Brexit: Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:35 pm on 20th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley Conservative 6:35 pm, 20th November 2018

My Lords, I share many of the concerns that have been expressed about the backstop, but I will focus my remarks on the political declaration. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and others have remarked, I argued back in January that the political declaration that sets out the future framework of our relationship with the EU had to be a clear heads of terms, so that the transition that we will enter into is a bridge to a fixed destination, not a gangplank into thin air. My fear is that, at the moment, the document that we have before us is very long on aspiration but rather short on hard, copper-bottomed commitments.

I realise that the Prime Minister is negotiating this document further this week, but if it remains in its current situation, this matters greatly, because once we sign this agreement, we will lose much of our negotiating leverage; we will have signed the cheque. The backstop will then become legally binding as a treaty and it will also become the EU’s baseline in its negotiating position. So it is absolutely mission critical that the Prime Minister sticks to the pledge given by Downing Street a few weeks ago that,

“there can be no withdrawal agreement without a precise future framework”.

If it is precise, the chances that we will fall into the backstop obviously begin to recede. We can, however, as has been said, be pretty sure about what the final destination is. The political declaration states that our long-term relationship should,

“build on the single customs territory”.

What does that mean? We have been told what it means by the EU’s deputy chief negotiator. It means:

“This requires the customs union as the basis of the future relationship”.

The UK,

“must align their rules but the EU must retain all controls”.

I hope that the Government will have the honesty to say clearly in the days and weeks ahead whether this is or is not the case.

The fact that the UK might be trapped in a single customs territory by the backstop or might enter into the customs union under the political declaration is why some in this House and many in the other place argue that the agreement should be opposed. My hunch is that Parliament will not allow us to leave without an agreement. So, although entering into a transition period would avoid the possible chaos of a no-deal Brexit, I fear that without clarity—real clarity—in the political declaration, we will not have solved the underlying, fundamental problem that we have faced for months.

The problem is this: ever since the general election, the Prime Minister has effectively been in office but not in power. She has been unable to negotiate with the confidence that her strategic aim in the negotiations has the support of the majority not just in Parliament but also, crucially, in Cabinet. That weakness has largely led us to where we are now. So if we are to sign an agreement, unless there is this clarity in the political declaration, that uncertainty will continue. We will continue to twist in the wind as the interminable debate about our future relationship continues. Worse, the EU will be able to dictate the terms in the next phase of the negotiations.

If we want to avoid this, we will have to do what we have failed to do so far. That is to be honest about the situation that we are in and find the courage to compromise among ourselves here at Westminster. The challenge is not to come up with new policy approaches: we know all the options. The challenge is to settle on an option and an approach that commands a clear parliamentary majority and to present it honestly to the British people.

Let us wait to see whether the political declaration contains the precise, clear position around which we as a Parliament might coalesce. I somehow doubt it. If it does not, while I believe that we must honour the referendum result and leave the EU, the Government must confront the reality of the parliamentary arithmetic and compromise to find a position that commands a guaranteed parliamentary majority. Only then can the Government try to retrieve the situation and negotiate in the next phase of negotiations with real force and conviction.