Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Heseltine Lord Heseltine Conservative 4:30 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, it behoves someone rising from these Benches to say nice things about the Prime Minister, and I want unreservedly to salute a judgment she got 100% right, which was to put the Brexiteers in charge of the negotiations for our severance with Europe. I advocated that in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, and I did it for two reasons: first, because if they had not been put in charge they would have blamed whoever was for the resulting challenges that emerged; and, secondly, I had unbounded faith that if those particular people were put in charge, they would make a resounding nonsense of it.

It is quite clear that those two judgments were manifestly right. The first person to spot how right they were was the Prime Minister herself. Those of us who have lived through the traumas of the past 40 or 50 years of public life, knew that when Olly Robbins was moved from David Davis’s wing to Number 10 the game was up. Some of us remember Percy Cradock and Alan Walters—I notice my very good noble friend Lord Lawson, the former Chancellor, is not in his place and, sadly, Geoffrey Howe is not with us at all—and when I saw the movement of Olly Robbins, I knew the game was up. I had a very similar experience when I was Secretary of State when a civil servant from the Ministry of Defence was moved to Number 10. I knew that that meant that all the gossip, intrigue and dirt within the ministry would be purveyed to Number 10 to my disadvantage, so I laid down a very simple rule. I said, “I am very happy that this civil servant from the ministry in Number 10 can communicate in any way and properly with the Ministry of Defence, but only in the presence of my private secretary”. Three weeks later, he was back in the Ministry of Defence, and that was a wise protection on my part.

After the protracted period of the Brexiteers in charge, we have seen what Brexit really amounts to in their mind. There is no plan, there is no detail. There are phrases, as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, said, but there is no reality behind the rhetoric and the emotion. The question that has to be asked is: what is Brexit? We know Brexit means Brexit—that is a very clear statement—but what actually is Brexit? The noble Lord, Lord Newby, went through the options. Boris Johnson started with the White Paper some time ago. How good it was, he said, but that moved on. We then had the Chequers document. I glanced at it and said, “This is dead. It won’t work”. Within a very short period it has been disowned by the Europeans, the right wing of the Conservative Party and, doubtless, parts of the Labour Party as well. Self-evidently, we narrow the field down to, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, an amended Chequers announcement or no deal. If this House cannot tell me what Brexit it, if the Government cannot tell me, if the newspapers cannot tell me and everybody has got their own version—600 versions here, another 600 versions there and thousands outside—what did the people vote for? What was in their mind? How are we, as servants of the people, as people wishing to implement the referendum, to do what the public want, to know what they want when we do not know ourselves? It is no surprise to me that growing in volume and articulation is the demand: “Let the people have another chance. Let them say when they have seen the facts”. The interesting thing is that that they are now all saying that the facts were never there. We were not told.

That is not true. All the facts were laid out. All the warnings were there. Everything was in front of them, all within a giant smokescreen called Project Fear. Every warning, however factual, however realistic, was out, gone, just a scare. A lot of people believed that it was just a scare. And there was the bribe, not only a scare but 350 million quid a week—all blown of course. Nevertheless, how could anyone conceivably make a judgment about something we cannot define for them until we know what the deal looks like? And we cannot know what the deal looks like until the Europeans have said what they are prepared to do. In my view, there is a growing argument for another referendum.

I think I have some idea of what Brexit is. I think it is two things. First, it is the frustration of eight years of post-2008 stagnating living standards. All my political experience tells me that there is a tolerance of limited dimension in the electorate for frozen living standards. They do not ask for much from us, but they ask us to try to keep the show on the road, keep prosperity rising and make sure that the country is relatively well run. For eight years following the 2008 crash, we have failed to deliver that. Not that I blame the British, because the Americans and the Europeans failed in the same way. We went on a great spending spree—personally, collectively, industrially, commercially and in the public sector—there had to be an adjustment, and people do not like the consequences. Of course, you do not deal with that by the Brexit solution, which makes us poorer. As Sir John Major articulately reminded us—something that the Government had already said—we will not only be poorer, we will remain poorer, and those who will be the poorest are those who voted most persistently to be made poorer, without knowing what they were doing.

As the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Radice and, I think, my noble friend Lord Birt said, the right solution is to ask the second question about Brexit and see whether there is a way to revisit the fundamentals. Immigration has not raised its voice very articulately this afternoon. I think that if you have the frustration to which I have referred, there has to be someone to blame, and the person who is the easiest to blame is the foreigner. You cannot argue they are taking your job, because they all have jobs. You cannot argue that they are all a lot of scroungers coming here to live in our welfare state because they are all in work. But there is something about immigration on too high a scale that challenges people’s willingness to accept the change it involves.

That is not a British problem. It is all over Europe. It is called Le Pen, and the AFG in Germany. The Dutch have it. It is Donald Trump in America, who has played ruthlessly with the issue. In my humble submission, we have to understand that the electronicalisation—the communications revolution—of the world means that everywhere, in every darkest corner of poverty, they know how prosperous we are. The most energetic, the most talented, the most adventurous of them see the honeypot. We are the honeypot, and they are coming here. They are not coming to land off the Mediterranean, in Greece, Italy or Spain; they are coming here to northern Europe. There is an opportunity, in looking at Brexit and Europe, to see whether we can become engaged in a dialogue with the Europeans which recognises that this issue engages us all, and that we will have to address it in one way or another. I have always believed that Stalin made a terrible mistake in closing the wall. If he had left it open, we would have had to build the wall.

In another context, in another generation, there will be the same issue—they will keep coming. I have one question for the Minister. The Government have total control over the non-European immigration figures. The European figures are going down, with all the economic consequences of which we are aware. What are the Government doing about the rising non-European figures, which have soared to replace the Europeans going home? Is it just possible that they are not doing anything significant because they do not want to expose the dependence of our social services and our economy on the creaming of talented, energetic and skilled people? I say to the Government: wait until you get to the undeveloped world with which you will be trying to do all these great trade deals, and tell them, “Everything is all right. You train all these people at great taxpayers’ expense, in the poverty-ridden world in which you live, and we will then take them here because they are the only ones we want”.

Brexit is a disaster. I accept—I am afraid in conflict with my noble friend Lord Hunt, of whom I am a great admirer—that there is no compromise with Brexiteers. There never has been and there never will be. For my money, here we stand and fight.