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My Lords, this is a historic, pivotal moment when the House of Commons is required to choose a future path for our country. It remains to be seen whether it us up to the job after the discredited political processes of the past three years or so. Most of the key political decisions in the Brexit saga so far have been governed not by the national interest but by considerations of internal Conservative Party management. Here are some examples: the referendum itself; the rash and precipitate invoking of Article 50 without a clear plan; artificial red lines; a statutory exit day; and attempts to curtail parliamentary scrutiny and decision-making.
After these two and a half years of fractious political activity, we have ended up with the Prime Minister asserting that we have to choose between two options, both of which represent serious acts of national self-harm. One is to leave the EU, in chaos, in March 2019 without a deal. Thankfully, I doubt there is a parliamentary majority for this. This leaves us with Mrs May’s deal, of which a few Members of this House seem quite enamoured. In reality, this is no deal at all. It requires us to leave the EU next March after writing a very large cheque but with little clarity about our future economic, security and political relationship with the EU. These arrangements will not be settled legally until we have irrevocably left the EU and lost most of our bargaining position. The so-called political declaration is more like a letter to Santa Claus from a young child—perhaps one of my grandchildren—than a blueprint for the future.
The country is now being asked to take on trust that a Government and Prime Minister that have produced this feeble deal after two and a half years of negotiation will suddenly become red-hot negotiators who produce a bright, sunny future. The Government’s own Treasury figures, as well as those of virtually every economic forecaster, reveal that a deal of the kind Parliament is being asked to approve will lead to our economy shrinking and our citizens being poorer than if they had stayed in an economic alliance that has served us so well for 50 years.
Proceeding with the Prime Minister’s deal means: less money for our public services after a decade of austerity; lower standards of living, with the poor and young hit hardest; our citizens being far less safe as we leave EU security arrangements; and our world-leading scientists being cut off from joint ventures that produce wealth for our country. Our standing in the world will inevitably diminish. We will not be taking back control, as the Prime Minister contends, but losing control in an interminable vortex of further Brexit and trade negotiations. This will not be a future of healing but a long period of grinding Brexit and trade negotiations.
For me, the two big questions now are: can the House of Commons rise to the historical occasion and comprehensively reject both of the Prime Minister’s options, and then start trying to move towards a more constructive future? The first is much easier to do on Monday than the second. I would like Parliament to try to create some space for a period of reflection, but I rather suspect this will not happen, for the reasons the noble Lord, Lord Owen, set out in his telling speech yesterday. Sending the Prime Minister back to negotiate with the EU may have to be gone through, but I doubt it will produce anything useful. Why should the EU want to change its position now, without a serious change of heart by the UK?
I believe the Commons will be faced with three clear choices if, as I hope it will, it rejects overwhelmingly the Prime Minister’s deal and no deal: first, a softer Brexit within the EEA, which we can remain a member of even after leaving the EU; secondly, a general election, which I suspect would not produce a clear outcome or be favoured by the Conservative Party; thirdly, the boldest choice is to fess up to the electorate that Parliament cannot decide on Brexit without a second referendum that includes the option of staying in the EU. My heart favours the last, but my hard-headed political calculus tells me that the House of Commons will find it easiest to go down the EEA route, for the kind of reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Owen, set out.
All these courses of action are fraught with uncertainty and political difficulties, but all are better paths to tread than slavishly pursuing the Prime Minister’s options. These are guaranteed to damage our children’s and grandchildren’s future—a major consideration that the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, so wisely reminded us of yesterday. It is for these concerns about future generations that I will support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and strongly oppose the misguided amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell.