Trade Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:31 pm on 11th September 2018.

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Photo of Lord Cooper of Windrush Lord Cooper of Windrush Conservative 6:31 pm, 11th September 2018

My Lords, I start by echoing and warmly endorsing the many words of praise for the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Meyer. I do not think I was the only person in the House with tears in my eyes hearing her extraordinary story: she will make a tremendous contribution to the House, I am sure.

Since 24 June 2016 dawned, the fundamental question hanging over the Brexit debate has been, to paraphrase Metternich’s comment on the death of Talleyrand, “What did they mean by that?” On what terms did the narrow majority in favour of the UK leaving the European Union want us to deliver that? What were, if you like, the people’s red lines? Issues within this Bill go to the heart of that question. Many of those who support Brexit have changed their answer to that question considerably over the last two years; attitudes have hardened as the confident pre-referendum assertions have collapsed; things that many of them were in favour of, or at least open to, in June 2016 are now seen as red lines by many of the same people. It is obvious that not all the 17 million people who voted to leave the EU did so for identical reasons, or with the same aspirations in mind, but some hopes and some assumptions were shared by most, so what can we discern about the key outcomes that people were hoping for?

An opinion poll earlier this year asked people to think back to the EU referendum campaign and to list, without prompting, all the arguments they remember being made in favour of Brexit by the leave campaign and its supporters. The argument for Brexit that is by far the most strongly recalled is £350 million a week extra for the NHS. The second is cutting EU immigration. The third is stopping sending billions of pounds a year to Brussels. Those three, which we may or may not think are likely to appear as a product of Brexit, are far ahead of anything else. Far behind—recalled by just 12%, fewer than one in eight people—is new trade deals with other countries. Most people do not even remember that having been made as an argument in favour. Other polling reveals that in as much as trade was a factor at all in voters’ minds, their dominant focus was, rightly, on ensuring that we sustain our EU trade, not the pursuit, which so enchants Brexit dreamers now, of theoretical future trading opportunities with mostly much smaller and much more distant economies.

During the campaign itself, the remain campaign’s private polling tracked the public’s view on what the most likely end state would be if the country did indeed vote to leave the EU. Consistently, about one person in four thought that if the UK voted to leave the EU we would in fact end up not leaving. They thought the EU would panic and come back and offer us a much better deal, and that we would end up accepting it and staying in. Another group had a completely contrary perception, which was that if the majority did vote for Brexit we would leave the EU, the single market and the customs union, and lose the benefits of being in the EU, such as they were. That was the expectation of less than 20% of the electorate. Four voters out of five did not think that voting for Brexit and getting Brexit would result in us leaving the single market and the customs union and risking or forfeiting the trading terms that we have with the EU now. Most voters had come to a completely different expectation. They concluded from the referendum campaign and the arguments that they heard playing out that if Vote Leave were to win, the UK would leave the EU, but it would agree and keep access to the single market and the customs union, and keep many of the benefits of membership. More than half the country believed that that would be the outcome, and nearly two-thirds of the key swing voters whose final decision on that question determined the result.

There has been a lot of polling on what the UK’s priorities and red lines should be in negotiations, and the extent to which trade with the EU should or should not be a priority over other things. The point is that most people voting in that referendum in June 2016 had been persuaded that we would never have to face these trade-offs at all. In focus group discussions, of which we did dozens, where people discuss these issues in greater depth, trade with the EU was virtually the only benefit that most people could think of from being in the EU, but they were keen to retain it and they were clear about its significance for our economy.

More than 60% of the electorate, and about 70% of the key swing-voter group, thought that even if the UK did leave the single market we would still get some kind of different free trade agreement with very similar benefits that would be essentially almost the same as being in the single market and the customs union, and that we would be able to do so without having to accept free movement of people and without having to pay into the EU budget. Most people thought that because they had been told it repeatedly. They believed it because they had also been told repeatedly that the EU needed us more than we needed it. That was the basic false logic from which flowed the conclusion that we could somehow have our cake and eat it.

It was, of course, a fantasy all along. Liam Fox’s confident prediction of historically easy trade deals, which my noble friend Lord Tugendhat referred to, was wrong. Michael Gove’s reassurance that,

“we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want”,

was completely wrong. Boris Johnson’s promise that,

“there will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market”,

after Brexit was quickly withdrawn as a view which he now defines as treason. The Brexit Secretary tells us that in a no-deal scenario, for which the Government are preparing, there will be adequate food. If they had put that on the side of the bus we would not be in this situation now.

The leave campaign had the option, of course, of making the case to the British people for leaving the single market and the customs union, sacrificing free and open trade with the EU in pursuit of their vision of vague new trading deals on the other side of the world, but they did not make that case. A few individuals might have alluded to it but others said precisely the opposite. It was not the message of the leave campaign. It is not what most people heard. It is not the Brexit that most people voted for. Most people certainly hoped that Brexit would bring real change in some respects in this country but they assumed that in terms of trade we would stay in the single market and the customs union, or something very close to it. That is the outcome that I still strongly support and I urge other noble Lords to do the same.