Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:34 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 3:34 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, it seems extraordinary that the Chequers Brexit summit was little over a fortnight ago and that the Government’s White Paper embodying the Chequers agreement is a mere 10 days old. At the time, it all seemed so rosy for the Prime Minister:

“Chequers-mate: Theresa May ambush routs cabinet Brexiteers”,

screamed the Sunday Times, for example. Well, it does not look so rosy now. Although about the only thing that everybody seems to agree on is that the White Paper will not survive in its current form as the basis of any Brexit deal, it is by far the most detailed exposition of the Government’s Brexit policy that we have seen, and it lays bare the inherent challenges of Brexit. It is the first time that the Government have begun, albeit partially, to accept that you cannot have your cake and eat it—that you cannot have both market access and control of the rules, and that very many features of our EU membership are unambiguously beneficial to the UK.

The core of the document, of course, deals with trade. On goods, the Government’s policy is to be part of a free trade area, accepting all EU rules in perpetuity but seeking to retain the right to have our own trade deals by separately collecting UK and EU tariffs for goods trans-shipped through the UK. It also seeks to allow EU content in UK exports—most of the components by value in all cars, for example—to be treated as though they were manufactured in the UK. All this is to be made possible by a non-existent technology to be introduced over an unspecified timescale at an unspecified cost to both government and individual businesses. It is highly unlikely to be acceptable to the EU in its current form.

For services, no such closeness of rules or access is even planned. As the White Paper starkly puts it,

“the UK and the EU will not have current levels of access to each other’s markets in the future”.

This is a quite extraordinary policy, which explicitly acknowledges that the UK will willingly forfeit economic activity, jobs and tax revenue for the wholly unspecified benefits of flexibility. If anybody has any doubts about the consequences, listen to the CEO of Lloyds of London, which has operated here since 1686. Speaking last week, she said that Lloyds,

“will be moving at pace now”— to Brussels, that is—and that,

“we will be full steam ahead”.

To a greater or lesser extent, that approach is now being adopted right across the financial services sector.

Reading the White Paper as a whole, however, you can see why the Brexiteers are so angry. On my reckoning, it lists no fewer than 62 EU bodies or programmes in which it wishes the UK to participate post Brexit, and it is clear why that is the case. All these programmes and bodies are crucial to our prosperity, security and well-being. To be outside them altogether would be extremely damaging. They do, however, all constrain our freedom of independent action, so it is not surprising that the Brexiteers see Britain under the White Paper as a Gulliver, shackled by the myriad constraints of the EU Lilliputians.

But that is not the correct analogy. Those who wish to retain the many benefits of our association with the EU without the cost are like the man who is in the process of divorce negotiations and who says to his ex-wife, “Will you be my live-in mistress afterwards, or I won't pay the alimony?” That is not normally a realistic or successful approach.

The White Paper, of course, has in effect been changed by the amendments to the customs Bill, which the Government accepted, at the hands of the ERG last week—as the noble Lords, Lord Forsyth and Lord Liddle, pointed out. One of them, on my reading at least, directly contradicts paragraph 17a of chapter 1 of the White Paper, in that it would require the EU to collect UK tariffs as part of the facilitated customs arrangement. I am sure that the whole House is agog to hear the Minister’s more detailed exposition of that position at the end of the debate—only another six and a half hours to wait. Another amendment would require VAT to be accounted for and to be payable when goods are imported to the UK rather than when they are sold. That would have severe implications for the cash flow of thousands of small businesses.

These amendments show the palpable weakness of the Government, but they do not fundamentally affect the broad options facing us, or their degree of support in Parliament. However, they have helped to shine a light on an extremely inconvenient truth—that there is now no Commons majority for any proposal that leads to Brexit. In reality it is clear that Brexit now could happen only in one of two circumstances. There is no longer a multiplicity of options; there are only two.

The first option is that we reach a deal, loosely based on either the White Paper or some EU-compliant variant of it. The second is that we reach no deal and simply crash out. As Boris Johnson’s policy-free resignation speech demonstrated, there is simply no third Brexit option on the table. The crash-out option is now being more aggressively planned by the energetic Mr Raab. I suspect that he will go down in history as the man who proved that “no deal” was simply impossible, because the more he seeks to make our flesh creep—by proposing to turn the M26 into a lorry park, forcing 250,000 small businesses to fill out customs returns for the first time, or readying the armed forces to move food and medicines round the country—the more people are bound to recoil.

That we should be spending vast sums actively planning for these acts of national self-mutilation, not as a result of war, pestilence or some external threat but simply as a result of rift in the Tory Party, seems almost literally incredible, particularly to the rest of the world. Incredible or not, I do not believe that this option has anything like majority support in the Commons—if it came to it, it would be rejected.

The second option is based on the White Paper. As Gavin Barwell has already acknowledged, and the EU has made abundantly clear, the White Paper will not be accepted in its current form and further concessions will be needed—for example, by ditching the impractical facilitated customs arrangements and the financial services proposals. If, none the less, a deal were reached on terms that vaguely approximated to the White Paper, it would be even less likely to be accepted by the Brexiteers than the White Paper itself. I simply do not believe that Messrs Bone, Cash, Leigh or Rees-Mogg could possibly vote for it. By excluding services, and demonstrably costing jobs and prosperity, it would also break Labour’s red lines, so Labour could not support it, either.

So it is now pretty clear that neither of the only two remaining Brexit options can survive a Commons vote. In these circumstances, there is only one further option—and that is not to leave the EU. We might now call this the Greening option, because Justine Greening has correctly identified that, if there is no Commons majority for either Brexit option, the only way of breaking the impasse is to have a referendum asking the people how they wish to proceed. Traditionally, referenda have a single question. The Greening option would include three questions—the two Brexit options, and remaining in the EU. But whether we have one question or two, it is now likely—as yesterday’s poll in the Sunday Times suggests—that any referendum would result in a clear preference for remaining in the EU. No wonder the idea of such a referendum is hated.