, justify depriving 50 million fellow countrymen of their EU rights and citizenship. Working in pensions, I have seen many examples of mis-selling in my lifetime but never have I seen the scale of deliberate deception that has come to light in connection with the 2016 referendum.
If you make a decision to buy a pension on the basis of a false prospectus, you have the right to change your mind or to be compensated. Yet those who are shown to have been wrong on all the claims they have made about Brexit so far are allowed to peddle more myths today, such as that leaving with no deal is perfectly okay. It is not okay. It is just another Brexit falsehood. Yes, Parliament has a duty to honour the will of the British people, but how many of those 17.4 million would have voted for the negotiated terms if they had known what Brexit would truly entail? We do not know.
We are told the 2016 referendum was the biggest exercise in democracy this country has ever seen. I cannot agree with that. Actually, it was a masterly display of political spin and mendacity. Leaving aside the financial irregularities, fraudulent use of large companies’ logos implying they supported leave, and false claims that Turkey and even Iraq and Syria would soon join the EU, voters were also misled into believing the EU was the cause of our country’s problems and that leaving would make us wealthier, improve our free trade and provide all the benefits of membership without the burdens or costs.
Many people were encouraged to vote for the first time in their lives in 2016; we are told that failing to obey their instructions would be a betrayal of democracy. Really? Any voter who believes that our democracy is about ordering MPs to do what people demanded on a past date, regardless of changed circumstances or negative consequences, is surely misrepresenting democracy. Voters who believed the campaign promises and then find out they were deceived are hardly going to have faith in our democracy. I believe our representative parliamentary democracy is far more threatened by ploughing ahead on the basis of this agreement or no deal at all.
Yes, we must respect the referendum, but we have honoured the result. Anyone who disputes that has not been paying attention for the last two years. We have triggered Article 50, passed legislation to permit withdrawal and negotiated for over 1,000 hours to find ways to achieve an exit from the EU that will satisfy the British people. But the outcome is nothing like the promises they voted for. All the focus is on the 17.4 million leave voters, not the 16.1 million remainers or 13.5 million non-voters. Given the deliberate misrepresentation, outright deception and false promises, coupled with the flawed remain campaign, can Members of Parliament, hand on heart, know whether this withdrawal agreement or no deal reflect the wishes of the majority now?
How many believed leaving would make the country richer? The Government’s own figures show that even the withdrawal agreement will not do so, never mind no deal. How many were just protesting against the establishment and trying to make their voices heard because they are dissatisfied with the Government and feel left behind? Which of the problems facing our country, which leavers may have been complaining about, will Brexit and this withdrawal agreement solve? Will they solve lack of infrastructure investment, the housing crisis, education standards, the need to improve productivity or the social care crisis? EU membership has not stopped us addressing all these burning problems but leaving would make them all worse.
There is so much Alice-in-Wonderland thinking permeating this debate. Sovereignty, self-determination and freedom do not require isolating ourselves and withdrawing from international partnerships, which help bridge differences. Indeed, I fear that history may well conclude that never has so much harm been caused to so many by so few, and that we sacrificed their tomorrow for our today.
My Lords, despite everything, our final Brexit destination remains a mystery—and, faced with a mystery, I am happy to take the suggestion made on Thursday to take the advice of that master of mystery, Sherlock Holmes:
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
So let us try it. In the House of Commons there is a significant majority against the Brexit deal on offer. It looks like an impossible objective. Since the EU refuses to substantially alter the deal, it will remain an impossibility. It is impossible, geographically and physically, to wish away the land border across Ireland between the UK and the EU. In Parliament, there is also a significant parliamentary majority against no deal—another impossibility. Canada-plus has died a death and it is impossible to see how the PM could accept a Norway-style deal, which would encompass the free movement which she has sworn to oppose, and would leave us with no voice, no vote and no veto over EU decisions that would crucially affect us. When we have dismissed or ruled out all the impossibles, the only sensible course of action is to put the issue back to the people. If, as the Government say, the deal before us really is the best and only Brexit deal possible, the people should be asked whether this Brexit deal is acceptable to them—or whether, given all that we now know, they wish to remain in the EU.
I say “all that we now know” because it will be obvious to all noble Lords that the consequences of the 2016 referendum were known to very few at the time of that decision. Over the past few months alone, a vast amount of legal, economic and constitutional information has been released to Parliament. Why? Because parliamentarians rightly insisted that they would not be capable of making a meaningful and informed decision in the absence of that information. Yet none of this information was made available to the public at the time when they were asked to make a decision. Of course, it may have made no difference—but the only way to find out is to ask them.
I have heard the arguments against having a reconsultation. It will be obvious to this House that I have never accepted them, any more than I would accept an argument against frequent general elections. One of these was of course announced by the now Prime Minister, and the period between that general election and the previous one was shorter than the period we have had since the referendum. I have been strengthened in my view by the Prime Minister, who in her speech today adduced the closely fought and closely decided Welsh referendum as evidence of the principle that you cannot oppose a referendum decision. She said that proved how a referendum had to be accepted by everyone in Parliament—except that it was not.
Following the Welsh referendum, the Conservative Party argued vehemently against the creation of the Assembly. Among the hundreds of MPs voting against the then Labour Government and the Government of Wales Bill in 1997 was the fresh-faced, newly elected MP for Maidenhead, Theresa May. Indeed, as late as 2005, the Conservative Party manifesto promised a second referendum on the Welsh Assembly—a people’s vote, if you will—which now seems to be wrong on principle. That was on whether to scrap the Assembly—which is all a bit awkward for those arguing on principle, as the noble Lord, Lord Lang, did today, that you can never have a reconsultation on a referendum.
I do not know what the final vote in a referendum might be—but whatever the result, it would not be sufficient without addressing the underlying perceptions which helped drive the result of the initial referendum. Austerity has been mentioned today, but I want to mention a word people are reticent about mentioning—immigration—and in particular the perception that, whatever the benefits of free movement, it contributes to a misuse of the benefits system by those arriving, and the deterioration of people’s access to public services. The tragedy is that both of these could be quite easily addressed by the Government.
First, it is perfectly possible, even under existing EU regulations, to ensure that those who come here have to take gainful employment within a reasonable time, or leave. In short: no job, no stay. Secondly, we need a more proportionate distribution of public funds directed towards areas of high immigrant populations, to offset the increased demand for public services that comes in the wake of high immigration.
Whatever the result of a people’s vote, it should be made clear that both these measures will be implemented. If MPs cannot agree, let the people decide. A people’s vote, with policies to address people’s concerns, offers the only potential way out of the terrible mess in which the country finds itself.
My Lords, in the two and a half years since the referendum, debate has continued on the relative merits of possible withdrawal options. That we are still debating these derives from the huge complexity of Brexit, driven in part by the triggering of Article 50 too early, and the Prime Minister’s decision to define unhelpful red lines equally early.
People did not vote in the referendum to become poorer. Nor can it be concluded that because a majority voted to leave the EU, those voting to do so wanted a hard Brexit or no deal. They were repeatedly told that they could have a soft Brexit, and many voted for just that. The result of that referendum was that advice was given to Parliament to negotiate a withdrawal. That advice was for Parliament, not just the Executive. It is, therefore, within the right of MPs to take greater control of the process. They were, after all, elected in 2017, a year after the referendum was held—so they do have that right.
Just before the Christmas Recess, the Government published their immigration White Paper. This is the much-delayed White Paper which was supposedly going to explain how the Government plan to bring down net immigration to the low levels promised by the Prime Minister in response to the referendum result. Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, pointed out in this Chamber at the time,
“far from reducing immigration, it is very likely that it will actually increase net migration, and might increase it considerably”.—[Official Report, 19/12/18; col. 1867.]
It seems that reality has dawned on the Government. The need for immigration to this country simply reflects the economic reality of the world we live in. Immigration has driven much of UK growth in recent years, and through that, growth in tax revenues for public spending. We cannot have a strong, entrepreneurial economy, should Brexit go ahead, without immigration and large numbers of international students in our universities.
Then there is the construction industry. The Federation of Master Builders has said that the Government will fail to deliver their commitment to building 300,000 homes per year unless the White Paper is substantially rewritten. While I am at one with those who say that we must invest far more in the training of British workers, rather than simply relying on a labour force from outside the UK, I also acknowledge the economic reality that retirements within the construction industry are significantly outstripping the number of new apprenticeships. If we are to build the homes the country so urgently needs we have to have the labour force to do it.
I will comment briefly on the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the north-east of England, where I live. At the end of November, the Government admitted that the north-east of England will be poorer because of Brexit. With no deal, the economy would be 10% smaller than it would have been. With the deal proposed, growth would be 2% lower. But, for me, the critical issue remains as it was in 2016, relating to the future willingness of overseas investors to invest their money in regions of England—or, indeed, across the whole of the UK—when we are outside the single market. When overseas investors can invest outside the UK to stay inside the single market, why would they choose to be inside the United Kingdom? I have come to the conclusion that a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic. We know what the Japanese Government’s advice has been in recent days. We know of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ warnings in recent weeks.
Then there are the universities. Universities in the north-east of England attract large numbers of EU students, yet the number of EU students registering now seems to be declining across the United Kingdom. Then there is the impact on world-leading research in our universities, often the result of collaboration and partnership across the EU. We must not lose access to this funding. It helps regional economies, as does the £400 million that the north-east of England is receiving in the current period from EU structural funding, for which there are no guarantees of continuation after 2020. Given that 57% of north-east trade goes to the EU compared with only 40% nationally, and given that 140,000 north-east jobs are reliant on EU trade, it matters to the region that we stay in the single market and the customs union—the frictionless trading structure we were promised and need.
The World Bank has warned that no deal would be a risk to economies across the world. The Bank of England has warned that no deal would lead to the worst crash in the UK since the 1930s. Should we believe gung-ho Brexiters who believe that leaving the EU will be easy, or should we listen to the director-general of the CBI, who said in Bristol last week:
“Make no mistake, no-deal cannot be ‘managed’”?
I choose the advice of the CBI.
We might find this week that the House of Commons has no majority for any of the options in front of it. I conclude that that means we should seek to extend Article 50 as a matter of urgency and that we will need a people’s vote, because parliamentary gridlock will have to be overcome.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. I have spent about 25 years of my life involved one way or another with the UK’s membership of and participation in the European Union. I have always believed that Europe is better off with the European Union than without it—think just of 1870, 1914 and 1940—and that both the European Union and the United Kingdom have benefited hugely from our membership. That is why I voted to remain.
The EU is, of course, imperfect. Relations within it are often fraught, as now, with immensely difficult issues of migration, the eurozone and the politics of its eastern European members. But all that has always seemed a reason why we should have the confidence to use our influence to help mould the European Union, as I believe we have over the years under successive Prime Ministers since Margaret Thatcher, so that it reflects and promotes our own interests. But we are where we are, or as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said on the day after the referendum, “We are where we are but no one has the faintest idea where that is”, which is, alas, truer now than ever.
The present draft withdrawal agreement is imperfect, but it is not likely to be changed. The political declaration on the UK’s future relationship with the EU was never going to be much more than an annotated agenda for future negotiations, which will be long drawn-out, difficult and held with a new Commission, a new European Parliament and leaders of member states whose attention will be elsewhere. This is not an attractive prospect.
Even less attractive is leaving without a deal, which is surely far too risky to contemplate, as many have argued cogently and, in my view, rightly in this debate. The debate and vote that matters is in the House of Commons tomorrow. If the Commons cannot agree on the Prime Minister’s proposed agreement and cannot agree on another course either, I agree strongly with the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, that the right course would be to postpone the 29 March departure date to give the Government and the European Union more time. If that is not possible, the best option would be to have another referendum, although I do not say that with any huge enthusiasm.
Finally, I will say a word about Ireland in the light of recent visits as part of your Lordships’ European Union Committee to Dublin, Belfast, Derry/Londonderry and the border. Paragraph 11 of the Government’s recent paper on Ireland says:
“Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with a land border with an EU Member State, and the free and unfettered movement of goods and people across that border is vital to the lives and livelihoods of the people on both sides of the border”.
I agree entirely, and I applaud the Prime Minister’s determination to ensure that that unfettered movement continues. I hope that her ambition will not in any way be whittled away. I applaud too the Prime Minister’s continuing commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, which has, over 20 years, led progressively to what those of us in the rest of the United Kingdom would regard as a normal life. But what worries me greatly in this ghastly Brexit saga is the deteriorating relationship between London and Dublin. I would be very grateful if the Minister, in replying to the debate, gave an absolute assurance that a continuing, constructive and close relationship with the Irish Government remains as important now and for the future, whatever it holds, as it has for the last 20 years.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Jay. I put him in the mandarin class in your Lordships’ House—the number of your Lordships who seem to have been particularly traumatised by the decision of the British people to leave the EU. The mandarin class, of course, are people who have decided to spend a career in politics but not actually seek election. This gives them rather a different view about democratic votes from those of us who have. When I put this point to the noble Lord, Lord Butler, before Christmas he said that he thought the people should have the opportunity to vote again. On that basis, we could take a general election and produce all the same ridiculous arguments that people have been fed duff information and were too ignorant to understand the issues at stake, and therefore that general election should be held again. We trifle at our peril with democracy if we start saying that a referendum of this size—it was, let us face it, a very large turnout—should be overridden by a different decision.
My noble friend Lord Patten and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, made the point that the country is very divided on this issue. I do not think we should get too excited. We are in the Westminster bubble here. Even if you walk just outside this building, you find people with placards protesting and waving flags. Some are determined that we should stay in the EU and others are grimly determined that we should get out. They stand next door to each other. There is a picture of a man from the remain side kissing a woman from the Brexit side standing outside Parliament.
So how divided are we? I suspect we would be much more divided if a second referendum were held. The decision would be reversed and a very large number of the people who voted to leave the EU would feel that Parliament had betrayed them, and would be given no option but to take to the streets because they could not look to Parliament to look after their interests anymore. When I mentioned this earlier, my noble friend Lord Patten said I was recommending civil disorder. I am not recommending it, but I suspect you might get it because this is a problem. If Parliament does not deliver what it is about to do—and what the people have decided it should do—of course people will look to operate outside Parliament if they do not think their Members of Parliament can represent them properly.
We are now in a ridiculous situation where these negotiations have been incredibly badly handled by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, mentioned sequencing, which is a nice way of saying: why on earth did we allow the EU to make the Irish border item one on the agenda? As the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, has said, nobody in Ireland thinks there should be a border between north and south. He said that the position of the Taoiseach was somewhat ambivalent, but the latest thing I have heard from him is that he does not want a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland either. The Northern Irish do not want it, the southern Irish do not want it, the British do not want it, and even the EU has said it does not want it. I do not quite see who is going to put this hard border in, and cannot understand why we have spent so much time talking about it when it is something that would fall out of a free trade deal anyway.
The position we are now in is extraordinary. We have this absurd backstop that has been imposed on us by the EU and, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said, any guarantees on the backstop that we have been given by the EU are not really worth the paper they are written on. At the end of the day, they want us to stay in the EU, so why should we trust them not to hold us in there?
On a purely party-political point, reference has been made to the fact that the implementation period may go on until 2022. That happens to be when we will hold the next general election. If we are still half in the EU, still trapped in a customs union, what chance does my party have of winning an election, when Nigel Farage will undoubtedly set up another party to campaign against us in marginal seats? He will guarantee our defeat.
Yes, I am sure it will give enormous pleasure to the Liberal Democrats—although I am not sure they will benefit from it—but the fact is, he will. That is one reason why so many in my party in another place think that this deal is absolutely terrible and should be voted down.
That then leaves us with no deal, which is the default option. I am rather grateful that we have explored the possibility of no deal so much, because it is not really half as bad as everybody says. There has, however, been an awful lot of talk about crashing out. I quote my noble friend Lord Lilley, who says that what we will be doing is cashing in. That is the moment at which we will stop paying anything to the EU. We may have obligations, but they will certainly not be as massive as £39 billion. That will help to ease the passage of no deal, and make sure it is not as traumatic as so many people like to make it out to be.
My Lords, I rise to express my strong support for the Motion in the name of my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon. In doing so, venturing perhaps where angels fear to tread, I will concentrate on its affirmation of the House of Commons’ primacy in determining the matter—and, with that, as my noble friend said in her opening remarks, its right and responsibility to,
“find a way through the current impasse”.—[Official Report, 9/1/19; col. 2228.]
First, on the deal itself, it has been argued that, as it is disliked by almost everyone, this is the result and nature of compromise. Like, I suspect, many of your Lordships, I have voted for the triggering of Article 50 and the withdrawal Act in the expectation that any agreement emerging from the Government’s negotiations would inevitably require significant compromise on all sides, given the multiple contradictions in, particularly, the Government’s original objectives. The breadth of dislike, however, is not itself an indication that it is a good compromise—precisely the opposite. The question is: could there be a better compromise?
Over recent weeks, admiration has also been expressed for the resilience and persistence shown by the Prime Minister in delivering an agreement of any sort while responding to the countless ministerial resignations and challenges to her position. I am sorry to say that my conclusion is that Mrs May is to Prime Ministers what Eddie the Eagle was to Olympic ski jumpers: respected for courage and determination, but a loner who either goes tumbling into a snowdrift or finishes 90 metres behind the other competitors.
It is an extraordinary achievement to have failed so comprehensively to build any form of consensus or co-operation across the parties, particularly when the policy of the Labour Party, succinctly summarised by my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham, hardly presents a yawning chasm to bridge. Would a permanent customs union be a better compromise than what is envisaged by the Government? Yes, without a doubt. Would the adoption of an EEA, EFTA, Norway-plus-based arrangement be better still? Yes, absolutely—without underestimating the challenge of inspiring the necessary degree of confidence in the country at large that, in particular, their reasonable concerns about immigration can be addressed by the safeguarding measures in the EEA agreement. Strong and specific national measures are also needed, such as a migration impacts fund, which was abolished by the coalition Government at a substantially higher level than the Labour Government set it up for in 2009.
The rising cross-party level of support for Norway-plus in the House of Commons, as well as the support for it from prominent Brexiters such as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, is perhaps a cause for cautious optimism. The Members of the House of Commons will of course come to their own conclusions, with your Lordships’—I hope—friendly counsel. How then, can they,
“find a way through the current impasse”?—[Official Report, 9/1/19; col. 2228.]
Even that professional fantasist Dr Fox is predicting that the Government will lose tomorrow’s vote. The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, suggested on Wednesday that the Government should make the vote one of confidence, as did the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. Since his long and distinguished career in the House of Commons, the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act has made that impossible. But he is right: morally, it is a matter of confidence, so I very much hope that my right honourable friend the leader of the Opposition will table an immediate vote of no confidence.
Who knows what the result would be? I am not sure that the confident predictions that Mrs May would survive would necessarily prove correct. Do I believe that a general election would, even with an extension of Article 50, be helpful in resolving the Brexit stalemate? That is far from certain. But under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a general election is called only if no other Government has been formed within 14 days who have been able to win a positive vote of confidence. Surely that is how the House of Commons can best and most effectively assert control. Not by setting up a parallel phantom Government, but by giving its clear support for a defined period to a Government—whether a formal coalition or a minority one—that can take the existing withdrawal agreement and both modify the political declaration, to customs union or Norway-plus, and introduce a cross-party political process for its subsequent implementation.
I recognise that while it is easy to advocate this from the safety and tranquillity of this House, this is a big ask for the Members of the House of Commons. But if they are unable to seize that sort of opportunity, the alternative would inevitability be a general election, and in all probability a referendum after that.
My Lords, I have listened to many of the speakers during the course of this debate, both in December and last week, and what appears to stand out most clearly is that we are facing an unprecedented challenge. The Cabinet has been divided, Parliament is divided and the people are divided. Despite all the efforts made by our Prime Minister—for whom I have some sympathy, as she was given an impossible task—she has not been able to achieve a withdrawal agreement which has, on the face of it, enough support to get it through this Parliament. This leads me to ask: why are we in this situation?
From the beginning, there have been errors. Initially, the previous Prime Minister and his Government made a serious error in calling the referendum without first fully informing the country about the pros and cons of remaining in or leaving the EU. To avoid the problems we now face, he should have ensured that a condition was in place for the referendum result; for example, a 60% threshold. Then, once the referendum process was under way, many leave campaigners misled the public with gross omissions or distortions of fact. Further, as we all know, once they had won, the main proponents of leave—who had promised the earth, including that we will take control of immigration and our borders, and put £350 million into the NHS every week—did not take their promises forward. Perhaps the biggest error was not to have formed a cross-party consensus for the kind of withdrawal agreement and future relationship that Parliament could support before sending our negotiators to Brussels.
We are now in a serious situation and our leaders must recognise that this is a national crisis. The economy is at risk, which means that people’s livelihoods are at risk. It is time for straightforward common sense to prevail. Members of Parliament must put aside any differences and not pursue their own political agendas. Instead, they must act in the national interest alone. Those saying that the Prime Minister’s deal is not a good deal have offered no better alternative and are being unfair to those doing their best to meet this challenge. As it stands at this juncture, with no time left to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement to replace the current one on offer, and with the reality that, as my noble and learned friend Lord Hope emphasised last week, on 29 March the EU treaties will cease to apply to the United Kingdom, the only realistic options are either to accept the Prime Minister’s deal or to quickly extend Article 50 to gain more time.
The Prime Minister’s deal may not be perfect but, given where we are at this point, I think we should accept it and deliver certainty and clarity for citizens, businesses, employers and employees. I echo what my noble and learned friend Lord Hope said—that the current deal is not the end of the story; it is only an agreement for the withdrawal and implementation period, not our final future agreement with the EU. That agreement will be dealt with in the two years after 29 March, but only if we have a withdrawal agreement in place on that date, which I sincerely hope will happen. I urge my colleagues to do the right thing for the country.
My Lords, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU said at the weekend:
“For the sake of our democracy, we cannot let slip the prize of Brexit”.
I agree, which is why, tomorrow, I hope MPs will disown this democracy-eroding deal.
This deal is not in the national interest. The only thing national about the farcical situation of abject surrender that we are in is that it is a national disgrace. What is wrong with us that we should talk ourselves down so much? Barack Obama won two terms as President with the inspirational campaign cry, “Yes, we can”, while here in Britain, all that our establishment seems inclined to shout is, “No, we can’t!” What sort of message is that to send to the bullies of Brussels or, indeed, the people? How the Eurocrats must delight in our defeatism—a defeatism shrouded in doublespeak which should fool no one. Under this deal we are not leaving. Some may dream of the headline “We’ve sealed the deal”, but the only thing this deal would seal is the fate of our democracy.
The obvious appeal, to some, of the radical Italian parties led by their deputy Prime Ministers and the violent French “yellow vests” protest movement is surely symptomatic of a deepening and dangerous disaffection with democracy. Is there not a lesson to be learned from the democratic disarray in Italy, France and now Germany, where, unbelievably, as my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater told us, we are witnessing a neo-Nazi renaissance with the breakaway of an even more extreme splinter of the far-right AfD? The tectonic plates are shifting on mainland Europe because more and more voters doubt the ability, even the desire, of their political elites to honour their word and to implement policy commitments, on the very basis of which the people entrusted them with power. Yet our political elite—our establishment—behaves as if this simple, obvious rule somehow does not apply to them.
The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU argues that this deal delivers on Brexit. I beg to differ. This deal fails to deliver on Brexit, for reasons rehearsed ad nauseam in both this House and the other place. To quote his immediate predecessor, Dominic Raab, this deal would keep us locked into swathes of EU laws without any democratic say, threaten the integrity of the UK and prevent us from pursuing an independent trade policy. It suffocates the opportunities that Brexit offers. It does all that and more because, should it ever become a binding international treaty, I fear it would also mark the end for our democracy. Our democracy’s very viability and its durability depend on people’s trust being honoured. So Mr Raab’s successor as Secretary of State is surely absolutely right to say that the stakes could not be higher. And the Prime Minister knows that because she refers to,
“a catastrophic and unforgivable breach of trust in our democracy”,
if the UK remains in the EU. That is exactly so. As the journalist Janet Daley wrote in early December, ultimately,
“pernicious mistrust will be … corrosive to faith in democracy”.
I wonder if the battle has become so intense that we have lost sight of what we all want more than anything else—surely that is a stronger democracy, to enhance rather than diminish government’s accountability to the people. So I agree with my noble friend Lord Cavendish of Furness that we need to be open to the option of a clean break on WTO terms. As someone who has had more than 50 breaks, I think I can claim to speak with some authority when I say that a clean break is better than an awkward break. A clean break would not only bring accountability home and strengthen democracy, it would also heal our divisions, far better than this deal, a second referendum or a Norway-style deal, all of which would only perpetuate Brexit and thus prolong the agony, possibly indefinitely. Of course, exiting on WTO terms would not be the end; it would be the means to an end—a negotiated deal on better terms.
In conclusion, we should surely be saying to Brussels, “Yes, we can”, instead of supporting this defeatist deal which would do incalculable harm to our democracy. That is why I urge colleagues in the other place to disown this deal tomorrow, show that they respect the people’s vote of 2016 and strengthen democracy.