Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:55 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley Conservative 5:55 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, who speaks such calm words of reason in a stormy sea. Before I start, I should draw your Lordships’ attention to my entry in the register of interests.

For the last few weeks, that line by WB Yeats has been ringing through my mind—

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”— as I watched the political eruptions caused by the White Paper. I was not that surprised by what has happened. For months I have been arguing that the Cabinet must answer the question—perhaps the most important question—that Brexit poses: “What matters more: parliamentary sovereignty or market access?”. We all knew that any attempt to answer that question would trigger a political explosion, and so it has proven.

The White Paper is a compromise and, like all compromises, both sides feel aggrieved—some very aggrieved. I have some misgivings about the White Paper, not least the Heath Robinson approach to customs, but overall I support its approach. I think that remaining closely aligned to the EU on goods, but not on financial services, is a reasonable and balanced basis for further negotiation. Yes, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said, the ECJ will still have a role and influence on our way of our life—for example, as regards the common set of rules. But I would argue that that is a price to pay—and worth paying—to guarantee free and frictionless trade. I wish the Government were a lot more honest about all this and sell the White Paper for what it is: a pragmatic approach to the negotiations. It is not a deal, as some have said, nor is it an agreement. It is just that—an approach.

But, in many respects, these points are irrelevant quibbles, for the White Paper appears to have been rejected by the Labour Party as not going far enough, and by scores of Conservatives and others as going too far. That is even before the EU gives us its considered views. So, what should we do? First, just as members of the Cabinet have had to come out from their trenches and drop their positions, I would hope the European Union does likewise. Both sides need to understand the pressures that the other side is under. The Prime Minister has compromised; I hope that, in the spirit of sincere co-operation, the European Union now does likewise. For there is a risk—a very real, growing risk—that inflexibility, combined with a miscalculation, could trigger a sequence of events where things really do fall apart. And that need for flexibility applies here too.

Let us not forget the overriding aim of the next six months: to secure in the withdrawal treaty the transition and the clear heads of terms about our future relationship with the EU. The closer we get to the end of this year without an agreement on the transition, the more businesses will accelerate implementing their plans for no deal. Some of those decisions may be irreversible. As important is the need for clear heads of terms in the treaty. Having agreed to pay the divorce bill, and quite possibly signed a backstop agreement, we may find that the EU will have an even stronger hand in the next phase of the negotiations. As I have said before, if all we get is meaningless waffle in the treaty, and have no clear sense of the future framework for our relationship with the EU, next year we will be forced to walk a gangplank into thin air. We cannot afford more years of uncertainty, but to get that clarity means engaging constructively, now, with the EU, on the basis of the White Paper.

I hear what some say: “The Government have already made too many concessions and we should not use the White Paper as the basis for any negotiation”. Implicit in this argument is the view that falling back on WTO terms, the so-called no-deal option, is preferable to the approach set out in the White Paper. I share the views of those who believe that, in a negotiation, one should always be able to walk away. I have written before of my fear that the Prime Minister would become handcuffed to the negotiating table, forced to make one concession after another, as no deal is not an option. I know that few in this House agree with me on this so, rather than debate again and again its merits, let us remember that prime rule of politics: learn to count.

As things stand, is there a firm, cast-iron majority in the other place to allow the Prime Minister to walk away from the negotiations? The answer is no. What is more, are the public aware of what implications a no-deal outcome would entail? Are businesses fully briefed and fully prepared on what to do? The answers are no, and no again. If the situation does not change at all, in Parliament and in the country, let us imagine that the Prime Minister now took a truly inflexible position. If we reach a point where the EU asks us to choose between being in a customs union and agreeing to an FTA which puts a hard border in the Irish Sea, what option would the Prime Minister have but to sign?

I ask those who balk at this train of thought and refuse to concede to any further negotiations on the basis of the White Paper, claiming it would be a betrayal of the referendum, to confront political reality. The White Paper provides us with the only path to follow. We have only just now begun to confront the choice between parliamentary sovereignty and market access. Let the European Union and ourselves see if, and where, further compromise is necessary—by them and by us. In this long hot summer, cool calm heads are needed. Otherwise, there is a real danger that Yeats’s words will become a reality.