Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:18 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Crossbench 9:18 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, unlike the late Dr Martin Luther King, I do not have a dream. However, I feel that I am in a dream, rather as I suspect does the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, and it is not a very comfortable sensation. The dream starts with the result of the referendum—not an ideal starting point, but a striking demonstration of an exercise in direct democracy where people manifestly voted not on traditional party-political grounds, creating a deafening echo that has contributed to the wall of noise that is all around us.

In January 2017, Sir Ivan Rogers, our ambassador to the EU, resigned. He had spent the previous six months trying as hard as he could to persuade the Prime Minister not to trigger Article 50 until she, her Cabinet, Parliament, the devolved Administrations and the Civil Service had worked out exactly where we wanted to get to and, most importantly, how we were going to get there. He knew, as we now know, that no proper detailed planning had been done, but he failed to persuade her and we are living with the consequences.

In February 2017, during the debate on the triggering of Article 50, the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Oareford, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing since we were fellow history undergraduates at Trinity College, Cambridge, many decades ago, gave us fair warning of what he thought we were in for. He said:

“I did not feel that I could sit out this debate without saying something about what seems to be missing almost altogether in many of our discussions about Brexit: the views of our European neighbours. Sometimes it seems that the debate about Brexit is one that only we Brits are allowed to take part in and that, once we have sorted out our internal disagreements between leavers and remainers, all we have to do is present our demands to the European Union and it can take it or leave it … they need to be able to trust the British side to be clear and consistent. They need to know that what our negotiators say our negotiators can deliver. They cannot sit there thinking that at any point the timing or the content might change, or indeed that the whole thing might be put to a second referendum”.—[Official Report, 20/2/17; col. 32.]

At this point my dream fast reverses to 1984, as depicted by George Orwell. We have had to endure a never-ending Brexit version of Newspeak. Orwell wrote that doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both of them. Brexitspeak manifests itself in phrases such as “deep and special”, “our EU friends and partners”, “leaving the EU, not leaving Europe”, “the Brexit dividend”, “Brexit means Brexit”—and my favourite new phrase from our newly appointed Foreign Secretary, “a no-deal-by-accident scenario”.

Now we fast forward to today, 16 days after the rather unfortunately named Chequers agreement. The reaction of the EU 27, as anticipated by both the noble Lord, Lord Hill, and Sir Ivan, was pithily summed up by the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel. He said:

“Before, they were in with a lot of opt-outs; now they are out and want a lot of opt-ins”.

In May of this year, Sir Ivan forensically skewered the wishful thinking that led to the Chequers document. He said:

“You simply cannot, with any honesty or coherence, make an argument for taking back control and full autonomy of decision-making on the UK side of the Channel, and simultaneously argue for the EU 27 to restrict to a certain extent its own decision-making, precisely in order to give you, a non-member of the club, a real say in the direction of its policy”.

At this point my dream is in danger of taking on a nightmarish quality. I sense all around us the hostile environment that now colours so much discussion around Brexit. I sense a nightmare unfolding as a well-meaning but hopelessly ill-suited and ill-prepared Dad’s Army platoon of Ministers, with little or no appropriate diplomatic, commercial or negotiating experience, scatters across the capitals of the EU 27, sowing yet more confusing and contradictory doublethink soundbites that may inadvertently weaken our negotiating position.

I have now woken up and have returned once again to the uncomfortably prescient words of the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Oareford, in January of this year. He said:

“We need speed, honesty and certainty”.—[Official Report, 30/1/18; col. 1389.]

We are still waiting for any and all of these to transpire. We voted in June 2016 on non-party lines. The best way to find our way out of our predicament is to forget about party and focus on country—and, above all, to be brutally and painfully honest with ourselves.