Brexit: Negotiations - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:48 am on 15th November 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 11:48 am, 15th November 2018

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement today, although I have to say that I did not detect any great enthusiasm there. I am grateful for her statement at the beginning about timing. Last night, the usual channels agreed the normal arrangements for a Statement, with Back-Bench contributions for 20 minutes today and a more substantive debate of three or four hours on Tuesday, when noble Lords will have had the opportunity to read and consider the detail of the deal and the documents. However, with such significant developments this morning—four resignations so far from the Government, including the Brexit Secretary—it is clear that there is a crisis at the very heart of government. I am disappointed that the Government would not accede to our request for extra Back-Bench time today—I think that was wrong. However, we welcome a longer four-hour debate next week, when we can consider the deal in greater detail. Given the importance of the issue, and because that debate is instead of time today, will the noble Baroness the Leader confirm that she will lead the response next Tuesday?

As the Government descend further into chaos, one thing has remained consistent: the Prime Minister’s approach of living for the moment—getting through today, and worrying about tomorrow later. That has not served her or the country well. But we should not forget that this situation is not entirely of this Prime Minister’s making. The entire Brexit process has been about the internal politics of the Conservative Party. It cost David Cameron and George Osborne their jobs—although the latter has done fairly well for himself since—and it could be about to cost the Prime Minister hers as well.

Last night, outside Downing Street, the Prime Minister claimed that the withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration had been agreed by “a collective decision of the Cabinet”, and yet this morning, so far, two Cabinet Members have resigned—I do not know whether there is an update on the figure yet. She has failed to unite her Cabinet again. She has failed to unite her party, with MPs reportedly rushing to submit letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee. Watching the Statement in the other place, we have seen that she is failing to unite Parliament, where there is seemingly no majority for any course of action, other than opposing no deal.

So let us be clear about what is most important: the Prime Minister is failing the people of our country. Families, communities, businesses and workers will not be able to understand why the Conservative Party is behaving in this way, putting the economic well-being of the country behind petty infighting and personal ambition. As Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, said this morning, we need Parliament and the country to come together and find a real alternative to this agreement—a deal that the Prime Minister’s former adviser has labelled a “capitulation”.

Those who have welcomed the deal have either said it is “the best we can get”—faint praise indeed—or, as the CBI made clear, support the very measures that the Brexiteers have opposed: a long-term transition and frictionless trade. The draft agreement and political declaration published last night are exactly what we expected: vague promises of a future trade deal, but no clear road map as to how, or when, this will be achieved.

So, what has our sovereign Parliament been offered? The documents contain no commitment to a permanent customs union, despite the support of business and the trade unions; no detail on our future relationship with the single market, despite the EU being our biggest single trade partner; and no clarity regarding the terms on which the UK will continue to participate in EU agencies and internal security systems.

Your Lordships’ House worked hard to secure a meaningful vote for the other place, but the Government are telling parliamentarians that they must decide between this bad deal or no deal at all. It is a Hobson’s choice—that is, no choice. As many predicted, last night’s Cabinet marathon meeting has become a disappointing sequel to July’s Chequers summit. An agreement that has been toiled over for many months has yet again unravelled overnight.

On social media, I am known as @Lady Basildon. It is not just about my former constituency and my home, it is after a character in an Oscar Wilde play. As I watched the news of resignations unfold, a Wildean phrase came to mind—to lose one Brexit Secretary may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness. We now understand why the Prime Minister was not prepared to allow a vote in Cabinet. She could not because she did not have the support of her colleagues. She must have known how fragile the position was when she made her statement last night.

I have little time for David Davis and Boris Johnson. They failed in Cabinet to convince their colleagues of their so-called vision for Brexit or to come up with any viable alternative. They now stand back and attack the Prime Minister from the sidelines. Dominic Raab has criticised the deal but, again, offers no credible alternative. While many in the Cabinet, including, apparently, the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, voiced their concerns about the draft agreement last night, no alternative was offered at the meeting. It remains unclear exactly what Brexiteers want, other than to lead this great country off a cliff edge in a few short months’ time.

The situation will undoubtedly evolve in the coming hours and days. Noble Lords will use the expertise of this House to track developments. We will have our debate on Tuesday, but today, it would be helpful if your Lordships’ House were left in no doubt about the noble Baroness’s position. Does the Leader of the House give the Prime Minister and the draft withdrawal agreement her full support?