October European Council - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:40 pm on 22nd October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 5:40 pm, 22nd October 2018

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. I begin by associating myself with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about the unacceptable use of inflammatory language in the Commons. At this point in our national life, matters are inflammatory enough without use of words such as “knives” and “nooses” about a Prime Minister. I hope that the person who used that terminology is unmasked and suffers the consequences that he or she richly deserves.

Before getting on to Brexit, it is instructive to read how the Government dealt with the two other big issues that faced the summit last week and have faced us subsequently. On the Khashoggi incident, the Government have taken a joint initiative in condemning what has happened and wanting further information with Germany and France—not with President Trump, but Germany and France, our closest allies.

Secondly, when it comes to the question of reining in chemical weapons, the Prime Minister takes credit for the fact that the Foreign Minister has agreed with his French counterpart a new EU sanctions regime. We have had this before. What does the noble Baroness think the future of that sanctions regime and that process of agreeing joint sanctions regimes on such important issues will be after 29 March next year?

We are then told that 95% of the withdrawal agreement and its protocols are now settled. Noble Lords will remember this document produced by the Commission six or seven months ago: the draft withdrawal agreement. The bits in green were agreed. As one flicks through it, one finds page after page of green bits. There were some bits that were not agreed and those have been reduced, but as we know it is not the volume of what has been agreed, but the substance of what has and has not been agreed. The fact that the difficult 5% remains unagreed should give nobody any reassurance that agreement is near.

According to the Prime Minister, four steps are now needed to break the impasse:

“First, we must make the commitment to a temporary UK-EU joint customs territory legally binding”.

Before she uttered that sentence, she said, two paragraphs higher up:

“The EU argue that they cannot give a legally binding commitment to a UK-wide customs arrangement in the Withdrawal Agreement”.

So what powers of persuasion and legislative sleight of hand or ability does the noble Baroness think the Prime Minister will be able to produce to persuade the EU that something it says is legally impossible is actually the basis of an agreement within the next very short time?

The second step is the option to extend the implementation period. The argument then is that you have two options, one of which the EU says is legally impossible and the other an extension. The UK then says that it wishes to be able to make a sovereign choice between those two. So ultimately it will say to the EU, “Thanks very much for agreeing these two things, but actually we’ve decided we’re going to go for X”. Why should it agree to that? Why is it our sovereign choice? This flies in the face of negotiations and common sense.

The third thing is to ensure that both or either of those options are not potentially permanent arrangements. This gets us back to the philosophical discussion we had last week about the meaning of “temporary”. The Prime Minister says that she wants it to be temporary so that the UK does not find itself,

“locked into an alternative, inferior arrangement against our will”.

But the truth is that it is not an inferior arrangement that she is scared of but of being locked into something that a future, non-Tory Government thinks is a superior arrangement and therefore stays in the customs union in perpetuity. She and her colleagues want “temporary” to be defined to mean “before the next general election”, which is a novel definition of the word.

The fourth step, to ensure that Northern Ireland has full continued access to the UK internal market, is not a step at all. It is simply a consequence of steps one and two.

In her conclusion, the Prime Minister talks about the challenges ahead. She says that, whatever it means and whatever will happen, we must not give in,

“to those who want to stop Brexit with a politicians vote”.

What she means by a politicians’ vote is actually a vote by the people to have a say on any deal she reaches. We have this marvellous Alice in Wonderland definition that a vote by the people is a politicians’ vote but a vote by the politicians is a people’s vote even if, as is now the case, she and the Government Front Bench know that the people say they want such a vote. This is the kind of Alice in Wonderland use of language that surely the Prime Minister will not get away with much longer.

However, we can be reassured that, whatever she says about not having a vote on the outcome, she is planning for it. We know that the Government have been conducting war-games about how any referendum on a Brexit deal can be conducted. They are to be congratulated on that. Could the Leader of the House confirm that the starting point for the timetable against which those war-games are being conducted is the 22 weeks required for a referendum to be held, set out in UCL’s Constitution Unit’s recent report on the mechanics of such a referendum, not the 12 months recently suggested in your Lordships’ House by the noble Lord, Lord Callanan? Could she give an undertaking that the outcome of this planning will be published, just as the various notices have been published against no deal, in the interest of transparency and good government?

The key final point is what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said: what happens next? We do not know how a deal can be struck within the Cabinet, but what is the prospect of a November summit? It is probably very small. But, closer to home, what is the prospect of this House discussing the Trade Bill before Christmas? What has happened to the backlog of all the other Brexit legislation, of which there is no sign? What has happened to the 800 statutory instruments— 200 of which require affirmative resolutions—that this House has to debate and approve in the next four months? Could the Leader of the House give us some indication of the flow of business and timetable that she believes will now follow?

This Statement, like all the previous ones, has enabled the Prime Minister to survive another day, but when she speaks of difficult days ahead she knows that Brussels is the least of her problems. Her problems are in her own party, and this Statement does nothing to make one think she has a clue how to resolve them.