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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:37 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Patten of Barnes Lord Patten of Barnes Conservative 6:37 pm, 5th December 2018

Here we go again, seeking, despite the presence of so many right reverend Prelates this afternoon, to struggle across the Jordan to Canaan’s side. Well, we are not there yet. I suspect that one thing on which we could develop a consensus pretty rapidly in this House, and also down the Corridor, is the proposition that we are in one awful political mess, which is in danger of turning into a constitutional mess, or shambles—all in pursuit of a deal that the Chancellor of the Exchequer tells us will make the country poorer. This is not normally an objective in political life.

I have been reading Michael Palin’s excellent book on the “Erebus”, and I am struck by the similarity with a voyage taken by explorers in the middle of the 19th century in the Antarctic. One ship went from Cape Longing to Cape Disappointment, then on to Delusion Point, and finished up in Exasperation Bay. I have a certain sympathy with those Victorian travellers.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in an admirable speech, said that he did not think that many new points would be made in this debate. He then made one: he gets this year’s Christmas hamper for what he said about a free vote down the Corridor, which I think would be an extremely good idea. Even if not many new points have been made, we have come back again and again to some of the points we have made in this Chamber before, which actually made a lot of sense. Many of the best points we made were rejected with contumely by Brexit Ministers at the time. I cannot remember who they were—they come and go with some regularity—but if they had accepted the points, we would all be in a rather better position today.

The question of sovereignty and how you define it ran through a lot of those discussions and is of course still relevant. I have always thought of sovereignty as an extremely slippery concept. We got into some of the difficulties we are in now because of an ideological fixation with it, as though it were something written in Mosaic law. It encourages what psychiatrists call “cognitive dissonance”, in which people seek to see the relationship between facts or evidence and reality. In The March of Folly—a book on mistakes in American history, particularly the Vietnam WarBarbara Tuchman makes that exact point about mistakes in American domestic and foreign policy. We can see that such folly is possible on both sides of the Atlantic; there have been real errors in this country as well.

I want to pick up on what I thought were the two best speeches—certainly the two best metaphors—of the summer. The first was in a speech by my noble friend Lord Bridges, who always makes great sense. He used the metaphor of a “gangplank” again the other day when he spoke. We have not built a bridge to a place where we want to land, whether it is Delusion Bay or Exasperation Whatever, partly because we put the cart before the horse. We dealt with withdrawing from the European Union before we decided what we wanted to withdraw to—which seems to have led to some obvious consequences, which were referred to by the excellent Higher Education Minister in his resignation the other day. I suppose that the answer is contained in the political declaration. It is quite well written—as gangplanks go—but I have written this stuff in the past and put my name to it. Whenever I see the words “best endeavours”, I reach for a shotgun. It is full of strong nouns, strong adjectives and weak verbs—and we have all seen this sort of thing before.

Let us think about sovereignty in that context. Today I found myself agreeing once again with my noble friend Lord Howard—as I used to fairly regularly. He pointed out that you can withdraw from the European Union without anybody else’s agreement—that is sovereignty—but you cannot get out of the withdrawal agreement or the backstop without other people’s sovereignty, and that is called “taking back control”. It puzzles me very greatly. So this document, which promises us a future in which the landing point is determined largely by others, with 27 European Union countries having a veto over what we do, is one of several reasons for not supporting the deal.

The other speech I wanted to refer to was by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, which has gone viral. I am not sure that either he or I would have known until a few months ago what “going viral” means; I used to think that it was something to do with flu; I challenged him on this point and he rather agreed with me. He made a wonderful speech about taking his aunts to the cinema and them having to choose between seeing “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “Reservoir Dogs”. That is what we are offered here—only it is a double bill of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” that we are threatened with. The mantra used to be, “No deal is better than a bad deal”. Today’s mantra is, “A bad deal is better than no deal”. To a considerable extent I suppose I can agree with that—but we should be able to achieve a better deal.

I realise that some of my noble friends will go through the Division Lobbies next week in support of the deal because they think that it is terrific. Some will probably go through the Lobbies out of loyalty to their party, which I understand, and because they are sympathetic to the Prime Minister, who has shown great determination even though I think that she has made the job more difficult for herself. They will go through the Lobbies comforting themselves, perhaps, that it could be a lot worse and that if we do not do a deal, the country will remain divided. I do not think that this deal will bring the country together and that if the deal goes through, my honourable and noble friends in the Brexit camp will, after all these years, come down the pavilion steps, slap us on the back and say, “May the best man win. It’s been a terrific fight. We’ll go along with whatever you’re doing”. We will argue about this for years. It will not bring us together, despite what St Matthew, St Paul and the most reverend Primate said—though not necessarily in that order.

We should not delude ourselves that this is the only deal in town and that the European Union will not do another one. It has made it clear that it will not do another deal if we do not change our red lines. It will do another deal if we change our red lines on leaving the single market and the customs union. It would be nice if the Minister underlines that point when he eventually responds to the debate.

Unfortunately, I find myself in a position where I will not be able to join my noble friends in the Division Lobby next week. I sympathise with the amendments in the House of Commons in the names of Hilary Benn and Dominic Grieve. I therefore sympathise very much with the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. This is a bad deal. It is bad for the future of this country and bad for our kids, as the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, said earlier—and because of that I will be in the Lobby with the noble Baroness next week.