Brexit: Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:25 pm on 20th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 9:25 pm, 20th November 2018

My Lords, we have heard a lot that still suggests, as we come into the endgame with four months left, that there are still a number of illusions about where we are. I hear people saying that the European Union, the world’s largest regulated open market, is a protectionist fortress, but what is China? What is the United States now? I hear people saying that we are better off with global organisations such as the WTO rather than the European Union. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, that the WTO is close to breakdown since President Trump refuses to appoint new members to the arbitration panel. I remember many people saying that we did not need Europol and European security co-operation because we had Interpol. Looking at what is happening at Interpol, that might not be a good idea.

We are now in the endgame. I will talk briefly about the future relationship paper, foreign policy and what we mean by the national interest. I remember asking the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, some weeks ago whether we would have a five-page paper on the future relationship or a substantial document. He assured me that it would be a substantial document. I thank him for the seven-page paper that we have got so far and the promise that we will, by the end of November—in five working days, more or less—have the 200-page substantial, detailed, precise document that we are now promised. Without a precise document we are drifting into a blind Brexit. We need to pause before we jump into a chasm without knowing where the bottom might be.

The foreign-policy dimension of this is particularly important. The Conservative Party used to be the party of strong foreign policy and defence. The state of play document the Government distributed says that we are pursuing,

“a broad and deep partnership on foreign policy, security and defence”.

The seven-page outline of the political declaration is far more hesitant. The Commission’s explainer fact sheet talks about the “possibility” that Britain might be invited to join informal conversations and to contribute to missions. That is a pretty shrunken foreign policy. Any foreign policy for Britain requires, as it always has, that we have close relations and we manage our relations with France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Poland, Serbia and Greece. Without a European policy we do not have a foreign policy. Instead, for the past two years we have had Foreign Secretaries who talk about either Germany, together with Hitler and Nazis, or the Soviet Union as being like the EU.

The Prime Minister has insisted that she is defending the national interest. It is a good concept but we need to discuss what it is. Some, like the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, suggest that defence of our absolute imperial sovereignty must prevail over everything else. I much prefer the statement of the last really good Conservative Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, when he talked about shared sovereignty. He understood that unilateral sovereignty is not the badge of sovereignty. You have to negotiate with your neighbours if you want to maintain good relations.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has warned the Prime Minister that she is risking an 1846 moment, when Robert Peel split his party on the abolition of the Corn Laws. For the first time I agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg about something. It is a good analogy. Robert Peel decided that the national interest was more important than the unity of his party. When faced with the potato blight and the development of famine in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, he challenged the ideological commitment to agricultural protection that thinly covered the vested interests of landowners at the back of the Conservative Party. It might now be in the national interest for the Conservative Party to split again, with their offshore and financial interests on the ideological right and their English nationalists going in one direction and the pragmatic, one-nation Conservatives going another. I offer that to the Prime Minister and others as a definition of what the national interest might now require.