My Lords, to coin a phrase, a week in politics is a long time. Let us project our thoughts to Wednesday of next week. Who knows what the political landscape will be? Will the Prime Minister still be there, or will she sink with her flagship deal? Will rival factions be putting forward alternatives at that time?
Clearly, there has been a great problem in trying to bring together two conflicting considerations. First, almost all economic forecasts suggest that we will be less prosperous outside the EU than if we stayed as full members. Indeed, we already see a weak sterling, business closures, lack of investment in the UK and, since the referendum, an outflow from UK equity funds of $20.6 billion. The bright new deals promised by Brexiteers appear increasingly to be but a mirage. Why should new trading partners give us a better deal than the EU, with its much greater clout? It is also likely that our weight in world affairs will be reduced as we are largely on our own. On this basis, the deal and the accompanying political declaration are essentially essays in damage limitation.
However, the second consideration is also cogent. These considerations have to be balanced by the fact of the referendum result—a small but decisive majority in favour of Brexit—even if there appears within that group no majority for a hard or soft Brexit, when by contrast the remain vote is clear. However, that referendum was only a snapshot in time. The latest YouGov poll published in today’s Times shows that 49%, as against 38%, of our people believe that to leave was a mistake.
The deal, I concede, was an honest attempt by the Prime Minister to square the circle, to recognise the importance of a close relationship with our major trading partner while satisfying a referendum majority. But the result is that the context in our country today is of almost total political disarray on the issue, reflected in the votes in Parliament last night and in the Cabinet. Last week, the Daily Mail trumpeted the astonishing front-page exclusive—the revelation that a Cabinet Minister, Mrs Leadsom, was intending to support the Prime Minister. That is surely an interesting vignette on the depth of our political crisis. Our system is traditionally meant to provide stability, but historians will be hard-pressed to find any precedent for the turmoil. Shelley’s “England in 1819” comes to mind.
Clearly, the referendum showed great fissures in our body politic; that deep malaise is not the fault of the Prime Minister, but she has contributed to it by her actions and lack of actions. I see her as a decent and principled patriot who inherited from her predecessor a poisoned chalice and leads an impossible party with less support than that enjoyed by John Major at the time of the Maastricht treaty. She called a general election prematurely and became dependent on Northern Irish unionists for her majority. Who would have thought that there was in Northern Ireland a majority for remain? It is not what we hear from our Ulster colleagues in this Parliament. She was forced to give a massive sum to the DUP; now that it is a major threat to her, will she be asking for our money back? She has blown equally hot and cold on the European Union to different audiences. She has largely ignored the Cabinet in negotiations and excited the expectations of the Brexiteers, who now feel betrayed. She attempted to divide the EU, but it remained remarkably united.
A key mistake in the negotiations was to start by announcing thick red lines which she has been forced, over the negotiations, to dilute. An example, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, mentioned, was to demonise the CJEU; as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, pointed out, its judgments have been much to our advantage. This entailed a rejection of the customs union, the single market and the adoption of policies on aviation, chemicals and dispute resolution, which the Government now seek to soften. Paragraph 26 of the Explainer for the Political Declaration states:
“The UK and the EU will explore the possibility of cooperation between UK authorities and EU agencies”.
Paragraph 27 states:
“The UK will also consider aligning with EU rules in relevant areas”.
So that is clear.
Thus, on the red lines, the Prime Minister was bound by fetters of her own making. She allowed internal party opponents to make the running without forcing them to produce their alternatives. She is now trying to sell the only deal in town; it is as if with one leap we are free, but we will be bound by equivalence frameworks and level playing fields. The deal is, of course, a compromise, an orphan which neither side wishes to adopt. She now faces a parliamentary gridlock; there is no majority in Parliament for this deal or indeed for any other, and the likelihood is that next Tuesday the deal will be rejected.
The Prime Minister can read the economic forecasts; she can see that in the international field we risk being relegated to a lower division. She was wrong-footed in a recent Q&A phone-in when asked whether her deal was better than staying in the EU. The response of the Brexiteers and their cheerleaders is analogous to that of President Trump to the forecasts of climate change: “We know better than those so-called experts whose Project Hysteria now succeeds Project Fear”.
Faced with parliamentary gridlock and a possible attempt to restart negotiations, the EU could, of course, marginally tweak the deal, but would that produce agreement? Leaving aside the disaster of no deal, the only serious alternative is a people’s vote. Yes, it would be full of uncertainties and the electorate might feel cheated, but they did not vote for a lower standard of living and may indeed feel cheated because of that. People did not vote to be decision-takers. The option is the status quo or this deal. There is a chance of escaping from the massive misjudgment against our national interest three years ago, and we should take it.