Leaving the European Union - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:11 pm on 26th November 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 5:11 pm, 26th November 2018

Well, my Lords, another day, another Statement. I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating today’s Statement.

Exactly 886 days have passed since the EU referendum, and it is more than 600 days since the Prime Minister wrote to the President of the European Council to invoke Article 50. At that point, the clock started ticking. Many of us struggled to understand why, in her Lancaster House speech, the Prime Minister tied her own hands with a series of hard red lines. Having set out what appeared to be a hard Brexit before talks had even begun, the most enthusiastic Brexiteers felt emboldened.

The problem for the Prime Minister is that all too often, rather than taking a clear position she has sought to please one or other of the many camps in her own party, and her message for home has at times been different in both tone and content to her message to the EU. So, as time went on and with negotiations stalling, Mrs May had to fly to Florence to extend an olive branch to the EU 27. But for many of our EU neighbours their good will had already been tested. After she failed once again to make a breakthrough in Brussels, the Cabinet met at Chequers in July, agreeing a proposal that could not even survive a weekend before the first Brexit Secretary resigned, goading Boris Johnson, the then Foreign Secretary, to follow suit. Despite such high-profile resignations, the Prime Minister insisted that her way was the only way. She was clear: there is no alternative. That has a familiar ring. As ever, she forged on.

I have reflected before that the Prime Minister’s strategy is to live in the moment—to simply get through each week at a time. This has never been as true as it is now. Last week, with a defiant flourish, the Prime Minister presented the political declaration to Parliament, which was a clear admission that the Chequers deal was dead in the water—the deal that she had defended so strongly. Yet again we are told that this is the only proposal on the table—the only show in town. I think I am not alone in failing to understand why the Prime Minister is continuing on this course. She must know that her deal, which is little more than a blind Brexit, cannot possibly win a majority in the other place. As we discussed on Thursday’s Statement, it is pretty much an aspiration without promises or guarantees.

The Prime Minister also knows that no deal would be as disastrous for UK families, communities and businesses, yet she continues to present this flawed, inadequate deal as though it is “my deal or no deal” and seeks to pray in aid EU Presidents Juncker and Tusk. I can understand senior EU figures lending their support to the Prime Minister at this exceptionally precarious time in her premiership. But, despite the Prime Minister’s “carry on regardless” approach, there are other options on the table, including that, as Michel Barnier has always been clear, the EU’s offer can, and will, evolve if the UK changes its red lines. This is in relation not just to the withdrawal agreement, but to the terms of the future relationship as well.

We have been very clear that we could accept a deal only if it delivered a permanent UK-EU customs union, a strong, ongoing relationship with the single market and high-level protection for workers, consumers and the environment. Also, it remains obvious that too little consideration was initially given by the Government to the complex issues affecting Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement. That is equally true of Gibraltar, which I first raised in your Lordships’ House just four months after the referendum in 2016; for both, the details have yet to be resolved. So, this deal does not deliver on the key priorities. Indeed, leaked emails describing it as “not a good deal” explain last week’s lacklustre response from the CBI. In fact, the only support the Prime Minister has been able to garner is pretty lukewarm and seems to be more about the fear of a no-deal exit if she cannot get her deal.

There are many, many questions that I could ask the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. I know that she has been inundated with questions in response to recent Statements; it is always hard to answer everything. I therefore want to be very clear and straight to the point with just two questions: Does she consider that the deal before us is the very best that is available? And does she consider that the deal before us is better than what we currently have?

If Ministers are unable to honestly answer yes to both these questions, then they have failed all those who voted in the referendum, whichever way they voted.