Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:33 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Jopling Lord Jopling Conservative 5:33 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, I shall do my best to follow that. I begin by drawing attention to my interests as entered in the register. I voted remain in the referendum. As events emerge, I cannot help feeling more and more that the nation made a terrible mistake during it.

I want to raise two issues. First, I hear voices, and have heard some of them today, demanding a second referendum. I recall those same pleas being made two years ago, immediately after the referendum. I said then that this was not, and it is not now, the time to be doing that. A second referendum is an issue only when we know the outcome of the negotiations. It becomes a possibility then, only if the public broadly see the result as a disaster, which they may well do. I do not see the point of having a second referendum if all the indications are that public opinion is not in favour of thinking again.

Clearly, the negotiations will, as usual, drag on until the last midnight or later. I have vivid memories of my patience being tested as president of the agriculture council many years ago, when I had to keep it in continuous sitting for 91 hours, finally getting agreement at 4 am on the Monday. A second referendum must remain a possibility, but it depends on events and how public opinion reacts to them. The time to decide and discuss it will be when we have our promised meaningful vote.

Secondly, I want to turn to the negotiations. Following the referendum, the Government made a serious mistake at an early stage in saying that we would leave the single market and the customs union. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, spoke at length about this; I agreed with a good deal of what he said. It was not necessary then to say that we would leave the single market and customs union. That decision has been at the centre of the problems of Northern Ireland, where the Government have quite rightly made an essential red line, which I strongly support, of no barriers between north and south and no barriers within the UK down the Irish Sea.

I have never understood how the Northern Ireland problem can be solved without going back on those earlier statements on the single market and the customs union. We may move back in the direction of the Norway settlement, but, now, with the Chequers plan, the Government have clearly back-pedalled and in my view recognised that it was a mistake to say that we would leave the single market and the customs union.

I do not discount the Chequers plan. It is a first step for continuing the negotiations. It is only a start but it is clear that more work needs to be done, and more concessions will have to be made, particularly if we are to avoid the no deal outcome, which would have dreadful consequences.

The Northern Ireland problem could be solved by the United Kingdom adopting the same external tariffs within Brexit as those in existence in the European Union. This would be to honour the Brexit decision and deal at a stroke with the Northern Ireland problem. The European Union’s tariff arrangements have never been subject to prolonged debate or controversy in the UK. I hope that it will not be forgotten in the negotiations that really, nobody much has ever questioned the tariff arrangements within the European Union, under which we have worked all these years.

I am particularly concerned to hear some people speak about the merits of moving to a free trade regime. This comes as something of a surprise and out of the blue. There have been very few discussions that I am aware of, of the merits of a free trade settlement. A free trade settlement could be exactly what we do not need in the UK. It could have disastrous consequences for UK industry. Our domestic markets could be flooded by cheap imports, and at the same time we would have a second kick in the teeth when our substantial exports to the European Union would be subject to its common external tariff. That, I believe, would be a disaster and it should be avoided at all possible costs.