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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:50 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Birt Lord Birt Crossbench 4:50 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, in the American state of Utah a condemned person used to have three unpalatable choices. He or she could choose between death by hanging, by firing squad or by beheading. Most chose the firing squad, a few hanging. No one chose beheading. We ourselves face three unpalatable, or difficult, choices. The first is a car-crash Brexit on WTO terms, without a seat belt. There are those who will submit to the surgeon’s knife when ill, or trust a ground engineer when they fly, but who none the less defy climate science or the expertise of the economists of the Bank of England and almost all other financial institutions, who advise that an immediate and ill-prepared Brexit would inflict a severe and destabilising blow on a UK economy not yet fully recovered from the 2008 shock, and that this blow would be followed by a long slow decline relative to our peers and neighbours. That is the beheading option, and I hope no one will choose it.

The second option is the Prime Minister’s. I think that she, supported by Olly Robbins, has done the best possible deal in all the circumstances. Hemmed in by the referendum outcome, by her party and by the power and conviction of Brussels, it is hard to believe that, plus or minus, anyone else could have done better. I strongly support what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said: the deal the Prime Minister has achieved is an unavoidable consequence of the referendum decision, the bitter pills it contains an unavoidable surprise to those who held out false and unrealisable hopes from that negotiation.

The doubts about the Prime Minister’s deal are very reasonable. We would be rule-takers, albeit in the first instance of rules that we helped to invent. The backstop is a calculated risk, potentially a trap we cannot escape, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, emphatically explained to us earlier. Most importantly, we would be buying a pig in a poke—for the challenge of translating a political declaration on a massive array of tangled issues into a working reality still lies ahead of us, and is truly monumental.

The third option—my ideal—is to remain. Like a condemned man in Utah, I would rather have a reprieve. But it is not clear that the EU would embrace the necessary reform, particularly of free movement, that would satiate the Brexit urge in the British people; nor is it thinkable that Parliament can defy the democratic vote of the British people.

For all its risks and imperfections, for all that it is a mighty gamble, at this moment the PM’s deal appears the least worst option available. It averts catastrophe and offers us a difficult but probably navigable path to a halfway house—half out of a Europe that we are currently half in. But, but, but—if, as seems likely, a divided Parliament cannot support her option, or unite behind any other, and with the clock close to midnight, a new Conservative leader or a general election is unlikely to produce consensus. At that point, the only way out for us is a three-option referendum: WTO, the PM’s deal or remain.

In other walks of life, it is a commonplace to ratify a detailed deal previously given the go-ahead in principle. Whatever the outcome of a final referendum, we should recognise that, at long last, we have had the informed debate we lamentably failed to have in 2016. In that event, we must all stand by and wholeheartedly support whatever final choice the British people make.