My Lords, we find ourselves in a situation that most of us would not have thought possible a year ago. Our Prime Minister seeks not only to invoke Article 50 but also to needlessly destroy our country’s tariff-free and frictionless access to the largest market in the world, thereby doing serious damage to our economy. Stranger still, this is not some dystopian, Corbynista nightmare—it is a Conservative Prime Minister choosing, at a stroke, to destroy for ever her party’s reputation for economic prudence. She is putting at risk the prosperity that our country has enjoyed since we joined what was then the Common Market. She will also be undoing the success of the coalition in pulling our economy back from the brink after the 2008 crash. She and her party will not be forgiven for their collective madness when everything goes pear-shaped—as it surely must.
What is this lunacy for? It is for a small reduction in immigration, which in itself will damage our economy. Can it be that Mrs May is so scarred by her failure to meet the impossible target of cutting immigration to below 100,000 in her six years at the Home Office that she is hell-bent on having another go through the most extreme and damaging of Brexits?
Or is there a more sinister explanation? There is a loony-right clique of well-organised Brexit zealots in her party, known innocuously as the European reform group. Have they pushed Mrs May into gambling that she can somehow mitigate part of the damage she is doing by making trade deals with people such as Donald Trump? Trump can spot desperation a mile off. Being a property man, he knows exactly how to fleece someone who has been stupid enough to sell their house before they have one to move into. By rashly throwing away the single market card before the negotiations even begin, Mrs May has put us in precisely that situation. All the talk of global Britain and fantastic trade deals is just that: talk, pie in the sky, whistling in the dark. One thing is sure: our prosperity, investment and jobs will suffer. The only question is by how much.
Many noble Lords on the Benches opposite are, like me, businessmen. If the chief executive of a company that you were chairing came to you saying that he was going to withdraw from the company’s biggest market immediately, with no certainty that he could rescind the decision, and that he would try to fill the vacuum with clients that the company was only just getting to know, I think that your first call—like mine—would be to a headhunter to find a new chief executive.
Mrs May asserts that we voted to leave the single market. This is a total fabrication on her part. The question on the ballot paper made no reference to the single market, indeed both Vote Leave and the Conservative manifesto of 2015 said that we would stay in the single market. Likewise we did not vote to leave the customs union or vote for WTO rules. Moreover, we did not vote to destroy our currency, to lose sterling’s reserve status or our triple-A rating. We certainly did not vote to become an offshore tax haven and see our employment rights destroyed. We did not vote to have our public services starved of funds and to witness the consequent destruction of the NHS. We did not vote to put the integrity of the United Kingdom into play, to put the Good Friday agreement at risk or to have our safety and security endangered. Nor did we vote for EU citizens living in Britain to be used as bargaining chips and to be subject to racist abuse. We did not vote for our Government to cosy up to dictators and demagogues in a desperate search for something—anything—to make up in a small way for the folly of leaving the single market. We did not vote to see our environmental protections whittled away.
Many people fear that the West is drifting towards fascism. Experts are being denounced. Judges who uphold the law are called enemies of the people, just as happened in Germany in the 1930s. Liberals are disparaged as unpatriotic. Foreigners are scapegoated. Muslims are being vilified in America. Anyone who opposes the Government is viciously attacked. With a delusional egomaniac in the White House, we should be huddling closer together with our European neighbours, not pushing them away.
Should we not be asking ourselves: why are the Government in such a hurry? Why are they so intransigent and intolerant of meaningful scrutiny of the deal they hope to bring back from the negotiations? The explanation must be that deep down they realise that they cannot possibly secure a deal anywhere near as good as the one we have right now. Whatever they get will not stand up to close comparison with membership of the single market and the customs union.
Our patriotic duty is to scrutinise and amend the Bill. We must protect Parliament’s sovereignty and give it a chance to accept or reject the deal, with the status quo as one of the alternatives, rather than automatically going over the WTO cliff. We must protect the rights of EU nationals already in the UK and we must give the people a say in the final decision. That way, if the best deal the Government can get is not good enough, Parliament and the people will have a final chance to stop the self-destruct button being pressed.