Motion to Take Note
That this House, in accordance with the provisions of section 13(6)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, takes note of the Written Statement titled “Statement under Section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018”, made on 21 January, and of the Written Statement titled “Statement under Section 13(11)(a) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018”, made on 24 January.
My Lords, the EU withdrawal Act set out a process for the Government to follow in the event that at this point we had not secured a deal to leave the European Union which had been approved by the House of Commons. In accordance with Section 13 of the Act, last week the Government made two Written Statements. The first was to set out next steps following the result of the vote on Tuesday 15 January. The second was to confirm how the parliamentary process would work going forward. So today’s debate—the latest but, I suspect, not the last—is in one sense simply a formal step that we have to take to satisfy the requirements of the legislation, but it also offers an opportunity to take stock.
The Motion before the House asks us to take note of both Statements in the same terms as the government Motion that the House of Commons will debate tomorrow. The Commons Motion is amendable, so there are likely to be votes on a variety of options at the conclusion of the debate. Noble Lords will be aware that a number of amendments have been tabled in the other place. They range from time-limiting the backstop, or replacing it with alternative arrangements, to seeking an extension to Article 50 or membership of a customs union. It will be for Mr Speaker to select the amendments to be voted on, and for MPs to decide what to support.
It is not my role to speculate on the outcome of the proceedings in the other place, and I will not do so. However, the Government and this House will need to reflect on any decisions that are made tomorrow. In this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, has tabled her own Motion. I will leave it to my noble friend Lord Callanan to respond to it; I have no doubt that he is eagerly looking forward to his third opportunity in recent weeks to respond to a debate of this sort.
This will not be the last time that the House of Commons is on the cusp of significant decisions which this House will want to have an opportunity to inform. I will do all I can, working with the other parties in this House, to ensure that that happens. We in this House have helped shape the process of leaving the EU and will continue to do so in the months ahead. In opening the debate on 6 December, I outlined the contribution that this House has made to the legislative programme needed to leave the European Union. It has considered legislation line by line. It has asked questions of government, proposed amendments and improved Bills through its work, but it has ultimately recognised the primacy of the House of Commons when the two Houses have disagreed. As Leader of this House, I have defended its right to do this and will continue to do so.
All of us—Government and Opposition, Front Benches and Back Benches—are working in a political environment charged with uncertainty, and in view of this noble Lords have reasonably raised questions about the legislative programme ahead. I heard the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, when she asked us last week to give the greatest possible notice of our plans so that the House as a whole, and its Select Committees in particular, can plan their work. All of us recognise the unusual constraints the Government are currently facing in planning their legislative agenda due to the fact that significant decisions are being taken on the Floor of the House of Commons which fundamentally shape what happens next. We are a bicameral Parliament. This House does not operate in a vacuum, and very often the business in each House is dependent on the progress of the same business in the other.
The uncertainty we face today relates to future decisions of the House of Commons over a deal, to future negotiations which may follow such decisions, and to the timing of subsequent legislation which would be needed to give effect to a deal. Finding satisfactory outcomes could scarcely be more critical. But we should not be distracted from the task at hand. The uncertainty surrounding elements of the process does not mean that this House has been sitting idly by while others attempt to find answers to these questions. So far this Session, we have played a key role in passing five Acts which help ensure that the UK will have a functioning statute book whatever the outcome of the negotiations. In the remainder of this week alone we will be considering exit-related bills such as the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill and the Trade Bill. Next week we begin our consideration of the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill. We are also pressing ahead with key domestic legislation: over the next fortnight we are considering the Offensive Weapons Bill and the Finance (No. 3) Bill.
A number of noble Lords have expressed concern over our ability to scrutinise EU exit-related secondary legislation effectively. The Government have worked hard to ensure that this legislation is brought forward in a timely way, and we have engaged proactively with committees and opposition parties in both Houses on the way it should be scrutinised, including through the introduction of new sifting mechanisms.
Our Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, chaired by my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, and its two sub-committees, chaired by my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, are doing an excellent job—as of course are the Members of this House who sit on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. I know that we are all extremely grateful to them for their hard work. This legislation is essential to provide legal continuity in a no-deal scenario. But of course much of it will also be needed if we leave the EU with a deal.
Since Christmas we have spent well over 20 hours debating this legislation in Grand Committee and on the Floor of the House, although some contributions were perhaps not quite as focused on the policy issues at hand as they could have been. In organising the forward programme of work, my noble friend the Government Chief Whip and I will continue to work in a constructive way with our counterparts in the usual channels and to give as much notice of our timetable as is practical. We are all aware of the challenges ahead. By working together, we have already shown flexibility in timetabling. For instance, during the course of the withdrawal Bill, we sat earlier to ensure that the House had more time to scrutinise the legislation. Of course, as is normal at this point of the year, from the end of this month sitting Thursdays will revert to government business.
The decisions that Parliament takes in the next few weeks will have profound consequences for the future of this country. Recognising this, since I last addressed this House the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers have continued to meet parliamentarians and others across the political spectrum—including Members across the political parties in both Houses and representatives of business groups and trade unions—in order to find the broadest possible consensus on a way forward. I am sure that tomorrow the Prime Minister will provide an update on these discussions when she addresses the other place.
The Government recognise the responsibility they have to deliver the result of the referendum and to maintain the trust of the public in the political system which serves them. Parliament must recognise that it too has a responsibility in this regard. We all have to act in the interests of the people of the United Kingdom. Although I strongly disagree with them, some noble Lords will no doubt argue today that those interests would be best served by sending the question back to the people or even by Parliament coming to the opposite conclusion of the referendum result and deciding to remain in the European Union.
This Front Bench recognises the right of noble Lords to strongly challenge the Government, but we can work effectively only if the House acts responsibly and constructively. I know that my noble friend the Government Chief Whip is pleased that the usual channels in this House work so well together. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said last week, we intend for Parliament to have a still greater role in the next phase of our negotiations should a withdrawal agreement and future framework be agreed. This will include confidential committee sessions that can ensure that Parliament has the most up-to-date information, while not undermining the negotiations.
As I said in response to questions last week, this commitment applies to Select Committees of this House as well as to those of the House of Commons. That was reiterated by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union when he gave evidence to the European Union Committee last week.
I think it is fair to say that we are in uncharted waters. However, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister remains focused on finding solutions to deliver Brexit that are negotiable and that command support across the political spectrum. Only by doing that can we provide the country with the certainty that it urgently needs. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her contribution on her Motion, although I am not sure that she said much about what we were expecting on the deal that we thought was in the Motion. She said that we were taking stock, but if we take stock of where we have got to so far it does not take very long because we have not got very far.
There are huge amounts of legislation still required prior to exit day, and at times the noble Baroness’s comments sounded like a lecture or a ticking-off. We should all be grateful to noble Lords across this House who give up their time and expertise to scrutinise primary and secondary legislation.
We are debating both Motions together for the convenience of the House. I will speak to my Motion and move it at the end of the debate. I will test the opinion of the House, although there are some things in what the noble Baroness said that implied that she might be able to accept my Motion. I hope that that will be the case. If the Government could indicate that, it would be very welcome. She seems a bit flustered, but I live in hope—I am one of life’s optimists. If that is not the case, I will test the opinion of your Lordships’ House.
Following the result of the referendum, few could have imagined that, more than 30 months later, there would still be so much division and so little agreement. I made the point last week, on our amendment about information required to complete consideration of the Trade Bill, about how often we were told how easy it was going to be. We were told, for example, that our existing trade agreements could be rolled over in an afternoon and new deals would be in place, apparently, one second after Brexit. Yet here we are, 60 days to exit day, with our country more divided and frustrated about the political process than ever before. Despite stark warnings, including from business, the NHS, and food producers and suppliers, the Prime Minister continues to refuse to take even one step towards ruling out the most damaging and catastrophic of outcomes: crashing out of the EU. Instead, Mrs May is seeking to use it as a bargaining chip with her MPs to try to force through a deal that has already been resoundingly rejected. As I remarked previously, the plan B that she has offered seems remarkably similar to plan A.
Despite offers of talks and political engagement, there has been no real attempt to seek wider support or build a consensus. Since the referendum, your Lordships’ House has had many contributions on the detail of how the Government should reflect the outcome of the referendum, which the noble Baroness referred to. We have had debates on legislation, Motions such as this one—I welcome the Minister back to the Dispatch Box to respond—many questions on different aspects, debates on the detailed reports of our excellent EU sub-committees, and regular Statements from the Prime Minister have been repeated, most Mondays, in your Lordships’ House. At every point, this House has sought to be useful. Many of our suggestions and amendments, including on issues such as Northern Ireland and our future relationship with the EU agencies, have ultimately been accepted or slightly amended by MPs.
I often reflect on the amendment to the withdrawal Bill tabled by my noble friends Lord Monks and Lord Lea, who sought to persuade the Government that the Prime Minister should engage with Parliament and seek a mandate for her negotiations. That way, she would have had a better idea of what Parliament would accept, which would have strengthened her hand. Instead, she chose to go it alone, with a predictable rejection, although the scale of that rejection was astounding.
Time is now running out. With the clock ticking down, and MPs voting tomorrow to seek a way forward, how can we in your Lordships’ House be most helpful? The legislation relating to a meaningful vote was initiated in this House—that is clear. It is the responsibility of the elected House to hold that meaningful vote on whether to accept the outcome of the Prime Minister’s negotiations, and it remains for the elected Members of Parliament to decide. As we draw closer to exit day, it is clear that Mrs May has failed to find acceptance for the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration that she negotiated, losing the vote in the other place with the largest parliamentary defeat in living memory. However, despite the urging of colleagues from across the political spectrum, the Prime Minister continues to raise the spectre of leaving without any deal or agreements. It is true that it is not entirely within her gift to guarantee a deal. However, Mrs May could—and should—send a clear signal to the EU 27 that all possible steps should be taken to rule out a chaotic and reckless no-deal exit. There will be different views on who must take responsibility for getting to this stage with so little clarity and agreement, and so much division across our country. But that is for another time. At this stage, a way forward has to be found.
The Motion in my name is in two parts. First, it is a factual recognition of where we are. Your Lordships’ House was clear about our position on a crash-out exit when we voted, by a majority of 169, to reject that as an option, and MPs have resoundingly rejected Mrs May’s proposals. It is probably worth noting that the House of Commons also agreed an amendment to the Finance Bill to limit the Government’s powers in the event of no deal. Secondly, my Motion proposes how we should respond to the next steps taken by the House of Commons. In some ways, that should just be taken as read, but it is worth restating. It may be that, following their debates and votes tomorrow in the other place, MPs will be no clearer as to how to proceed. But it is also possible—I said that I am an optimist—that MPs may agree on a way forward: either a conclusion or a process to reach a conclusion. Time is running out. If, in the few days that remain, the elected MPs find a course of action that has majority agreement through the Motions and amendments for debate tomorrow, we must respond positively.
Once we accept the premise that crashing out is too damaging for the UK to seriously accept, few options remain. It is for our elected colleagues to decide at this stage which option to pursue from the amendments tabled. These include: support for the Prime Minister’s Motion; some kind of indicative vote on the options that MPs may agree to; to seek more time, if no agreement can be reached at this stage, through a limited extension of Article 50; or—if there is simply no majority for any option—to return to the electorate with a further public vote.
The Labour amendment restates our policy of rejecting a no deal outcome, seeking a permanent customs union and negotiating a strong relationship with the single market that recognises the importance of EU-derived social protections. It also acknowledges that Parliament may have to seek further approval from the public. Other proposals are on the table. Some make requests of the EU 27, particularly in relation to the backstop, while others ask the Government to pause for further reflection, instead of deliberately running down the clock and crashing out.
Tomorrow evening we may know what our elected colleagues want the Prime Minister to do next. That is, quite rightly, a decision for them and them alone. My Motion reiterates the stated position of your Lordships’ House on rejecting a no deal Brexit, and, if the House of Commons agrees a course of action that requires new legislation, makes it clear that both the Government and this House should facilitate its passage. It is nothing more than that, but they expect nothing less of us.
I hope, therefore, that the Leader of the House and the Minister will respond positively to my proposals today. If not, I will move my Motion to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, today’s debate is the seventh opportunity for the House to discuss the Government’s deal since the first debate on the withdrawal agreement and political declaration on 5 December—some eight weeks ago. We have had two full debates, three Statements and one Urgent Question. It is now just over eight weeks to the anticipated exit date. Yet over the past eight weeks we have moved no closer to a Brexit outcome that can command a majority in the Commons.
The only substantive change that the Government are seeking to the deal that suffered such a catastrophic defeat two weeks ago is that the Prime Minister is looking to find a way of keeping a frictionless border in Northern Ireland that does not involve the current backstop proposals. To date, there is simply no credible suggestion as to how that might be achieved.
With every passing day, however, confusion continues to reign, and businesses and individuals are voting with their feet. Within the past few days the high-profile headquarters moves of Sony, Dyson and the European Medicines Agency have been announced, but behind the big headlines myriad smaller companies are opening warehouses and offices in continental Europe to ensure that their companies survive Brexit. They are being wooed ever more openly by political and business leaders across the EU, with, for example, high-profile political interventions from Belgium and France last week. Furthermore, when it comes to EU migrants, the Polish Prime Minister has issued a “please come home” appeal—and there is every sign that it is working. When I asked why a popular local restaurant closed over Christmas, I was told that it was still making money but that, “The Poles went home”.
The Motion before the House in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, is in two parts. The first part reiterates our opposition to a no-deal outcome. Many noble Lords have spoken in previous debates about the costs of such an outcome. To show its utter folly, I simply refer your Lordships to the article in yesterday’s Sunday Times, in which it is reported that officials are having to consider the introduction of a state of emergency, or even martial law, to deal with the possible impacts of no deal. This is madness indeed.
The other part of the Motion reflects the fact that, over the past eight weeks, despite our debates in the Lords—and indeed our vote a fortnight ago—we have counted for little. But this may be about to change. The proposals which will be debated in the Commons tomorrow include one led by Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles which would have the effect of deferring the withdrawal date by several months, and would enshrine this in a Bill. As with every other Bill, it would come to your Lordships’ House. It is therefore particularly important today for your Lordships to assert that, if that is the case, we will deal with it in a timely manner and not seek to thwart it.
It should not be necessary for us to do this. Your Lordships’ House has always acted quickly in response to urgent legislation that has gone through the Commons. For example, some of us remember the passage of the Bill to rescue Northern Rock. But in this case there is clear evidence that some Ministers are actively seeking to encourage Members of your Lordships’ House to filibuster on the Cooper Bill if it passes the Commons. According to last Friday’s Daily Mail—so it must be true—Liam Fox has had meetings with pro-Brexit Peers to discuss such filibustering: a tactic that other government sources have also predicted, hence the many articles to this effect over the weekend.
I cannot believe that the Leader, the Chief Whip or the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, would countenance such behaviour, but it would be extremely reassuring if the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, could confirm in his winding-up speech that they will positively discourage it.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I am fascinated by his allegation—but, as he says, is a matter of scaremongering in the newspapers. He has spent some time asking people to rebut this allegation. Can he name a single Peer who has been approached by Mr Fox to engage in this filibustering? I have to say that I am aware of none.
It may come to the noble Lord as a bit of a shock, but Liam Fox is not in the habit of consulting me about secret meetings and who attends them—so, unsurprisingly, I cannot answer his question. Amazingly, Peers who, were they to be thinking of filibustering in your Lordships’ House, have not written a letter to the papers saying, “I have had this good idea of filibustering in the House of Lords. I am looking for volunteers to join me. If you are interested, here’s my email address ”.
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I have not been approached by Liam Fox, either—but if it came to filibustering, I certainly learned a lot of lessons on the EU withdrawal Bill from the Liberal Democrats.
I am sure that the noble Lord has learned many lessons from the Liberal Democrats: principally about the cost of every aspect of our leaving the EU, which my colleagues, 30 of whom spoke during debates on the withdrawal Bill, enunciated so clearly.
As I was saying, I hope that we will pass this Motion tonight to signal to the Commons the clear view of your Lordships’ House that, were MPs to decide to pass the Cooper Bill or any other legislation relating to the Brexit timetable or process, your Lordships’ House would deal with it in a timely manner.
The Cooper Bill is a recognition of what everybody knows: namely, that there is no way that the UK will be in a position to leave the EU in a mere eight weeks’ time with the full panoply of post-Brexit legislation in place. The inability or unwillingness of the Government to say how many Brexit-related SIs have been passed into law is testament to this. So is the withdrawal, because of its flaws and errors, of the mammoth SI which the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, recently drew to the attention of the House. So is the fact that, with the exception of the Trade Bill, the various other major Bills which we will need to pass—on agriculture, fisheries and immigration—have not yet had even their Second Readings in your Lordships’ House.
In a BBC interview on Friday, the Leader of the Commons implicitly recognised this when she said, in respect of the need to get all the legislation through, that,
“if we needed a couple of extra weeks or something then that would be feasible”.
So an extension is on its way, one way or another. The only thing that is unclear is the basis on which such an extension will be sought. I suspect that if the Prime Minister simply asked for more time to try to come up with something which would unify the Conservative Party, she would be met with a firm rebuff by the EU. Even in the unlikely event that she was able to discover an alternative to the Irish backstop that satisfied the EU and her own party, the Government would need more time simply to get the necessary legislation though.
The other justification for more time would be to allow the people to express their view, with an option to remain in the EU. Your Lordships know that that is what we on these Benches support. I can only reiterate that there is now widespread support for a people’s vote across the country and a growing majority who say that, in such a vote, they would vote to stay in the EU. In arguing against such a vote and in answer to a Question last Thursday from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, said that in the 2016 referendum a majority of the electorate voted to leave the EU. That is of course not the case: 37% of the electorate voted to leave. I hope that in his winding-up speech the noble Lord will take the opportunity to correct that error.
There is no doubt that the country is now heartily fed up with endless Brexit arguments. There is a growing, and accurate, sense that while we wrangle over this issue, virtually every other area of public policy is being unaddressed. This week Parliament has the chance to narrow down the options and make some progress. Our role in your Lordships’ House is secondary, but we still have an obligation to ourselves and the country to play it to the full. I therefore urge noble Lords to support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith.
My Lords, the noble Lord advanced a number of hypotheses that may or may not happen. As general principles, though, would it not be astonishing if the Government could not accept these two parts of the Opposition’s Motion? We know that it is the Government’s policy to try to avoid a no deal: surely they must feel an obligation to give adequate time to this House to pass any consequent legislation?
My Lords, as the Brexit process nears its high noon, I suggest to your Lordships that it might be a useful time for us as a House, as the noble Baroness has suggested, to think a little not just about the withdrawal process but about safeguarding the health of our parliamentary democracy. With all this wild talk about citizens’ assemblies, the national fury and frustration at the deadlock in Parliament, and Parliament being widely despised and, indeed, ridiculed, I am afraid that the parliamentary institution itself is clearly now in danger.
Parliament is being depicted outside this place as a ship of fools, drifting fast towards a no-deal cataract, with all the Members of Parliament on board desperately calling for the Government to somehow shift, abolish, postpone or rule out the cataract and the chaos ahead—with a shower of amendments, as we have heard, and with a proposed Bill which, incidentally, I understand cannot be passed anyway, regardless of filibustering, without a money Bill from the Government; so it cannot be passed at all, if the Government oppose it. It might be worth the noble Lord, Lord Newby, checking on that, because he is looking puzzled. The suggestion that you can somehow wish the cataract away is a brilliant idea—if you shut your eyes tight and wish hard, the nasty waterfall or cliff-edge will disappear and something else will turn up. Of course, in real life the only course is to turn the ship round and head fast upstream to the safety of the withdrawal deal that we have on the table, with the backstop tweaked, clarified or perforated if possible—but, basically, that is the one anchorage available. Short of that, the rocks of the cataract are unavoidable, however many amendments MPs pass and however many tables it is taken off.
A number of people, especially our good friends the Lib Dems, keep saying, “Well, what about a second referendum?” The problem—and I really ask them to think about this, because I do not think they have—is that plebiscites do not solve anything. First, they certainly weaken parliamentary government and smash our national unity, as we saw with the previous referendum. The idea that a second referendum—in fact, it will be the third—will settle the issue is pure fantasy. Secondly, mass voting events are now more open to vicious manipulation than ever before. Of course, dictators twisted and corrupted mass opinion in the 20th century, but now that giant algorithms and incredible power can target millions of people individually and bombard them with a cascade of endless slogans, true or untrue, fake or real, the facts are 10 times worse. Indeed, not an hour ago, we heard a Question emphasising that point.
Now there is an even bigger danger of distortion which applies not only to plebiscites but to all big public votes and elections, and that is foreign meddling. Disinformation has become a worldwide currency, and a cheap one too, allowing not just weaker nations but sinister hacking groups of no known allegiance to undermine and confuse facts and truth so that discord, descending into street violence, can be sown and all forms of democracy discredited with terrifying ease. In effect, the true voice of the people has become harder and harder to discern and act on. That is the reality we now face.
As for the next stage of Brexit, anyone who thinks that it will all be put to bed via a referendum or any other means in the next two years is living in a fool’s paradise. Like many others, I have struggled with this underlying conflict in one form or another for most of my political life. In or out of the European Union, and with all the tensions between existing members, which are growing all the time, I see a future Europe of constant bargaining: an endless, continuous set of disputes between the legitimate yearnings for national unity, identity, sovereignty and independence and the pull of ever-deeper interdependence and collaboration, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, reminded us the other day. These forces are working in both directions, they are driven by unstoppable technology and they are constantly clashing as new issues come along. My noble friend Lord Patten—I do not know whether he is in his place today—was worrying about having to debate customs unions for ever. Yes, he is right. They will indeed be debated in 50 different varieties long after he and I have gone.
As for Ireland, the puzzle for me is this: it has been obvious from the start that, contrary to what has been asserted, modern means are available and can work to keep the border invisible. At first, the EU high priests said that all these systems were “magical” and dismissed them, but now we have Mr Juncker admitting that they exist and could work. The reality is that long before we get anywhere near a backstop, well inside any transition phase, a workable open border can be up and running—probably rather similar to either the sort of minimalist borders that exist already in Northern Ireland or the sort of borders that exist elsewhere across Europe between EU member states, all of which are completely consistent with the subtle ambiguity at the heart of the Good Friday agreement.
There is the additional reality that a hard, sealed border is in practice impossible. In Ireland, under Mr Willie Whitelaw almost half a century ago, I and my colleagues tried to close the border with military and customs posts to stop the Provisionals and their weapons coming up from Dundalk. It made not the slightest difference. All that happened was that a number of young soldiers and brave customs officials got murdered. You would need a wall across Ireland, like in Mexico or Israel, to make a hard border, which no one wants anyway.
We are on a long journey, step by step. As my noble friend the Duke of Wellington said in a speech in the Chamber the other day, many things that cannot be fixed now will become soluble later. As the wise noble Lord, Lord Bew, says, “Things evolve”. Relationships evolve. Trade patterns evolve. The EU evolves; it is doing so very rapidly before our eyes. People who keep calling for certainty and guarantees will have to go on calling, because there is no certainty in life or business and certainly not in our connections with our neighbours. Francis Bacon said, “If a person will begin with certainties, they shall end in doubts”.
I am not closely acquainted with the Prime Minister, and I have hardly ever met her, but I know political courage when I see it. She is criticised for Brexit delay, but actually the delay is proving invaluable. I would make it a confidence vote. A touch more delay, and a good strong will, will work wonders. Every day that passes is clearly bringing a stronger realisation, to those with closed minds, that short of massive dislocation and self-harm, there is only one practical way of delivering Brexit—hopefully with a few adjustments wrung out of the EU, but we will have to see what can be obtained. We know the realities. The Prime Minister’s courage, denounced by all the jejune know-all commentators and political foes as stubbornness, is what will pull us through to the next stage in the evolution of our ties both with our regional European neighbours and with the utterly transformed world of Asia, Africa, the Commonwealth network and Latin America—where most of the growth is going to be and with whom we need to associate more closely than ever before with these parties to ensure our future prosperity and security. It used to be a case of the east catching up with the west; now, it is becoming the other way around.
The longer we delay the Brexit journey with pretence alternatives, unicorn solutions and child-like yearnings for riskless certainty and a rose-tinted past, the slower will be our adjustment to the entirely new world conditions that have already come about, and that we now face. We should get on with it, and that, I believe, is now the wish of this nation.
My Lords, it is imperative in my view, doubtless in common with the great majority of your Lordships, that we reach a deal. I believe that the Government themselves also feel this.
I do not believe that there is any greater chance of the Prime Minister allowing a no-deal Brexit, than there would be—obviously, in very different circumstances —of her authorising a nuclear strike. I am not suggesting that each would cause comparable devastation: plainly, that is not so. Indeed, it is a ridiculous thought. The critical point, however, is that it is vital to keep the risk of each—the possibility of each, however small—in play.
Obviously, no one, however passionately opposed to our maintaining a nuclear deterrent capability, could, while we continue to have it, seek to persuade Parliament to legislate against ever deploying it. Its value as a deterrent lies in the risk, however faint, that in retaliation we just might. So too, I suggest, with the possibility that we just might crash out of the EU. While that possibility exists, it must surely operate as an incentive for us to reach a deal. It is an incentive, let it be emphasised, on all—both on our own Members of Parliament and on the EU negotiators.
It is nothing short of absurd to argue that Parliament should now legislate to take a no-deal Brexit off the table. That would either force us to accept a less favourable deal than we might otherwise get or, alternatively, force us to stay in the EU.
I confess that at heart I remain a remainer, but I have finally come to accept that there should not, and now must not, be a further referendum, certainly not one that still caters to the possibility of remaining in the EU. The only conceivable further vote could be on a choice between accepting the deal on offer and exiting with no deal. But I would not legislate to take the possibility of remaining off the table either.
What of the proposed legislation to force the Prime Minister, if by 26 February she has still not achieved a parliamentary vote for a deal, to request of the EU an extension of the Article 50 process? This, I suggest, would again have the inevitable consequence of lessening the urgency of the need to agree a deal. Everyone acknowledges that EU deals are habitually reached at the 12th hour. Postpone the 12th hour, delay the date by which agreement is required and on would go this ever more depressing and debilitating process.
I do not know whether any of your Lordships have had the time or inclination over recent weeks to watch “Question Time”, now chaired by the estimable Fiona Bruce. I have watched them, and to my mind they have made one thing clear beyond all others: the general public—not every individual, of course, but the great majority—ache for a final end to this saga and are ever more critical of the politicians at Westminster for failing to bring this question to a conclusion.
I recognise, as plainly does the Prime Minister and, for that matter, the EU, that the closer to the 12th hour that any deal is agreed, the more obvious will be the need for what would, we hope, be only a short extension of the Article 50 process for the necessary legislative steps to be completed to give effect to it. But that request for an extension can and, I suggest, properly should be left to be made when the deal is struck, not in anticipation of failure and according to a given timetable.
In the last debate I voted in favour of the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I regret having done so for this reason: in my speech I made it explicit beyond question that I supported the Prime Minister’s deal and was urging Members at the other end to accept it, notwithstanding that the opposition Motion still included some criticisms, although markedly fewer than in the previous, pre-Christmas debate, of the deal’s likely adverse consequences. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, likewise voted for the Motion while also supporting the Prime Minister’s deal. We were therefore dismayed to hear the Opposition Bench thereafter, and indeed again today, lumping together all those who had voted for the Motion as having voted to reject the deal and calculating the majority accordingly.
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble and learned Lord but perhaps I may just correct him. If he checks my comments of today in Hansard, I think he will see that I have made it clear that this House rejected no deal. My other comment was that we soundly rejected how the other place expressed its views on the Prime Minister’s deal. I made no reference in my speech today to our comments on the Prime Minister’s deal.
I am grateful for that; clearly, one would always accept a clarification. I confess that I understood that what came from the Front Bench was to regard the votes of all who supported the Motion as votes against accepting the deal on offer. If I am wrong, of course I withdraw that point.
In any event, I shall not be supporting the opposition Motion this time. Despite the earlier intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, I suggest that it is expressed in such abstract terms—it uses the hallowed word “appropriate”—begs so many questions and seems so elliptical in what it is inviting that it is mischievous rather than self-evidently helpful. I fear that it, too, could be misrepresented, at least to this extent. It could be misrepresented as support for legislating against a no-deal Brexit or compelling the Government to request an extension of the process, both of which—for the reasons I have already sought to give—I would regard as weakening the Government’s negotiating position and thus prejudicing the prospect of an acceptable early resolution of this most ghastly saga.
My Lords, I thought this would be a debate reserved for headbangers, but it is a privilege to have followed two such fine and thoughtful speeches from the Back Benches. Of course, all the Front-Bench speeches were scintillating as well.
One of the most powerful memories of my life is that of a young man in a white shirt on his own in Tiananmen Square, who walked out in front of a column of tanks and stopped them dead. Why? Because he wanted a voice, a say in how he was governed. His was just one voice, but that voice rang out around the world. Another enormous memory was that of the Berlin Wall. I lived for a while in Berlin as a young man in the 1960s, shortly after the wall was built. The wall was one of the most evil things I had ever witnessed. One of the most joyous moments was the sight of it being destroyed, not by tanks and missiles but by the bare hands of those who also wanted a voice and a say in how they were governed. I have a chunk of that wall at home to remind me.
There are times when I think we in this country take our own freedoms too much for granted, particularly the tolerance that glues the bits together. Tolerance is the sticking plaster of a democratic society. Without it, our system does not work—and right now, it is not working. I wonder if noble Lords saw the alarming poll last week suggesting that 9% of all leave voters would mind if one of their close family married a remainer. It is a sign of awful intolerance—almost one in 10. Perhaps that is to be expected; we Brexiteers are so often derided as bigots and xenophobes. What of remainers? In that same poll, it was nearly four in 10: 37% would object if one of their close family members married a Brexiteer. I assure you, you can relax: I am not in the market. I am not sure Boris is, either. But that poll suggests an awful lack of tolerance.
Things are changing for the worse, and it is our fault. We politicians have totally overplayed our hand—taken a challenge and made it far worse. We throw accusations and exaggerations around like children hurl snowballs. How can we be surprised if others follow our example and do not trust us any longer? I doubt we deserve to be trusted; we are “a ship of fools”, as my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford so accurately and eloquently suggested in that very fine speech. And what do we do? We so often indulge in baseless scaremongering and insinuation. We fight for what we believe in, of course we do, but there will be a time beyond Brexit—soon I hope—when we will have to return to a system of trust and tolerance, if there is any left.
Most noble Lords know where I stand on Brexit and I am not going to talk about the specifics today—what is the point? At this time tomorrow it may all have changed. Will it be plan A, plan B, plan C, triple plus or the Labour Party policy of having no plan at all? Will we have withdrawn from the withdrawal agreement or customised the customs union? Will we have sent our troops to match the legions that Leo is apparently massing at the Irish border? It is so sad and so pointless—and we wonder why people think politicians have lost the plot.
We should reflect on the fact that we in this House, along with the House of Commons, voted to give the people a referendum in the first place. We promised that we would abide by the outcome. We voted through the withdrawal Act and we approved Article 50. Whether or not we approved of it is another matter, but that is what we have done. We have run out of excuses and almost run out of time. We have ripped off the sticking plaster of tolerance. The mess that we are in is not the fault of the people—it is our fault. Our system is not about doing what we think is best for the people but enabling them to do what they think is best for themselves.
What do I fear? I fear people coming to the conclusion that there is not much point in voting when their elected politicians keep turning a deaf ear: that they will stop voting and instead try to change things by other means, as they have on the streets of Athens, Rome, Berlin and Paris, and as they did with the poll tax in London. We can stretch their tolerance too far. I lose sleep over this, as I am sure many noble Lords do. I hope that my nightmares are nothing more than bad dreams and that we will somehow stumble upon a deal that delivers what the people voted for.
If we cannot in Parliament reach agreement, we need to do what our constitutional practice says we should do: let the people sort out the mess we have created. There is only one way to do that—as my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford has elegantly set out in the past—and that is to hold a general election. Not a second referendum, which is nothing more than a loser’s charter; not grabbing at opinion polls, which our Lib Dem colleagues dine on so selectively; not further delay; not even more divisions—but a new general election which will give people the opportunity to take back control.
I know that some of my Conservative colleagues say that that might let in Mr Corbyn but, cheer up, even the Labour Front Bench does not want Mr Corbyn in Downing Street.
Then some have changed their tune. I hope that we in my party have not screwed up so badly that we have made Mr Corbyn electable. If we have, again, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
We have complained long enough about the democratic deficit. This is not the time to do what they do in Brussels and make up the voters’ minds for them. If we do not honour the people, they will not bother honouring or even tolerating us. David Cameron made a good speech about it all at Bloomberg—noble Lords might remember it. He said that for too many people the EU is something that is done to us, not for us. Wise words which outlasted Mr Cameron himself. Let us remember that the only thing that is certain in the midst of all this self-inflicted chaos is that the British people voted for Brexit: not to remain, not to delay, not for silly parliamentary games, but for Brexit. So unless we want to suffer Mr Cameron’s fate, let us do this for them, not to them, and try to earn their respect once again.
My Lords, it is a not unadulterated pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs. I too have a piece of the Berlin Wall. I just wish that he and others, in celebrating the fall of that wall, would recognise the role that the EU has played in giving democracy, freedom and the right for people you disagree with to demonstrate to those who were previously suppressed both by the fascist Governments in Spain, Portugal and Greece and by the communist regimes in eastern and central Europe. That is one of the great legacies of the years that we have been in the EU and we should celebrate it, not deplore it.
As a conscientious member of your Lordships’ EU Select Committee, I usually try to be constructive and pragmatic in these discussions on the Brexit process. However, today I am afraid that I am feeling just exasperation. We will hear later from the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who, I am sure, when he helped draft the Article 50 process less than 10 years ago did not really envisage that we would be engaged in this long drawn-out process in the way that we have been.
It is two and a half years since the referendum. One can admire the Prime Minister’s fortitude and resilience but the fact is that we have seen a period of totally misguided and incompetent negotiation. We have seen a fractured Government and, as others have remarked, a nadir in people’s respect for this Parliament. It is not really a great time for politicians to take back control. Whichever way they voted, the people are bemused and impatient but they are also angry, and businesses, small and large, have moved from worry to desperation, as we see in the letter from food retailers today.
We here in Westminster can look forward to the deliberations in another place tomorrow and hope for an outcome, but let us register that the time for parliamentary and internal party games is over. It is time that Ministers confronted the Brexiteers and the media snapping at their heels who pretend that they can get a significantly better deal on the withdrawal treaty from the EU. To put it at its mildest, it is unlikely that the EU will make significant changes in the legal text of the treaty. Had the Government behaved more constructively, it would have been possible to get better wording in the political declaration. The EU has already indicated that it wishes, within a limited number of years, to reach a trade deal that would supplant and withdraw the need for a backstop. Meanwhile, the backstop guarantees what the Government say they want: near-frictionless trade within Ireland and between the UK and the EU.
Then we have our domestic situation. For months, I, along with others, have been asking the Government to set out how we are going to pass the legislation that we are required to pass by 29 March. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, and the Leader of the House herself referred to the onerous legislative task in front of us. We need a little more time to deal with that, let alone for the Government to go back and sensibly negotiate a marginally better deal.
Therefore, I support the Motion in the name of my noble friend Lady Smith, which calls for a time extension. I am not talking about years but months. In that period, you might get an agreement closer to one that the Prime Minister could get through the House of Commons, and you might also reach a deal that is acceptable to the European Union. You will not do that in 60 days. So let us say that we need a little more time, difficult though that is. If even then the Government fail to get a deal that the Commons would accept, or that the EU would accept, we will have to face the harsh truth that the politicians of this generation have comprehensively failed the public and this country. In those circumstances—the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, comes half way towards me on this—there is no alternative but to return the verdict to the people. The people must judge their parliamentary representatives, their views on Brexit and their performance in this Parliament.
I would go further. In the eventuality of a failure to reach a deal after an extended period, we should have both a general election and a referendum on the same day. The people can then judge their politicians on the lines they are taking on the referendum and judge whether they wish to proceed with Brexit. We have failed the people over the last two and a half years. We will have to put it back to them and return a Parliament that can enact their wishes.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. We sit together on the EU Committee and often agree, especially on matters of history and technical reality, if perhaps not today on his latest idea.
I spoke on 9 January about the need to improve the withdrawal agreement. On the assumption that such an improvement would be negotiated, I also talked of the opportunities that we can garner post Brexit. Today I return to the former theme and will also say something about how we should conduct ourselves in the unlikely event that, for whatever reason, improvement proves impossible and we need to proceed with no deal.
The other place, as has been said, voted decisively against the present withdrawal agreement; tomorrow’s further votes are likely to include one requiring the Government to re-enter negotiations and take out or severely limit the life of the backstop. I believe that this can and should be done. We have far more power now than we will have once the withdrawal agreement is accepted. This is partly because acceptance requires only a majority vote in the European Union, whereas the future relationship agreement requires unanimity and votes in parliaments across Europe. Also, as the Attorney-General has confirmed, if the present withdrawal agreement were accepted, there would be no legal way that the UK could ever unilaterally exit the backstop. My noble friend Lord Bridges said in an earlier debate that no Government should ever have agreed to that concept and I am afraid that I have to agree with him. Vassalage is a colourful term but, to my mind, it would accurately reflect our status if we accepted the current agreement as it is.
Furthermore, the backstop is illogical. We are told that it is designed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Yet, as matters stand, it is the main factor preventing the withdrawal agreement being accepted. Recently, the EU has belatedly acknowledged what has been apparent all along; namely, that if there is no withdrawal agreement there will be a hard border in Ireland at the EU’s insistence. The EU is apparently insisting on the backstop to prevent a hard border in Ireland, while the main factor threatening a hard border is the inclusion of the backstop in the withdrawal agreement. It is a mystery to me why the Government have not been more vociferous in pointing this out.
The major advocates of the backstop are the Commission, the French and the Irish.
Perhaps the noble Baroness might think again before saying what she said about tariffs: that tariffs being charged on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the event of no deal would be because the EU orders it. That is not true: it would be because the World Trade Organization rules require it.
I will come on to talk about tariffs in the event of no deal. Obviously, I was referring to the point that has been made about the apparent change in the Irish position in recent days, which others have already referred to. My understanding is—
I apologise for interrupting because I know that time is pressing, and I am grateful to the noble Baroness. Is it not the truth that the Irish Government are acting with integrity, as we should be, in supporting the backstop as an insurance policy to keep that border open and keep the Good Friday agreement alive and peace in progress? They are acting responsibly. I am very surprised, as someone who has a great deal of respect for the noble Baroness, that she is criticising the Irish Government for defending what everyone says they agree with.
I am saying that they have overplayed their hand. I believe, and I think the noble Lord will agree with me, that the EU is about compromise and consensus-building. I know from my own experience in the Council of Ministers that unfair outcomes, often promoted in silken terms by the French and their supporters, sometimes have to be moderated. Other member states to which I have spoken recently are concerned about the damage from no deal and are increasingly seeing the problem. So the climate is gradually improving, and if we returned to Brussels with unity and resolve, we could prevail.
There is also a question as to whether the backstop is really needed. I believe that the Good Friday agreement, which has widespread support everywhere, is a natural backstop, and that it will be taken into account in the future relationship, deal or no deal. An open border is no bar to the enforcement of different arrangements, as I know from operating right across Ireland in my time in retail. We had enforcement of different rates on alcohol and of VAT and other taxes and regulations. My noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford has already made this important point.
A major change to the deal is necessary, in my view, to secure support in the Commons.
My Lords, I recall that the noble Baroness was a civil servant, I think in Defra. Non-tariff issues are not unimportant in this respect. Animal health regulations across the border will clearly mean inspections. If, for example, there were an outbreak of foot and mouth or BSE in one part of Ireland, the idea that the border would remain open for more than five minutes seems a little fanciful. Borders are not simply about tariffs. Regulations, including phytosanitary regulations, are extremely important.
I agree about the importance of the phytosanitary arrangements, but I would point out that my recollection is that when there was foot and mouth the Irish border closed, in spite of the fact that we were in the single market. These are things that you have to tackle together, and with good will—which is of course what I am seeking—we could do that. I am trying to explain the argument as I see it. Perhaps I can make some progress.
My feeling is that the backstop needs to be taken out of the withdrawal agreement, and a substitute, requiring best endeavours and so on, put into the political agreement or a side letter instead. This is the kind of flexibility that is shown in business negotiations—for example, in a major merger—where both sides want to agree, as I believe they do here. I was in Salisbury Cathedral on Friday for a service for the conversion of St Paul. Saul, as he was then called, was a brilliant, educated man pursuing the goal of destroying the Christians. After his conversion on the road to Damascus, he saw the light. That is what we need to happen in Brussels to move things forward.
Lastly, I have a warning about the work on no deal. The detail of what the Government do is critical and there are two things that we have to worry about: short-term chaos and longer-term interest and damage to this country. I am worried that too much attention is being given to the former and not enough to the latter. The focus is domestic, and not enough attention is being given to the implications for our negotiating position on the backstop and on future trade negotiations with both the EU and third countries. I have a particular concern about an assumption in some quarters that the UK will not impose tariffs in the event of no deal. This would be a disaster because exporting member states would not feel the pain that they need to feel. Our own domestic industries would be decimated—agriculture, for example—as third-country imports poured in at zero tariffs under the most favoured nation rules while we paid charges on our exports. We would have no negotiating leverage with anyone now or in future, as we would have given away our revenue source from our ability to levy or tax at the border or to offer preferential markets in future, as well as our current powerful position in the EU institutions.
All the work on no deal is being conducted in secret, and business leaders have told me they have to sign NDAs for involvement in no-deal planning. I can understand this, but ask my noble friend the Minister to confirm that he accepts some of my concerns and is looking at variable tariffs, such as for imports from both the EU and elsewhere. Obviously they need to be lower on things such as bananas and oranges, which we do not produce, but higher for dairy products, meat and other things that we do produce. We do not want to be in a no-deal situation—I completely agree with that—but there must be contingency planning, which must embrace the wider interest.
I was glad to hear from my noble friend the Leader about the timetable for Brexit measures and the role she saw for our committees. The Government’s approach to organising their scrutiny and challenge in this House is right. We have a duty to progress these measures in an orderly way. It is a vital part of our function in this House, and I will not be supporting the Opposition’s Motion this evening.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness who, as ever, produces an innovative approach to problems that to others seem impossible to resolve. To the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, let me just say: do not be concerned about attitudes towards marriage—MacDonalds have been refusing to marry Campbells for nearly 300 years.
It was clear from the noble Baroness the Leader of the House that we are to some extent hampered by the fact that we do not know which amendments will be selected, and which will be successful. In that of course we are in good company, because the Prime Minister finds herself in exactly the same position. In parentheses, I will say that, while it is for the House of Commons to resolve how it conducts its own business, it does seem that profound constitutional change is taking place on the hoof in the House of Commons. I hope that someone is giving at least some consideration to the principle of unintended consequences.
If I had ever had any doubts about the proper way for us to deal with the issue of membership of the European Union, they have more than been removed by the conduct of the negotiations and the terms of their outcome—what I might describe as the Prime Minister’s deal. After the rejection of that deal in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister set out to talk to other political parties. It does not appear that anything new was discussed on these occasions. She talked about the enshrining of employment rights—a promise that had previously been made, so it was simply being said for a second or even third time—and promised to go back to Brussels and try to negotiate. Being as generous as one can be, it does not seem that Brussels has much of a negotiating attitude, particularly on the backstop. To coin a phrase that Mrs May has often used, it rather looks as if nothing has changed.
There is something else that has not changed: the opinion of the Attorney-General, to which reference has been made on a number of occasions in the past couple of weeks. I will read from paragraph 2 of the additional letter he wrote, dated 14 January 2019, after the Government had received a joint response from the Presidents of the Council and the Commission:
“I agree that in the light of this response, the Council’s conclusions of 13 December 2018 would have legal force in international law”—
he does not stop there, but goes on to say—
“and thus be relevant and cognisable in the interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement, and in particular the Northern Ireland Protocol, albeit they do not alter the fundamental meanings of its provisions as I advised them to be on 13 November 2018”.
In truth, the empress of Downing Street has no clothes. She can expect no shelter from her Cabinet, none from her Government, none from her party and none from Parliament—so we have to read her mind as best we can. I understand her to believe that this deal is the best that can be obtained and that, whatever the consequences of leaving the European Union, even if there is no deal, we must leave because the decision in the referendum is inviolate.
If the consequences of that decision in economic, social or political terms are as bad as some have predicted, or if the promises that were made at the outset are not kept, do not imagine for a moment that the British public will congratulate us on keeping faith with the referendum decision. They will blame those who took us out for the consequences and those who unsuccessfully resisted for not being effective enough. Gone now are the Panglossian predictions—although if you drive around in the south of England you will find them repeated on billboards just to remind people of how different were the predictions from what has been produced in the Prime Minister’s proposals.
The Prime Minister has an admirable strength of determination, but I respectfully suggest that it has become her weakness. That is particularly so in her refusal to rule out leaving with no deal. I do not entirely follow the reference to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, asked us to consider; I shall consider it at a little more length. I will, however, say that nuclear weapons are rarely used out of negligence or a failure to conduct oneself in an otherwise perfectly reasonable manner. The truth is that the Prime Minister’s position is a gamble. It is a gamble born of stubbornness, and it is one which produces quite extraordinary precautions: stockpiling of food; stockpiling of medicines; off-the-shelf ferry companies; motorway car parks; and even, as my noble friend Lord Newby said at the outset, the possible imposition of martial law—no one discussed that during the referendum campaign.
Meanwhile, as has been said, others are taking precautions: the motor industry, even the vacuum cleaner industry and—would you believe it?—P&O. The flagship of the British Empire is now registering its ships to fly under the flag of Cyprus. Who would have believed that? The truth is that, if there is a disorderly withdrawal, be in no doubt that it will severely damage relations with the European Union; if there is a disorderly withdrawal, countries waiting in the wings will think themselves able to drive even harder bargains when it comes to trade deals.
On my part, there is no ambiguity: I firmly believe that leaving the European Union is wholly against the interests of the citizens of the United Kingdom, just as I believe equally sincerely that for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom would be against the interests of the citizens of that part of the United Kingdom. Of course there are risks involved in another referendum—but if, as some have argued already, it is the only thing to do, are we are really going to bow to the threats from the mob? We enjoy a great privilege in this House and in the place further down the Corridor, but we also have a great responsibility. If we believe that the only way in which to resolve these difficulties is to test once again the opinion of the public, we should not shrink from doing so.
I again ask a question to which no one has yet tried to offer me an answer: if the Prime Minister’s deal had been on the ballot paper, and voters had appreciated the disorder, delay and damage that withdrawal has caused until now, how many would have voted for it? If the majority vote to leave in a second referendum, then I accept that leave we must. I will not change my mind about the extent to which the interests of this country are best served by being in the European Union, but I will accept a decision that is based on informed consent.
My Lords, I declare my European and agricultural interests as detailed in the register. It is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, whom I have always greatly admired.
Since this House last debated the European Union withdrawal agreement, the other place has overwhelmingly rejected the Prime Minister’s proposal and left the country in a state of political paralysis rarely seen before. Surely, some sort of cross-party agreement should now be sought.
It would be irresponsible for this or any Government to allow the country to leave the European Union without an agreement. I fear that the warnings from business and from public authorities are not alarmist. For example, it is inconceivable that Calais can handle 10,000 lorries a day from the United Kingdom if they are required by the European Union or the WTO to impose some sort of check or, worse still, tariff. Another example has been provided by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who has often rightly mentioned exports of Welsh lamb to Europe; unless the UK has negotiated a quota with the EU such as New Zealand currently has, there will be a tariff and a fixed sum per tonne on lamb exported from this country to Europe. This will cause a large fall in the price Welsh farmers will get this summer for their lambs, to the point where I suspect sheep farming in Wales will not be sustainable. These are only two examples of the multitude of grave difficulties that British business will face with no-deal.
We must not allow the UK to leave the EU without a deal, and it is extraordinary to suggest that moves to prevent no-deal are in fact trying to stop Brexit. The vast majority of those who find no-deal unacceptable are, at the same time, in favour of an orderly withdrawal that does limited damage to the economy.
We are now seven weeks past the day when the Prime Minister’s deal was meant to be voted on in the other place. I must repeat myself; if I were a Member of the other place, I would support the Prime Minister’s deal however many times it was submitted to the vote. In fact, it is more likely that a way will be found for the deal to pass in the coming weeks. There are a number of amendments to be voted on in the House of Commons tomorrow which may lead to a conditional acceptance of the deal, subject to further negotiations in Brussels.
Whatever the outcome of the votes tomorrow, I cannot see how we can avoid requesting a short extension to Article 50. I think it should be of three months. This would take us to the end of June. The new European Parliament will not sit until July, and therefore we could avoid holding elections to the European Parliament in late May.
We were told recently from the Dispatch Box that a number of Bills and still several hundred statutory instruments must pass through both Houses of Parliament by exit day. If these are all to receive scrutiny, as they should in this House, I see no alternative to an extension. There is an amendment in the other place to seek to extend until the end of the year. I think nine months is too long, and, what is important, it sends the wrong signal. Three months is more likely to be accepted by the EU 27 member states, particularly if that period is needed to complete the necessary parliamentary procedures.
This is not to thwart Brexit, and should not be considered a defeat by Brexiteers. Rather, it is a return to a standard of good government and legislative competence which currently is at risk. I urge all Members of Parliament, including the opposition parties and the Democratic Unionist Party, to work with the Government to find a majority in the House of Commons to pass a withdrawal agreement and a political declaration.
We cannot leave without a deal. We cannot leave without a transition period. I think we must now accept the necessity of a short extension until 30 June. I hope the House of Commons will be able tomorrow to find a majority for a sensible, pragmatic solution to what is, after all, only a temporary arrangement to enable us to start the negotiations for the long-term relationship and the new treaty between this country and the European Union.
My Lords, I will not necessarily follow others in their very interesting analyses of the possible vote outcomes tomorrow. For us, the humble House of Lords, there is a general feeling that the whole pattern and mixture of amendments—their flavour and content—is so complicated, even for parliamentarians, to absorb by way of accurate predictions that we have to await the outcome of those matters before drawing conclusions, which, I hope, will be positive about our position as members of the European Union. That would be a better way of doing it, rather than speculating too much—as of course parliamentarians are fully entitled to do.
I suppose that some colleagues here would generally agree with the proposition that Monday morning is always a bad time, as people have to return to work and they can be in a bad mood. Although I have never normally suffered from that ailment, which is justifiable and understandable, I certainly felt in a bad mood this morning after hearing yet another hysterical broadcast on the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme. Nick Robinson was trying to bully a very distinguished TD in the Irish Dáil to admit that the Irish Government would then soften their stance when all they are doing is agreeing with the other member states of the European Union on the generally agreed position, on which there can be no further movement. So hysterical had he become that, by the end, he was more or less screaming at the distinguished TD, and then made it even worse by suddenly saying, “Oh, we’ve run out of time, now it’s the weather forecast, you can go”. It was such a nauseatingly offensive broadcast that I shall pen a letter to the BBC tomorrow—I have not had time to do it yet—because Nick Robinson is joining John Humphrys in being an entirely reckless broadcaster.
I very much endorse what the noble Lord says. I find deeply worrying the reckless way in which many leading figures in public life, including in Parliament, simply attack the Irish Government, destroying what has been a carefully and patiently built relationship after a tangled history. This must stop, and it must stop now.
That is not the first time I have agreed with the noble Lord in his assertions, which are usually very accurate, and I do so wholeheartedly in this case. It is the weight of that very adverse, condescending history of Britain and England’s relationship with the Irish that smacks of being repeated when people behave like that nowadays. Think of what Ireland has achieved as a country and as a loyal, constructive and successful member of the European Union, not one that whinges and moans about everything, as unfortunately have far too many politicians over the years of our membership of the EU, which is still continuing, in case people have not noticed that.
The other reason for my bad mood this morning was the totally ludicrous and absurd article in the Daily Telegraph by that failed ex-Foreign Minister Boris Johnson about his advice to the Prime Minister. After all the chaos of recent weeks, his even presuming to give any advice was grotesque. However, my mood changed for the better as I came here for work—early, as usual, of course, in a virtuous sense—because of the flag-wavers outside, led by the immensely impressive but hugely modest Steve Bray and his team. They have now been there for nearly three years, day in, day out, from 10 am—not 11 am, as it was before—until 6 pm. There are even more flags, and the leave component at the end, trembling with fear, consisted of one or two flags. That sums up the reality of the public feeling about these matters. Many of those educated people who join in the flag-waving are British citizens living in EU countries, who come over whenever they can, while others have a deep knowledge of the functioning of the EU and the success of our membership of it. If only we had made more effort. So I felt better after that, but, none the less, the Brexit nightmare is getting worse.
I find it astonishing that colleagues such as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, are so complacent about Mrs May’s alarming and indeed atrocious behaviour—I am sorry to have to use that strong adjective—especially after the 8 June election result. For her to go through the necessary and inevitable motions to follow up on the legislative requirements after the referendum result would be one thing, but to go on after that election result as if nothing had changed was quite preposterous. The mandate had been lost, but she did not accept that. In the old days in the House of Commons, when I was an MP, there was a natural self-restraint between members of all parties, and that would have been accepted by the Prime Minister, who would have said, “I no longer have this mandate to carry on this negotiation”. Instead, however, she did a grotesque deal with the most unpopular party in the House of Commons, let alone probably in the country, apart among from some people in Northern Ireland: the unsavoury DUP—Protestant extremists who resist and oppose all women’s rights in Northern Ireland, in contrast to what happens now in England, with our more modern legislation. To go on as if nothing had changed was unacceptable. This now means, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, wisely said, that profound changes are in danger of being made on the hoof in the Commons. That can be an unfortunate consequence of what happens if mistakes are made. The Prime Minister pretended to hold substantive talks only after her massive defeat in the Commons last time—the biggest defeat in parliamentary history.
In the UK, we have always, tragically, failed to explain the EU’s functions and its success story. The euro is a good example. It is feared here, because we were driven out of the exchange rate mechanism, but it is also regarded as a dangerous currency. In fact, the euro is the most successful currency in the world, getting closer and closer to the US dollar, and most member states are very happy with it. Some have found it harder to adjust than others, but that is natural in such a large grouping. I am glad to remind noble Lords that my own modest European Union (Information, etc.) Bill, is still awaiting a Committee of the Whole House—I believe it is number 11 on the list. If it comes through, it will provide that information that should have been available in public libraries and public buildings all over this country, explaining how the EU functions, in non-partisan terms, to give people the necessary information about it.
I come back to the present crisis, which is a grotesque nightmare for everyone, even the Brexiteers, more and more of whom are beginning to realise that this is the case. The SNP MP for Glenrothes, Peter Grant, the party’s foreign affairs and Europe spokesman, recently intervened on the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union:
“The Prime Minister has promised that her discussions with the devolved nations and the Opposition parties will be without preconditions, so clearly she will not refuse even to discuss the prospect of extending article 50, because that would be a precondition; she will not refuse even to discuss the prospect of taking no deal off the table, because that would be a precondition; and she will not refuse even to discuss the possibility of giving the people another say, because that would be a precondition. Can the Secretary of State therefore confirm on the record that all those topics will be available for discussion, in honour of the Prime Minister’s promise that there will be no preconditions?”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/1/19; col. 318.]
The most important absence of a precondition would be to give the people the chance of another vote.
Before the noble Lord sits down—I promise not to keep bobbing up and down, which would be very aggravating, but he mentioned my name—I want to apologise to him for appearing in any way complacent. I had not thought I sounded complacent. He mentioned the demonstrations outside, which he said had been going on for three years. They are very impressive, with all the flags waving. Can the noble Lord enlighten me, and perhaps the House, on who is paying for these demonstrations? The question has never really been asked, and it is about time we investigated.
Would it not be better for the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, to go and ask them himself? I do not know the answer but I am told that they all do it by paying themselves for their individual efforts. That is the only answer I have ever received.
My Lords, I begin by declaring my interests, as recorded in the register, from which it can be readily discovered that I am a Eurofanatic. I am, too, very pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, who I have known since we were both in different parties—although he has managed two moves to my one.
I have observed in the past that you can change your history but not your geography, and we will find out, in the years to come, that being 22 or 23 miles from Calais will not change because we leave the EU. We seem to be in danger of talking about the deal as if it settled everything. It settles nothing: all it does is begin the negotiations on getting where we want to get to. We are at a very preliminary stage, and, as I have said many times in this House and elsewhere, we are being totally unrealistic. There is no way in which we leave the European Union and get a better deal than when we are in it, for the simple reason that 27 countries do not want to be reduced to 26 and will make it jolly certain that we get as difficult a deal as they can get away with. That is where the history and geography come together.
I turn now to a couple of practical things. We talk about extending Article 50—let us remember, however, that the European Parliament has to agree to whatever deal is reached. The last sitting of the European Parliament is on Thursday 18 April; it does not return until 2 July. The whole of the week when it returns is a basically ceremonial time when it elects its president, its committee chairs and all the people needed for the negotiations. The European Parliament, therefore, will have to decide whether it wishes to maintain its EU committee and whether Mr Verhofstadt will continue in his role. The European Commission will have to decide whether Mr Barnier is to continue in his role, or perhaps to become the new president of the Commission—an outcome I see as highly likely.
There will also be a change of presidency: at the beginning of July the Finns take over the presidency of the European Union. The odds are that theirs will be a fairly active presidency. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how much discussion there has been between HMG and the incoming Finnish presidency on how they propose to handle the period from July to December.
We then proceed through the autumn, when the European Parliament has hearings for the nominated Commissioners. Every country will nominate a Commissioner. A presidency will be nominated in July and throughout the autumn there will be hearings of the new Commissioners on their new portfolios. The EU will not be in a great position to be doing any negotiation. So an extension of three months is pretty meaningless.
Let me consider the MEPs. The Prime Minister said in her Statement:
“It would require an extension of Article 50”.
This is when she was against it; I am not sure what position she is in today. She continued:
“We would very likely have to return a new set of MEPs to the European Parliament in May”.
We would not, actually. The MEPs could lapse and there is a long-established procedure that when a member state joins the EU, the parliament nominates the MEPs. There is no legal reason why an outgoing state could not nominate MEPs—or, for that matter, have no MEPs at all. As we enjoy shooting ourselves in the foot, that might be the choice. They can be appointed.
We are also told that a second referendum would set a difficult precedent. Of course it would. As Mr Speaker Bercow has shown, precedents are there to be broken. I seem to remember that we had two referendums on Scottish independence and two on Welsh independence—
On devolution—the noble Lord is absolutely right.
It is a case of how long you allow to lapse between them, not that you cannot do it. As the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, rightly said, we could have an election. Let me warn my party what is likely to happen. I think it is highly likely that the Opposition would win an election. To people who think that elections are about Brexit, I say, think again. If you want an example, look at the Soke of Peterborough, as it is called. It had an MP who campaigned vigorously for a no vote. He lost his seat. I am not sure that the person who replaced him is in full communion with the party that she was elected for, but none the less, he lost his seat. Mr Stewart Jackson joined the unemployed as a reward for campaigning for Brexit.
You might well get that result in an election. People have reflected on seeing me on these Benches, but I will have a far bigger laugh when I see the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, as a Minister in a Corbyn Government. As she will remember, we were together in Labour First, the right-wing pressure group within the Labour Party. I think she will make an excellent Corbyn Minister. Let us be aware where we are heading.
On Project Fear, all we get these days is, “The drugs won’t come through” and “The ports will seize up”. Of course there will be difficulty, but we will get over it. We are a resourceful nation. People in East Anglia, where I live, say to me—and, I am sure, to my noble friend Lord Lansley—“We heard all this before, Richard. It was rubbish. We had it in the run-up to the referendum: the world was going to collapse. It hasn’t happened. It won’t. We might have a bit of difficulty, but we’ll get over it”.
I counsel that the argument for Europe is a moral and philosophical one. It is not about a can of beans, even a delayed delivery can of beans. Please do not go on with Project Fear. The next step will be negotiations. After this deal, whatever it is, is agreed, there will be difficult negotiations.
Last Friday, I was in Madrid talking to Spanish politicians. It is clear that they are keeping their powder dry. Their demands will come through when it matters, which is when they start negotiating. That is when you will find the different countries of Europe asking for whatever they want for their particular interests, for what is known as Belgium as the Flemish Christmas tree. Virtually every country of Europe will want to hang a bauble on that tree. That is where the difficult negotiations are going to take place. We will look back on debates like this and think, “Wasn’t it simple? We only had to talk to ourselves. Now we have got to talk to all these foreign people about how we survive.”
So I say to noble Lords, by all means let us extend Article 50, but do not believe that another referendum would necessarily change the result; it probably would not. We have to move forward. This is a great country and whichever way we go, we will survive. I would prefer to survive within the EU, but I do not subscribe to the prophets of doom who say that we are going to collapse if we are not.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, spelling out European realities, given that he knows them well—although I think he was rather uncharitable in pulling the leg of my noble friend Lady Hayter.
I speak in strong support of my noble friend Lady Smith’s Motion. There are now just 60 days to go to Brexit, come what Theresa May. This is “make your mind up” time. As Michel Barnier has pointed out:
“To stop no deal, a positive majority for another solution will need to emerge.”
It is therefore imperative to extend Article 50 in order to prevent the calamity of no deal and allow time to see whether there is an agreed way forward—including whether a people’s vote is the only way out of this nationally humiliating, utter mess.
The Government are currently held hostage by a group of right-wing extremists who are blocking any compromise on the Prime Minister’s completely unrealistic and undesirable “red lines”. Preoccupied with their fundamentalism and fantasies about so-called free trade and sovereignty, they are quite willing to sacrifice the well-being and security of our country—as well as, perhaps most disgracefully, peace and continued progress on the island of Ireland. In contemplating or even positively advocating no deal, as many do, they are willing to risk every trade agreement the UK currently has. But the wheels are finally coming off the European Research Group free trade bandwagon, as their illusions are exposed. For the truth is that they never had a practical Brexit plan of their own.
Two weeks ago we learned that, contrary to airy promises made in 2017, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has failed to deliver a single “roll-over” trade agreement to replace the 70 or so with the rest of the world that we currently have through the European Union. As for claims that trading on WTO rules only after 29 March would be no problem, as the EU Commission made clear just last week, those very rules would require the European Union to treat the United Kingdom as it treats other non-EU WTO members. International law would then inevitably require a hard border on the island of Ireland. It is simply dishonest to blame the Irish Government for that. The chosen WTO rules of the Brexiteers would require a hard border. The United Kingdom’s businesses and, importantly, services would face the loss of their European Union and other markets, with no prospect of finding replacements in protectionist economies such as the US, India and China.
The Labour leadership also appears fundamentally to misunderstand the impact of European Union state aid and competition rules. As the IPPR has made clear, those rules would not in fact prevent an active industrial policy or, indeed, renationalisation of rail or water, or public ownership stakes and interventions elsewhere.
There are frightening real-world economic, security and social consequences if Parliament is unable to get a grip and offer people the opportunity to decide whether this sort of Brexit is the future they really want. The Brexiteers never explained that people would be poorer and less secure. They dishonestly claimed that we could leave and keep all the benefits of remaining. Why should a narrow victory in a referendum two and a half years ago give Brexiteer fanatics the right to drive the country over a cliff? It is inherent in a democracy that voters should have the chance to change their minds. Labour leaders, please note: more than 75% of Labour Party members and two-thirds of Labour voters currently support a people’s vote. Meanwhile, Parliament must stop at all costs the catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit.
My Lords, such a brief and effective speech is not unusual of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, with whom I have worked on a number of important issues over the years.
I want to make one or two new points if I can, although that is extremely difficult. Indeed, I am reminded of a great friend of mine who was getting married for the fourth time. As his son, who proposed the toast, rose to his feet, he said, “Here we are again”. The Brexit debate in your Lordships’ House is a bit like that. One can guarantee that whenever two or three noble Lords are gathered, whether in this House or outside, one short phrase will be uttered within a matter of moments: “What a mess”. It is our duty, so far as it can be, to help to steer the country out of this mess.
We are constantly reminded of the 17 million people who voted leave. Of course, they were in the majority: 52% of voters voted to leave the European Union. We must respect that. However, 48% voted in the opposite direction. Two statistics are even more stark and telling: 37% of the electorate voted to leave and 34% voted to stay. Those figures put things into perspective and ought to induce a little humility in us all. I have always studied the English Civil War with great interest, with its fascinating people, great issues and extraordinary events, but I have come to understand it only over the past three years. We all have a duty to try to heal some of the rifts and breaches. My noble friend Lord Dobbs, who is not in his place at the moment, referred to last weekend’s polls saying that a large number of remainers would not wish to marry a leaver, and vice versa. We all know from our circles of friends that this is all too true. I speak as one whose sons married remainers a long time ago and are both happily married, one after 20 years and the other after 25 years. That was absolutely a good thing.
We need to bring our nation together. How can we do that? I suggest two things: first, we will all be looking to the other end of the Corridor tomorrow night. There will be a series of votes. We do not know exactly how many; that depends on Speaker Bercow. I believe that even at this late stage, the Prime Minister should make the decision that the votes are free ones. I was in the other place when we voted to enter the European Community, or the European common market, as it then was. It was the courageous but realistic decision of one of the most accomplished Chief Whips in post-war history, translated by then to Prime Minister, that led to a free vote. I can see the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, smiling and nodding because he remembers that every bit as well as I do. That decision had a profound influence on the result because although only the Government side was officially given a free vote, it had a real effect on the Official Opposition of the day, as I knew from talking to many of them at the time.
The Prime Minister would be performing a great parliamentary and national service if she were to sanction a free vote tomorrow. I also think she would do rather better as a result of that magnanimity than by imposing Whips, which did not work terribly well two weeks ago. Assuming for the moment—I hope correctly—that there is a consensus following tomorrow night and the other place is able to concentrate on one or two not mutually exclusive but complementary avenues towards a settlement of this issue, I hope something else can be done. When my noble friend the Leader of the House was introducing this debate, she referred to cross-party talks and to confidential briefings, so that Members of both Houses could have a clearer insight into the precise details of the negotiations. That is good so far as it goes, but I want to resurrect an idea that I first voiced on the Floor of your Lordships’ House in June 2016, when I said it would be a very good thing if we could have a joint committee—based on the Scottish and Welsh committees—of both Houses, not just one House, on the European issue.
If we are to come together—if those of us who accept that there is to be Brexit, but are proud that we are one of 48% of the electorate and 34% of the nation, are to bring people together—it would be good to have a joint committee of both Houses and all parties meeting to discuss the details. It does not need to prolong the issue indefinitely. I was taken with what my noble friend the Duke of Wellington said about a three-month extension; because of the burden of legislation, that may be necessary. Nevertheless, I was brought up sharp, as I am sure many of your Lordships were, by the speech of my noble friend Lord Balfe. He pointed out some of the practicalities involved, and that the European Parliament that meets on 18 July will be different—perhaps very different—from the Parliament that meets on 18 April. It may have a very different angle on some of the great issues.
I am following the noble Lord with a lot of interest. A free vote could, no doubt, stimulate the possibility of a different consensus— or of getting a consensus at all. Given that there are 14 amendments and four amendments to the amendments, and no certainty as to how they will be selected, there is no guarantee that a consensus that may exist in the other place will translate through to here. In those circumstances, might we not need more time in this Chamber to handle legislation that could come from the Commons? A No. 3 Bill is already mentioned in an amendment. Even if we are constrained to 13 June, we certainly do need more time.
As I said, I am attracted by some of the propositions put forward by my noble friend the Duke of Wellington. The fact of the matter is that, as my noble friend Lord Balfe has pointed out, there are practical difficulties. What we want is a united Parliament—so far as we can—and a united nation. Whatever motivated those who voted to remain and those who voted to leave, one thing underpinned whatever that individual motive was: at the end of the day, each man and woman who cast a vote surely wanted a prosperous, peaceful Britain in a prosperous, peaceful Europe. We should focus on that sentiment, because it ought to unite us all. If that needs more time so that we can properly fulfil our parliamentary duties, so be it, but let us get on with it.
I hope that we will see some clarity from the other end of the Corridor tomorrow. I hope also that when we next have a debate, it will not be in the rather sterile and unhelpful atmosphere we are forced to debate in today.
My Lords, a number of noble Lords, including in particular the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, have remarked that much of Britain’s broader public are longing for an end to these endless debates about Brexit. Some within your Lordships’ House probably share that view. However, leaving at the end of March will not bring an end to domestic debate. The Government have hardly begun to negotiate on the future relationship and there are still deep divisions within the Government and in the Conservative Party about what that future relationship should be. The seven speeches from the Conservative Party that we have already heard in this debate show that it has many different opinions. So we are facing a further two years or more in which domestic issues take second place to European ones while Ministers struggle to decide what their party will accept.
If Theresa May had taken a different position when she became Prime Minister, we might now be in a different place. She could have noted the thinness of the majority and the divisions in public opinion and could have stood up to the hardliners in her party and gone directly for a Norwegian option, membership of the European Economic Area and the closest association possible. If she had, we might well now be leaving with the negotiations almost completed—but she did not. She set out red lines to satisfy her right wing, appointed ideological hardliners to key positions in the Brexit negotiations and divided the country and the party more deeply. Here we are, up against the lines she set, and unprepared either to leave or to stay.
Last week the Prime Minister declared that to question the outcome of the referendum and ask the public to think again,
“could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/1/19; col. 26.]
That is a pretty strong statement. However, the country is already divided. The last referendum damaged social cohesion. The campaign itself brought out underlying divisions—not just about the European Union. A right-wing extremist murdered an MP before the vote. Hate crime shot up immediately after the referendum and has stayed up since then—against eastern Europeans, against people of Asian and Afro-Caribbean descent although born in Britain, and against outsiders of all sorts.
When Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister, she made an idealistic speech about healing the nation’s divisions, but she then pandered to the nativist elements in her own party, labelling those who opposed leaving the European Union “citizens of nowhere”—this from the leader of a party which receives large donations from financiers with offshore businesses and which has accepted contributions from Russians resident in Britain, but who nevertheless stoops to labelling those British citizens who believe in European and international co-operation as having divided loyalties. That is how English Protestants labelled Catholics 350 years ago and nationalists labelled Jews.
Of course, the right-wing media went further with headlines about “traitors” and “enemies of the people”, attacking judges, the liberal elite and the establishment. I love to hear Jacob Rees-Mogg attacking the establishment because it is the ultimate absurdity. Neither the Prime Minister nor other responsible senior Ministers have deplored such attacks or warned that they are feeding social division. A recent survey shows, not surprisingly, that Britain has become a much angrier society over the past two years. That is partly because of the deteriorating quality of our political debate and partly because of the Government’s failure to address the many other causes of social division, in their preoccupation with internal party rivalries and disputes.
For more than a century Britain has been a liberal democracy built upon reasoned debate, respect for evidence in policy-making and continued dialogue among politicians of opposing views. We now face, within Britain as well as elsewhere, a surge of “illiberal democracy”, as Prime Minister Orbán of Hungary has labelled it, founded on the exploitation of popular fears, antagonism to foreigners and international institutions, the denigration of domestic opponents and a sweeping disregard for consistency or evidence. President Trump is one of the most skilled exponents of illiberal democracy. After all, one of his campaign promises was that Mexico would pay to build a wall along the United States’ southern border. Two years later, without any sense of shame, he shut down the federal Government to try to force Congress to pay for the wall instead.
We have had similarly illiberal and irrational promises here. We were told repeatedly by Liam Fox and others that the German car industry would force the EU to give Britain whatever we demanded if we left, and that the exit negotiations would be the easiest negotiations ever. We were also assured that leaving the European Union would resolve the problem of immigration, even though in no year did the majority of immigrants arriving come from inside the EU. The leave campaign promised groups within the Asian community that closing off European immigration would leave more space for others to arrive.
Now we are warned that the will of the people—a phrase that authoritarian and anti-democratic Governments have long been fond of—requires a much harder, nastier and domestically damaging Brexit, because there can be no reconsideration or turning back. We should not be surprised that the most committed Brexiters overlap with those who deny the reality of climate change and those who promise that the best way to increase government revenue is to cut tax, nor that the same people who warn of the threat of violence on the streets of English cities if Brexit is not delivered in full dismiss the prospect of any return to violence in Northern Ireland as exaggerated. They choose what they want to believe.
Boris Johnson has shown the same happy disregard for consistency and evidence in denying that he played a major role in the Brexit campaign or even raised the spectre of millions of Turks swarming across our frontiers; so has Jacob Rees-Mogg, in switching from a passionate commitment to establishing parliamentary sovereignty again to now calling on the Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament to prevent a democratically elected Parliament delaying an unprepared and un-negotiated Brexit. I am sure that, as a good historian and a Roman Catholic, he knows that King James II prorogued Parliament repeatedly to prevent MPs blocking his pro-Catholic legislation, and ended up in exile as a result. Perhaps the same fate may reach the Conservative Party. I do not know whether he and others would go to Switzerland or Singapore.
Meanwhile, the regional divide between Britain’s richest and poorest regions remains the widest in Europe, and the overall divide between rich and poor is shameful for an open democracy. London has a structural surplus of housing for non-resident rich—built precisely for citizens of nowhere under London’s Conservative mayor, Mr Johnson—and a structural shortage of affordable housing for British citizens. We are a divided country—economically and socially, as well as politically—and going through with Brexit is likely only to make those divisions worse.
This country desperately needs constructive political leadership to bring us back together. It is now clear, sadly, that we will not get constructive leadership from this Prime Minister, more concerned with her doomed effort to hold together her own party than with the rest of the country. The task for all of us, in both Houses, is to find a way out of the present political, social, economic and constitutional crisis that can begin to re-establish our damaged social cohesion. That will require cross-party co-operation and a quality of political leadership that has been lacking since 2016. It may also need to include another referendum.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have sent me kind thoughts in the past few weeks. I am very grateful to them—they know who they are—and in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, who, aside from being the chairman of our Appointments Commission and Judicial Appointments Commission, is also, as we know, one of our most distinguished physicians. He is not in his place but his combination of ice-cool medical professionalism and loving care is a symbol of one of the many wonderful things about your Lordships’ House.
What I am about to say is supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, one of our leading legal figures; she is unable to be in her place today because she is with the United Nations team in Turkey examining the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Also, outside of this House, it is supported by Gina Miller, who, with the assistance of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, defeated Her Majesty’s Government in the Supreme Court on the question of the trigger of Article 50.
With the help of your Lordships today there will be a big redistribution of power in Europe. Why? After the Second World War, Germany was in ashes. At the Yalta peace conference we were one of the big three—Russia, America and Britain. We spoke for the whole of Europe but, in three brilliant moves, German diplomacy ended all that. First, there was reunification so that Germany had the biggest population in Europe. Secondly, there was the treaty of Nice so that voting strength in Europe reflected population weight—one man, one vote instead of one country, one vote. Germany outvoted Britain for the first time. Thirdly, there was the treaty of Lisbon—your Lordships are familiar with the articles—so that the majority required to change EU law was reduced. Three simple steps to effective control of Europe.
Our Government were asleep at the wheel. Throughout, the British Foreign Office practised the withdrawal method in sex—stay out of the danger zone. That was the government strategy throughout—variable geometry and two-speed Europe—until they finally achieved a climax with the aptly named EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Britain stood on the touchlines at Nice and Lisbon and watched the game as a spectator. The result? You will hear it on the TV news any night: in the end Germany will decide; Mrs Merkel signs the cheques.
This brings us to today, with Britain as a subordinate reporting to the EU. Are we supposed to look forward to serving the EU Scottish smoked salmon for starters, Irish beef for the main course and Welsh rarebit for dessert? As someone once said, “No, no, no”.
After all this, what are we to do? To now remain in the EU, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, would be a national humiliation that would last for 100 years. What would be the point anyway? We would still have the same problems as before: first, we do not want to be bossed around; and, secondly, we do not want uncontrolled immigration. Those two problems have to be fixed and the only way now on offer is to leave.
However, there is a much better way, which is what the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, Gina Miller and I are suggesting today—to lead, not leave. For the sake of phraseology, let us call it remain-plus. We want a redistribution of power in Europe and that is why I introduced the EU Membership Bill in your Lordships’ House on 10 December 2018. It would give us equal votes to Germany and reasonable control of immigration. It would mean that Britain would take its rightful place as, at the very least, one of the natural leaders of Europe. A happy ending to two years of what has been popularly known and described as a complete mess.
The withdrawal agreement has been withdrawn. I consider myself to be of average intelligence but it was so complex that it was beyond the judgment and understanding of the human mind to comprehend all its variables. Shall we see whether your Lordships’ House can do any better? Instead of a 585-page EU document, the Bill I am referring to, which is now in the Printed Paper Office, is a one-page House of Lords Bill. Here is the rationale behind it.
For over 100 years since the Parliament Act 1911, we in your Lordships’ House have obviously all looked up to the other place. It has legitimacy, the authority of the ballot box and the mandate of the general election, et cetera. We are a humble House and we know it. However, I hope that we will make up our own minds about whether we think that our continuing silence on the subject of the EU is still appropriate. The EU chief spokesman said last week that the EU wants to hear what Britain wants—what it “really, really wants”. Apparently, the House of Commons is having difficulty telling it, so why do we not have a go?
The same deference that we have always displayed to the House of Commons applied also to the EU referendum, and that ace of trumps is played on a daily basis: “We voted to leave. Nobody must obstruct or frustrate the clear sovereign will of the people in the biggest democratic vote in British history”, and so on. However, I say that the time is up for that argument because the result of the referendum was clear: we cannot decide; we are not sure. That was the result.
There is no comparison between a general election and that referendum. In a general election, if we do not like what we voted for, we can change our mind. This is democracy—first past the post and the greatest advance in human civilisation—and one vote is enough. Nobody challenges that. But this EU referendum is completely different. If we do not like what we voted for, we cannot change it—it is permanent. Therefore, the beautiful concept that “one vote is enough” does not apply. As we have seen, the result is that nobody is happy. Leave people hate half in; remain people hate half out.
We keep hearing that this is a “failure of statesmanship” on a level with Suez. Apparently, Colonel Nasser wrote a page a day for each of the country leaders involved in the Suez crisis—Britain, France, America and Israel—to try to understand how that day had gone from their point of view. It worked very well, did it not? Shall we try that with Chancellor Merkel and President Macron? They had only one interest and one strategy—no detail required. The view was, “We don’t really care whether Britain comes or goes. All we care about is that they don’t set a precedent for anyone else. Therefore, our strategy is tough terms. The tough-terms strategy will have one of two good results. Either Britain accepts the tough terms—that will teach the rest of them—or it says, ‘These terms are tough. We’d better stay’”. Either way, for France and Germany tough terms was a no-lose bet, which they have executed to perfection.
Meanwhile, Britain has now spent many angry years, and 585 pages, debating our terms for leaving. Let us see what we can do with our terms for remaining. How about one page? That is the length of the Bill—two clauses on one page. The first clause sets out that Britain is to have the same voting powers as Germany; the second deals with Britain having reasonable control over immigration. This Bill is remain-plus, and it means that we will have won a lot for our years of political anguish: equal power to Germany and reasonable control over immigration. That would make it all worth while, would it not? Perhaps the EU leaders would prefer that too. They keep saying that they are “so sad” at our leaving. Let us find out whether theirs are crocodile tears.
In case any noble Lord thinks that the EU will never accept that, here is Manfred Weber, the leader of the biggest parliamentary group in the EU and the front-runner to replace Mr Juncker as President of the EU Commission. Last week he said:
“Brexit is absolutely an example that people can see in reality ... why our main message for the EPP campaign is that it’s better to reform the European Union where we need a reform, than to leave or even destroy it”.
This Bill has big reforms for the EU leaders to swallow but, like the British people, they might prefer them to the unpalatable dishes now on offer.
If your Lordships’ House moves this Bill forward, we will feel more responsible for our own lives. Everyone will agree that it makes everything in Europe much fairer and the British people will gain more dignity and self-respect. Therefore, in the name of common sense and in the interest of the country, I ask all noble Lords, on whatever Bench they may be, to now fight for this EU reform, and this Bill, as best they may. The three of us whom I mentioned at the beginning are undertaking this national task here today. I call upon all Members of your Lordships’ House who agree with us to listen to my voice and follow me. Long live Britain in honour and independence.
My Lords, I had been going to start my remarks by saying, “Here we go again”—but unfortunately the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, got there before me. There is indeed quite a lot that is both tedious and repetitive about the string of debates that this House and the other place have been holding on Brexit. I hope that I will not be thought too disobliging if I say that today’s debate seems to show some traces of metal fatigue. However, the debates and the votes we register are necessary because only Parliament can ensure that the Government do not, perhaps inadvertently, take this country on a course that could inflict considerable loss and suffering on its citizens.
Two weeks ago, by a majority of 169, this House categorically registered that leaving without a deal needed to be rejected. I would like the Government to say—since the noble Baroness the Leader of the House did not say a word about it when she opened the debate —what account they took of that vote when they started to shape up what is described with some irony as plan B but is in reality plan A, rejected by large majorities, in flimsy disguise. I listened carefully to the Leader’s speech and she did not manage to mention plan B at all. Like TS Eliot’s Macavity the Mystery Cat, it has just disappeared. Where has it gone? I do not know—but we perhaps need to know. I fear that the answer to the question of how much account the Government have taken of your Lordships’ majority of 169 is, “Not a lot”.
It is important that the Government face up to reality and admit what the consequences of leaving without a deal would be. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, referred to this and I will refer to it, too. If we leave without a deal, on 30 March we will be required, not by a diktat from Brussels or Dublin but by WTO rules, to apply tariffs on all our imports from the European Union—and EU countries will be required to apply tariffs on all their imports from us. That would apply on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as elsewhere. Alternatively, there is one way out, which is that we apply zero tariffs to all our imports worldwide—which would remove all protection from our businesses and our farmers.
It would be helpful if the Government would say which of those choices they would make. It is rather important for businessmen who are already fulfilling contracts that involve trade in these goods. They might like to know whether the tariff will be 10%, 20%, 0% or what. That quandary was admitted by the noble Baroness, Lady Fairhead, at Second Reading of the Trade Bill on 11 September. It was also implicit in what the noble Baroness the Leader of the House said in reply to a question of mine on 21 January. Is that the Government’s view—I would very much like to hear the answer in the winding-up speech by the noble Lord, Lord Callanan—or are we planning to start our life as an independent member of the WTO by flouting its most fundamental rule: the most favoured nation rule? If that is the case, there are even more compelling reasons to rule out leaving without a deal.
It really is no good the Government repeating, as they do frequently, that they cannot single-handedly rule out leaving without a deal. That is entirely correct, of course, but entirely insufficient. The reason is that they could quite easily say, today at the Dispatch Box, that they would do everything within their power to avoid leaving without a deal, and we would all be very happy if they said that. We would recognise that it would require the co-operation of the other member states, but it would be a good start. Frankly, if they still believe that it gives us leverage to go on playing with the trigger, they are in for another bad surprise.
Then there is that date of 29 March, which the Government insist must remain as if it were written on one of the tablets brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai. Do they not understand by now that there is not the slightest chance of being able to meet that deadline? Whatever course of action is taken, even in the eventual case of the Prime Minister’s deal being approved, there still is not time to do it and to pass all the necessary legislation under the withdrawal treaty and the political declaration. Would it not be more sensible to recognise that now and initiate discussion with the European Union about prolongation? Several views have been expressed on its duration and its motivation, and surely that would be a much more sensible course to take. No doubt the Government will be forced to get there eventually, but how much better to do it now and not to inflict more uncertainty and damage on our economy in the weeks ahead.
I hope that a clear message on these two points will go out from this House today. That is why I will support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. I looked at it again just now and really find it hard to believe that anybody could be opposed to the second part of the Motion—although I then listened to my noble and learned friend Lord Brown, who managed to find some reason to do so, which I am afraid I did not follow very carefully—while the first is just simple common sense.
My Lords, it is my pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. He certainly shows no sign of metal fatigue.
I have always been proud to be British, but that is becoming harder. This country is looking increasingly ludicrous. As my noble friend Lord Cormack said, we are in a mess. It is fair to say that, thanks to David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, we are in a veritable Eton mess. The public deserve the opportunity to save the country from that mess. A referendum is their right. It is in the public’s interest that they should have a say.
The opposition to a referendum is highly vocal, and I find it puzzling. We are told that it would be undemocratic, that the people have spoken. I do not see that that is the case at all. It seems to me that those who are opposed to a second referendum, as they call it, are worried that actually it might not produce the result that they want. That is because the people have had the sense to look at where we are going and to be worried. There are reasons to be afraid—very afraid. The Brexit that was on offer at the time of the referendum is very different from the Brexit on offer now, and it seems only right that the public should have the right to give their informed consent.
The Prime Minister says that a second referendum would threaten social cohesion. That is somewhat ironic, given that the Government are discussing the prospect of declaring a national emergency when we leave without a deal. We already are in a national emergency because we are horribly close to 29 March. When David Cameron became Prime Minister, it was on a promise to heal “broken Britain”—but if it was broken then, it is in a really bad state now. Every day brings more news of companies taking jobs out of the UK. Sony’s headquarters is one of the latest moves to be announced, along with Dyson; and Jaguar Land Rover is moving jobs. Ireland is seeing an influx of new business to the extent that there is now a real skills shortage there. It is interesting to see that the headhunter Odgers has just decided that it really needs a new office in Ireland.
A no-deal Brexit is only days away, yet Britain simply is not ready. The Federation of Small Businesses says that only one in seven of its members has made any preparation for a no-deal Brexit. The Government are doing their best to help. There is a website geared towards helping businesses prepare for such an eventuality, which tells you that you have to answer only seven simple questions and all will be made clear. Posing as a small retailer importing a little bit from Europe, I answered the seven questions. I was promptly delivered 25 documents I needed to read to prepare for what lay ahead. There was even one that told me how to work out the trade tariff code I would need—really useful, particularly as the example that had been chosen was that of a grand piano. The retailer I was posing as had little cause for grand pianos, but then I do not think many in this country do. The point is that if you are running a small business you do not have time to read 25 documents—the surprise is that one in seven businesses has got that far.
What this does make clear is that, should we leave with no deal on 29 March, there will be chaos, and not just at ports. Trade will simply not be done. We will be an impoverished country. As others have already said, even if we get a version of a deal—potentially Mrs May will find one or two fig leaves; they will be words, really, not much of substance, but the Commons may eventually be persuaded to back her deal as the clock ticks further and further—that does not give business the certainty it needs. It does not give any of us any certainty. It is only then that the negotiations over our future will begin, and we will have no negotiating chips at all.
I have listened to those who say that the Prime Minister merely has to go back to Brussels and demand more and she will get it. I have also listened to what Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker say. I just cannot see how anyone can come to the conclusion that those two—or any of the other 27—are going to bend. The withdrawal agreement is, they say, the final agreement. A customs union or Norway-style solution would be less damaging than no deal, but would still involve years of negotiation and uncertainty. In her Statement, the Prime Minister promised that the Commons would have more of a consultative role; that she would seek to secure a mandate from the Commons. As pointed out by the Leader of the Opposition, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, we attempted to give her that helping hand and to have a mandate for the negotiations in the first place. I put my name to the amendment with the noble Lords, Lord Monks and Lord Lea, and I am afraid we did not make any progress with her. I suspect that Mrs May’s definition of consultation is not the same as the ACAS definition of it.
I have listened this afternoon to many interesting speeches, including from my noble friend Lord Dobbs, who is not in his place, sadly. He spoke with his usual eloquence about two memories very heavily imprinted on his mind. He spoke of a young man in Tiananmen Square, and of the Berlin Wall coming down. I drew two very different conclusions from the noble Lord. That young man in Tiananmen Square reminded me that a very large majority of our young people do not want to leave the EU. The magic moment when the Berlin Wall came down was a sign of how powerful a united Europe is.
I do not want us to leave Europe. I do not want us to put up a metaphorical wall between the UK and Europe. I heard the President of the United States, Donald Trump, say last autumn that, in the right place, there was nothing more beautiful than barbed wire. I do not subscribe to that view.
My Lords, I have not spoken on Brexit more than about three times in the past two years—I think that I deserve a prize for that. I spoke last on 5 December and more or less what I said then I will say again, but with a few more caveats.
My principal view is that people voted for Brexit. I voted remain; people voted for Brexit. It does not help to say, as did the noble Lord, Lord Newby, “Only 37% voted, so it does not count”. No victor in a general election has ever been chosen by the majority of voters. If we were to use a 51% rule, it would mean that all our Governments were not legitimate. That will not do. A referendum was called. People chose to vote. A lot of the young people who we now hear are very pro Europe chose not to vote. If you choose not to vote, you take the consequences. Some 34 million people voted; there was a majority of 2 million. It is up to us to deliver on that as best we can.
The deal negotiated by the Prime Minister is not the best deal, not the second best nor even the third best, but it is the best that we can get. It is not possible within the time that remains, or even if we elongate the time, to get a better deal as we like it. Both Houses of Parliament have proposed better alternatives, as if we were in a shopping mall and could pick up anything we liked, saying, “I will have this Brexit”, “I will not have that Brexit” or “I will not have a Brexit at all”. That choice is no longer open. We have started a process. We are only 60 days away from the end of it. Sooner or later, the House of Commons will have to come to its senses. Plan A equals plan B, equals plan C equals plan D: ultimately, it will have to vote for the deal; nothing else is available. There is no going back to Brussels. The sooner the penny—or maybe the euro—drops, the sooner we will realise that the deal is the deal and there is nothing more.
To those worried about the backstop, I say let us think about it this way. All the backstop threatens is that it will not be reversed in an anticipatable time—it may not take two years; it may take four or five. In the long run, that is not a serious objection to having a backstop. We know that whatever trade relationship we negotiate with the EU after Brexit will take five or six years—that is the norm. Liam Fox did not know about free trade treaties, but that is neither here nor there. Those with a public school education cannot be expected to have any knowledge of anything real, but that is their problem.
I have a question for the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who is going to follow me. If it takes five years to negotiate a free trade treaty, how come it takes only two years to get out of it? The Lisbon treaty should have said, “Having invoked Article 50, you are allowed five years to sort out the mess”, because we have realised that any kind of Brexit that we negotiate is extremely complicated and will take a lot of time. The backstop and the transition period are giving us extra time creatively to get out of the free trade treaty that we signed, so we should take every advantage of it. We do not even have to negotiate a postponement, because after 29 March all is not over. There is a transition period; all sorts of opportunities are available.
Eventually, sense will prevail and we will see the realism of the deal. On the possibility of no deal, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that the problem with Brexit and business right now is uncertainty. We do not know what the final shape of the beast is going to be. But once we know what the beast is, we will adjust. We will be able to adapt under whatever circumstances, deal or no deal. I am confident that the British economy has tremendous flexibility, and its people have great character—they can innovate, adapt and win in the end. Of that I have no doubt.
If we are in a no-deal scenario, I would adopt a suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay: we should declare ourselves a zero-tariff country. That will considerably simplify the problems of the no-deal arrangement, because, apart from problems of health and other requirements, at least we will not have the trouble of stopping people to collect tariffs from them. If we go to a no deal, attention should be paid to how much we can unilaterally ease our lives, and we should get the imports to come in as quickly as possible. They may or may not need our exports, but we need their imports. Therefore, we should concentrate on our needs.
The much-maligned Prime Minister has shown remarkable stamina; I am astonished. She is shrewd enough to know that if she plays this game long enough, ultimately everybody will get bored and agree with her.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai. I cannot answer his question on how long negotiations for a free trade agreement will take from outside, but, like him, I would not have started from there. I would have started during the process, agreeing a framework for the future relationship, which is what the treaty says we should have been doing, and thus got some way down the road during the two years of negotiations on the first agreement.
I thought I would try very hard to say something new today. It is time we talked about time. It is running out, and we are going to need more. There are 60 days left, and plan B is exactly like plan A: sticking with the November agreement, which the Government would not let Parliament vote on in December; sticking with the agreement that Parliament rejected by a record majority in January; and sticking with this hopeless and humiliating request that the 27 acquiesce in some sort of legally binding formula contradicting the feature of the agreement which the Attorney-General highlighted in his letter of 13 November, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem—namely, that the backstop will last as long as the EU 27 want it to last.
The Prime Minister told us she would change that in December—it did not work. She told us that again in January—it did not work. Mr Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, tells her in today’s Daily Telegraph to,
“stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood and get on that trusty BAE-146 and go back to Brussels”,
to kill off the backstop and to replace it with a “freedom clause”. The content of the freedom clause is as yet unspecified. Reading this, I was reminded of “Beyond the Fringe”, and its splendid wartime RAF sketch, in which squadron leader Peter Cook declaims that, since the war is going rather badly:
“We need a futile gesture … Get up in a crate … pop over to Bremen … don’t come back”.
What, conceivably, could Mr Johnson’s motive be in saying “Don’t come back”? Presidents Tusk and Juncker could not have been clearer when they said in their letter of 14 January about the backstop:
“We are not in a position to agree anything that changes or is inconsistent with the withdrawal agreement”.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, said:
“These people mean what they say”.
There is no more time to waste challenging them.
As for “no deal”, I do not believe that our Prime Minister, whom I believe is a serious, responsible, honourable person, would drive the country over the cliff in 60 days’ time. I do not believe it, and I do not believe that anyone believes she would. Her Cabinet may be divided, but they are not deranged. The consequences of no deal for the country have been spelled out every day ever more clearly, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said. The logically and physiologically rather odd argument that it would weaken our hand in Brussels if we were to stop threatening to shoot ourselves in the foot now looks even odder, given that there is no serious negotiation going on, because we have tabled no serious proposition.
I will reflect on the interesting analogy with nuclear deterrence that my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood regaled us with. The flaw may be that Trident deters the Russians and does not damage us, whereas a no-deal Brexit would delight the Kremlin, and the risk of it is ravaging the British economy right now, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, pointed out. The choice cannot be between the November deal and no deal. That makes no sense, and the Spelman-Morgan amendment in the other place tomorrow deserves support.
Talleyrand defined statesmanship as foreseeing the inevitable and accelerating its occurrence. The Government must already know that we are going to need an extension under Article 50(3). They must know that the Reeves-Benn-Grieve amendment tomorrow is sensible. They would do well to embrace it.
What are the arguments against seeking an extension under Article 50? I have heard three. It is said that it would betray the referendum result if we were still in the EU on 30 March. I cannot see that. The date was not on the ballot paper, and I do not think anyone knows why the Prime Minister subsequently picked it and started the two-year clock with no proposals tabled in Brussels, no strategy agreed in Cabinet, no attempt made to find consensus in Parliament, no consultation with the devolved Governments, and no consultation with the Dublin Government.
Mr Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, says that 29 March is an “iconic” date, which it would be humiliating to miss. Why “iconic”? I do not know. Maybe he was thinking of the Battle of Towton, fought on 29 March 1461, which did, after all, produce a change in leadership. However, I doubt it. Towton was the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, and Mr Gove is still around.
Maybe he had in mind the Treaty of St Germain, signed on 29 March 1632, when we gave control of Quebec back to the French. Could he be planning to reverse that, in a maximalist version of Canada-plus? I rather hope not, but enough of Mr Johnson. Let us be serious.
Could it be that he considers the date iconic because such a huge majority of the House of Commons voted for the legislation that set it in stone?
That is perfectly true; the date is in the legislation. The date was taken out of the legislation in this House by quite a large majority— I think it was 78—on the recommendation of the amendment of the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington. I think that the House of Commons was extremely rash to put the date back in again, but the Letwin compromise ensures that there is no particular problem here. It can be taken out again without primary legislation.
The second objection I heard is that the House of Commons has decided on that date. If it wishes to, the House of Commons can change the date, on the Government’s recommendation, by the stroke of a pen. That is not a serious objection.
The third objection I have heard is that the 27 might not agree to an extension. However, they do not want no deal either. Nobody wants no deal. While it is much worse for us, it is bad for everyone, and the 27 have always been clear that a better deal—better than the November deal—could be envisaged if the Prime Minister were ready to move on her four red lines, which were so rashly laid down for party management reasons at the 2016 party conference. A move might involve considering a real customs union, unlike the partial, unequal, temporary, bare bones version in the backstop. It might even, two years late, involve working out a real, legally binding framework for the future relationship, as envisaged in Article 50(2), which would be directive and determined, unlike the present loose aspirational declaration. That would require time for real negotiation, but we know that the 27 would allow it, and we have always known that they would allow time for an election or a referendum in this country. It is clear that Brussels, shocked by the disarray in this country, now knows that more time may be needed and is waiting for us to signal that. Provided that we have a real proposition to discuss—not just the plan A, plan B, “Beyond the Fringe” nonsense of seeking contradictory assurances—it is clear that the 27 would give us more time, if we ask for it. Therefore, the Cooper amendment tomorrow in the other place makes sense and should be supported.
Our debate is only the overture to tomorrow’s drama over there, but it is right that we should show that we are just as concerned as they are and ready to do our bit to stop the country sleepwalking into disaster. I now believe that that will require stopping the clock.
My Lords, as always, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who speaks with such wisdom on these matters, and to follow the excellent contributions made by noble Lords from across the House. I concur with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that we are indeed the warm-up act for tomorrow. Nevertheless, I hope that the debate this afternoon will produce some interesting insights for the other place.
The Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement and political declaration were roundly rejected last week by both Houses, but no plan B has been put forward. The current position is a serious threat to the unity of our United Kingdom. The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, insists that an invisible solution exists for the Irish border, and the ERG has insisted that technological solutions are available and that this is a manufactured excuse from those who want to stop Brexit. If that is the case, why the fuss over the backstop? Either they do not believe that such a solution exists, or this is merely a delaying tactic to edge the country closer to a no-deal cliff edge.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said, how is it that the EU is drawing a stark red line to protect the border and the Good Friday agreement, while the Conservative and Unionist Party seems willing to sacrifice it? To leave the customs union and single market is, in almost everyone’s opinion, simply incompatible with the Good Friday agreement in practice. Border controls are required. Leaving with no deal likewise abandons the Good Friday agreement. It is essential to rule out no deal; it should have happened long ago. I will therefore be voting, in sadness but in absolute good conscience, in favour of the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I join her in encouraging my noble friends on the Front Bench to support it, too.
No deal is an option that no reasonable Government could support. Walking wide-eyed into a course of action while knowing that it will be damaging—and contrary to an international treaty—is against all the principles of representative democracy. As George Orwell said, political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
My noble friend the Leader of the House said in her opening remarks that the Government have a responsibility to deliver the result of the referendum. Will the Minister, when he winds up, tell us how many of the 17.4 million leave voters actually voted for this withdrawal agreement and political declaration—or indeed how many voted for no deal?
There is a loud, extreme group of Brexiters who believe that the referendum gave carte blanche for any action that delivers the cherished Brexit. This is not democracy. A quarter of the population voted to leave, but we have no idea what each of them expected. The only deal on offer is the Prime Minister’s deal, but that does not command parliamentary support. Equally, it does not provide certainty, and it puts at risk our economy and national security.
The promises of the leave campaign in the EU referendum have not materialised. The “easiest trade deal in history” is nowhere to be seen. Brilliant new trade deals, and even rolling over the existing deals that we have via the EU, are just pipe dreams. Assurances given so confidently by my right honourable friend David Davis in 2017 that the European Medicines Agency would not leave the UK have proved wrong, as we sadly saw yesterday when the agency left the UK. The Brexiters have been wrong about the EU all along, and are still wrong—catastrophically so—when they claim that leaving on WTO terms can be managed reasonably.
We need to know how many people still want to leave the EU, and the only way is to ask them. That is respecting the will of the people. My noble friend Lord Dobbs called this a “loser’s charter”. That misunderstands its purpose. If people confirm that they still want to leave, they have the option and we will honour it—I will accept it. Not even to ask, however, when what is being delivered is so different from what they may well have voted for, is irresponsible.
My noble friend the Leader also suggested that we must command support across the political spectrum. No deal, however, certainly does not do that. Why, therefore, is this kamikaze course still on the table? As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said, the leave enthusiasts are holding our party hostage and refusing to give up the no-deal threats. Why are they doing so? Is it because this was their one and only plan right from day one? Having watched the actions of the honourable and right honourable colleagues in the other place, I say that this is a wholly consistent explanation. Was their plan, all along, to just keep threatening no deal until 28 March and wait for the EU to surrender to the cake-and-eat-it promises made to voters in the 2016 referendum and the 2017 election? They still refuse to accept that it is simply not possible to leave the EU single market and customs union and protect the Northern Ireland border within the UK.
If this giant game of poker is all that they can offer, it is going to fail. The EU will not cave in to what we want—it has made that clear. The House of Commons Library has produced an excellent report on the full impact of no deal. It was released today, and I strongly commend it to all noble Lords. Indeed, I ask my noble friends on the Front Bench to suggest that both this House and the other place dedicate time to a proper debate about it.
I will quote selectively from the report. The Permanent Secretary of HM Revenue and Customs, Jon Thompson, said:
“We cannot give you or Ministers any assurances whatsoever of what will actually happen in the event that there is no deal ... I cannot say it will all be fine. I absolutely cannot tell you”.
Those who say that many other countries trade on WTO terms and we trade on WTO terms with other countries seem to ignore the fact that the US, Brazil, China and India all have trade agreements with their closest neighbours. Even with the US, the UK already has trade regulated by more than 100 sectoral agreements derived from EU membership that go well beyond WTO provisions.
On medicines, we are told that there is not enough cold-chain warehousing available to build the stockpile that the industry has been asked to hold. Air freight is not an option for medicines that cannot be X-rayed. On Northern Ireland, the WTO rules are clear: there needs to be between two separate customs territories the possibility of checks, and contemporaneous forms need to be filed to ensure that, when goods are passing across the border, the right tariff has been applied.
On security, Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has said that no deal would have to replace the mechanisms we currently have with others that are “costly, slower” and potentially put the public at risk.
“There is no doubt about that”,
On pensions—I declare an interest—there is a promise that overseas residents who are UK citizens will have their pension uprated in the country in which they live as long as there is reciprocity. There are 70,000 British pensioners living in Spain and 62 Spanish pensioners living in the UK. The cost to Spain would be significant. The temptation for it not to offer reciprocity would leave 70,000 British pensioners—and other pensioners in other countries—at risk of no uprating: more frozen pensioners.
As to the managed no deal that we have heard about, we are told that any side deals if we leave with no deal would require the maintenance of goodwill between both sides, which inevitably would require settlement of our financial obligations and the rights of EU citizens, as well as protection of the Northern Ireland border.
The House of Commons has roundly rejected this deal. At the moment we have no agreed way forward. We are approaching the cliff edge. I know that many noble Lords share the concern that the no-deal outcome is unconscionable. I echo the call of the Commons Brexit Select Committee for Article 50 to be extended, as so many other noble Lords have said, because we are simply running out of time.
The British people have been misled about the impact of leaving the EU. Whether we leave with the current agreed deal or with no deal, there will be casualties. In all good conscience, I hope that we can support the words of Benjamin Disraeli:
“Power has only one duty—to secure the social welfare of the people”.
My Lords, the French have a saying that for all the ifs in the world, you could put Paris in a bottle. We have spent a lot of time on ifs in this debate. The issues will now be settled not here but in the House of Commons, and the House of Commons is pretty close to doing something which we need to be very careful about, which is to reject an international treaty that has been agreed by 27 other countries and our Government.
There was no question in the referendum that the House of Commons was to negotiate with the EU 27. There was no question but that this was to be left to Mr Cameron’s Government, because he had promised that he, his Chancellor of the Exchequer and others would stay to carry this thing through. Many mistakes have been made, and many differences that could perhaps have been addressed have not been, but we face the situation now. How do we help the House of Commons to come in the next few weeks to a better solution than it has at the moment? If there is anybody here who has come out of this with some honour and distinction, it is the Attorney-General. I think his letter to the Cabinet was noble. He was a Brexiteer, but he made it quite clear that he was extremely worried. His words were,
“the current drafting of the Protocol, including Article 19, does not provide for a mechanism that is likely to enable the UK lawfully to exit the UK wide customs union without a subsequent agreement”.
He has not changed his mind as a result of the clarification letter that came from the two Presidents, the President of the Council and the President of the Commission.
He also wrote, near the conclusion of his letter to the Cabinet, three lines that are worth repeating:
“Finally, in considering any international agreement, it is important also to take into account the changing political context in which it is to operate and that the solution to any essentially political question is rarely wholly or even predominantly legal”.
He voted, therefore, for the Government’s negotiation, warts and all. I believe and hope that the House of Commons will think very carefully before not doing the same.
The question is: how can we help? One piece of guidance to have come out of this debate—though I doubt the Members of the Commons even read our Hansard, frankly— which would be a wise decision, would be not to emphasise being able to change the withdrawal agreement too much. That is very difficult to do. The noble Lord who spoke earlier on this point is not in his place, but has experience of the European Parliament. We have to remember that that withdrawal agreement has to go back and be accepted by the European Parliament. Because the European Parliament is changing and because there are to be elections, the room for postponement—though it is undoubtedly there; let nobody be under any illusion about that, and the European Union will be helpful on this—is nowhere near as large as most people think. I think it is a matter of weeks. We want this European Parliament to make a decision over what changes may or may not be made.
Another piece of wisdom that has come out of our debate, which may help Members of Parliament, is that the political declaration is much easier to amend, so we should look at that. First, we should record the fact that all aspects of the transitional agreement are extremely helpful to this country. Not just trading questions, but City of London questions and issues that are of real importance but rarely discussed, are left open during this transitional period. The problem is that most of us are worried that we will not get a free trade area agreement by 31 December 2020, when the transitional period comes to an end. It can be extended, but remember that this transitional period is very odd. We are not actually involved in any of the issues. We are given the appearance of still being members of the EU, but without any powers. We are paying what we would broadly be paying if we were staying in the EU—which we are, during that period—and that which we owe to the community. That is what I would call a good agreement. During that transitional period the EU gets money, which is very helpful to it with its budgetary constraints and difficulties at the moment; and we get an open agenda. It is a proper status quo—although as far as we are concerned it is also political limbo, and we will have very little impact. To extend that would be difficult. Here, I come to the one suggestion that I hope the Government will think carefully about. I have given it to them and do not know what they might do with it, but Members of Parliament might consider it.
There is a good deal of interest in the European Economic Area. It is no secret to anybody that I always thought that we would come out through the European Economic Area and use the Norway model. I was never tempted by a customs union; indeed, neither was Norway. I believe that we need the single market, which, if it continues after 31 December—if we have not reached an agreement—is a huge help to Ireland. I agree with a lot of what has been said. However tempting it may be, let us not take it out on the Irish. The 26 other nations have put them in this position, particularly—and very unwisely, in my view—the President of the Council, Donald Tusk. At one stage, he said, “What Ireland wants, Ireland gets”. You cannot have a proper negotiation on that basis. The EU has put itself on to the most sensitive border in the world with a dangerous declamatory process. It is difficult for this country to accept that we cannot at some stage pull out of this endless customs union.
Like many others, I know that we are in already in the EEA and have never given notice to come out of it. There is a respectable case for that but, again, that is an “if” of history. We are here now. I suggest that in the political declaration, we ask that if on 31 December 2020, the UK wishes, as a non-EU contracting party, to be a member of the European Economic Area, it would not stand in our way but would allow it to go through. Of course, we would also have to convince the three EFTA countries. This would lead to a number of different things. We would start to have some influence on trading matters; like Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, we would have a voice.
Secondly, we would be able to stand by our pledge to the fishing community to introduce UK management of fishing in our waters, although we would still have to consider environmental issues, for example, and negotiate. This would not necessarily have to be done, as is obviously the wish of some countries, through a free trade area agreement, which would not be appropriate. It would also give some sustenance to those people in the peripheral parts of this country who are, by and large, overwhelmingly in favour of Britain leaving. We must not do what Ted Heath did in the most disgraceful manner and completely sell out the fishing industry. I for one am not prepared to see that happen through a free trade area agreement.
That is one advantage. This idea would also put us into an organisation where, if we wanted, we could apply to continue being in the customs union. Non-EU members are not excluded from being in it; the three EFTA countries have just decided not to. It would be for the Government of the day, in the days approaching December 2020, to make a judgment on whether they wanted to enter the EEA and whether they then wanted to negotiate with the EU on being part of a customs union. That is difficult, but it can be done. This would change the atmosphere and show that the Government were listening to the people, not least in the Labour Party, who believe that the European Economic Area has merit and would be perfectly prepared to see that as our way of coming out. The Labour Party’s position is honourable: the party leader has made it clear that he would come out under the EEA and the single market, then try to negotiate a preferential deal on a customs union—the party is very optimistic about what it could get out of it—although that is not obligatory.
Those are my few suggestions. I speak as one who has had to be responsible for international treaties. At the end of the day, you must go into this with the belief that you will carry your country with you. I say to the people who advocate thrusting this aside as if it is a matter of no consequence: it is a matter of huge consequence if we do not live up to our commitments, not just to our electorate and the people who voted in the referendum and the 2017 election, but to those people from 27 countries with whom we went into negotiations. We cannot just shred the agreement and throw it away; it would be very hard to replace. We must face up to that withdrawal agreement over the next few weeks—and the sooner, the better.
My Lords, I feel almost guilty for disturbing the mood of despondency, but I confess I am actually looking forward to 29 March. I am looking forward to bringing home accountability, from Brussels to Westminster and the devolved nations, for major policy decisions affecting the minutiae of people’s lives here in Britain. I am looking forward to seeing people, Parliament and, indeed, your Lordships’ House being given more power, not less, and British democracy being strengthened as a result. But, most of all, I am looking forward to the people’s vote of 2016 being honoured. For what greater privilege could there be, as a parliamentarian, than to have helped put into effect the majority will of the British people to leave the EU?
After so many hours spent in debate, one could argue that all that remains to be done is for the UK to leave. We are so close and yet, with only 60 days to go, we are still so far away from respecting the result of that once-in-a-generation referendum. In fact, the closer we get, the more intense the battle to stop us leaving becomes. So much is being done to delay, derail and even deny what 17.4 million people voted for by a clear majority. Some 80% of voters may have voted for MPs who stood on manifestos to respect that referendum result, but if some of the amendments in the other place are anything to go by, who could blame those same voters for regretting trusting MPs to keep their word? As my noble friend Lord Dobbs said earlier, we can stretch their tolerance only so far. I agree. Their trust is not elastic.
So why are we doing this to ourselves, to the British people and to their faith in democracy? Is it because we are petrified of leaving on WTO terms—the so called no-deal option? It may be the least favoured option, but are we really suggesting that we would strengthen our negotiating hand by throwing our strongest card away? Do we really think the EU would give us a better deal after we had voluntarily sacrificed what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, rightly described as an “incentive”, and what I would say is the biggest incentive there currently is to reflect on the consequences for individual member states of the Commission’s continuing intransigence? Are some advocating removing the no-deal option precisely because they know that without our strongest card, we are far less likely to leave the EU in anything other than name only?
Of course, if someone opposes Brexit, it makes sense for them to want to take no deal off the table. If they are intent on thwarting the people’s vote of 2016, naturally they are going to oppose using the one thing which could bring the EU back to the negotiating table. After all, leaving on WTO terms would not be the end but the means to an end—that of securing a better Brexit. I understand the logic of the approach even if I disagree with it, but what I do not understand is this institutionalised timidity—this chronic aversion to risk, which invites defeat rather than success, poverty rather than prosperity, and corrosive mistrust in politicians rather than a restoration of faith in British democracy.
Although I have worked in the private sector, I cannot claim to have run a business. But as someone who lives with brittle bones and has had more than 50 fractures in my time, I can confidently claim that I have managed risk since the day I was born and I will do so until the day I die. That is just life. I damn well get on with it because I am British, because that is what we do. It is what millions of people the length of these islands do, day in, day out, and they are entitled to expect their parliamentarians to follow their example, hold their nerve and deserve their trust. Waging a concerted campaign of attrition against the people’s vote of 2016 does the opposite; it destroys trust. The EU Commission does not really do democracy. For it, referenda are exams people sit and resit until they get the answer right, so it is hardly rocket science that Brussels supports a campaign which seeks to subvert the people’s vote of 2016. What does surprise me is the extent of some parliamentarians’ collusion with Brussels, because the more they choreograph talking up the dangers of leaving the EU, the more they talk down our country.
That brings me to the question of certainty. Is it not a touch ironic and revealing that those who clamour most for certainty are those who most want to remove the one thing that is certain? It is in black and white and it is in law. It is this country’s leaving date of 29 March. Why? Because among them are those who never wanted us to leave, who still do not want us to leave and who are determined to do everything to thwart the result of the people’s vote of 2016.
The well-respected journalist Charles Moore is surely correct when he writes:
“Despite three and a half years of argument, this process has only just, at five minutes to midnight, begun”.
That is why it is so important, as the Prime Minister told the other place, that,
“we need to be honest with the British people ... when people say, ‘Rule out no deal’, what they are actually saying is that, if we in Parliament cannot approve a deal, we should revoke article 50. Those would be the consequences of what they are saying. I believe that that would go against the referendum result”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/1/19; col. 25.]
In conclusion, if there was one lesson above all else that my years in charity campaigning before entering your Lordships’ House taught me, it was that you do not deserve to win a campaign unless you are prepared to take it to the wire. That is why we must keep the option of no deal and leaving on WTO terms on the table. Let us never forget that we are British so we will not be bullied. For the sake of democracy, we must honour the people’s vote of 2016 and leave the EU on 29 March, with or without a deal.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin. I greatly admire his personal courage and integrity, but I say to him that I think nothing is more likely to strengthen the anti-democratic forces in this country or to see the emergence of a strong populist, nationalist party with tendencies to fascism than the economic disaster that would follow from having no deal on our exit from the European Union. It would set off social forces that I really am concerned about.
As we again debate Brexit, I fear I am again part of the “here we go again” consensus in the debate today. I support my noble friend Lady Smith’s Motion. It seems to me that an Article 50 extension is inevitable if no deal is to be avoided. That would be the case even if by some miracle Mrs May were to get her deal through the House of Commons in the next couple of weeks.
So what is it worth talking about today? Something very significant has happened in the last fortnight, and it is about what the Prime Minister gives her top priority to. After the deal was defeated by 230 votes, there was a lot of talk of a plan B, of seeking cross-party agreement for a compromise that could have carried both Labour and Conservative MPs and other parties. I know this was not helped by the leader of the Opposition’s decision not to join those talks, but the true analysis of what went wrong was well summed up by Hilary Benn, the chair of the Brexit Select Committee in the Commons. He said that he had been to see the Prime Minister and that, yes, there was an open door, but he was faced with a closed mind. That is the only conclusion we can come to on what we are told is now the Government’s plan B: to go back to revising the backstop. So I am afraid the Prime Minister has not taken the good advice that I remember the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, offering her: that she should seek to be Sir Robert Peel in these circumstances. Rather, she continues the pathetic performance of the indecisive Arthur Balfour in the Administration of 1902-1905, faced with Conservative divisions on tariffs.
So what does going back to the backstop mean? Will the Minister give some specific answers to questions about that? This seems to be the substantive point of content in today’s debate. Are the Government, as I hope and assume they are, sticking fully to the commitments they made in the December 2017 agreement with the European Commission and to the amendment that was passed by this House to the EU (Withdrawal) Act—that the Good Friday agreement would be adhered to and that as a consequence of Brexit there would in no circumstances whatever be a reinstatement of a hard border in the island of Ireland? Is that still the Government’s position?
Secondly, do the Government accept—I have heard Ministers say at times that they do—what the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Kerr, have said about what would happen in the event of no deal: in other words, that the problem of the border arises from our adherence to the very WTO rules which the Brexiteers go on about incessantly? If we do not stick to those rules, in the absence of a comprehensive free trade agreement, the most favoured nation principle comes into play, and that means that every other country in the world would have the right to trade with us and the EU on the principle of no tariffs, no quotas and no rules of origin. Do the Government accept that analysis?
Thirdly, do the Government accept that for the foreseeable future—and no one knows how long that future might be—while advanced technology and behind-the-border checks may minimise the policing, bureaucracy and delays involved in border checks, they cannot substitute for them? That was the authoritative evidence given to our Select Committee by the customs experts who came from Norway and Switzerland to talk to us.
Fourthly, do the Government therefore logically agree that the only way of avoiding the re-imposition of border checks in Ireland is an agreement whereby the island of Ireland remains within the EU customs territory and regulations on both sides of the border are closely aligned? If not, will the Minister tell us what might be possible?
Fifthly, if the Minister does agree and the Government want to avoid a customs border in the Irish Sea because they want, reasonably, to maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom, is not the logic of that position that it requires Great Britain as a whole to abide by the rules of a customs union and maintain general regulatory alignment with the EU?
The Government have to come clean on these questions. What are their answers? I look forward to the summing up of the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, and whether he has anything to say.
If the Government accept these propositions, how can they honestly go back to Brussels and argue that the backstop can be time limited, have a unilateral exit clause or even be eliminated altogether, when as recently as last autumn they agreed to all these things? What credibility would such a request have in Brussels without some clearly specified alternative, of which at the moment there is precisely none? Can the Minister give us an inkling of what the alternative to the backstop might be?
Finally, is it not sad and deplorable that a desperate attempt to restore the unity of the Conservative Party is once again being put ahead of the national interest and continued peace in Ireland?
My Lords, we are at the stage of the debate where everything has been said but not yet by everyone, and therefore I think it is best to be short.
To vary just a little what has been said this evening, I thought that I would do an exercise in imagination. I am not a very imaginative person but I have tried to imagine what the conversation would be like between the Prime Minister and Mr Juncker if Sir Graham Brady’s amendment passed in another place tomorrow.
I suppose that it would start with the Prime Minister going back to Brussels and saying, “Jean-Claude, I’ve got great news. I’ve got a parliamentary majority—for something”, to which the reply is, “Yes? Well, what’s the plan?” The Prime Minister says, “The plan is that we delete the backstop in its entirety and put in its place alternative arrangements”. I suppose that the EU reply would be, “So now you’re proposing to strip out the central and most hard-fought part of the negotiation that took 21 of the 24 months of the Article 50 period and which you agreed in outline in December 2017 and in detail in November of this year? What alternative arrangements ae you proposing to put in its place?”, to which the Prime Minister might say, “Well, I don’t have any instructions from the House of Commons on that. What do you suggest, Jean-Claude?” He might say, “What about a customs union for the whole of the UK? That would resolve the problem of the Northern Ireland backstop and give the certainty to business that you say is so necessary?” The Prime Minister’s reply would be, “Ah, no. That crosses my red line”.
This is no way for a major country of the United Kingdom’s standing or any country negotiating with the EU to proceed. It would mean the Prime Minister once again ricocheting between the Commons and the Commission like a pinball with no proposals of her own and constantly waiting for the EU to supply the answers. In practice, a majority for Sir Graham Brady’s amendment would be a vote for no deal, because there would be no time to work out any alternative to the central feature of the backstop. It might be an attempt to shift the blame to the EU, but that is a manoeuvre that will convince no one.
The more the implications of no deal are studied, the clearer it becomes that it would be disastrous across whole sectors of our national life. The letter from the major supermarket chains today about the devastating impact on the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables in British supermarkets is one vivid illustration. I saw precisely that when I was ambassador in Paris and we had the short-term delay in 2015 caused by both migrants and a French seamen’s strike. Within days, the supermarket shelves were beginning to empty. In the case of no deal, that would become a permanent position.
I have been convinced for a long time that a no-deal Brexit would do serious damage to our security—the area that I know best. Noble Lords do not need to take just my advice on that; my noble friend Lady Manningham-Buller made that clear in the House recently and again in authoritative terms on the BBC’s “World at One” programme today. The police force consulted the Schengen Information System 539 million times in 2017, but access to that would be shut down from one day to the next if we left with no deal.
The EU might put in place temporary emergency contingency arrangements to keep the traffic flowing for a short time but we will be entirely dependent on the good will of the EU to make that work, even for a short time, and that good will will be in very short supply. Try selling that to potential future investors in this country as a worthwhile proposition. When we hear that the Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat, which used to report to me as National Security Adviser, has been dusting down martial law arrangements for dealing with disorder in the event of a no-deal Brexit, what are we to think of the pass that this country has come to? Incidentally, it might be interesting if the Minister could update the House on how that work in the Cabinet Office is progressing.
I, for my part, hope that Members in the other place will not be seduced by siren songs that stripping the heart out of the Prime Minister’s plan can in some way advance towards a deal with Brussels. I believe that that is a direct route to no deal. The thrust of Yvette Cooper’s amendment makes much more sense: ruling out no deal and looking forward to more time should there be no solution after four more weeks. That is the thrust of the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, this evening, and I will be supporting it.
We need to bear in mind the damage already done to the standing of this country internationally by the spectacle that we have presented of the last two years of so-called negotiation. We have suffered a serious loss of reputation. We are still miles away from any consensus on how to take things forward. Yes, I detect a growing momentum towards accepting that no deal should be taken off the table. Like the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, my studies of deterrence suggest that it is not very credible when exercising the deterrent would involve a massive act of self-harm.
The emerging conclusion that more time will be needed is interesting and makes sense, but more time for what? We are a long way from any clarity on that. This Government’s negotiating approach in the last year, frankly, does not give me much confidence that they will be open to genuine fresh thinking. That is why I believe that, while more time is needed, it must be coupled with further democratic consultation of the people, in the light of facts that have come out in the last two years and for the sake of our children and grandchildren.
My Lords, like a number of others, I supported the idea of having a referendum with no particular terms in it as to what might be decided. The Government made it plain in literature put out to every house that the referendum result would be implemented. That was a sad situation as far as I am concerned, because I happened to vote remain, but I believe that we are under an obligation if at all possible to give effect to the view that was expressed in the referendum. It is absolutely essential that the Government and the House of Commons make a real effort to do this.
It is true that people have different ideas. But, in order to get this done, you have to get an idea that seems generally to prevail. That is what I assume the House of Commons will try to do tomorrow. I suggested some time ago in a correspondence in the Times that a series of alternatives should be put against the Prime Minister’s deal to see where the major change was wanted. That has not happened so far—although exactly what will happen tomorrow in the House of Commons I am not sufficient of a prophet to be able to say. Members seem to be embarking on a very difficult procedure, but I wish them every success in coming out with a clear result.
As far as this House is concerned, we have had some very interesting speeches. I am not attempting to make one. The noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Owen, have presented interesting views which I am sure should commend themselves to the House of Commons. In my view, the peace and security of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom are fundamental. Getting a border of the right kind between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, in the event of our coming out of the European Union, requires that the rules on both sides are the same. There is scope for changing the rules on both sides in the future, but having the same rules is required.
There is a lot of talk about the customs union and the single market. We have to remember that, by the time the referendum vote was taken, Mr Cameron had secured a binding agreement with the European Union that we were no longer part of the movement towards a closer political union. Therefore, at that time the only elements that were really important in our relationship with Europe were the customs union and the single market. So, if we are properly to give effect to the result of the referendum, we cannot remain in the customs union and the single market—but of course we may be able to have customs arrangements that enable us, for example, to have bargains outside. That was certainly one of the prominent points of view of the leavers in the argument that went forward.
It therefore seems essential that, while it is for the House of Commons to make the decision, we as a political unit should come forward with a proper arrangement that meets the House of Commons’ wishes, in the hope that it will also meet the wishes of the European Union, to give effect to the referendum in a way that preserves the rules between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. In a sense, that is the backstop. Of course, the situation is that the negotiations about exactly what these rules should be are matters that can be open—but it would be necessary to preserve the continuity when you change the rules.
I entirely agree with those who believe that no deal would be a disaster for the UK and for the European Union. Most of the arguments that I have heard about this concern the economic aspects of the matter, but there are far more important relationships than that: security arrangements have been mentioned, and I must say that I am very conscious of the medical arrangements that are required to be made. We very much need to have proper uniformity in clinical trials, for example, and that is not easy to achieve. There are delicate arrangements in the process of being carried out, but unfortunately Brexit will come before they are completed, so it is very difficult to be sure.
When I came here this afternoon I was very happy to vote for the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. However, I am very sorry to say that I understand it somewhat differently from the way that she put it forward. The first part requires,
“Her Majesty’s Government to take all appropriate steps to ensure that … the United Kingdom does not leave the European Union without an agreement with the European Union”.
Well, the best way to secure that is to secure an agreement; it is nothing to do with no deal. You do it by securing an agreement. I would be happy with that and would like to see it happen—very much so. Therefore, so far as I am concerned, the terms of the Motion are perfectly in accordance with what the Prime Minister wants: namely, to get an agreement that is effective and supported by the House of Commons—and then, we hope, supported by the European Union.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for allowing me to participate: I am afraid that I could not get my name down early enough.
Following on from what my noble friend Lord Dobbs said about the Berlin Wall, in 1961 I went to the Staatsoper in East Berlin to see the ballet and then came out. I did not realise until 1979, when I went through with a brigadier-general controlling our brigades over there, that where I came out in 1961 was Checkpoint Charlie.
I have been involved in the delivery of trade and tourism in all its forms throughout most of my working life worldwide via shipping, aviation and road and ground transport—and I still am. Nearly two years ago I was asked if I could advise the Government on what withdrawing from the European Union would likely be. The Government have the updated report, plus views on a no deal. At the very beginning of last August I was asked to meet with John Manzoni, the head of the Civil Service and responsible for the plans to handle the no-deal scenario. Some of the news appearing in the media was conveying the impression that no deal would be close to the beginning of World War III, particularly regarding the Straits of Dover. Even today, words like “dire” have been used.
The report was put together by former senior P&O colleagues of mine who are now working for companies which acquired parts of the P&O SN Co., DP World and Hutchison Ports. They live these subjects and have a unique knowledge of customs clearance. As I am sure noble Lords are aware, world trade is increasingly handled electronically and the speed of development is quite astonishing. I suggest that this will play a key role in helping deal with the uncertainty in Ireland.
I must make it very clear that these colleagues and I have carried out this work on a totally non-political basis. My deep concern today is not with regard to these subjects, but that over the past couple of years we have steadily been undermining our great country’s reputation worldwide. In Europe, the Commonwealth, the United States, the Far East, Africa and most of the rest of the world, this country has always been regarded as by far the best example of democracy at its finest, backed up by the rule of law and, most importantly, the lack of corruption.
If withdrawal does not proceed in the way in which the people of this country voted, we will lose for all time the moral respect and influence and—perhaps most importantly—the unique fabric of our Parliament, which can ride and override the shock absorbers of change. This is what our children and grandchildren, and the future generations of this country, are entitled to be proud of. That respect will also play a most significant part when negotiating future trade deals.
Of Peers in this House and Members of the other place who always wished to remain—and these views I totally respect—and those tomorrow who will be pushing for amendments, I ask: if the result of the referendum had been 52% to remain against 48% to leave, would the result be questioned? I suggest that the answer would surely be that democracy had spoken.
My noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford today said it much more eloquently than I ever could. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will wish that this great country should continue to make a difference in world affairs, as it has done through history.
My Lords, the sunlit uplands of Brexit have disappeared into the fog. The land of milk and honey has morphed into the country of damaged prosperity, with jobs in peril. Brexit-supporting businessman James Dyson is upping sticks and moving his business to Singapore, while Jacob Rees-Mogg is moving his money to Dublin to continue to enjoy the benefits of the single market. It sounds like a case of rats leaving a sinking ship.
Instead of £350 million a week for the NHS, we have a health service haemorrhaging EU nurses it cannot afford to lose. Liam Fox, a man who invoked the slogan “Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week”, claims that delaying Brexit would open up a gulf in trust with the electorate. That is beyond parody.
The possibility of a crash-out no deal, hopefully ruled out by MPs tomorrow, apparently raises for the Government a prospect of civil disorder requiring troops and martial law. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, that ruling out no deal is not institutionalised timidity but about ensuring that the British people get their food and vital medicines.
No longer promising Utopia, the pro-leave case now boils down, at best, to how we must grit our teeth and summon up our blitz spirit to endure and survive the misery of the coming storm as it is “the will of the people”. There is no willingness, of course, to update our knowledge of what that “will” is in the light of Brexit reality rather than Brexit fantasy.
This gloomy prospect is now accompanied by abuse. It is not only abuse from the thugs who jostled and harassed Anna Soubry just yards from here, with the police apparently having forgotten what happened to Jo Cox, or the abuse affecting EU citizens and minority British citizens who are the target of hate speech and hate crime, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire. Unacceptable language is also coming from senior members of the Tory party. We heard former Minister and ERG leading light, Suella Braverman, directing against a former Prime Minister of her own party, Sir John Major, the populist insult of “remainer elite”, leaving aside that he was brought up in Brixton with no silver spoon and no Eton mess, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, put it, unlike some Brexiters we could think of. Miss Braverman, I believe, attended Oxford and the Sorbonne. Her sense of irony seems deficient.
Just this weekend, ERG member and former Tory Whip Mark Francois accused Airbus boss Tom Enders of ‘Teutonic arrogance” adding, “My father was a D-day veteran; he never submitted to bullying by any German and neither will his son”. He was talking about the boss of a company which provides 14,000 jobs in this country directly and another 120,000 in the supply chain. I wonder whether these remarks came up in any conversations that our Prime Minister is having with Angela Merkel. I cannot see the German Chancellor being much impressed by Mr Francois’ idea of winning friends and influencing people. Quite how this type of pseudo-Churchillian rhetoric, as one journalist aptly described it, is supposed to be helpful in the contemporary promotion of “global Britain” is beyond my comprehension.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, about the disgraceful attitude from too many in public life towards the Irish Government, whom we need as friends. It would be good if the Prime Minister brought these people in her party to heel. The trouble is that she set the tone of unpleasantness with her “Go Home” vans and “hostile environment” at the Home Office, culminating in the scandal of Windrush. It was she who called her internationalist countrymen citizens of nowhere and called EU free-movers queue-jumpers. She even once made up a totally false story about how a migrant was invoking in his claim to stay his human right to have a relationship with his cat. You would never think from all these gratuitous insults that this is the group who won. Surely they should be full of joie de vivre, confident in their own assurance that Brexit is a fabulous idea that will make everyone better off. Or do they know it will not?
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, quite correctly wants these divisions to be healed, but when the Prime Minister claimed, as she did last week, that,
“a second referendum could damage social cohesion”,—[Official Report, Commons, 21/1/19; col. 26.]
I think we are entitled to retort in the light of Tory Brexiter utterances: “Physician, heal thyself and thy party”. Brexiter politicians, who are allowing themselves plenty of opportunities to review and change their mind, insist on denying even one such opportunity to the voters. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Sterling, that it was in fact Nigel Farage who said that, if remain won, he would want a further referendum.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, I would be interested in hearing from the Minister the latest on the manoeuvring to get the backstop removed. Is it true that the Government are putting a three-line Whip on the Murrison-Brady amendment tomorrow which they know the EU will reject because it is incompatible with the withdrawal agreement? Apparently, the ERG is rejecting it, too, so what is the point? The noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, explained that there is none.
The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said that the British people voted for Brexit. Is he able to tell us which of the 57 varieties the 37% voted for? I gently remind the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that my noble friend Lord Newby did not say that the 37% does not count. That is not the attitude of any remainer I know. My noble friend simply corrected the Minister, who said last week that leave voters represented a majority of the population.
The country needs an end to hypocrisy and double standards, and the same chance to think again that MPs are being allowed. We must have a people’s vote with an option to stay in the EU. As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem said, we will accept the result of a further referendum based on informed consent. Then we would make a start on achieving real social cohesion in this country. In the meantime, these Benches will support the opposition Motion.
My Lords, I sometimes feel that Sir George Rostrevor Hamilton had Boris Johnson in mind when he wrote of political columnists:
“I am the daily mentor who
Tells the Premier what to do
And when she’s done it, I go on
To tell her what she should have done”.
Of course, Boris Johnson was no mere mentor. He was a player, tasked with taking the UK out of the EU such as to preserve the exact same benefits as membership. He, David Davis and Dominic Raab failed to negotiate a deal acceptable to Northern Ireland or to Parliament. Having got the Premier to adopt unhelpful red lines, they then jumped ship and, as foreseen by Sir George, now shout from the sidelines what she should have done. Worse, the ERG now lays down new demands that we should contemplate a no-deal exit. These siren voices—despite rocks, storms and tides—lure the PM towards, if not a shipwreck, at least holding the country below the water.
That is not my prediction. Despite what we have just heard, P&O—which knows a thing or two about rocks, tides and undertows—will re-register its fleet under the Cypriot flag, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, has revealed. Bentley, Dixons and drugs companies are stock-piling and, as we have heard, a number of supermarkets have pleaded against no deal not only because prices will go up but because shelves might be empty. The CBI demands that no deal be ruled out, and the British Chambers of Commerce reports thousands of companies triggering emergency plans to cope with no deal, many even moving outside the UK should we crash out.
Tom Enders, CEO of Airbus—which has 14,000 skilled workers, plus 110,000 in the supply chain—says that the company could pull out of the UK if there is no deal, and begs us not to,
“listen to the Brexiteers’ madness which asserts that, because we have huge plants here, we will not move and we will always be here. They are wrong”.
Business Minister Richard Harrington described the example of Airbus as a “disaster”, and warned that no deal would also threaten car manufacturing. It seems that the ERG is deaf to such realities. Ex-Minister David Jones claims that Airbus does not understand the aerospace industry—rather like Boris Johnson claiming that Jaguar Land Rover does not understand the motor industry.
Luckily, there are some grown-ups in the Government who are rather more realistic. Philip Hammond described no deal as a “betrayal” of the referendum, and he reassured business that it would be defeated in Parliament. The Justice Secretary David Gauke calls it “disastrous” and, along with Richard Harrington and Health Minister Steve Brine, suggested he could not remain in a Government where this was the preferred option. Tobias Ellwood says the option must be ruled out, it being,
“wrong for government and business to invest any more time and money in a no-deal outcome”.
Of course, travel is threatened by a crash out—partly because 3.5 million passports might not be valid in some EU countries, and up to 5 million airline tickets could be cancelled if the EU freezes a number of flights, as proposed. The Manchester Airports Group forecasts,
“lasting consequences of a disorderly exit … on economic growth, consumer confidence and business investment”.
Freight is similarly at risk, with cross-channel ferry trade possibly dropping by 87%; it is the Border Force—perhaps on the noble Lord’s advice—which used that figure.
The poultry industry, producing half the meat we eat, says that the consequences of no deal would be catastrophic for its 38,000 workforce and for consumers. Britain could risk £1 billion in tax. Crucially, it fears,
“a two-tier food system where only the affluent can afford to eat British poultry that meets British standards”.
As the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, said, almost all Welsh meat exports go to the EU, so no deal would be horrific. Little wonder that the National Assembly for Wales called for the emergency reconvening of the UK Joint Ministerial Committee to seek agreement on ruling out a no-deal exit.
The Met Police head of counterterrorism spoke of his deep concern about a no-deal Brexit loss of intelligence and data sharing with Europe, which would leave Britain less safe. We heard a similar concern from the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, and the noble Baroness, Lady Manningham-Buller, warned that no deal would leave us less safe. We know of the dangers for the good people of Gibraltar.
No deal means no transition period, so it means the immediate imposition of tariffs, rules of origin declarations, border checks and British citizens in Europe plunged into uncertainty, with possible loss of residence and employment rights. If this were not so serious, it would be a great James Graham play, but this is for real.
Parliament itself has challenges ahead. Originally the Government planned for the Commons approval to take place on 11 December and the withdrawal agreement being introduced on 12 December. It was envisaged that the five-week Christmas delay would be followed by acceptance by the House of Commons on 15 January, and of the Bill on 16 January. The 230 defeat ended that, but even if the deal were struck tomorrow, we would be facing a daunting task of handling seven or more Bills and a few hundred SIs in 60 days—37 sitting days. It is beginning to sound like sitting nights rather than sitting days.
Now we hear that the Government are going to take it back to the House of Commons on 13 February, so that would mean even fewer sitting days to deal with the legislation. Should the Chief Whip be dreaming of fast-tracking Bills, he had perhaps better reread our Constitution Committee’s 2009 report on which “exceptional circumstances” might justify fast-tracking, and its calls for proper scrutiny to include time for consultation and for full transparency. It also notes that fast-tracking should not be used for predictable issues and should involve cross-party agreement and that any relevant legal action should be published. The Constitution Committee stressed that your Lordships’ House’s constitutional responsibilities would be heightened for fast-tracking.
Given that we know that the withdrawal agreement Bill exists, because it was planned to be introduced some time ago, perhaps the Minister could release relevant clauses to our Constitution Committee now so that proper scrutiny of the novel, complicated legal issues can begin. Will he also guarantee that there will be sufficient parliamentary time to scrutinise all relevant legislation, if necessary by extending Article 50? All this suggests that for business, for Parliament, for the Civil Service and for transport planning, in order to build consensus we need more time on this major constitutional and economic issue. We must denounce no deal in the way described by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and find a way forward in the interests of the whole of the UK, our citizens here and those in the EU. I urge support for the Motion shortly to be moved by my noble friend, which rules out no deal and calls for time for us to facilitate any legislation agreed by the Commons.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, helpfully reminded us, here we are again. As my noble friend the Leader noted in her opening remarks, this is not the first such debate that I have had the pleasure of responding to in recent weeks. However, as always, I am grateful for the insightful contributions of noble Lords, who have examined the breadth and depth of the withdrawal agreement and political declaration. It was a particular pleasure to see my noble friend Lord Saatchi fully recovered and back in his place.
I have heard, and of course recognise, the differing and strongly held views from all sides of the House on the next steps in this process. I am grateful to noble Lords for voicing these views and pay tribute in particular to the work of the Select Committees, which have taken a constructive approach and are ensuring that the statute book is ready for exit day. I echo the words of my noble friend the Leader in extending my gratitude also to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and its two sub-committees, chaired by my noble friend Lord Trefgarne and my geographical neighbour, the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, for all their work in the scrutiny of that legislation.
That work includes the scrutiny of statutory instruments. I can tell the House that, as of today, we have laid more than 350 of them. These SIs help provide certainty for businesses and the public by ensuring that we have a functioning statute book when we leave the European Union. The majority are needed in either a deal or a no-deal scenario as they will be deferred to the end of an implementation period if they are no longer needed on 29 March. All instruments and the procedure they follow can be found online via GOV.UK or legislation.gov.uk, and Parliament’s own SI tracker also has all this information. I say that because many noble Lords are writing to me daily, asking me for updates on where we are with that programme.
Let me be clear: the Government are committed to honouring the mandate of the British people and leaving the European Union in a way that benefits every part of our United Kingdom and every citizen of our country. Before I respond to the points raised in the debate, including the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, I will take a moment to respond to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, regarding the referendum vote and my response to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, last week. As I have made clear, the referendum result demonstrated that a majority of those who voted voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. I am sure all those present will have understood the correct position but, none the less, I am happy to make it clear to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness.
The best way for us to leave in an orderly manner is with a good deal. I note the arguments made by many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, Lord Kerr, Lord Hain and Lord Liddle, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, all of whom are asking me to rule out no deal. There is a way to rule out no deal, which is for the other place to approve a deal negotiated with the European Union.
The Labour Party is fond of quoting the former Foreign Secretary, with his “cakeism” policy, but the Labour Party itself is adopting a negative “cakeism” policy. It is saying that we cannot accept the best and only cake available, but also that we cannot accept having no cake at all. Labour cannot carry on saying no to everything. I noticed that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, spent an awful lot of her speech telling us what she was against but very little of it telling us what she was in favour of.
Of course, the only other guaranteed way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to revoke Article 50, which would mean staying in the EU. That is certainly not acceptable to this Government and, as far as I am aware, it is not advocated by any other party in this House. Noble Lords, including the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who would like to extend Article 50, will of course be all too well aware that that this is not a unilateral option. An extension would require the consent of all 27 member states. As the Prime Minister correctly highlighted in the other place last week,
“the EU is very unlikely simply to agree to extend Article 50 without a plan for how we are going to approve a deal”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/1/19; col. 25.]
Deferral is not a decision. I refer noble Lords who doubt that to the statement of the President of Lithuania last week. My noble friend Lord Balfe also made a particularly important point when he observed that the last session of the current European Parliament is on 18 April. I remind noble Lords that the European Parliament also needs to approve the withdrawal agreement.
We want a smooth and orderly Brexit, with a deal that protects our union, gives us control of our borders, laws and money, and means that we have an independent trade policy. Following the clear message from the other place earlier this month, the Government are working hard to speak to MPs from all parties to find a way forward together that delivers on the referendum and commands parliamentary support. I agree with my noble friend Lord Shinkwin that the British people expect the Government to honour the referendum mandate and deliver Brexit in a way that benefits every citizen of our country—and that is what we are committed to doing.
Many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Newby, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, Lord Dykes, Lord Hain and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft have also, once again, expressed their preference for a second referendum, although I have noticed that their campaign has not had the courage to propose an amendment to this end in the House of Commons, so perhaps this option would have less support than they pretend.
It will come as no surprise to noble Lords when I tell the House that it is still not the Government’s intention to hold a second referendum. I think the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, wins the prize for the masochist Peer of the year with his call for both a second referendum and a general election. I was particularly struck by that, and I think that the noble Baroness should send him to Bristol to convey personally the good news to Brenda of her forthcoming travails.
This Government remain committed to respecting the clear result of the 2016 referendum, and on this I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Desai. I also very much agreed with the excellent speech by my noble friend Lord Dobbs, in which he said that a second referendum would not be a people’s vote, it would be a politicians’ vote, or, as he described it, a losers’ charter—politicians telling the people that they got it wrong the first time. We have been very clear about the dangers of calling a second referendum for democracy and the faith of the British people in our political system. We believe that it would divide the country. On that point, I agree with my noble friend Lord Sterling.
A fortnight ago I responded to a Question for Short Debate from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, setting out the many steps that would be required to set up a referendum. In the first instance it would require primary legislation, which, taken alone, would require time and a consensus on key questions such as the franchise or the date on which the poll would take place. I highlighted to noble Lords, as I closed that debate, the fact that it took seven months for the previous referendum Act to pass through Parliament, and that was with a Government who had a majority in the House of Commons acting on a manifesto commitment.
This timescale does not include the time needed to adequately take the other steps required. For example, the Electoral Commission recommend that referendum legislation should be clear at least six months before it is required to be implemented or complied with. Noble Lords may have seen the comments of the incoming interim chief executive of the Electoral Commission reported in Saturday’s Guardian. He said that,
“it’s difficult to think that it would be sensible for parliament simply to take the rules from the last referendum and paste them across”.
He was arguing that the whole of the referendum legislation needs to be looked at first. This Government remain committed to the clear result of the referendum and the democratic process that delivered that result. Noble Lords should not underestimate the division and dangerous precedent that would be created if we were to second-guess the result of that referendum.
Many noble Lords, including my noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lady Altmann, and the noble Lord, Lord Owen, have spoken with great insight about the Northern Ireland backstop, and expressed concerns about it, although I also notice that there were speeches supportive of the backstop from the noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Ricketts, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. As the Prime Minister has said, we recognise the concerns that many have expressed regarding the backstop. The backstop is our ultimate safeguard: in the event that there is a gap between the end of the implementation period and the start of our new ambitious relationship, we will still uphold the commitments of the Belfast agreement and ensure that there is no return to a hard border. This is, in our view, essential to safeguarding the lives and livelihoods of the people of Northern Ireland.
Let us be clear: both the UK and the EU agree that the backstop should not need to come into effect and have committed to using our best endeavours to take the necessary steps to conclude a final deal that supersedes it in full by the end of the implementation period.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that that is why the Government are engaging with Members of both Houses to find a way in which we can meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland in a way that Parliament can support. If he can have a little patience, the Prime Minister will set out her conclusions in her closing speech tomorrow.
Let me repeat: let us be in no doubt that this Government are wholly committed to the Belfast agreement and will work to ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Before I conclude, I must address the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. I appreciate the sentiments in it—not least the call to take all appropriate steps to ensure that the UK does not leave without a deal—but, as it is the legal default, we cannot completely rule out no deal.
I remind noble Lords that this is exactly what the Prime Minister and her team of negotiators have been doing for the past two years: trying to agree a deal which will, of course, rule out no deal. It was the result of that work that was put to the other place for approval. Although the outcome of that vote was—to put it mildly—not the one that the Government wanted, it was clear that there was much that was supported in the withdrawal agreement. We are now keen to work with politicians from all sides, as the Prime Minister has been doing, to see how we can address those concerns. That dialogue will be essential to securing a successful exit with a deal—on that point, I agree with my noble friend the Duke of Wellington.
I therefore assume that that section of the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, was taken from a letter that she has also sent to the leader of her own party. It is pleasing to hear her speak of the importance that she and her party place on the timely passage of legislation, and her remarks on the subject of filibustering in the media last week. To be clear, we remain committed to ensuring that all the necessary legislation required is in place for exit day on 29 March 2019. As my noble friend the Leader of the House said, in organising the forward programme of work, both she and the Chief Whip will work with the usual channels and seek to give as much notice of our timetable as is practical, and will also work flexibly with timetabling.
In response to the question posed to me by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, about the Cooper Bill, although I cannot speak for any individual Back-Bencher, I can confirm that I am not aware of any such discussion and would be very surprised if that were the case. It is not for me to speculate on how MPs will vote, but I am sure that this House will consider all legislation passed by the Commons in the usual way.
My Lords, in the light of what the Minister has said, can he tell us which part of the opposition amendment he opposes? We know, as he said, that it is the Prime Minister’s determination to “take all appropriate steps” to get an agreement—so that is the first part of the amendment. The second part is to provide,
“for this House to ensure the timely passage of legislation necessary to implement any deal or proposition”.
He just said that that is what the Government also want. On what grounds could he oppose the Opposition’s amendment?
Because the noble Baroness is asking us to take no deal off the table, and we do not think that that is possible because it is the legal default—as I have said many times in this House—because of the notification of withdrawal Act, because of the Article 50 process and because of the withdrawal Act passed in the summer.
My noble friend Lord Balfe asked me how much discussion there has been between Her Majesty’s Government and the incoming Finnish presidency. We are engaging with the Finns through our embassy in Helsinki. This engagement will increase, including potential secondees, as their preparation for the presidency develops.
As I conclude, I think it would be helpful to recap the way forward for this House and the other place. The rejection of the deal two weeks ago was obviously a disappointing moment for this Government. We are mindful that we cannot legally ratify the withdrawal agreement until a deal has been approved, and therefore the defeat precipitated some serious reflection on the concerns expressed by both MPs and Members of this House.
The best way forward, I repeat, is to leave in an orderly way with a good deal. It is not our strategy to run down the clock to 29 March. As the Leader of the House set out in her opening speech, the Prime Minister has highlighted a number of areas in which we intend to address concerns going forward. I have expanded on some of those this evening, including responding to concerns on the backstop, engaging with Parliament as we head to the second phase of negotiations, and demonstrating our commitment to social and environmental protections. It is these proposals, along with amendments to the Government’s Motion, that the other place will consider tomorrow. As the Prime Minister has said, we should all be prepared to work together to find a way forward, given the importance of this issue.
I know that many noble Lords will be following the debate there as keenly as we in government are listening to what is said in this place—and noble Lords’ words will be heard in the other place. We believe that the way forward that we have set out is the only way to seek to address the concerns of Members in both Houses at the same time as respecting the 17.4 million people across the UK who voted in favour of leaving the European Union.
As one who genuinely wants this to work out—as the Government wish it to work out—I ask: why are we going to the trouble of dividing on an unexceptional, entirely sensible, logical Motion that almost all of us in our hearts believe to be right?
I refer the noble Lord to the question that I answered earlier. We cannot completely rule out no deal because, as I have repeatedly said, that is the legal default—and that is what the Motion is asking us to do.
My Lords, it is true that in my winding-up speech I did say that we should denounce no deal, but the Motion that will be moved does not say that. It asks us to seek an agreement.
We are going round in circles here. I refer to the point that I made. Has somebody got a copy of the Motion?
While the noble Lord is searching for a copy, I refer him to the part of my Motion that he complained about, which calls on,
“Her Majesty’s Government to take all appropriate steps to ensure that … the United Kingdom does not leave the European Union without an agreement”.
That includes getting a deal that is acceptable to the other place. What is it that he objects to?
I think that you can read that as taking no deal off the table. Of course, we are doing our best. No deal is not our preferred option. We want to avoid no deal if at all possible, but we continue to believe that the best way to avoid no deal is to vote for a deal. For the Labour Party to come along here and say that it is against everything, without putting forward any positive proposals, is not acceptable.
I have set out our position. If the noble Baroness wishes to move her Motion, she is entitled to do so. That is the end of my remarks.
My Lords, it is absolutely plain that the Motion put down does not exclude expressly the no-deal situation. If we compare this with the Motion that was put down last time, it is different. What is required here—and it is an effort that I thoroughly support—is that everything should be done to get a satisfactory agreement and that we do not go out without an agreement. Surely, the right way to do that is to try to get an agreement. I look to the House of Commons to say tomorrow what its preferred alternative is to what the Prime Minister has done so far.
That this House, noting both its resolution of 14 January and the resolution of the House of Commons of 15 January, calls on Her Majesty’s Government to take all appropriate steps to ensure that (1) the United Kingdom does not leave the European Union without an agreement with the European Union, and (2) sufficient time is provided for this House to ensure the timely passage of legislation necessary to implement any deal or proposition that has commanded the support of the majority of the House of Commons.
My Lords, we have had the debate. I listened very carefully to what the Minister said; he did not make his case. I beg to move.
28 January 2019
Division on Baroness Smith of Basildon’s Motion.
Baroness Smith of Basildon’s Motion agreed.View Details
House adjourned at 7.55 pm.