Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of further developments in discussions with the European Union under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.
My Lords, this debate allows us the opportunity to debate further the discussions with the European Union under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. This House has played a significant role in shaping the process for the UK’s exit from the EU and will continue to do so. The number of speakers on the list is testament once again to the extensive knowledge and experience this House has to contribute. The debate provides a significant opportunity to inform the debate ahead of the meaningful vote in the other place tomorrow.
The Prime Minister has long said that it is in the interests of both sides—the UK and the EU—to leave with a deal. That is what we have been striving to achieve. This afternoon in the other place, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, the Member for Worcester, will set out the latest position in response to an Urgent Question from the leader of the Opposition. Following the meaningful vote in January, the Government have worked hard to secure the reassurances the other place required. As well as changes to the backstop, we have been working on a number of areas to secure support for the withdrawal agreement.
As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said, she, alongside my right honourable friends the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and the Attorney-General, and other Cabinet colleagues, has been working hard to find a solution to the backstop to ensure that it cannot be indefinite. The discussions with the EU are ongoing as I speak and I am sure that noble Lords will understand that I cannot go into the detail while these sensitive discussions are continuing at this time; nor, of course, would I want to comment on the huge amount of speculation and hypotheticals that are currently doing the rounds on social media. As soon as there is a conclusion to the negotiations, we will ensure that Parliament is updated at the earliest possible opportunity.
Over the past few days the Prime Minister has been speaking to fellow leaders. Yesterday evening she spoke to President Juncker by phone. The teams are continuing to talk throughout today. It remains our intention that the meaningful vote will take place in the other place tomorrow, Tuesday 12 March, and that the Motion will be tabled ahead of the debate. The other place will have the option to back the Brexit deal or to risk a delay that would mean months more of arguing about Brexit, prolonging the current uncertainty. It is important that we deliver on the result of the referendum and deliver this deal that works for the whole of the United Kingdom. However, the Prime Minister remains committed to the Statement that she made to the other place with regard to the votes that would follow, should the other place not support the deal tomorrow.
The Government remain committed to delivering a smooth and orderly exit from the EU and continue to progress with extensive work to put in place much of the legislation, both primary and secondary, required for our exit from the EU. Noble Lords are playing a crucial role in ensuring that the statute book is ready for exit day, including by providing appropriate scrutiny to legislation. It would be wrong of me to discuss legislation without paying tribute once more to the work of the Select Committees of the House, whose reports, insight and expertise have been most valuable at every step of the process since the result of the June 2016 referendum. In particular, I am grateful to the chairs of the scrutiny committees, the noble Lords, Lord Trefgarne and Lord Cunningham, for their extensive work. Their reports have been excellent. They have made effective use of the temporary additional resources the House wisely gave them for this task, and we all remain in their debt.
As part of our preparations for exit day, the Government are working hard to ensure that the necessary SIs are in place ahead of exit day. Many of these ensure that on exit day there is continuity for citizens and businesses. I am aware that noble Lords have asked about SIs in different exit scenarios. I can confirm that should we no longer require certain SIs after exit day if a deal is secured, the EU withdrawal agreement Bill—WAB—will make provision to defer the SIs that are not required at exit day. We expect that this would be until the end of the implementation period. For the information of noble Lords, as of today, we have laid 497 and completed 312 of the SIs required before exit day.
It would be most unprecedented to have a debate in this Chamber on the UK’s exit from the EU without the question of a second referendum arising at some point. Let me say for the avoidance of any doubt that the Government’s position has not changed and we are not considering a second referendum. The referendum in 2016 was the biggest democratic exercise in our history and the Prime Minister has been clear that the will of the British people must be respected and delivered.
Noble Lords often laugh when I say this, but once again I greatly look forward to hearing the contributions of the many noble Lords signed up to speak today. The rest of the week will no doubt see this matter develop further in the House of Commons. That does not mean that this House does not have a role and, at the risk of repetition, I think that today’s debate gives us all a valuable opportunity to take further stock. My noble and learned friend Lord Keen stands ready, as ever, to address any key points that are raised during the debate when he closes later on. I beg to move.
My Lords, there are two preliminary issues. First, why am I standing here? The answer is that because we were promised some legal changes to the withdrawal agreement. We have seen in the newspapers stories about the peregrinations of Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox going to Brussels and putting forward new texts, and we were going to see what the result of that was. It was thought that, as we were expecting such a text, it might be useful to noble Lords if a lawyer was here to respond, but there is nothing.
That leads to the second question which your Lordships may be considering. What are we actually debating today? I think the answer is that it is the same 611 pages that we debated the last time we had a debate: the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. At the moment, there is not a single word changed. That is the issue before your Lordships today.
Can we expect a deus ex machina during this debate? There are rumours that the Prime Minister is in the air heading to Strasbourg. That comes from the Irish, so whether it is true is yet to be confirmed—no doubt the Minister will confirm it.
Let me be clear: that is not an attack on the Irish—quite the contrary. It is just that the Government have not yet confirmed where the Prime Minister is going—at least, not before I entered the Chamber. Before noble Lords get the wrong idea, when I said “deus ex machina” that was not intended as a compliment to the Prime Minister. The idea of a messenger arriving during a debate is one to which I will return. Of course, noble Lords have been in the position we are in today at least once before. When noble Lords came to debate the terms of the withdrawal agreement on 10 December, the debate was pulled because there had not been the movement the Government were hoping for so that there could be a more productive debate.
Noble Lords might recall that the theatre critic Vivian Mercer famously wrote of Beckett’s two-act play “Waiting for Godot” that, “nothing happens, twice”. Change the name of the principal from Godot to Cox and we could perhaps have a good depiction of what this House and the other place have been enduring. We are still waiting for this change, and the Prime Minister made it clear in a Statement to the other House on 29 January that what would be agreed would,
“involve reopening the withdrawal agreement”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/1/19; col. 678.]
It has been common ground that there needs to be something legally binding to change the status of the withdrawal agreement as it is at the moment. By the way, I add a little poignant note that the theatre review I referred to was published in the Irish Times.
This idea of the theatre of the absurd is not without parallel. The absurdity of where we are at the moment was given a little additional twist when, answering questions in the other place, the learned Attorney-General said that the subject of the discussions he had been having had,
“come to be called ‘Cox’s codpiece’”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/3/19; col. 1109.]
I prefer not to understand what imagery was intended by that phrase—better not to ask. The fact is that noble Lords have nothing but the existing text to debate today.
When the Minister comes to reply, will he be able to tell us whether it is correct that the negotiations involving Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox have stalled and that nothing more will come of that? Will it be the case, as some have suggested, that tomorrow the other place will be expected to look at potential words that might be put to the European Union? In that case, we all need advance sight of those words. Neither the other place nor we can express an opinion on what the effect of those words would be unless we have seen them in advance. I hope it will not be right at the 11th hour. I think the Minister has confirmed—it was a question many were considering—that the meaningful vote will in fact take place in the other place tomorrow. That is good to know. I understood him to say—but will he or his noble and learned colleague please confirm—that the other votes promised by the Prime Minister for Wednesday and Thursday, subject to the votes tomorrow, will go ahead as planned? I see the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, nodding his agreement, and I am grateful for that.
Given that there is so little substance to deal with at the moment, and that we hope to have the opportunity of dealing with it when we actually see what changes there are, I will go back to the theatrical analogy I was drawing before. Noble Lords may also recall that in the play I mentioned, “Waiting for Godot”, the character Boy—who is some sort of messenger, apparently from Godot—enters to inform the two principal characters, Vladimir and Estragon, that Godot could not come that evening but would come tomorrow, “without fail”. When the Minister comes to answer, will he tell us that we will see the new agreement tomorrow, without fail?
My Lords, the reason given for having the debate today—the 12th on the Government’s withdrawal agreement with the EU and the political declaration—was so that we could debate the proposal that the Government were putting to a meaningful vote in the Commons tomorrow and express a view on it. We are all too well aware that the views of this House are now not pivotal to the Brexit process. But, under the terms of the withdrawal Act, we are given a minor role: that of debating what is proposed—and that is what we were hoping to do today.
The plan was that the Prime Minister would make a Statement at the start of business in the Commons this afternoon, setting out the basis on which she was asking the House to reverse its decision to reject the Government’s agreement and, if successful, to proceed to exit the EU on 29 March. For this to happen, the Government were to secure changes to the Irish backstop that would make it palatable to the DUP and a large number of otherwise dissident Tory Back-Benchers. Having failed to make any progress whatever in achieving a breakthrough on this, and facing another overwhelming defeat tomorrow, the Prime Minister is allegedly travelling to Strasbourg this evening to try to make more progress in an evening than a bevy of officials and Ministers—with or without a codpiece—has achieved in recent weeks.
Whatever the Prime Minister’s chance of success this evening, this sequence of events renders today’s debate almost totally pointless, as we have absolutely nothing new from the Government on which we can express a view. Indeed, were it not for the fact that some 40 of your Lordships have spent part of the weekend labouring over their speeches, I would be arguing that this debate should be scrapped—if only to spare Ministers the hideous ordeal of trying to explain what is going on and hearing 17 speeches from their own Back-Benchers, no doubt expressing 17 versions of what the future should look like.
However, as we are going on with the debate, I wonder whether the Minister could answer a couple of questions. First, is it true that the Prime Minister is going to Strasbourg this evening? Secondly, if she is, what is she taking with her that is new? Thirdly, if she is going and taking with her something new, on what basis does she believe she will have more success this time than on all the previous visits to Strasbourg and Brussels by officials over recent weeks?
Fourthly, by what mechanism do the Government believe the EU could express a definitive opinion on any new proposals before the planned debate in the Commons tomorrow? Fifthly, if the Prime Minister means there to be a meaningful vote tomorrow, how can it be achieved given that, presumably, no government Motion can be tabled tonight in advance of any talks taking place in Strasbourg on which a meaningful vote can be taken? Sixthly, if, by some procedural sleight of hand there were to be a meaningful vote tomorrow, this could be done on a Motion that had been before the Commons for only a few hours at most. Given that this is the most important decision MPs will be asked to make in their lifetime, how can this be seen as anything other than an extraordinary abuse of process by the Government?
Seventhly, we believe that the Government may have the meaningful vote tomorrow. However, if the EU states that it wants to take a decision tomorrow or later in the week in response to this unknown proposal that the Prime Minister might be taking forward, when might we then have a vote?
Over recent months, we have seen the Prime Minister repeatedly rebuffed by both Parliament and the EU. We have marvelled at her resilience. But this failure to make progress, coupled with her complete unwillingness to confront the facts, means that the Prime Minister really has now run out of road. Imagine if she were a chief executive due to make a major presentation to the board, and she said on the eve of the board meeting, “I’m sorry, there are no papers for this board meeting because my original business plan has failed. I’m hoping to amend it. I’m talking to my major customers overnight. I’m not sure whether I will be able to amend it, but, given that my sales directors failed to get them to agree to anything different, the likelihood is that I will fail to amend it. I hope you will still come to the board meeting tomorrow in the vague hope that you might have a proposal in front of you”. What would people say of such a chief executive? They would not still be there the day after tomorrow. But that is the position we find ourselves in with the Prime Minister.
As for the rest of the Cabinet, they are like sheep without a sheep-dog. We are told now that only two of them actually support the Prime Minister, and one of them is Mr Grayling. That is not wholly reassuring. It has to stop. The Commons must take control of this process and the affairs of the country, because the Government have lost control of them. There must be a meaningful vote tomorrow and then, on the reasonable assumption that the Government will not prevail, on Wednesday as planned there should be a vote to reject leaving the EU without a deal, followed by a vote to extend the Article 50 period, as the Prime Minister promised.
However, this is not enough. If the Prime Minister is forced to go back to the EU and ask for an extension, it will understandably ask, “For what purpose?”. There can be only one sensible purpose, which is to give the people the opportunity to stop this whole self-damaging spectacle in a referendum.
The noble Lord has been very frank about that. The purpose of having a people’s vote, as he describes it, is nothing to do with consulting the people as far as he is concerned; it is to reverse the decision of the people. The noble Lord and all his colleagues—I will give them this credit—have been absolutely committed from the day of the referendum result in 2016 to reversing it. Should there be a people’s vote and should the people decide, as I believe they would, to reaffirm their previous decision to leave the European Union, what confidence can I or anyone else have that he and his colleagues here will walk through the Lobbies with enthusiasm—because this House would have to confirm that vote, as would the other—to implement that decision to leave?
My Lords, every time I make this speech, the noble Lord stands up and asks me the same question.
I do not.
He does. He may not have been listening, but I have said that, if the people decided in a further referendum that they wished to leave the EU, we would respect that decision. Would we go through the Lobbies with anything other than a very heavy heart? No, we would not. If we had another referendum and the people decided that the Prime Minister’s deal made the country better off, I would still not believe that to be the case. I would respect the decision, but that does not mean that I would suddenly say, “Oh, my word—for three years I have been mistaken”. The noble Lord knows that for a Liberal Democrat to lose a vote is not a totally new experience. If I lose another vote, it will not be new to me, but it will not mean that I stop thinking what I thought the day before I lost the vote—any more than the noble Lord, who has sometimes stood for Governments who have not prevailed, has stopped thinking that the Labour Party should remain in government. That is the nature of politics as I understand it.
We know now that the vast majority of young people believe that to leave the EU would be a bad mistake because it is bad for their future. We know that the majority of Labour voters, and the majority of voters in virtually every constituency, are in favour of having a vote and in favour on that basis of then remaining in the EU. If the Minister and the Government Front Bench are so sure that their deal is a good one, what are they worried about? Let us have a vote. Get on with it. We have had previous elections, as the noble Lord knows—
The noble Lord is being very honest about his position, and I respect that. Will he tell the House what question he would prefer to be put in the second referendum that he wishes to hold in order to overturn the first one?
The logical question. The Government have a deal which they say is in the best interests of the country. We do not believe that it is in the best interests of the country. That is the logical choice to make. I suspect that there will be debates on exactly what the nature of the vote is, but that is the logical vote to have. The noble Lord believes that the Government’s deal is in the best interests of the country. Is that not the logical thing to ask the country about? I think it is.
We have heard much about the will of the people. It is now time for the Government to respect it and give them a vote.
My Lords, now we move to the calmer waters of the Cross Benches. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, had his analogy, and I have mine. When I last attempted to speak in one of these debates I was in the air. I was in a holding pattern, metaphorically speaking, looking down time and again on Aylesbury, lamenting the fact that each time I looked down on Aylesbury, nothing had changed. Here we are a fortnight later, and I am still in this holding pattern and, again, nothing has changed in Aylesbury so far as I can tell. The feelings of frustration, boredom and irritation are still there, double what they were last time. The problem has been that last time I was expecting the pilot to announce that it was only 10 minutes to landing, but she seems to have failed to make contact with ground control and for one reason or another we are still there awaiting some clear signal from her that we are indeed about to land.
The signals we have received are conflicting. I heard last night that it was being suggested that the negotiations have stalled, but today the Minister has said that discussions are ongoing. The question that has been asked is whether the Prime Minister is really going to go to Strasbourg. We have yet to receive the answer, and whether these negotiations go ahead or not is very much in the air. I am still in the difficult position of not knowing exactly where we are going and I am still looking forward to an announcement that seems always to be delayed and still not coming.
I have been thinking of something that might be useful to say, and there is one aspect of the situation that I would like to say something about. If we look forward to what we have been told is likely to happen this week, tomorrow we have the meaningful vote. It is likely, from what we have been told, that the deal will be rejected. That means that the following day there will be a vote on whether there should be a no-deal Brexit, and we expect that the vote will overwhelmingly reject the idea of that kind of Brexit. That brings us to Thursday, with a vote on a Motion that Brexit day should be delayed.
I am very uneasy about that Motion, when and if we get to it, assuming that simply asking for a delay would mean that we would get it from the member states of the EU. So far as I can see, a further delay will do nothing to remove the cloud of uncertainty which has been hanging over this entire process for far too long. Surely we risk an explosion of real anger from those who believe that this delay was not what they voted for but, if there is to be a delay, we need to have a very clear idea of exactly what its purpose is. I made this point last time. A vote simply in favour of delay will not do that, and no doubt those who vote in favour of it will have quite different views from different parts of the spectrum about what they expect to get out of it. We cannot expect to get a second chance, so, if we are to ask for a delay, we have to be crystal clear about the purpose and how long it is needed.
It has been suggested that there might be a case for a very short delay to complete the legislation that we need to have in place before Brexit, particularly a no-deal Brexit, but I do not think that that is what this version, if we reach it, is really asking for. It is looking for more negotiating time, but I find it hard to see what that could be expected to achieve in the period that one can be realistic about, bearing in mind that the European Parliament will dissolve on 18 April. There will then be a long period of inaction until the elections and the Parliament eventually meets. Nothing much can happen in that time and we do not want to be involved in electing further Members to the European Parliament. Therefore, the delay envisaged in this approach will be relatively short and I do not think that anything would be achieved by it. One has to bear in mind that we have not been engaged face to face with the negotiators. We do not know what, if any, are the weak points and what real chance there is of anything further being achieved.
Another alternative has been suggested—that we should ask for a much longer delay. A year has been suggested—I think that Kenneth Clarke has even suggested 21 months—in order that the transition period becomes the period of delay, which we go through while remaining a member of the EU. Whether the member states would agree to such a fundamental change in our approach to the Article 50 process must be questionable, and I am very doubtful that it would be achievable. Even if it were, we run into even further difficulty over breach of trust with those who voted in the majority in the referendum.
A further alternative is a delay so that a second referendum can be held. I know that there are not a few people who have been calling for a people’s vote, and I, as one who voted against leaving, can understand the sentiments that give rise to it. However, I have always been, and remain, of the position that in principle a second referendum would be a huge mistake. I do no need to go over the reasons for that but I retain that view. A delay for that purpose seems to be wholly unacceptable. As I see it, we have to go with what we have. We must lie on the bed that we have created for ourselves for good or ill—mostly ill, as it now seems.
Those thoughts bring me back to the position that I adopted at the outset. I favour supporting the Prime Minister’s deal. I know that it has shortcomings but we must not overdo that criticism by building on to them the inevitable consequences of leaving, such as the fact that we have no control over what happens next. I, for one, am willing to give credit to the Prime Minister and the right honourable Attorney-General for having done the best they can. As I said, not being party to the negotiations, it is very hard for us to know whether anything more could be achieved. So far as I can tell from the noises coming from both sides, the matter has been taken as far as it can be. Therefore, for fear of anything worse, I would go along with the deal. Perhaps I am cautious by nature. However, there is too much at stake and too much to play for. It really is time to settle the matter so that we can move on to the next stage.
I am reminded of the advice in Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary poem about Jim. Noble Lords may remember that Jim was the boy who ran away from his nurse while at the zoo. He encountered a lion and was slowly eaten by it, bit by bit.
“Always keep a-hold of Nurse”,
we are told,
“For fear of finding something worse”.
My Lords, I start with an apology, as my remarks are grouped around three of the most irritating phrases in the English language: “I told you so”; “I would not have started from here”; and—a newcomer that the noble and learned Lord just mentioned—“Nothing has changed”.
I shall start with “I told you so”. Exactly three months ago, I warned that, if the Government’s deal were rejected, they would win a vote of confidence, the EU would refuse to make any meaningful concessions on the backstop, Parliament would then attempt to block no deal and we would land up in a constitutional crisis, fuelling economic uncertainty and putting in doubt whether the UK would leave the EU at all. I told you so. There are many reasons why we have landed in this chaos, but the main ones are these: the lack of honesty from the start about the choices we face; there being no clarity as to what is more important, trade or sovereignty; the Government losing their parliamentary majority; and their failure to prepare effectively for no deal.
I should like to focus briefly on that last point. Last month, the Government published a report on their preparedness for no deal, which said:
“In December 2018, the Government took a decision to make preparations for a no deal exit the principal operational focus within Government”.
December 2018 was just four months before we are due to leave; that should have happened back in January 2017, when the Prime Minister said that,
“no deal is better than a bad deal”.
The Government should have gone into overdrive then, to ensure that the UK was ready to leave without a deal. But let us look at what has happened instead. A third of the most critical projects for no deal are not on track, just six of the 40 EU trade deals have been grandfathered, and just 15% of the 240,000 businesses that trade with the EU have signed up for an economic operator registration and identification number, which, in the Government’s words,
“greatly increases the probability of disruption”.
Then, as noble Lords will remember, there was the dress rehearsal of the lorry traffic jam in Kent, described by the Road Haulage Association as “too little too late”, and, of course, the fiasco of giving a ferry contract to a company that has no ships. It has been a sorry episode, which reads like a cross between “Dad’s Army”—“Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring”—“Blackadder”—“I have a cunning plan”—and “Carry On Brexit”. It might be amusing but for the fact that the stakes could not be higher. I would not have started from here.
I turn to my third phrase, “Nothing has changed”. Since January, there has been no material change to the withdrawal agreement or the political declaration. If we leave, we will still be walking the gangplank into thin air. Despite this, I remain of the view that the consequences of rejecting this deal, as the noble and learned Lord said, remain worse. Since January, however, two things have changed.
First, as the noble and learned Lord just mentioned, if Parliament rejects the deal, it will now be given the choice, and the chance, to vote to extend the negotiations. An extension—especially a long one—would be an admission of failure by Parliament that it cannot fulfil its primary purpose: to decide and legislate for our country’s future. Worse, a long extension would throw us into Brexit limbo—which no doubt will be christened “Brimbo”—fuelling uncertainty and throwing Brexit into doubt. How long will the extension be? What if Parliament votes for six months but the EU says it must be 21 months, or vice versa? Will we agree with the EU? More importantly, as the noble and learned Lord asked, what is the purpose of an extension? What is going to change? If, at the end of six, nine or 21 months, Parliament still cannot agree, what then?
Some hope a long extension would give us time to prepare more effectively for no deal. But Parliament, as I have said, will remain opposed to no deal unless we have a general election that creates a parliamentary majority for no deal. Others see a long extension as their chance for a second referendum. I am opposed to a second referendum and I do not believe it could ever be delivered by a Conservative Government, so that too would require a general election.
I repeat what I have said before: I voted Remain, but I believe that we must honour the result of the referendum and leave the EU, with a deal, as soon as possible. Our nation’s future cannot continue to twist in the wind.
If Parliament rejects the deal, I believe there are only two options that avoid Brexit limbo. Either the Prime Minister ditches her red lines and seeks a cross-party consensus on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, or she makes a vote on her deal a vote of confidence. Both options may split the Conservative Party, and both may lead to a general election, but the democratic imperative is to deliver on the wishes of 17.4 million people who voted to leave. If Parliament cannot decide on what is best, or if the Prime Minister cannot convince Parliament to support her policy and refuses to compromise, it is time for a new Parliament.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, with his unique insight into the processes which have been going on. However, I hope his drastic solution will not have to come about.
I have spared your Lordships a speech in our two most recent Brexit debates, so my last contribution was in our debate on 14 January this year. Listening to and reading those debates, and previous ones, I continue to be struck by the large majority of your Lordships who still believe that the project of European integration has brought peace to Europe and that it has been and is good for our trade—in short, that it is a good thing.
One important influence which prevents many people from seeing the EU as an idea which has failed is the BBC. Here I must declare an interest as the secretary of a cross-party group of Eurosceptic MPs, which has been sponsoring research into the BBC’s EU coverage by the News-watch media monitor. An almost unbelievable statistic to emerge from this work is that there appears to have been only one programme since the referendum which has examined the opportunities of Brexit—not promoted those opportunities, but just examined them. The BBC cannot point us to any others.
Since the referendum, the ratio of BBC interviewees has never been less than two against Brexit to one for, and sometimes up to six to one. Going further back, of the 4,275 guests talking about the EU on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme between 2005 and 2015, only 132, or 3.2%, were supporters of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, yet British public opinion in favour of withdrawal hovered around 40% to 50% for the whole of that period.
I suppose we have to accept that the BBC is the Guardian newspaper of the airwaves. That is a pity, because it should be dispassionately helping the British people to see through the mess that our politicians and bureaucrats are making of Brexit. However, it is not; it is batting for the remain side.
Coming to that mess, there remains a very simple and speedy way out of it, which I have mentioned before and with which every leading businessman who understands Europe and with whom I have discussed it agrees. Businessmen know how to do deals, but the Government clearly do not. So I will try again. We should sidestep the Commission and make a public offer to the people of Europe, via COREPER and the Council. We should offer them continuing reciprocal residence for, say, two years. This is more in their interests than ours, because there are some 4 million of them living here and only 1.2 million of us living there.
We should also offer to continue our present free trade together after 29 March, but under the auspices of the WTO, not the Luxembourg court. This would get rid of the Irish border problem and is not the same as trading under normal WTO terms in the event of no deal. This is also more in their—and their exporters’— interests than ours, because under normal WTO terms, they would pay us some £14 billion per annum in new tariffs, where we would pay them only £6 billion. That is according to a recent government Answer, HL13121, from 23 January this year. When that has been agreed, we could discuss how much money we may give them—which should of course be nothing, if it is not agreed. We could also go on collaborating on intelligence and any scheme which is in the national interest of both our peoples. We would agree to do that later, as a sovereign nation.
Of course, the sticking point for the Commission and Brussels will be allowing EU exporters to continue in free trade with us under the WTO, rather than the Luxembourg court. However, leaving the EU should end that court’s jurisdiction anyway, so why not do it now? Why are the Government so reluctant to ignore paragraphs 2 to 5 of Article 50, which force us to deal through the Commission, when we have resiled from 52 multilateral treaties since 1998—see the Government’s Answer to me on 27 November, HL11478—and the Luxembourg court has said that we are free to do so? Why do we not just tell Brussels and the people of Europe that this is our offer and that if they do not accept it we will leave on 29 March anyway, not pay them the £39 billion we have foolishly discussed and look forward to pocketing another £8 billion per annum under normal WTO tariffs? Of course, the silliest thing the House of Commons could do on Wednesday is rule out no deal.
I would be grateful if the Minister would reply to this concept when he comes to wind up. I ask him not to repeat what his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, has said in the past to the effect that we cannot break with Article 50 because we are a law-abiding country and Article 50 says that we have to negotiate with the Commission. Surely the Government can see that we will never get a sensible or honest deal out of the Commission because its only aim in life is to stop us making a success of Brexit and therefore prolong its unfortunate project. Why do we not just do it? Incidentally, why should it take more than a fortnight?
My Lords, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, will forgive me if I resist the temptation to turn this debate into one on the BBC.
In the debate that took place in your Lordships’ House on 27 February, my noble friend the Duke of Wellington, who is of course in his place, said:
“The sad truth is that our political system has failed badly in the two and a half years since the referendum”.—[Official Report, 27/2/19; col. 273.]
I respectfully agree, and it is perhaps worth spending a few brief moments on the reasons for this unhappy state of affairs.
The referendum delivered a result that most of our political class neither expected nor wanted. Most Members of the other place voted to remain. The proportion of Members of your Lordships’ House who did so is even greater. Of those Members of both Houses, some recognised that, since the decision on this fundamental issue had been delegated by Parliament to the people, it was their duty to embrace the result and fully implement it. Others recognised the existence of that duty but, in the words of Mr Nick Timothy, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, saw the fulfilment of it as an exercise in damage limitation, rather than an opportunity that could bring great benefits to our country. Others—far too many others—in both Houses have consistently attempted to thwart the will of the people and to seek, by one means or another, to reverse the decision that was clearly made in 2016. That, combined with the intransigence of the European Union, is why we have come to this pretty pass.
Today’s debate comes when it looks as though the Attorney-General’s efforts to negotiate an acceptable way out of the backstop have failed. I am a great admirer of the Attorney-General. He is a man of outstanding ability and, I believe, great integrity. I do not, for one moment, think he would change his advice on the backstop unless the results of his negotiation made it possible for him to do so.
The basic problem the Attorney-General faced—which we face—lies in the terms of the agreement that was so overwhelmingly defeated in the other place. The unique achievement of that agreement was to substitute for our untrammelled, unilateral right to leave the European Union without having to ask anyone’s permission to do so a regime which we could leave only with the permission of the European Union. That is the nub of the problem, and that is why it is so impossible for many of us to support the Prime Minister’s agreement.
It is often said that those of us who hold those views should be prepared to compromise. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I am certainly prepared to compromise. There are many aspects of the withdrawal agreement which I dislike, but I would be prepared to put up with them all if we can get out of the backstop. I do not even ask for the backstop to be replaced, as was required by the Brady amendment which was passed in the other place. A legally binding codicil enabling us to leave would be enough for me, but it does not look as though we are going to get it.
So what should be done? It is essential that we leave the European Union on the 29th of this month. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, has said, it might very well lead to an explosion of anger if we do not. We owe it to the 17.4 million people who voted to leave, and we must do it if we are not to inflict incalculable harm on the democratic fabric of our country and the bond of trust between people and Parliament, which has become so badly frayed and which must be restored.
The set of circumstances in which we would leave without an overarching agreement is usually described as a “no-deal Brexit” but, as has frequently been pointed out—not least by my noble friend Lord Forsyth during “Any Questions?” on Friday night—this is a very misleading description. Agreements have already been reached on a number of issues, ranging from aviation and road haulage to shipping and nuclear energy. I would have liked there to be many more. Following my noble friend Lord Bridges’s mantra of “I told you so”, if the Government had taken the advice that I offered in the debate in your Lordships’ House on 5 December, when I urged them to co-ordinate their preparations with the European Union, there would by now be many more. It is not too late.
The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, who would, I think, be alarmed to hear that I am about to quote him with some approval, even if it is rather qualified, suggested the way forward in his speech in your Lordships’ House on 27 February. He quoted the evidence that Sir Ivan Rogers had given to his committee. Sir Ivan had said that, if there was no deal, within a week British officials would be on their way to Brussels to negotiate solutions to all the problems we have heard that would create. I differ from the noble Lord and Sir Ivan only on the timing. The discussions to which they referred would not take place a week after we leave; they would take place before we leave, and as soon as it became clear that we are leaving without an overarching agreement.
That is what would happen if the political system to which my noble friend the Duke of Wellington referred was not failing us so badly. That is what would happen if the political class had been determined to honour the result of the referendum and held its nerve, and it could still happen. It would lead to a temporary extension of the current trading arrangements during which we could negotiate a permanent agreement with the European Union, which would benefit both parties. It could happen, and I hope that it will happen. It probably will not happen, and our political system will, alas, continue to fail us.
My Lords, faced with our likely imminent departure from the European Union, I feel alarmed and concerned about our country’s future. But I should say, too, that I feel great personal sadness as 40 years ago this year, at the beginning of my political life, I was elected to the first directly elected European Parliament. I remember that date as one of hope and idealism—things not always associated with debates on Europe. I also remember with affection and respect some German MEPs who had opposed Hitler and had been in concentration camps. I remember leaders such as Willy Brandt. I also remember our first President of the European Parliament, Simone Veil, one of the most remarkable and inspiring women of the 20th century—courageous, honest, intelligent and compassionate—who herself had, against enormous odds, survived both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Furthermore, at the end of my time at the European Parliament, we saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the enlargement of the European Union, which Britain had championed. It was an enlargement which, in the days of the Cold War, had seemed an impossible dream. During that time, we also saw and helped the efforts that Britain and others made in creating the European single market, which many people now seem keen to turn their backs on.
So my experience of Europe over the years has been far from the caricature of the EU by some. For example, I do not remember ever being dictated to by faceless bureaucrats, being run by Europe or bullied by Europe. In four years of attending European Council of Ministers meetings in agriculture, justice and home affairs, general affairs and foreign affairs, I do not remember us ever being outvoted. We protected our interests successfully, but we also co-operated with other countries in the interests of all of us.
Furthermore, Britain has shown over the years that flexibility, rather than rigidity, is often the outcome in the EU. We and others did not join the euro; we did not join Schengen. Yet, somehow, we have swallowed the myth that Europe dictates to us and is capable of moving in only one centralist direction. It is interesting to read some of the foreign press, because you get a different impression of Britain, which is often described as being highly successful in pursuing its interests. Of course, we are extra-lucky in that our language is the main means of communication.
Bringing the situation up to date, on 26 February the Government published their statement on the implications for business and trade of a no-deal exit. I am amazed that there has not been more outrage about what that document contains, not least the forecast that no deal would mean the economy in my home area of the north-east of England shrinking by a staggering 10.5%. The figures for other parts of the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, were also dramatic. Even if those figures were only half accurate, they should be enough to take no deal off the table straightaway. I only hope that the House of Commons ensures that this week the idea of leaving the EU without a deal is firmly laid to permanent rest. Surely the EU is not about making regional inequalities, which are already great in our own country, even greater. The figures for the north-east alone would make me oppose Brexit and I hope the Minister, as a fellow north-easterner, agrees with me.
I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. Does she not agree that, if the solution were to continue free trade with our friends in the European Union, as we do at the moment, the problems to which she refers will not arise?
By far the best way forward would be not to leave the European Union, so that we would continue to benefit from the very good deal we have at present. I am also astonished that industry and the trade unions are being so little heeded at present, and dismissed as being part of some project fear. Yet it is businesses throughout the land that are alarmed at the practical negative economic consequences of Brexit and of making life difficult, in a highly competitive world, with our biggest and nearest market. This simply does not make sense.
The concerns and fears of our universities over research and student exchange programmes, of our health service over access to drugs and life-saving treatments, of our scientists, of those worried about food safety, which was rightly raised in this House earlier today at Question Time—all these serious issues keep being airily waved away as though they were of no consequence. Added to these problems are the political threats to our own union, the United Kingdom, with the dangers of heightening tension in Northern Ireland and the threat of reopening the prospect of Scotland breaking away.
It is true, as the Minister often tells us, that the referendum turnout was impressive, but the result was close and the amount of misinformation—on both sides—was shocking. I recently looked again at the main leave leaflet, which must surely win the prize for the most dishonest leaflet ever issued during a public vote. It struck me that, despite it having been claimed ever since that we voted against being part of the single market, in this main leave leaflet there was not one mention of the single market.
What I would like to see, but have little hope of seeing, is the Prime Minister, Mrs May, firmly putting country before party. She should be honest and say to people that she has tried her very best, as I think she has, to deliver on the referendum, but that her deal or a catastrophic no deal both fall far short of the benefits we currently enjoy as a full EU member and that, in consequence, she would like people to be given the chance to think again in the light of everything that has happened, or failed to happen, in the last two years. I hope, too, that the Commons will this week begin this process of rethinking with a resounding vote against no deal.
My Lords, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, when I put my name down for this debate I was expecting the Attorney-General to have come back with something that we could discuss on a legal plane. We have to admire the tenacity of the Attorney-General in refusing to temper his original note of 3 December, despite the overwhelming political pressure on him to do so. He has said, in terms, that his professional reputation as a lawyer is far more important to him than his reputation as a politician. He advised in December that the Northern Ireland backstop is intended by all parties to be temporary, and the assumption is that it will be superseded by a relationship agreement between Brussels and London. In the absence of such an agreement, the backstop is intended to endure. He said that the solution in such a scenario would be political and not legal.
This has not been sufficient for the Brexiteers. Their view, as expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, in his inimitable way, is that the European Union is a continuing conspiracy to hold the United Kingdom fast within its grasp. Their demands are for a time limit to the backstop or a unilateral exit route. The alternative arrangements they also propose would involve the development of a technology that does not exist, or at least does not operate satisfactorily, anywhere in the world. They demonstrate a complete lack of trust in the European Union. Similarly, the DUP. That party, which does not represent the majority view in Northern Ireland, seems totally incapable of perceiving the potential economic benefit to that Province if it were able to trade directly and freely in a customs union and single market with the EU and at the same time have direct and free access to the UK. Instead of promoting the positives, they mouth with suspicion the negatives.
So Mr Cox was sent off to negotiate legally binding clauses to add to the Northern Ireland protocol. This shows a gratifying, if unexpected, trust in the legal profession and the judiciary. Lawyers, under this plan, would determine when the backstop has served its purpose—a massive decision with implications for the people of this country. Yet, in the absence of political agreement, it is seriously proposed that lawyers should be instrumental in prising open the economic, social and legal ties which have bound us together with the EU for more than 40 years. The withdrawal agreement provides for an arbitration process, but that model was apparently not sufficient. If a decision cannot be agreed in the joint political committee, the issue, under the withdrawal agreement, goes to a panel of five arbitrators, but any issue as to the interpretation of EU law must be referred to the European Court of Justice. Of course, for reasons I have never been able fully to fathom, the European court is anathema to the Brexiteers as a matter of faith, although the United Kingdom has the best record of success in that court of any EU country.
No matter—Mr Cox has done his ingenious best. It seems he has proposed a separate arbitration panel, with no access to the European court, to decide when the backstop has served its purpose. The membership we do not know, but let us assume it is similar to the panel agreed in the withdrawal Agreement. He has rightly conceded that it cannot be the purpose of lawyers, however eminent, to determine whether the sovereign United Kingdom or the EU and its sovereign states are acting in bad faith. Unless you are a truly head-banging conspiracy theorist, you cannot expect a panel of arbitrators to determine that a sovereign state, in legitimately pursuing its own interests as it sees them, is acting in bad faith.
Mr Cox sought therefore to introduce the Brussels negotiators to the concept of “the reasonable man”—the man on the Clapham omnibus. That is a legal tag which has done the rounds in the field of the law of negligence in every common law country—it recently surfaced in Hong Kong as the “man on the Shau Kei Wan tram”. The issue he proposed for the arbitrators to decide was whether the UK would be acting “reasonably” if it sought to terminate the backstop.
The arbitrators would not be concerned with construing a difficult line of legal text but with deciding a question of opinion: is the UK, or the EU, acting “reasonably” in accordance with the standards of the man on the Clapham omnibus? I do not knock the Clapham omnibus; the No. 87 bus which runs from Westminster to Clapham has many distinguished regular passengers, not just myself and my noble friend Lady Walmsley, but the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Lord Cope, the noble Baronesses, Lady Gale and Lady Morris, and, above all, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach—although he generally does not go much beyond the Tate Gallery. It would be very hard for arbitrators and lawyers in Brussels or elsewhere to guess what we on the 87 bus collectively thought was reasonable. Hence, I regret to say that terms such as “crazy” and “bizarre” have been reported from the EU side on its introduction to this entertaining concept invented by a Victorian judge.
The plane was standing by at Northolt, and may have taken off, but what possible gain can there be for the Prime Minister to plead with Mr Barnier to repeat for the umpteenth time that the backstop is intended by the EU as well as the UK to be temporary? Why do not the ERG, the DUP and sundry other leavers take him at his word? Can diplomacy exist at all in the world without a measure of trust? Can there be compromise, as the noble Lord, Lord Howard, talked about, without trust? Mr Cox said in December that the solution as to when the backstop would end would be political and, of course, he was absolutely right. Let us leave it at that.
My Lords, etiquette is very important in foreign affairs, especially in war and peace. In the case of the EU Brexit treaty, there has been a breach of etiquette. Our Prime Minister has been negotiating with the wrong people. She has been dealing with the staff—EU officials and civil servants below her pay grade. It is the equivalent of the American President coming on a state visit to Britain to meet the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office. The US Government would never allow that to happen, but we did. Now we need a straightforward conversation between grown-ups, the people in charge, the only people who matter—our Prime Minister, the French President and the German Chancellor. We need a real conversation with the right people. There is not much time left—it should take place tomorrow.
I will see whether I can express it. This is the Prime Minister and them—the German Chancellor and the French President—preferably tomorrow.
“Prime Minister: Don’t.
Them: Don’t what?
Prime Minister: Don’t be angry with me.
Them: Why not? You haven’t been very charming. You haven’t been understanding. You haven’t even been conversational.
Prime Minister: I’m sorry. Really I am. But lately, it seems that we can’t talk without arguing. I’d be lost without you—that’s the truth.
Them: So what now?
Prime Minister: We need to have a little talk, that’s all.
Them: About what?
Prime Minister: We’re through. Out. You know that.
Them: We don’t really care whether you come or go. All we care about is that you don’t set a precedent for anyone else.
Prime Minister: What about the Irish border problem?
Them: Northern Ireland? Where is that again?
Prime Minister: We want a deal.
Them: Of course—trade deals. My assistant will book a conference call.
Prime Minister: I know it annoys you to set a precedent. I’m not asking for any exceptions for us—just a few changes in the EU for the benefit of all fellow members.
Them: All members? From you? You think only of yourself. You’ve been sulking for years. Variable geometry! Two-speed Europe! Opt-outs!
Prime Minister: Yes, sorry about that.
Them: Well, what is it you want?
Prime Minister: We don’t want anything. We’re leaving anyway. But you keep saying how very sad you are to see us leaving.
Prime Minister: So I’ve got only one question for you. What if we were to remain?
Them: That would be different.
Prime Minister: How different? What would you offer us?
Them: What would you like?
Prime Minister: I thought you’d never ask! Well, now you mention it, only two things.
Them: Go on.
Prime Minister: We want equality—to be equal to you in voting rights, not to be a subordinate or a junior member. We don’t want you to boss us around, and we don’t want to boss you around. We want equality—with you.
Them: What else?
Prime Minister: We want to recognise free movement of people but also legitimate concerns among members about uncontrolled immigration.
Them: Is that it? Anything else?
Prime Minister: No, nothing else. That’s it. You could call it remain-plus.
Them: Then you’d stay?
Prime Minister: Yes.
Them: And what do we get out of it?
Prime Minister: You get what you always wanted. Unity. No breakaways. No precedent for anyone else. We all stick together. Peace. Security. And for the EU to be a vanguard force. A frontier spirit. An economic power to rival America and China. What say you?
Them: OK! Done! Let’s go! When do we start?”
We need that conversation now, because, as other noble Lords have said this afternoon, none of the current least worst options will heal our relationship with the EU and with each other—everyone will be a loser. A new approach is necessary; another 585 pages of codicils, protocols and appendices will not do the job. New creativity is necessary. Without achieving that, there will always be a perpetual EU crisis of war and conflicts, and none of us will live in peace and tranquillity.
We can do it; it is called remain-plus, and it means that we will have won a lot for our years of political anguish: equal voting power to France and Germany and a reasonable control of immigration. Lead, not leave: we would take our rightful place as at least one of the big three in Europe. That would make it all worth while, would it not? If anyone says to your Lordships that the EU would never accept that, here is Manfred Weber, who is the leader of the biggest parliamentary group in the EU and the front-runner to replace Mr Juncker as the President of the EU Commission. He says:
“Brexit is absolutely an example that people can see in reality … why our main message … is that it’s better to reform the European Union where we need a reform, than to leave or even destroy it”.
Remember that the Chancellor of Germany and the French President have a big motive. In France, 40% of the population is interested in Frexit and Austria, Greece, Italy and France will apparently all express their unhappiness with the current EU set-up in the forthcoming European elections.
We are at an historic moment of maximum power in Europe. I repeat: this is a moment of our maximum power in Europe. Now all we have to do is use it: one conversation to change history. We can do it.
I was very pleased to hear my noble friend say that the Government welcome our contribution. Your Lordships’ House has been here, is here and will always be here, playing our usual constructive role. But there is another example of poor etiquette: this time between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I am told that it is something to do with the democratic mandate.
Like all humble people, we do not mind looking up to our superiors in another place as long as we are not taken for granted, but so far we have been the dog that did not bark in the night, with not even a growl. We have the expertise—we all know that—and we have the power, as confirmed by the Library, which confirmed to me that the usual powers of the House of Lords would apply to the passage of any Act of Parliament to do with Brexit.
I encourage the House not to be satisfied with these take note Motions. We should not accept that the other place is voting on the historic choice facing our nation tomorrow while today we are debating only a take note Motion. That will not help us on the day of judgment, when we have to stand responsible for what we have done in this House.
I am very proud of our House—as your Lordships know—and what it can do. I would like it to end the current dismal choice between the least worst options that nobody wants. Let us give the people of Britain and Europe something they both want. It is ready and waiting, I can tell you: it is in the Printed Paper Office and on page 19 of today’s Order Paper. It is the EU Membership Bill, and I hope that your Lordships will consider it. We might then hear, loud and clear, what we want to hear: the Clerk’s immortal words in the House of Commons, “Message from the House of Lords”.
My Lords, I am delighted to be following the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, because, despite some misgivings in the early stages of what he said—the feeling that nature abhors a vacuum and some pretty odd things then dash in—he ended up, as far as I understand him, by saying that he believed we ought to remain.
We have not had a series of take-note debates, we have had a series of debates on Motions voted through by substantial majorities in this House in January and February, which deal with all the main issues being considered in another place this week. We considered the Prime Minister’s deal that she agreed last November and believed that it would leave the UK less prosperous, less secure and less influential than it is now. That is pretty clear. We urged that exit with no deal should be categorically rejected—that is pluperfectly clear—and we called for adequate time to put in place all the legislation required before exit, which now, on 11 March, one can say cannot conceivably be achieved before the end of the month. Those positions have not changed since we voted them through, and the Government’s take-note Motion at the end of this debate does not seek to change them. They stand on the record.
As to the legal writhings in Brussels over the Irish backstop which have dominated reporting over the past few days, one can pay tribute to the perseverance and grim determination of the Prime Minister and her team while regretting that those qualities were not devoted to a rather better cause. All this has been necessitated by a fundamental contradiction built into the Government’s position at the outset between one objective, which was to avoid any new border controls in Ireland, and the other, of leaving the EU single market and customs union and operating an independent trade policy. That contradiction was fashioned by the Prime Minister, not Parliament, and remains completely unresolved.
For all its warm words and fancy phrases, what looks like it is being described as a joint interpretative note—if it emerges—will change nothing in what was already on offer in the November deal and the conclusions of the European Council in December. The Government say that they cannot accept the backstop provisions being of “indefinite duration”. That is slightly odd because they started by saying that they could not accept them being permanent, which clearly they are not. They now take issue with “indefinite”, but that is surely the nature of the role of an insurance policy. It is conditions-related and not arbitrarily limited in time or exitable by one party to the deal.
So where should we go from here? Clearly, we must wait for the outcome of the votes in another place, all three of which could well be described as meaningful. If the Prime Minister’s deal does not get a majority, leaving without a deal is ruled out and more time is demanded, we will be in what the Prime Minister described correctly as “uncharted waters”. Personally, I would advocate a substantial extension of the 29 March deadline: one sufficient for a proper rethink of the whole process, not just to organise a third, even more desperate, attempt to get the November package through; and one that would provide sufficient time to consult the electorate on an outcome which has no resemblance whatever to what they were promised in 2016. Clearly, there are complications over the European Parliament elections in May, but that is a matter for all 28 countries, not just us, to resolve. We can hope that it will be handled with sensitivity and common sense.
Apart from that, a prolongation will not be very different from the transition period in the Prime Minister’s deal, except that we will remain in the EU’s institutions with a voice and a say during a period when much of what is important to us, whether we are inside or outside the European Union, will be under discussion. Is the possibility of remaining in those institutions during a so-called transition period to be spurned just because it is unappealing to those on the wilder shores of Brexit, with their desire for instant gratification?
My Lords, there may well have been further discussions on the withdrawal agreement since last month, but there have been no developments of note since the House first debated the agreement last year. To use that irritating phrase, nothing has changed. There is nothing to debate.
Like other noble Lords, I put my name down to speak in the hope that there would be something of substance to debate today—but it was clear over the weekend that Monsieur Barnier’s best and final offer was not worth the five tweets that he used to deliver it. The response of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU was rightly robust, and the talks now seem officially deadlocked. So where does that leave us? The Government ought to invite the other place to reject the withdrawal agreement tomorrow as they have failed to achieve a replacement for the Northern Ireland backstop, as the other place clearly demanded in January via the Brady amendment. If the Government persist in asking the other place to approve the unamended withdrawal agreement tomorrow, I have every confidence that it will be rejected again, and the other place will be right to do so.
All the focus has been on the backstop, and many have become reconciled to approving a withdrawal agreement if the EU were to shift its position sufficiently on it. But the backstop is merely the worst bit of the withdrawal agreement. Even if it were fixed, it would still be a terrible deal for now, and the political declaration promises no better for the future. If the other place rejects the package tomorrow, it will be doing a great service to our country.
What happens next is the big question. Noble Lords who have heard me speak before will know that I am not afraid of leaving the EU without an immediate deal. I would regret the fact that we had left without a deal, but I would have no regrets whatever if we left without this particular deal. I continue to believe that the Prime Minister did at least get it right when she said that no deal was better than a bad deal. The most recent polling evidence from ComRes is that the public increasingly agree with that. Support for no deal is up six percentage points at 44%, with rejection of no deal trailing at 30%. I hope that all Members of Parliament, particularly in the other place, will reflect on the fact that Parliament has been out of step with the country as a whole since the referendum result. If Parliament continues to work against the express will of the people, I fear the consequences for our democracy.
In the past few weeks we have seen increasing activity on both sides of the Channel to prepare for a no-deal scenario. Planes will continue to fly. Goods will continue to flow between the UK and the EU—in particular, if common sense prevails, around the Calais-Dover crossing. Citizens’ rights are being protected. Financial services will not grind to a halt. The scare stories on everything from radioisotopes to toilet rolls have been shown to be not much more than the product of feverish imaginations. Even the Governor of the Bank of England has significantly toned down his message on the impact of leaving the EU with no deal. Project Fear is gradually being unmasked.
There is more to do to prepare for our exit, as my noble friend Lord Bridges reminded us, and the road may well have a few bumps in it. But an exit on WTO terms would not be the end of the world. An even better way forward would be for us to work with the EU so that we can continue to trade on a tariff-free basis. We can do that on a temporary basis under Article XXIV of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It would need only a skeleton trade deal of perhaps a couple of pages, and it would give us up to 10 years to negotiate a free trade agreement—and even the pessimists do not think that we would need that long.
We could not do this alone. The EU would have to agree, and that may require a degree of flexibility that we have not seen evidence of to date, but it would be a triumph of common sense over dogma. If we could work together to achieve this, it would be important for all of us. Importantly, unlike with the withdrawal agreement, we would be set free to pursue our own trade agreements with other countries and to determine our own policies on tariffs with the rest of the world.
To date I have been proud that our Government and the vast majority of our party have remained committed to delivering the result of the referendum. I hope that we will now hold our nerve and complete the task of leaving the EU on 29 March.
My Lords, for most of the time I have strongly supported Conservative policy on Europe. I welcomed our entry into the common market under Mr Heath. I supported the development of the single European market under Mrs Thatcher and I was strongly opposed to Britain joining the European single currency. But when it came to having a referendum, I was uneasy and cautious. I voted for the referendum Bill. It was in the manifesto on which the Conservative Government were elected in 2015 and it had been passed by the elected House of Commons.
The referendum had two objectives, clearly set out in David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech. The first—today I can hardly say this with a straight face—was,
“to settle this European question in British politics”,
once and for all. I am afraid there is not much hope of that. There was also a wider objective set out in the Bloomberg speech: to acknowledge the frustration of the electorate at decisions being,
“taken further and further away from them”.
So it was argued that a referendum would empower the voters. I understood this argument: while in general elections the voters had a choice between the mainstream political parties, this did not give them a choice between whether they wanted to remain in or leave the European Union. A referendum, unlike a general election, would give them this choice. In so doing, it was argued, a referendum would restore the voters’ trust in our political parties and reinforce their confidence in our democracy.
Post referendum, the very reverse is happening. Trust in our political parties—in the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats—is low. Confidence in the competence of government is falling and faith in our democratic system is ebbing away. Yet now, at this of all times, Members of Parliament may decide this week not to honour the decision of the people’s vote in 2016 to leave the European Union. I am afraid that millions of people, whether we like it or not, would see this as an act of betrayal. The question is: would our political and democratic system withstand this? I hope it would. Over the years it has proved remarkably resilient, and maybe it would again—but maybe not. For all these reasons, I hope the House of Commons will vote to leave the EU and on the terms of the Prime Minister’s deal.
My Lords, we are approaching the Brexit end game and are three weeks away from the cliff edge of no deal—a crisis that was totally avoidable. There is a real danger that this week we will again see a round of political games in the House of Commons, with the livelihoods of working people and the future of businesses in Wales and throughout these islands at stake.
My views about Brexit are familiar to the House. I was a committed remain voter, as were a majority in my county of Gwynedd, a majority of Welsh speakers and a majority of those who identify their nationality as Welsh—as shown by Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University only this weekend. If they were voting now, as YouGov has shown, the people of Wales would vote to remain by twice the margin by which they voted to leave in 2016. I suspect that is why Brexiters are profoundly opposed to holding a confirmatory referendum. They know full well that, now the people know the deal the Government have negotiated, a majority would reject it out of hand.
People in Wales would now vote to remain for three reasons: they have seen the implications for our manufacturing industry and our farmers; our tourist industry fears losing lucrative overseas visitors and EU nationals working in the hospitality sector; and our universities are shedding jobs and our young people want to retain the right to live, study and work in other European countries.
The Prime Minister’s deal has been overwhelmingly rejected by MPs. She has failed to get any significant improvement to it, and it will probably be defeated again tomorrow evening. If that happens, on Wednesday we must have a clear-cut vote to reject a catastrophic no-deal Brexit, and the Government must undertake unequivocally that, if MPs so vote, they will move an order to withdraw the cliff-edge 29 March deadline, by seeking either a postponement of Article 50 or its withdrawal altogether. There is no earthly point in having an Article 50 application if we have not the foggiest idea of what sort of relationship we want in place of our current EU membership.
As I have previously stated, I was willing to accept that the referendum vote was to leave the EU but without specifying the new relationship Brexit voters wanted with the EU. My colleagues and I were willing to compromise, provided we retained unfettered single market access and continued to have the benefits of the customs union, vital to the Welsh economy. We recognise that some parts of England have problems arising from high levels of inward migration, with a perception—rightly or wrongly—that this undermined local indigenous workers. We are certain that this could have been tackled by negotiating a regionally applied emergency brake, which the EU was willing to consider. There was an agreement available to meet the economic concerns of Wales, which was acceptable to Scotland and which avoided the Northern Ireland border issue. Mrs May drew red lines in the sand far too early, and did not have the flexibility to see that these would have to be adjusted to secure a consensus on Brexit.
Let not the Brexiteers claim that the failure to negotiate an acceptable Brexit is the fault of civil servants or of the wicked Scots or Irish; or a BBC plot, as we heard earlier; or double-dealing by EU negotiators. All the leading roles in the Brexit negotiation have been held by Brexit-backing Cabinet Ministers: by David Davis, who over a two-year period negotiated for just four hours with Monsieur Barnier; by Liam Fox, who said that this was the easiest negotiation ever; by Boris Johnson, who insisted he could have his cake and eat it; and by Dominic Raab, who negotiated the current deal, then resigned in protest over what he had achieved. Let not the Brexiteers blame others for not getting a deal; it is the fault of their own political friends, and let the people fully understand that reality.
Where do we go from here? I suggest three steps. First, if the May package is approved by MPs, it should be put to the people in a confirmatory referendum, and Article 50 should be amended by order to provide the necessary time for a confirmatory vote. The choice between the May package and the status quo should be on the ballot paper. Secondly, if the May package is again rejected, MPs should vote on a no-deal Brexit. If they back no deal, it should be put to a confirmatory vote, between a no-deal Brexit and the status quo. Thirdly, if MPs reject the May deal and a no-deal Brexit, they should then vote to suspend Article 50 for the time needed for cross-party talks to establish a consensus proposal, which may well involve a customs union or a single market deal, or a Norway-type deal, and for that to be put to a confirmatory referendum with the option of remaining in the EU on current terms. Such a process does exactly what the Brexiteers demanded in the referendum: that control be put back in the hands of MPs. A confirmatory vote on the outcome does exactly what the Brexiteers wanted: it gives the people the final word.
If the Government lose their deal and reject all these options, the Prime Minister should surely do the honourable thing and stand down. At that stage, senior people in each party should come together to form a cross-party Government to lead Parliament through the alternatives I have described. Then, after the confirmatory vote, they should call a general election to establish a new Government to take matters forward as sanctioned by the people.
Small though we be, my party, Plaid Cymru, is willing to play a constructive role alongside other parties that recognise the vital importance of the European Union but also accept the need for the people to have the final say. I hope that the people of good will across the House will accept something along these lines as absolute necessary if we are to extricate ourselves from the mess in which we find ourselves today.
My Lords, as always, I declare my European and agricultural interests as detailed in the register, including my membership of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1989—indeed, I was elected to the European Parliament on the same day as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin.
It is difficult to believe that we are today again debating the EU withdrawal agreement. Article 50 was triggered nearly two years ago. The withdrawal agreement of over 500 pages has been negotiated between our Government and the European Union and agreed last November. Under the terms of the withdrawal Act we leave in under 20 days, yet the House of Commons does not appear to be minded to agree the terms of the withdrawal. So, as we have all thought on many occasions, we could not have made this up—a British Government unable to get their business through the House of Commons and a House of Commons apparently incapable of deciding what it wants.
This Parliament and our way of governing ourselves has been admired for centuries. But at this significant moment in our history, as we extricate ourselves from our 46-year close treaty with our European partners, we are failing. The noble Lord, Lord Howard, referred to me having said that before and I apologise for repeating that phrase, but the fact is that we are failing. Every member of the Government and every Member of this Parliament must take some responsibility for that.
From the moment of the 2017 general election, I believe that we became irrevocably committed to honouring the result of the referendum, much as I and many others regretted that. Now we must leave, but with a deal. No Minister of the Crown, nor member of any British Government, can allow the country to leave without a transition period. The risks to so many fragile commercial activities are just too great, and every day we hear of new potential problems.
Should the Prime Minister’s deal not be approved tomorrow, it is almost certain that the other place will vote to reject no deal the following day. At that point, there is no alternative to seeking an extension to the Article 50 process. There have been suggestions that any extension would be a betrayal of the British people, but nothing, actually, could be further from the truth. A short extension of no more than three months is simply a practical way to gain more time to try to reach an agreement and avoid leaving without a deal and all the inherent dangers of such an eventuality. I well understand the misgivings of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, and others about a delay, but the lesser risk is to seek a little more time.
Any MP voting against the Prime Minister’s deal who does not recognise that we will have to seek an extension is in denial. The ultras, who still have an ideological desire to leave at any cost and without a deal, are seriously misguided and cannot be allowed to inflict such damage on the country. Although I have said it before, I feel obliged to repeat my plea to all parties, factions and groups to compromise at this moment. The deal is what we have. It gets us to 29 March and an orderly departure. It gives us 21 months or longer to negotiate our long-term new treaty with the EU. There will be no shocks on 30 March as nothing will change, provided that we leave with a deal. But the negotiation of the long-term arrangements must then have cross-party and intraparty agreement on what we want. We cannot again allow a lengthy and detailed treaty to be negotiated until the Government of the day are confident that they have broad support in the House of Commons.
We are not in a good place, but it is clear to me that the only way out now is to approve this less-than-perfect agreement and move to the next but much more important phase.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington—lots of soldiers have done so successfully.
Since there are no new facts in this debate, we have to deal with the fantasies of the weekend. Mr Johnson told us that the EU has treated the Attorney-General with contempt. The Attorney-General’s argument that the Irish protocol, which we negotiated, might itself be a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights seems to be an argument that might be treated with polite disdain. I do not think that the EU reacted with contempt when Mr Barnier reminded us that its original preferred offer of an all-Ireland customs union was still on the table.
The noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, said that the EU is intransigent; it is worth remembering that it was to suit us and Dublin that the EU came forward with the Irish protocol, breaching two of its guiding principles—the indivisibility of the four freedoms and the impossibility of extending single market status to a non-EU member, Northern Ireland. We may now not like the backstop, but our Government asked for it, our Government signed up to it in principle in December 2017, to Mr Johnson’s loud applause, and our Government signed up to it in detail in November 2018, to Mr Johnson’s loud disgust. It was Mr Barnier who persuaded some reluctant EU member states to allow us to have it, so it is no wonder that they are a bit baffled about the position now taken by the Attorney-General.
Mr Johnson today tells us that it would be preposterous to take the option of no deal off the table as it is vital that we do nothing further to weaken our negotiating position. Here I strongly agree with the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, that a threat to shoot ourselves in both feet continues to surprise the EU but provides us with no negotiating leverage whatever. Mr Johnson’s preferred solution today seems to be a slight misreading of the Malthouse proposal. Mr Johnson would like us to leave on 29 March but with a longer transition period which he describes as,
“a mutually agreed standstill in the existing arrangements, so that we can use the period to the end of 2021 … to do a proper free-trade deal”.
That is a fantasy. The fact is that we cannot have our cake and eat it—that has been established over the past three years. When we leave, we lose control. We have no voice, no vote and no veto. We are obliged to follow EU rules with no say in their making. That is what Mr Johnson used to call a “vassal state”.
There are also fantasies around even in the austere columns of the Financial Times. Mr Münchau says that it would be easier to reconcile the Norway option with the Irish backstop and that the Norway option offers a smooth transition. That is a fantasy. The fact is that the Norway option would create a customs frontier across Ireland. I do not see how that is easier to reconcile with the Irish backstop. The frontier across Ireland would be just like the Sweden/Norway frontier, but with many more crossing points and much more difficult to man. It in no way solves the backstop problem. Nor is the Norway option immediately available. It would require amendments to the EFTA treaty, with five ratifications required, and then the EEA treaty, with 31 ratifications required.
I hope and believe that tomorrow the other place will again vote against the draft treaty and the political declaration because I believe it is a humiliatingly bad deal. I know it is in no way determinant of the future UK/EU relationship and I think it is a recipe for years and years of rancorous negotiations stretching far into the future.
Like the noble Duke, I hope and believe that the other place will, again, firmly reject the grossly irresponsible idea of leaving with no agreed divorce terms, no understandings, however sketchy, about the future relationship, and no transition period. Only Mr Johnson, with his well-known respect for business views, could recommend such a course. However, if the other place rejects the deal and rejects no deal, it will be five to midnight and the only third option will be an Article 50 extension. Two and two make four; you cannot reject both the deal and no deal and not want an extension.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, asked what the extension would be used for. It might allow us to rethink our red lines; in fact, we have already fudged two of them a bit. The backstop gives the ECJ a role in dispute settlement, and of course it leaves us stuck—in my view, probably for a very long time—in a partial, unequal, unsatisfactory form of customs union. A real customs union, which this House voted for on Wednesday, would be much better. We have always known that if we changed our view on the red lines, the EU 27 would change their mandate. They have always said so and they would go on saying so. An extension would also allow us to check that all this really is what the country wants. I suspect that the Government know it is not, and that this is what the Prime Minister meant when she said in Grimsby on Friday:
“If we go down that road”—
the road of a second referendum—
“we might never leave the EU at all”.
Quite. It is called democracy.
I suspect that somebody may have shown the Prime Minister the latest YouGov poll—in only two out of 632 constituencies is there now a majority in favour of leaving—or maybe she has been shown the BMG poll, in which over 75% of the more than 2 million voters who have joined the electoral roll since 2016 would vote to remain.
Mr Baker of the ERG—this is one more fantasy—told us this weekend that any delay beyond 29 March would mean that democracy in this country was effectively dead. I am not sure. No one in June 2016 voted for the date of 29 March 2019. Some may have voted on the basis that the Irish frontier would in no way be affected, because that is what the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told them during the referendum campaign. Some may have voted on the basis that Turkey was about to join the EU, because that is what a number of senior members of the campaign—some still in the Government—told them. Some may have voted on the basis of what was said on the side of the bus about the NHS. Some may have believed that the deal with the EU would be the easiest in history, and that all these trade agreements would be lined up ready to sign, pre-negotiated and ready to go, and that “they need us more than we need them”.
If the Prime Minister cannot get her deal through the House of Commons, the honourable course will be to take her case to the country, but I do not think that she will. I believe she knows that the country, now knowing the real exit terms, would not vote to leave. I believe the Prime Minister is, to use the words of a greater Prime Minister, frit.
I was waiting for the noble Lord to finish his peroration. His experience of matters in Brussels is probably unparalleled in your Lordships’ Chamber. Does he think that Brussels would allow us to continue in our existing free trade with the European Union, but under the WTO and not the Luxembourg court, and, if not, why not?
I am not sure I caught all of the noble Lord’s question. If he is asking whether the EU wishes to have free trade agreements with the UK, the answer is yes, it does; tariff-free trade has always been part of the EU’s mandate. If the noble Lord’s question is whether in the event of a no-deal crash out we would secure tariff-free trade with the EU, the answer is no; the EU would on 30 March impose the common external tariff against our goods.
My Lords, that was not quite my question—
I am sorry. A question was posed and the noble Lord has done his best to respond to it. I suggest that noble Lords exchange correspondence.