Brexit: Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 20th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Goldsmith Lord Goldsmith Labour 9:30 pm, 20th November 2018

My Lords, tonight is not, of course, a night for any decision, but we have heard in this debate some interesting observations on where we now stand and some very important contributions—including that of the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood —reminding us of one of the political reasons behind the European Union, in the shadow of the reminiscences that we have had of the First World War. I must very briefly welcome the noble Lord, Lord McCrea. We have heard the robust straight talking already; we look forward to hearing the singing on another occasion. Given the time available, I will not say more about other contributions other than in the course of the few remarks I want to make.

What we have heard is, first, voice after voice saying that a no-deal solution is not one we can accept or that should be accepted. We have heard formidable descriptions of what this would be: a car-crash Brexit; devastatingly damaging; catastrophic—all these remarks have been made during this debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, may have explained well why it is in fact no longer an option, but in this House at least it seems there is a strong view that a no-deal exit is not acceptable. So what do we have? Do we have a deal? That has been the subject of much discussion tonight.

Plainly, some issues are dealt with in the 585 pages, some of them important ones. But what really matters for the future are the seven pages—it is quite generous to call it seven; it is six and one-third actually—of the political declaration. That is where we find all the areas that will really govern our future relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. What does it consist of? It consists, as some noble Lords have said, of sentences without verbs. The reason why is that it is a list. On the whole it is an index, a list of things that are desirable—many extremely desirable—but they are not yet spelled out and of course they are not yet a binding commitment. So I want to ask the Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, a couple of questions about that.

When we look at the political declaration, noble Lords can see all the important things it needs to deal with. Energetic though she and her advisers may be, there is no way that the Prime Minister is going to solve all those issues by the end of the weekend. Some important changes may be made and we look forward to seeing what those are—they may cover some of the areas referred to by noble Lords—but there is a huge amount to deal with, including services and investment. To take one small example, the headline promises:

“Appropriate arrangements on professional qualifications”.

That is very important to many people. Appropriate they must be, but what are they going to be? That covers, as some noble Lords have said, many possibilities. On financial services, I read of:

“Commitments to preserving financial stability, market integrity, investor protection and fair competition”.

Those are really important, but how you achieve them—the detail—is what will ultimately matter, and we do not know that at this stage. The critical thing, therefore, is what the deal is going to be.

When the Minister winds up, I want him to consider the extent of the commitment to two things described during this debate as possible mitigators of the lack, as yet, of a concluded, complete and full binding agreement. One is the fact that Article 184 of the withdrawal agreement provides for good faith negotiations to reach a conclusion. However, does he agree that the obligation that,

The Union and the United Kingdom shall use their best endeavours, in good faith”—

I will qualify that in a moment—

“to negotiate expeditiously the agreements”,

does not amount to anything other than a best-efforts obligation? It is not an obligation to reach an agreement or to guarantee that result. That is well understood in United Kingdom law and European Union law. That is an extraordinarily important difference.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr—who ought to know—said that what Article 50 required was not a list of things which should be agreed but things which were there as the framework. That has not happened. That is critical. The sequence of this has been completely wrong. The other thing that has not been contradicted in this debate is what my noble friend Lady Hayter said in opening: that this has been, regrettably, a complete mess and that is why we are in the position we are in today. The sequencing that has taken place on the negotiation is one element of it.

The point about the good-faith negotiation is important but it cannot actually result in an agreement if it is not within the wishes of the EU to achieve it. Of course, as noble Lords have said, the extent to which it will have the incentive to do that is reduced in the circumstances in which we are now.

The second potential qualifier is the arbitration provisions. I really would welcome the Minister’s views on this. It might at least save there being a Motion in the other place to get all the legal advice. The arbitration provisions appear to me to be provisions to determine the true meaning or the true effect of those things which have been agreed—and not to fill in gaps where the parties have not been able to agree them. If the Minister can help us with that, it will make a big difference, because it means that if we do not reach agreement on certain things, the arbitration provisions will not provide it. I would welcome his help on those two points.

Where does that all lead us? The thing that struck me most in the resignation article by Jo Johnson was his statement:

“Suspension of disbelief is a necessary ingredient in all storytelling”.

He was saying that about the narrative that the Government had been putting forward. Having got to this stage in this critical and sensitive area, with these things still not having been finally agreed, will the Government please commit to no more storytelling and no more narratives and to giving an honest statement of what the possibilities are and what the result of those possibilities will be, so that whoever has to make the ultimate decision—whether it is Parliament or the people—can do so in the knowledge of all the true facts?