Brexit: Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:20 pm on 20th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Lang of Monkton Lord Lang of Monkton Conservative 8:20 pm, 20th November 2018

My Lords, like other noble Lords I would like to address the three options. I would describe them as: first, to support the present deal, with all its imperfections and uncertainties; secondly, to go for no deal, face economic disruption and do what we can to overcome the unforgivable failure adequately to have prepared for it; and, thirdly, to have the mixed-bag option of rejecting the people’s vote and calling for another one, or for a general election, or for a postponement of the Article 50 trigger—in sum and in essence, to stay in the European Union.

I suppose that it is quite an achievement to have reached any kind of deal in the circumstances here and in Brussels, and I pay tribute to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister for the deal that she has achieved. But one has to ask questions. Does this deal treat the UK as a single entity? Does it give us freedom to set our own tax rates? Does it give us freedom to strike our own trade deals and to leave the customs union when we decide? Notwithstanding what I heard from the noble Lord, Lord Butler—whose speech I shall read tomorrow with great care—my answer to these questions is no.

The vital snag that leads to that answer is of course the Irish backstop. Without the unqualified right to terminate that, we will find the relentless grip of the EU stretching into an uncertain future. We will be like a ship ready to sail that finds its anchor snagged on the rocks beneath. One wonders how the Government thought that they could get away with a concession on the backstop, which they had repeatedly promised never to agree to, and which the DUP had repeatedly said that it could never accept. We conceded so much in order to honour our word to Northern Ireland, and then we failed to do so. Pettifogging over that border should never have been allowed to happen from the very outset. The EU frontier is already perforated by countless special deals. I gather that France even has one to cover French Guiana—a country in another continent across a wide ocean. Given reasonable good will and common sense, a pragmatic solution could easily have been found and still could be.

That is the burden of uncertainty that we take on if we decide to accept this deal, as we may have to. Many people assume that no deal would be calamitous. They could be right; it would certainly create disruption and problems, some of them very severe, in the short term. But in the longer term it could be a different story, unfashionable though it seems to say so in today’s debate. We already trade with four-fifths of the world on WTO terms. Our exports there now stand at 60%, with only 40% going to the EU; a decade ago, it was the other way round. The EU’s share of world trade has halved in the past 30 years. The single market should be a springboard: instead it is a protectionist fortress. The EU’s growth rate is flat, close to recession. While the no-deal route is not an easy one to choose, nor is the present deal, so neither should be ruled out.

There is no denying that we face at present the threat of an economic and political crisis: it is a very bad time to have to take a vital decision of this kind. But the proposals from those who are at heart remainers would make matters worse just when what we and, especially, business need is certainty.

There is another reason why it would be wrong to prevaricate. We gave our word to the electorate in the people’s vote of 2016 that we would deliver what they decided upon. Every political party pledged to do that, both before and after the result, without qualification. What the referendum decided was not subject to conditions, and not to honour it now would be the most damning and damaging outcome of all. With or without a deal, we must leave the European Union.