Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (1st Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:38 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative 3:38 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, it is a privilege to speak after the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith. Obviously, his distinguished record as a former Attorney-General is particularly relevant to the present situation, and enables him to speak with authority. Probably more than anybody in the country, he has had first-hand experience of the extraordinary pressures placed on Law Officers of the Crown in the performance of their duties at significant points in our nation’s history.

In his remarks, the noble and learned Lord expressed a degree of certainty that I am not sure my noble and learned friend Lord Keen would agree with. I am not going to get into a lawyers’ discussion, because I do not want the House to think that I have certainty on these issues. I am assailed by doubts on this matter on every side, regarding not just the legal issue but the transaction itself. Probably the only certainty that I had when we set out on the Brexit road was the belief that, at the end of the negotiations and when the transaction was revealed, both sides would say that it was a bad and inadequate deal. A lifetime in the City has taught me that at the end of fiercely fought negotiations, the pre-eminent emotion among participants is that of disappointment that negotiations could and should have been handled better. In the City, it is known as buyer’s remorse or seller’s remorse. The critical question is not “Is this a good deal?”, but “Is this a good-enough deal?” I now turn to that judgment.

First, the ending of free movement of labour is clearly an important and advantageous outcome. The House may be aware of my interest in the demographic projections of 7 million to 9 million more people in the UK 20 years from now, requiring us to build three cities the size of Manchester. I fear that that will impose strains on our society, both economic and societal, and may undermine our social cohesion. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his remarks this morning, urged us to look to the long term. This issue is nothing if not long-term. It is perfectly true that the Government have not done much to close down or control arrivals from outside the EU, over which they already have complete control. However, a key result of this negotiation is that we now have a tap which can regulate the flow of labour into this country from the EU, and provided we have the political will, we can turn it.

The second issue is the rolling-back, not immediate elimination, of the role of the European Court of Justice. This country, having been a member of the EU for 40 years, can reasonably be expected to have to allow a role for the ECJ in UK-EU dealings, but it is equally not unrealistic to expect them to become attenuated over time. Ab initio, our Supreme Court will have an enlarged area of competence over which it can deploy British common law principles.

My third point relates to the Irish border and the backstop, which the noble and learned Lord focused on. The Hodgsons come from County Galway in the Republic. I can recall, in the bad old days, cousins who were serving in the British Army being told by the Gardai that it was best if they did not come home on leave. I need no lessons on the significance or sensitivity of the Irish border question. In part, the Irish border question has assumed some greater short-term significance because of Irish domestic political issues—the struggle for control of Fine Gael between the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.

However, leaving that aside, it is a question of trust—a commodity which, at least at present, is in short supply. As I understand it, less than 10% of Anglo-Irish trade goes by the land border. Over 90% going by sea will be handled no differently in the future under the new arrangement from trade with France or Holland. For this relatively small volume of land trade, a combination of modern technology and trusted trader status could and should provide an answer. I say “could” because it requires an element of good will. Quite understandably, some of us fear that the UK will be stuck in a halfway house with the EU’s hand on our windpipe. However, there are not inconsiderable reasons as to why the EU should try to reach an accommodation on this issue, as my noble friend the Leader of the House mentioned in her opening remarks. After March 2019, the UK will no longer be a member of the EU, so it will not contribute to the EU budget, but it will still enjoy frictionless trade inside the customs union. Might this situation, without too much exaggeration, be described as having your cake and eating it too?

This question of trust underlies the whole next stage of our disentanglement. The EU is faced with a number of existential threats: to the euro and to itself. What does this foretell about the next stage? Clearly, we cannot be seen to be short-term winners, but while for institutional reasons of self-preservation the Commission may continue to take a hard line, once the initial withdrawal agreement is out of the way the emphasis of member states may shift. I notice in my contacts with Europe in businesses increasing use of phrases such as, “We should not be vindictive”. Those comments, of course, flow from self-interest. First, they want to continue to sell to us; secondly, they recognise what the UK could bring to Europe in security, defence and the fight against organised crime.

Is this deal good enough? Taken together, the ending of free movement of labour, the re-establishment of our Supreme Court at the apex of our judicial system and the emerging signs of self-interest among the remaining EU states lead me to believe that it is. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, rightly reminded us that, in the end, this is a matter for the House of Commons. So let me say to your Lordships’ House that, if I were a Member of the other place, I would vote for this transaction.