My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows.
“Mr Speaker, I am sure the whole House will join me in condemning Saturday’s car bomb attack in Londonderry and paying tribute to the bravery of the Northern Ireland police and the local community, who helped to ensure that everyone got to safety. This House stands together with the people of Northern Ireland in ensuring that we never go back to the violence and terror of the past.
Turning to Brexit, following last week’s vote, it is clear that the Government’s approach had to change, and it has. Having established the confidence of Parliament in this Government, I have listened to colleagues across Parliament from different parties and with different views. Last week, I met the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Westminster leaders of the DUP, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party and Back-Bench Members from both sides of this House. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster also had a number of such meetings.
The Government have approached these meetings in a constructive spirit, without preconditions, and I am pleased that everyone we met took the same approach. I regret that the right honourable gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has not chosen to take part so far, and I hope he will reflect on that decision. Given the importance of this issue, we should all be prepared to work together to find a way forward, and my ministerial colleagues and I will continue with further meetings this week.
Let me set out the six key issues that have been at the centre of the talks to date. The first two relate to the process for moving forward. First, there is widespread concern about the possibility of the UK leaving without a deal. There are those on both sides of the House who want the Government to rule this out, but we need to be honest with the British people about what that means. The right way to rule out no deal is for this House to approve a deal with the European Union, and that is what this Government are seeking to achieve. The only other guaranteed way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to revoke Article 50, which would mean staying in the EU.
There are others who think that what we need is more time, so they say we should extend Article 50 to give longer for Parliament to debate how we should leave and what a deal should look like. That is not ruling out no deal but simply deferring the point of decision, and the EU is very unlikely simply to agree to extend Article 50 without a plan for how we are going approve a deal. So when people say, “Rule out no deal”, the consequences of what they are actually saying are that, if we in Parliament cannot approve a deal, we should revoke Article 50. I believe this would go against the referendum result, and I do not believe that is a course of action that we should take or one that this House should support.
Secondly, all the opposition parties that have engaged so far, and some Back-Benchers, have expressed their support for a second referendum. I have set out many times my deep concerns about returning to the British people for a second referendum. Our duty is to implement the decision of the first one. I fear that a second referendum would set a difficult precedent that could have significant implications for how we handle referendums in this country—not least, strengthening the hand of those campaigning to break up our United Kingdom. It would require an extension of Article 50, and we would very likely have to return a new set of MEPs to the European Parliament in May. I also believe that there has not yet been enough recognition of the way that a second referendum could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy. We do not know what the right honourable gentleman the Leader of the Opposition thinks about that because he has not engaged, but I know there are Members who have already indicated that they wish to test the support of the House for that path. I do not believe there is a majority for a second referendum and, if I am right then, just as the Government are having to think again about our approach going forwards, so too do those Members who believe that is the answer.
The remaining issues raised in the discussions relate to the substance of the deal, and on those points I believe we can make progress. Members of this House, predominantly but not only on the Government Benches and the DUP, continue to express their concern on the issue of the Northern Ireland backstop. All of us agree that as we leave the European Union we must fully respect the Belfast agreement and not allow the creation of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or indeed a border down the Irish Sea. And I want to be absolutely clear, in light of media stories this morning: this Government will not reopen the Belfast agreement. I have never even considered doing so, and nor would I.
With regard to the backstop, despite the changes we have previously agreed, there remain two core issues: the fear that we could be trapped in it permanently; and concerns over its potential impact on our union if Northern Ireland is treated differently from the rest of the UK. So I will be talking further this week to colleagues, including in the DUP, to consider how we might meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland in a way that can command the greatest possible support in the House. I will then take the conclusions of these discussions back to the EU.
From other parts of this House, concerns have also been raised over the political declaration. In particular, these have focused on a wish for further precision around the future relationship. The political declaration will provide the basis for developing our detailed negotiating mandate for the future, and this new phase of negotiations will be different in a number of ways. It will cover a far broader range of issues in greater depth, and so will require us to build a negotiating team that draws on the widest expertise available, from trade negotiators to security experts and specialists in data and financial services. And as we develop our mandate across each of these areas, I want to provide reassurance to the House. Given the breadth of the negotiations, we will seek input from a wide range of voices from outside government. That must include ensuring Parliament has a proper say, and fuller involvement, in these decisions.
It is the Government’s responsibility to negotiate, but it is also my responsibility to listen to the legitimate concerns of colleagues, both those who voted leave and who voted remain, in shaping our negotiating mandate for our future partnership with the EU. So the Government will consult this House on their negotiating mandate, to ensure that Members have the chance to make their views known and that we harness the knowledge of all Select Committees across the full range of expertise needed for this next phase of negotiations, from security to trade. This will also strengthen the Government’s hand in the negotiations, giving the EU confidence about our position and avoiding leaving the bulk of parliamentary debate to a point when we are under huge time pressure to ratify.
I know that to date Parliament has not felt it has enough visibility on the Government’s position as it has been developed and negotiated. It has sought documents through humble Addresses, but that mechanism cannot take into account the fact that some information when made public could weaken the UK’s negotiating hand. So as the negotiations progress, we will look to deliver confidential committee sessions that can ensure Parliament has the most up-to-date information, while not undermining the negotiations. And we will regularly update the House, in particular before the six-monthly review points with the EU foreseen in the agreement.
While it will always be for Her Majesty’s Government to negotiate for the whole of the UK, we are also committed to giving the devolved Administrations an enhanced role in the next phase, respecting their competence and vital interests in these negotiations. I hope to meet both First Ministers in the course of this week and will use the opportunity to discuss this further with them, and we will also look for further ways to engage elected representatives from Northern Ireland and regional representatives in England. Finally, we will reach out beyond this House and engage more deeply with businesses, civil society and trade unions.
Fifthly, honourable Members from across the House have raised strong views that our exit from the EU should not lead to a reduction in our social and environmental standards, and in particular workers’ rights. So I will ensure that we provide Parliament with a guarantee that not only will we not erode protections for workers’ rights and the environment but we will ensure this country leads the way. To that end, my right honourable friend the Business Secretary indicated the Government’s support for the proposed amendment to the meaningful vote put down by the honourable Member for Bassetlaw, including that Parliament should be able to consider any changes made by the EU in these areas in future. My right honourable friend and others will work with Members across the House, businesses and trade unions to develop proposals that give effect to this amendment, including looking at legislation where necessary.
Sixthly, and crucially, a number of Members have made powerful representations about the anxieties facing EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU who are waiting to have their status confirmed. We have already committed to ensuring that EU citizens in the UK will be able to stay and continue to access in-country benefits and services on broadly the same terms as now, in both a deal and a no-deal scenario. Indeed, the next phase of testing of the scheme for EU nationals to confirm their status was launched today. Having listened to concerns from Members, and organisations such as the3million group, I can confirm today that, when we roll out the scheme in full on 30 March, the Government will waive the application fee so that there is no financial barrier for any EU nationals who wish to stay. Anyone who has applied, or will apply, during the pilot phase will have their fee reimbursed. More details about how this will work will be made available in due course. Some EU member states have similarly guaranteed the rights of British nationals in a no-deal scenario, and we will step up our efforts to ensure that they all do so.
Let me briefly set out the process for the days ahead. In addition to this Statement, today I will lay a Written Ministerial Statement, as required under Section 13(4) and (5) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and table a Motion in neutral terms on this Statement, as required by Section 13(6). This Motion will be amendable and will be debated and voted on in this House on 29 January, and I will provide a further update to the House during that debate. To be clear, this is not a rerun of the vote to ratify the agreement we have reached with the European Union but the fulfilment of the process following the House’s decision to reject that Motion.
The process of engagement is ongoing. In the next few days, my ministerial colleagues and I will continue to meet with Members on all sides of the House and with representatives of the trade unions, business groups, civil society and others, as we try to find the broadest possible consensus on a way forward. While I will disappoint those colleagues who hope to secure a second referendum, I do not believe that there is a majority in this House for such a path, and while I want to deliver a deal with the EU, I cannot support the only other way in which to take no deal off the table, which is to revoke Article 50. So my focus continues to be on what is needed to secure the support of this House in favour of a Brexit deal with the EU.
My sense so far is that three key changes are needed. First, we will be more flexible, open and inclusive in the future in how we engage Parliament in our approach to negotiating our future partnership with the EU. Secondly, we will embed the strongest possible protections on workers’ rights and the environment. Thirdly, we will work to identify how we can ensure that our commitment to no hard border in Northern Ireland and Ireland can be delivered in a way that commands the support of this House and the European Union. In doing so, we will honour the mandate of the British people and leave the European Union in a way which benefits every part of our United Kingdom and every citizen of our country. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. I concur at the outset with the Prime Minister’s comments about Northern Ireland. It is an ongoing situation. As a former Minister in Northern Ireland, I know the impact that this will have on local communities. With all the work that has gone in over the years to bring peace to Northern Ireland, this will be devastating to so many. It proves how right it was that, across both Houses and across all parties, people worked together to get the Good Friday agreement and bring peace and stability to local communities.
We requested that this Statement be taken earlier in the day and that the time for Back-Bench contributions be extended. I am sorry that the Government were unable to accept that and rejected that request. However, after reading the Statement, I think I understand why. There is not much that is new or of any real substance. The Prime Minister made her Statement today as a direct result of Dominic Grieve’s amendment, which accelerated the timescales previously laid down in legislation, giving her three days to respond to the decision of the House of Commons.
This Statement is another reminder for your Lordships’ House of the value of the meaningful vote provisions in the withdrawal Act, which originated from an amendment passed in your Lordships’ House that required the Prime Minister to return to Parliament if her proposed deal—her “plan A”—was defeated. It was—overwhelmingly. But while Brexit remains Brexit, plan B does not mean plan B. It does not even look like an A+, perhaps more like an A-.
Following a historic and unprecedented defeat for the Prime Minister’s agreement, Mrs May offered to talk to MPs from all parties, with the Government approaching those meetings in what she called “a constructive spirit”. Yet it appears that the constructive spirit lasts only as long as it takes to agree with the Prime Minister. Despite having been challenged by the parliamentary leaders of all opposition parties—excluding the DUP, of course—to take a no-deal exit off the table, Mrs May has held firm and refused to do so.
We know that, under Article 50 and the withdrawal Act, no deal is the legal default, but the Government can change that. The Prime Minister should certainly acknowledge that it would be a calamitous outcome for the UK and therefore that it is of no value at all as a bargaining position. If the threat of a no-deal exit was being used by Mrs May to shore up support for the plan A deal, it was a spectacular misjudgment and failure. She rightly promised a change of approach, including a greater role for Parliament in setting the mandate for future trade negotiations. But, once again, within days we find out that nothing has changed. The Prime Minister said in her Statement that she had,
“listened to colleagues across Parliament from different parties and … different views”.
She might have listened, but she is clearly not truly hearing what people are saying.
A constructive spirit means willingness to compromise from all parties. In any negotiation that must be the starting point or there is simply nothing to be gained. It is no good the Prime Minister meeting the hardliners in the European Research Group and the DUP while sending her de facto deputy and her chief of staff to meet others on the other side of the argument. It is no good ruling out an option—an EU-UK customs union—that the Opposition support and the EU appears to be willing to negotiate while continuing to risk a chaotic no-deal exit that would leave citizens, businesses and communities with no certainty whatever.
Yet, rather predictably, the Prime Minister has today presented a so-called plan B that, as I have said, looks extraordinarily similar to her plan A: go back to Brussels for further talks, even as the clock ticks down; ask again for concessions on the backstop, even though the EU has been clear that it is not up for renegotiation; and then blame others for holding up Brexit, even though it is the Government who have negotiated an agreement that has been comprehensively rejected by all parties. In this House, we passed a Motion by an overwhelming majority, believing that the agreement would weaken our prosperity, security and global standing.
I do not know whether the noble Baroness can confirm this, but according to media reports on Friday Mrs May held a series of crisis phone calls with EU leaders, including Chancellor Merkel, in the wake of her historic defeat. Despite her offer to hold talks with opposition parties and build a cross-party consensus behind a new deal, EU diplomatic sources said that the Prime Minister’s demands were in fact completely unchanged—something that was “greeted with incredulity”. She has clearly made a conscious decision to reject common-sense solutions that could bring politicians and voters of all colours together in order to have another attempt at securing concessions and assurances that she has already failed to win back in December. It appears that this is simply an effort to keep her premiership alive—or, if not alive, at least on life support.
The Prime Minister ignores at every step of this process the fact that her hardliners have shown that they will not be swayed. They have undermined her authority at every turn and taken her right to the brink. Their opposition to the deal is as strong as Mrs May’s stubborn determination not to cede any ground to others, even if this could gain wider support and prevent a no-deal or a blind Brexit. This was highlighted at the weekend when a former Downing Street adviser was asked by Andrew Marr whether he had ever seen Theresa May compromise. His response? “I can’t think of one off the top of my head”. In other words, everyone—the Opposition, the EU 27, Cabinet members and Back-Benchers alike—has to shift position: everyone except Theresa May. That is no way to run a Government or a country and it is no way to conduct one of the most important and complex negotiations that a UK Government have ever participated in. If the Prime Minister’s objective is to deliver a Brexit that can bring the country back together, I have to say to the noble Baroness that that approach is doomed to failure.
While I disagree with much of the Prime Minister’s approach on Brexit, I welcome the clarity offered on the Good Friday agreement. I am sure I am not the only noble Lord who was concerned—we heard earlier that many noble Lords were—by the comments reported over the weekend. It surely must always be inconceivable that the Government would seek to reopen that agreement as a way of trying to break the impasse on the EU issue. Doing so would be completely unacceptable. It will be good if the noble Baroness could reinforce that in her comments.
I also welcome Mrs May’s announcement relating to the waiving of fees for EU citizens applying for settled status. That is another issue on which your Lordships’ House spoke early in the Brexit process and the Government should have acted months ago. We also welcome the commitment that we have asked for before that Ministers will brief Select Committees in confidence, rather than the only option being for MPs to force an issue by action on the Floor of the House of Commons. Could the Leader of the House confirm that this briefing will extend to our own EU committees and that they will also be briefed in confidence? I welcome the belated recognition that the Prime Minister needs a negotiating mandate from Parliament.
With each Statement and each vote, we continue edging towards 29 March and the disaster that would be no deal. I have a couple of questions for the Leader of the House. First, if, when the House of Commons has its debate next Tuesday, it instructs the Government to take a no-deal outcome off the table, how will the Prime Minister respond?
Secondly, however Mrs May responds to next week’s Commons votes, can the Leader of the House confirm that there will be the opportunity to consider the outcome in your Lordships’ House? I know that a formal Statement will be repeated, but she will recall that last week the Prime Minister made a point of order at the end of business. However the Statement is made, it would be helpful if this House could consider the outcome and Mrs May’s comments.
Finally, with so few legislative days available between now and 29 March, will the Government build on their commitment to engage with Select Committees and release the relevant clauses of the draft EU withdrawal agreement Bill to the Constitution Committee to enable some form of pre-legislative scrutiny? When the noble Baroness comes to answer those questions, I urge her to bear in mind her oft-repeated assurance that the Government are planning for all eventualities. As always, the House remains ready to be helpful to the Government, but we have stressed time and again that that can happen only if we have the relevant information at our disposal.
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement and echo the comments in it about Northern Ireland. This is a truly remarkable Statement, following the largest ever defeat of a Government on a major policy issue. If one loses a vote by 230, common sense dictates that there is something very flawed with the proposal that suffered the defeat, and that to get support for a replacement proposition some considerable changes will be needed. What magnitude of change does the Prime Minister think is required to turn things round?
The Prime Minister was very clear. “My sense”, she said, is that three changes are needed—just three. Here they are: first, being more flexible in involving Parliament in negotiating the future relationship with the EU; secondly, embedding the strongest possible protections on workers’ rights and the environment; and, thirdly, finding an alternative way to deliver no hard border in Northern Ireland. That is it; problem solved. But involving Parliament to a greater extent has been forced on the Prime Minister and will happen whatever she says or does. Workers’ rights and the environment are very important, but so are myriad other issues. The Government have never said that they would dilute protections in those areas anyway, so why is that a change? If there is a more universally acceptable alternative to the backstop for Northern Ireland, it would surely have been found ages ago. The Government’s proposal for a bilateral treaty with Ireland—today’s latest wheeze—was killed off the moment it saw the light of day.
Of the more substantive changes that the Prime Minister could have advocated but has ruled out, three stand out. First, there is ruling out no deal. The Prime Minister summarily rules this out, despite knowing that a large majority in the Commons, and probably in her Cabinet and Government, is strongly opposed to it. This just seems foolhardy.
Secondly, there is suspending Article 50. I suspect that if there is any proposition that would gain overwhelming support in Parliament, it is that Article 50 has to be extended, come what may. Even in the unlikely event of the Government gaining support for the deal, the idea that they could pass all the legislation required before 29 March without invoking emergency powers is completely fanciful.
Thirdly, there is a referendum. The Prime Minister has at least stopped repeating the nonsense that it would take a year to organise such a poll, but has said that it would be difficult to do so before the European Parliament elections. As my colleague and noble friend Lord Tyler has shown with his draft Bills, it would not be difficult in the slightest to have a people’s vote in May. As for the Prime Minister’s assertion that such a vote would threaten social cohesion, it is surely much less of a threat than trying to force through a deal which has neither the support of the Commons nor, more importantly, of the people as a whole.
It must be clear to everyone except the Prime Minister herself that her sense of what will secure a Commons majority is simply wrong. It is unsurprising therefore that Back-Benchers are seeking methods to take the initiative. There has been much criticism of plans by Nick Boles, Dominic Grieve, Yvette Cooper and others to allow the Commons to decide its own business, as this would require a change to Standing Orders. It is obviously up to the Commons to decide how it runs its affairs, but it is worth recalling that the Standing Order which gives government business priority was introduced by Gladstone in the 1880s to stop filibustering by Irish MPs and allow decisions to be taken. It was a straightforward political fix. It has, however, like many things in Parliament—such as the Barnett formula, possibly—metamorphosed over time from a fix to a sacred constitutional principle. It is no such thing. As a political heir to Gladstone, I am pretty sure that the grand old man would now be arguing for the rules to be changed, and I hope that they are.
As for your Lordships’ House, we will have a debate next Monday—presumably on a take-note Motion. As was the case last week, however, this hardly seems adequate, and I suspect that we will need to reconsider a Motion which again firmly opposes no deal and possibly covers other issues.
I know that Jean-Claude Juncker is not everyone’s favourite, but he surely got it right today when he said: “Don’t look for answers to Brussels. This is the moment for London to speak, not for us”. Today’s Statement shows that, if he awaits the Prime Minister for a viable way forward, he will be waiting for a very long time. We simply do not have that time.
I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments. I particularly thank the noble Baroness for her comments about recent events in Northern Ireland. I understand that tomorrow we will be repeating a Statement made in the other place earlier today, when perhaps we can discuss the matter in more detail.
Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord talked about ruling out no deal but, as the Statement made clear, it is not within the Government’s power to rule out no deal. Under Article 50, we will leave the EU without a deal on 29 March unless either Parliament agrees to a deal or the UK revokes Article 50, which the Prime Minister has said that we do not intend to do. They both talked about extending Article 50, but they will know that this requires the unanimous agreement of all 27 member states, so there is nothing that the UK Government or Parliament can do unilaterally to secure it. It raises practical issues—not least, for instance, in relation to the timing of the European parliamentary elections at the end of May. Also, the EU is simply unlikely to agree to extend Article 50 without a plan for how we will approve the deal, which is why we are working so hard to get a deal which Parliament can accept.
The noble Lord mentioned a second referendum. The Statement clearly sets out our concerns about that, but he will also know that even if a second referendum were an option, it would require primary legislation, and this would take time.
The noble Baroness asked about conversations with EU colleagues since last Tuesday’s vote. The Prime Minister has spoken to Chancellor Merkel, to Dutch Prime Minister Rutte and to Prime Minister Löfven of Sweden, and conversations will obviously continue over the coming days.
I am happy to affirm to both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord that this Government will never reopen the Belfast agreement. The Prime Minister has been clear that she has never considered it and never would.
The noble Lord mentioned the take-note Motion. He is absolutely right: we have tabled it this evening and we will discuss it next Monday. The noble Baroness asked me to speculate about what may or may not happen in the House of Commons next week. I do not think that my joining the speculation would be helpful. I can certainly say to her that, as always, this House will respond to any decisions made in the other place, and we are happy to work with the usual channels to ensure that we are given timely opportunities to do so. I am sure that those discussions will begin as soon as we see what happens in the House of Commons.
Finally, I reassure the noble Baroness that, as has been the case so far, offers which have been made to Commons committees on access to documents, et cetera, will be extended to their Lords counterparts. Obviously, we will need discussions about how that takes place. I say once again, as I have on numerous occasions, that the committees of this House have played an important and influential role in the process, and I will do all I can to ensure that they continue to do so.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that those who seek to exclude a no-deal result without also excluding a second referendum are simply illustrating that what they want is not to exclude a no-deal Brexit but not to have Brexit at all? Although I regret that the Prime Minister’s deal was rejected by the other place, particularly by such a catastrophic margin, can she throw any light on how some serious common ground will be found across that huge divide while the Prime Minister remains completely wedded to the red lines which have shackled and constrained this negotiation from the outset? Can my noble friend help the House with how this Prime Minister can possibly make this work?
What I can say to my noble friend is that the Government and all Members involved in these meetings are approaching them in a constructive spirit without preconditions, and everyone who has been met has taken the same approach. As the Statement made clear, following discussions with senior parliamentarians, the Prime Minister will be considering how we might meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland in a way that can command the greatest possible support. She will then take those conclusions back to the EU.
My Lords, does the Leader of the House agree that parliamentary government requires that the Government lead? Does she accept that there is a widespread view, shared by the ghost of Mr Gladstone, that procedural initiatives by Back-Benchers in another place, to wrest from the Government control of the agenda and the timetable for parliamentary business, are subversive of parliamentary government and set a dangerous precedent?
I do not think that my directly commenting on Commons procedures is helpful. I can certainly say that attempts to remove the Government’s power to negotiate our orderly exit from the EU at this crucial time are undoubtedly concerning and risk further paralysis in Parliament.
My Lords, will the Leader of the House answer two questions arising from the Statement? First, will she recognise that the Prime Minister’s description of her inability to rule out no deal is short of veracity? Of course she is right that we need the help of the EU 27 to do so, but she could perfectly well say that, as far as it was in the power of the Government, she intended to do everything possible to avoid no deal, instead of touting out that ridiculous “no deal’s better than a bad deal”.
Secondly, I was interested to hear what the Statement said about the consequences of a prolongation. How are the Prime Minister and the Government quite so sure that we would be compelled to have a European election in May? Has she perhaps been talking to the 27 about this possibility already? That is the only way to be sure. There are actually quite different options, one of which would be to leave the existing Members of the European Parliament there until we had made our decision.
On the noble Lord’s first point, the Prime Minister is committed to getting a deal, which is the best way to avoid no deal. That is what she has been pursuing. The talks continuing over the next few days will aim to ensure that a deal is put forward that can command support across the House of Commons. That is the best way to avoid no deal. As the noble Lord will know, and as I said in answer to earlier questions, Article 50 cannot be extended by the UK alone. It has to be in consultation and agreement with the EU. It is unlikely simply to agree to extend Article 50 without a plan for how we are going to approve a deal.
As I have said to noble Lords, I am not going to speculate on the decisions of the House of Commons. A Motion is down to which it is very clear MPs will table amendments. There will be votes on that. I am not going to stand here and speculate on what the outcome of that may be.
My Lords, if the Prime Minister had ever had any intention of probing the scope for consensual solutions to the problems of Brexit, she surely would have done that ages ago, preferably at the beginning of the process. She would not have waited two and a half years—two and a half years of confusion and crisis—before she did so. What she did last week was simply a political gimmick to try to get out of a difficult situation. What she has come up with today are more political gimmicks. The Prime Minister is really interested only in survival, is she not? She wants to play for time and to take the British people unwillingly over the cliff edge of a deal-free, hard Brexit and thereby to gain, or regain, the support of the European Research Group and stay in power a little longer.
I am afraid that I entirely disagree with the noble Lord. As I have said, the Prime Minister is focused on finding solutions that are negotiable and can command sufficient support in the House. I gently suggest to him that all other parties and leaderships have agreed to talk to the Prime Minister, but the leader of his party has not. It would be very good if he would change that position and get involved in these conversations, because they are so important.
My Lords, given that this excellent and welcome Statement makes it perfectly clear that the only honest ways to avoid no deal are either to support the withdrawal agreement or to revoke Article 50, which means the end of Brexit, would it not be worth considering making the Motion on 29 January a matter of confidence in Her Majesty’s Government?
My Lords, my noble friend has already referred to the Government last weekend publishing, apparently on the back of an envelope, some proposals which seemed to suggest that it would take 12 months to obtain a referendum. Since then, we have submitted a full analysis which shows that a referendum could be held in May. Does the fact that there is no reference to the timescale in the Statement which the Leader has repeated to your Lordships today mean that we can now take it that the logic of our submission is accepted and the ludicrously alarmist analysis by the Government has been withdrawn?
My Lords, is it not the case that if the Prime Minister is to get Parliament’s approval for this agreement she will have to show the same degree of flexibility as she expects of others? Is it not also the case that her own party in another place, while rejecting her deal, is denying her that flexibility? While that remains the case, are we not just wasting crucial time?
Obviously, it was a large defeat last week and the Prime Minister has recognised that, which is why she has begun these conversations, along with other senior members of the Government and Cabinet. We want to find solutions that can command support across the House of Commons, so that we can leave the European Union with a deal that is good for both of us.
My Lords, I commend to my noble friend the excellent biography of Disraeli by Lord Hurd of Westwell. She would note in there the chapter on the Corn Laws, when Peel decided to put the national interest before party interest. She would then go on to read the judgment by Disraeli on Peel, which is contained in his biography of Lord George Bentinck. Disraeli said of Peel that he was the greatest Member of Parliament that ever lived. Is there not a lesson for the Prime Minister here?
The Prime Minister is being flexible and is looking forward, because she is opening dialogue with MPs and parties across the House of Commons. The purpose of those meetings is to find areas of consensus on a way forward so that we can move on.
My Lords, have the Government read the paper published on 7 January by the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, and Councillor Brendan Chilton entitled 30 Truths about Leaving on WTO Terms; that is, about leaving without a deal? If they have read it, will they say whether they disagree with any of it? If they agree with it, will they support it publicly and at least try to enlighten those who still believe, or pretend to believe, that leaving without a deal would be some sort of disaster, whereas it would be much preferable to the non-deal which is on the table?
I am afraid that I disagree with the noble Lord. The Government believe that we can do better than trading under WTO rules, which is why we are taking forward the deal. WTO rules would mean tariffs and quotas on British goods going to the EU; for instance, trading on WTO rules would mean a 10% tariff on cars that we sold to the EU and average tariffs of over 35% on dairy products. We believe that leaving with a deal is the best option.
My Lords, I add my voice to those who have condemned the car bomb attack in my own city of Londonderry at the weekend. The people responsible are cowards and have no place in any society. If it was not for the quick action of the police and the emergency services, we would be looking at fatalities today.
The Statement says:
“With regard to the backstop, despite the changes we have previously agreed”—
are these the letters that the Prime Minister has received from the EU clarifying the backstop which have no legal standing? I say to the Leader of the House that the real changes need to be made in the international agreement on the backstop that was legally signed up to by the Prime Minister. That is the only way in which this issue can be resolved. Up to now, the EU has said no to making those changes. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister will have further discussions with Back-Benchers and her own party and then take those discussions to Europe, but the real changes need to be made within the agreement signed by the Prime Minister.
Clearly, the exchange of letters between the Government and the EU last week did not provide the assurances that we hoped for but I reinforce the point that those letters have legal force, as a matter of international law. The letters must be considered when interpreting the agreement, including during arbitration. We are determined to deliver on our commitment to the people of Northern Ireland that there will be no hard border, but there needs to be a mechanism in place to deliver that. It was clear from last week’s debate and vote that concerns remain about what assurances the Prime Minister has managed to achieve so far. That is why a key part of the conversations that will be had over the coming week will be to focus on what reassurance Members across the House need to support a deal that can ensure a strong relationship with the EU.
Is there any suggestion of some other solution to the Irish border than what has already been achieved? Unless there is some pretty fundamental proposal to deal with this matter, it is quite hard to see how that opposition in the House of Commons can be overcome. I understood that it was that matter which really produced the result that it did there. It therefore seems that that particular question, which has been there from the beginning, requires a solution. I would like to know whether any of the people who have been invited to Downing Street—I saw quite a number going in, one way or another—have produced a solution different from that which the Prime Minister has already proposed.
As my noble and learned friend will know, neither the EU nor the UK wishes to use the backstop. We have already set out a number of other mechanisms that could be used if a deal is not completed by December 2020, as we believe it will be; for instance, extending the implementation period or looking at facilities for technology. There are other options but, in relation to the backstop itself, the assurances that the Prime Minister brought back from her conversations with the EU did not satisfy Members across the House so we are continuing to work on that. The Prime Minister is focused on solutions and she is interested in the ideas of others but, of course, we have to make sure that whatever we take to the EU is something that it will ultimately be able to agree with.
My Lords, last week it appeared that the Prime Minister was saying that she was listening yet had not heard anything at all. This seems to have been going on for about the last two and a half years. This week, there seems to have been a slight change but she has referred to three key changes. One, it would appear, is about a change to her own style; another is about the backstop, where there is no sign of any change whatever; the third is the question of the strongest possible protections on workers’ rights and the environment. Will the Leader tell us, first, how the Prime Minister expects us to believe that that has anything to do with the European Union and the deal rather than being about domestic politics which we can determine at home, regardless of what the EU 27 say? Secondly, how is she going to square those points, which presumably Her Majesty’s Official Opposition want, with what the European Research Group wants?
I am surprised that the noble Baroness is not welcoming the guarantee that we will not only not erode protection for workers’ rights and the environment but ensure that the country leads the way. We have been saying that and it is absolutely true. In fact, noble Lords have raised that in numerous ways and we will work with Members, Peers, businesses and trade unions to develop proposals to do this, including looking at legislation where necessary. I would have thought the noble Baroness would strongly welcome that.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon is right to say that this Statement really takes us no further forward. In fact, it could be summed up as the dog that did not bark at the elephant in the room. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has made it clear that she has no intention of reopening the Belfast agreement, especially in the light of the very serious news from Londonderry over the weekend. However, I doubt that the Government have any idea what a no-deal Brexit would mean, not only for our country but for our nearest and most important trading neighbour: Ireland. Will the Leader think again about the situation of not taking no deal off the table?
I can certainly reassure the noble Baroness that the issue of the border has been absolutely paramount in our minds, which is why the Prime Minister has worked so hard to make sure that we and the EU can come up with a solution that works to ensure that we keep our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland. That is what we are absolutely determined to do.
My Lords, perhaps I could return to the point that was made that the language used by the EU in describing the effect of the backstop has no legal standing. There may be reason to think that the words it used have a greater force as understood in Europe than we give credit for. It might well be worth asking the Attorney-General to look more closely at the meaning of the words because it would be most unfortunate if the whole thing were to fall apart because of a gulf between what we and the EU think the words mean, and how it regards them as affecting its future conduct. They may well be much stronger than we so far give them credit for. There may be a way through if we really understood what they meant.
Does my noble friend accept that it would be most irresponsible for the Government to drop the preparation and option of no deal, for two very good reasons? The first is that it might happen and the second is that it massively strengthens our negotiating position in getting a better deal.
I thank my noble friend and he is absolutely right: although we are working towards a deal, which is what we want to achieve, all responsible Governments have to prepare for a range of contingencies. It is therefore absolutely right that we continue to prepare for no deal.
I am concerned by the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, about a negotiating advantage. It is a myth. I do not think you strengthen your negotiating hand by saying, “If you don’t give me what I want, I will shoot myself”. This is the “Blazing Saddles” argument, which worked very well for the sheriff in that film but does not work in Brussels. Perhaps I may say to the Leader that there is a third way of avoiding the disaster of no deal: to recognise the inevitable. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, said that we are going to need an extension under Article 50. I believe that that has become absolutely clear, for all sorts of reasons. I also believe that so shocked are our friends on the continent by the chaos and incompetence of our political system here, they would be perfectly willing to concede now that there should be a short extension, in order that we can get our act together.
As I have said—the noble Lord alluded to this—an extension requires the unanimous agreement of all 27 member states, so there is nothing that the UK Government or Parliament can do unilaterally to secure it. They are unlikely simply to agree to extend Article 50 without a plan for how we are to get a deal approved. That is what we are working on.