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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:20 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Viscount Ridley Viscount Ridley Conservative 5:20 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, three years and two months ago, at the Second Reading of the EU Referendum Bill, I said that it was “absolutely vital” that the referendum was,

“seen to be robust and fair. We want to settle this question for a generation. I will possibly vote to leave unless the negotiations come up with good results but, if I do so and I lose, I will not Official Report, 13/10/15; col. 157.]

The negotiations did not get good results, so I voted to leave, but how wrong I was about that last point, that others would respect the results.

I have had to watch the losers of that referendum explaining why people voted to leave, like pith-helmeted explorers talking about a tribe of hunter-gatherers whose language they do not understand. They briefed the Brusselscrats on how best to beat Britain in the negotiations; they said that they would respect the results but then did not do so; they urged a second referendum without bothering to specify the question, and talked down the country. How proud I was of our Prime Minister, however, for her ringing words of courage and determination at Lancaster House, in Florence and at the Mansion House; for her insistence that no deal was better than a bad deal; for her assertion that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed; and for her assurance that we would leave the customs union—that system of imperial preference—whatever happened, and be free to pursue trade deals with the rest of the world. She said that £39 billion would get us a comprehensive free-trade agreement before exit day so that the next 20 months would be an implementation period, not a transition period, and that we would prepare properly for no deal in case it proved necessary.

Throughout the long debates in this Chamber, therefore—on the referendum Bill, the Article 50 Bill and the withdrawal Bill—for three years I have voted with the Government every time, even as I had to watch some of my colleagues speaking, voting, scheming and even whipping against their own party and their own manifesto. Then, quite suddenly, there came a bit of a sinking feeling earlier this year when I realised that my side had apparently been pursuing a somewhat different deal: a pessimistic, damage-limitation Brexit. It seemed—this is how people in the north-east of England seemed to react to it when I talked to them—to be based on appeasing, conceding and retreating, like Brave Sir Robin in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and that the future relationship is still just a list of airy aspirations, dependent on best endeavours and against the deadline of a backstop.

When I said three years ago that I hoped the losers would accept the result of the referendum, it never occurred to me that I needed to worry that the winners might not accept the result. Imagine—those of your Lordships who voted to remain, which is most of those in this Chamber—you had won by 52% to 48% but, two years later, finding that your Government were negotiating a half-out deal with a permanent backstop trapdoor with no exit, which prevented our fully rejoining the EU. Would that have felt fair?

I know it has been very difficult to negotiate a deal, and I have tried very hard to persuade myself that this is the right deal, but I cannot, especially after reading the Attorney-General’s advice this morning and listening to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith. If it seems to some on my side that that is being disloyal, then I ask: where is the loyalty of my party to its own manifesto?

Next week, the other place will probably reject this deal, as we have heard. What then? I genuinely do not know and nobody does. The paradox of this situation is that every possibility that we consider seems highly implausible, and yet one of them will happen. We must surely have one last try at getting the backstop softened or taken out of the agreement and put into the future relationship paper so that it cannot be a trap without an exit. At the same time we must prepare, as fast and as best we can, for a bare-bones arrangement to cover the essentials that we will need, and not because that is what we want. Of course I want free trade with the EU but not on these dangerous terms, which could deliver eternal half-membership and bitterness in the long run and, in the short run, a Corbyn premiership, an outcome I know many on the Back Benches opposite do not want either. We must get ready to tackle the bottlenecks at the ports, prevent the imposition of tariffs and do whatever it takes to keep things flowing. Of course it would be painful but it would be the EU’s fault at least as much as our own for trying to impose a Carthaginian peace on this proud country.

Whether 29 March is a disaster is not something that can be modelled, certainly not by the discredited methods employed by the Treasury and the disgracefully politicised Bank of England—the people who brought you forecasts of 500,000 to 800,000 more unemployed if we voted to leave, whereas we have 250,000 fewer; who brought you a forecast of recession, whereas we have had steady growth; and who brought you forecasts of a collapse of foreign direct investment, whereas we saw a 12.5% increase in foreign direct investment in 2017, and just today the biopharmaceutical firm UCB has announced a £1.3 billion investment in the UK.

Why can it not be modelled? Because what happens is in the hands of people. We can make it a disaster or a success, depending on what we do. I have no doubt that the vast majority of British people will want to ensure that the country gets through this crisis and takes off afterwards. However, equally, I have no doubt that some people—in, let us say, the BBC, the CBI, the FT, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the intelligentsia and much of the chattering classes—will be longing, hoping and perhaps even plotting to ensure that it is a disaster. That gives me pause. It makes me worry that, because of insufficient preparation and the determination to fail, we might indeed face real problems.

What is more, it takes two to prepare, and the EU also needs to be preparing. I have it on quite good authority that the EU is refusing co-operation with us on some of the preparation that we need to do in the event that this deal fails. I would like the Minister to address whether that is the case and what can be done to improve that situation.