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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:42 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench 7:42 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, it appears that we will have one voting opportunity to express the House’s opinion on the draft agreement and the political declaration, and that is on the Motion expressing regret by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I will therefore address my remarks to that Motion. I regard it as a curate’s egg. I agree with the first two parts of the Motion. The first says,

“it is for the House of Commons to determine the matter”.

I agree with that. The second says,

“a no deal outcome to negotiations under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union must be emphatically rejected”.

I agree with that also, and I believe that a great majority in both Houses, although not everyone, agrees with both of those propositions. The third part of the Motion regrets that the withdrawal agreement and political declaration negotiated by the Government,

“would do grave damage to the future economic prosperity, internal security and global influence of the United Kingdom”.

I agree that the consequences of the UK leaving the EU will be to damage our future prosperity, security and global influence, but I do not agree that these damaging consequences are due to the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. They are due to the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and others have said, there is of course still much to play for. Many of the points that have been made—for example, in favour of a Norway arrangement—fall within the negotiations on the future relationship. So there is still much to negotiate about, but it is the withdrawal agreement on which we have to make an immediate decision.

The agreement is neither better nor worse than I expected from the outset of the negotiations, and I note that none of those in favour of our leaving the EU has proposed an alternative departure agreement that would have had any chance of acceptance by the EU, nor are they doing so now. If the UK is to leave the EU, a departure agreement along the lines proposed by the Government and agreed with the EU is, in my view, the inevitable consequence. It is much better than no deal. It is worse than the alternative of staying within the EU, but that is not the choice before us in this debate. Given the choice between this departure agreement and no deal, I cannot in good conscience put my name to regretting the agreement and political declaration.

So in the last few days I have felt that I am in a dilemma, and I know that some other Members of the House have shared it. I want to express my support for the first two legs of the Opposition’s Motion, but I could not do so except by also voting for the third leg, with which I do not agree. So I have tabled an amendment, which will be on the Order Paper tomorrow, to delete the third leg of the Opposition’s Motion so that I and others in the House have the chance to support the first two legs of the Motion without supporting the third.

I should explain briefly why I do not want to vote for the third leg of the Opposition’s Motion. First, for reasons that I explained in our debate on the departure agreement a week or so ago, I think the objections to this departure agreement have been greatly overstated. Secondly, I doubt whether the Government, or for that matter the Opposition, could have done better. Thirdly, I see no realistic prospect of a substantially better departure agreement now being negotiated, so I think it pointless to condemn this one unless the purpose is simply to increase the Government’s difficulties, and I do not regard that as being in the national interest.

Having irritated the Leader of the Opposition today, I will end by irritating the Liberal Democrats. If they had been drafting this Motion, I feel confident that what they would have regretted would have been the Government’s decision to press ahead with Brexit without giving the British people the opportunity to express an informed opinion. I would have supported such a Motion, but of course they could not get the Labour Party’s support for a Motion on those terms. So they have compromised in the interests of opposition solidarity, but in compromising they have lost me on this occasion.