Brexit: Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:46 pm on 20th November 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 5:46 pm, 20th November 2018

My Lords, the package the Prime Minister has come back with is a bad deal: it would make Britain poorer, weaker and less secure. That does not mean that no deal is better—far from it. Only remaining in the EU is a good deal and that is what the people must now have the opportunity to choose. It was inevitable that leaving the EU would put the UK at a disadvantage compared with staying in. As for saying in a cavalier fashion, as so many Brexiters do, that leaving to trade on WTO terms would be a superior arrangement, that is like saying that Interpol is better than Europol. However, the extent of the damage has been made worse, without any shadow of a doubt, by the conduct of this Government. The following are my seven deadly Brexit sins, though speakers in this debate will no doubt add more.

First, incompetence has permeated the handling of Brexit. The most egregious example was the early imposition of red lines about no membership of the single market or customs union and the demonisation of the Court of Justice. These placed extreme and unnecessary constraints on negotiations. Then there was the triggering of Article 50 without a strategy, which meant that everything since has been done backwards, with successive retreats from the bombast of the Prime Minister’s October 2016 Tory conference speech and the hubris of her Lancaster House speech. This has led to contradictory assertions too numerous to mention. Out of many examples, I would just mention the almost total neglect of services—cited by Jo Johnson as a major reason for his resignation—which account for 80% of our economy.

Secondly, the Brexit proposition has been riddled with deceit. This started with the lies and alleged fraud by the leave campaigns, in which a variety of Cabinet Ministers are implicated. But it has fully permeated the subsequent conduct of the Brexit path as the Prime Minister grappled with turning fantasy into some semblance of reality, while trying to pretend to her party that she was not doing so. This habit of deception and dishonesty has endured through to the package deal. The Government’s note on the state of play of negotiations says that the:

“Outline of the Political Declaration … records the progress … in reaching an overall understanding on the framework for the future relationship”.

It does nothing of the kind. It is barely more than a shopping list of matters to be covered.

As for the mantra—repeated ad nauseam—of taking back control, the Prime Minister proposes in fact that we hand it over completely, as we will have to follow all EU rules and regulations for at least four years and effectively on a permanent basis, if we are to get anything like decent access to the EU single market, safeguard the interests of our manufacturers and of course keep the Irish border open. In the language of the European Commission, during the transition period,

“the EU will treat the UK as if it were a Member State, with the exception of participation in the EU institutions and governance structures”.

That is rather a large exception. This is the very opposite of taking back control. The British people were lied to big time about this. I see Nadine Dorries MP recently bemoaned the fact that the UK would have no commissioner or MEPs during the transition period—you could not make this up.

That reminds me of another piece of dishonesty. As the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, has often reminded us, the withdrawal agreement is a bridge to nowhere. Not only is there is no implementation period, as there is nothing yet to implement, but that is also true of transition since we still have no idea what type of long-term relationship we might be transitioning to.

I see that Boris Johnson accused others of peddling lies, attempting deception and having tragic illusions in his latest Telegraph column. That is as gross an example of pot and kettle as one could imagine. As his brother Jo indeed wrote on Saturday:

“For May to maintain that we’re delivering Brexit when we're actually giving away control will gravely erode trust in politics and imperil the future of the Conservative Party”.'

Just rewards, some of us would feel.

Thirdly, ignorance has been on permanent display. Of course, Mr Raab’s recent statement that he had no idea that the port of Dover was so important to Britain’s trade took the biscuit, but there have been many other examples of Brexiters showing that they have no idea how our economy works or of the importance of rules of origin and smooth customs procedures to our businesses. Many Ministers embarked on the negotiations betraying absolutely no visible knowledge of the EU’s legal and constitutional structure, competences or policies. They seem to think it is just a diplomatic club where everything is up for bargaining and cherry-picking. The “they need us more than we need them” boast is born of such ignorance. Ignorance is of course a fertile ground for its siblings, delusion, fantasy and petulance. Boris Johnson maintains that all that is needed is,

“confidence and enthusiasm and belief in this great project”.

Fourthly, complacency—a close cousin of ignorance—has been hard to overlook. The House will, of course, recall Liam Fox saying that the free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union will be one of the “easiest in human history”, and David Davis, on the prospect of new trade deals with non-EU countries ready to sign on Brexit day, saying:

“We can’t actually sign until the day we leave. But I've got a very strong suspicion there will be a lot of things to sign that very next day.’

I expect the Minister can confirm that that is not the case.

Fifthly, hypocrisy has been much in evidence. Brexiters hate EU freedom of movement, except when they want residence in another EU country and find they can get—or buy—a passport from another member state in order to retain free movement rights for themselves, at the same time as working hard to deny those very same rights to millions of their fellow countrymen or the businesses that want and need to recruit EU workers. We have the spectacle of Jacob Rees-Mogg securing a licence in Dublin for his investment fund to trade across the EU, while snatching the advantages of passporting from other financial firms wanting to trade from their base in London. We have seen Brexit donor hedge fund bosses boast about the fortunes they made speculating against the pound as it had a rough time on the foreign exchanges, caused by the Brexit they back. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens taking a well-earned break abroad have taken a hit they can ill afford on the value of their holiday money. We also saw the rallying cry of Westminster parliamentary sovereignty exposed as the Government fought tooth and nail for six months through the courts to stop Parliament having any say in decisions about Brexit.

Sixthly, xenophobia has been woven though the Brexit motivation. Brexiters are fond of protesting “we might hate the EU but we love Europe”, but what we have heard from Prime Minister May in recent times is a veritable torrent of hostile environment xenophobia. In her Tory conference speech two years ago, there was the notorious condemnation of her countrymen who believe in liberalism, openness and internationalism as “citizens of nowhere”. Then there was the otherwise inexplicable failure to give a unilateral guarantee to EU citizens here—with a reciprocal assurance from the EU 27 to Brits in their countries practically guaranteed—of their future rights as acquired to date. Yesterday, she accused EU free movers of being “queue jumpers”. Is she seriously saying that they prevented her opening the doors to Indian IT workers or Bangladeshi curry chefs? In fact, it was her intransigence on work visas for Indians that scuppered the EU-India trade agreement.

Lastly, Brexit has been a project not of construction but of destruction. One sometimes hears the term “destructive technology” used of new business ideas. Personally, I have never understood how the bright young things who use this term expect to get support from the wider community for projects which are intended to destroy their livelihoods, but the Brexit project does not even have the figleaf of “creative” to justify its destructiveness. Its negativity is just a game to many of its sponsors. It will kill off jobs. It threatens peace in Northern Ireland. It rips us away from our best friends and allies. It imperils the stability and coherence of Europe. It puts Gibraltar at risk of encroachment by Spain, and the Falklands at renewed risk of Argentinian scheming as we seek that country’s agreement to a rewriting of the WTO schedules. Many EU trade partners are getting the chance of more bites at the cherry as we ask them to roll over those agreements. And despite the Prime Minister’s declaration of devotion to “our precious Union”, Brexit imperils the unity of the United Kingdom. The disdain and contempt shown by some Brexiters for the Good Friday agreement will not be easily forgotten in Ireland, south or north.

Nothing can make up for the way these sins have infected the past two and a half years, but the Government and the Prime Minister have a last chance to redeem themselves in a display of unaccustomed honesty, courage and decency by putting the country first instead of Tory party unity, which did not work out very well. The Prime Minister had a flash of such honesty when she said last week that there are three possibilities: her deal, no deal or no Brexit. So she should tell the public that they cannot have the “exact same benefits” of the EU while being outside it, and that the only fair and honourable course of action is to give them the final say, so they can choose to remain in the EU. The Government should immediately and transparently begin contingency planning for a people’s vote in parallel to contingency planning for a no deal Brexit. Let us have an end to deceit and hypocrisy and give the voters the final say.