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Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:32 pm on 6th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Conservative 12:32 pm, 6th December 2018

My Lords, as many of your Lordships might be aware, I voted for Brexit in 2016. I did so despite all my family and pretty much all my business colleagues and my colleagues at Conservative central headquarters voting remain. I am normally pretty loyal to our party’s leadership, most of whom at that time were very close friends, but I could not vote remain in 2016 out of long-held views and convictions primarily relating to sovereignty and a belief that this country is better off as a truly independent state.

It was not a happy time. Referendums pose a challenge to representative democracies: how does a simple yes-or-no question, such as whether to remain in the EU, survive contact with the reality of negotiation, legislation and practical implementation? It is more challenging still when the result was as narrow as the Brexit vote, the result of which must be respected, as must the narrowness of the win.

I believe that the answer to reconciling this web of contradictions is the Brexit deal that we now have in front of us from the Prime Minister. As someone in business who daily advises a range of UK-based businesses, I believe the Prime Minister’s deal to be an acceptable result, born of trying to take a general mandate through these complexities. It delivers Brexit: the UK will no longer be a member of the EU. Nor can it be said to be Brexit in name only, as some critics claim. We will get control of our borders and our laws, and will stop paying anything like the amounts we have been paying into the EU budget, so the promises made to the electorate will be honoured.

So why does this deal seem to attract so little support among all parliamentarians? For those remainers who say that this is just a worse version of the status quo, I simply remind them that the status quo is not available. The British people voted to leave, and leave we will. The worst thing the UK could do is to reject the referendum result and force people to vote again. Have your Lordships forgotten the trauma we went through as a country in 2016? I certainly have not. It is exactly this patronising philosophy that voters do not know what is best for them which now sees the EU itself battling a crisis of democracy and legitimacy. We may well see the consequences of this attitude in the 2019 European elections.

While of course I do not want a no deal, it must be foolish to close this off right now, as we dramatically reduce our negotiating leverage if the EU sees that we are not prepared to go down that route as a last resort. I urge the Opposition Front Bench and some well-meaning but misguided friends in my own party, on the Cross Benches and in other parties, not to tie our hands behind our back. Only a few days ago a number of us were debating the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill in this Chamber precisely because we need our negotiators to have in our armoury the option of being prepared for no deal, which I repeat is not by any means ideal or preferred by me.

For those who argue that Theresa May’s deal fails to realise the full potential and opportunity of Brexit, I say that while this may be true in the immediate term, the benefits will still come. Hard-line leavers seem to prefer the sequence of chaos and uncertainty followed by opportunity. I fear that too many people just cannot afford that short-term loss. This deal delivers certainty and stability followed then by the opportunity we all seek. The future Brexit opportunity is still open for us to seize, but without this deal manufacturers employing hundreds of thousands of people will immediately take steps to move out of the UK. I know this because I have talked to them directly.

Sceptics will still say that this locks us into an EU-like agreement forever, but it quite clearly does not. It is in neither side’s interest that the withdrawal agreement become a permanent arrangement. That is why the much-quoted phrase that the EU and the UK have a binding obligation to use their “best endeavours” to agree a future arrangement that supersedes the backstop should find favour with both cynics and the faithful. Far from being the worst of both worlds, I argue that it is the opposite. This deal provides stability and certainty now, which answers the stock economic argument of remainers, and gives a credible promise of Brexit dividends on trade still to come, as they will according to the stock arguments of leavers.

A referendum would lead to more chaos, and those advocating that we stay in will have to clarify what will happen to the rebate, to the offer to Cameron on immigration concessions, to the EU army and to myriad issues which would be totally unacceptable to 17 million people.

The sadness right now is that this deal is so close to being acceptable by so many more people. It is beyond me to understand why the EU does not make some small but important offers of change at this 11th hour to avoid a backstop that nobody wants. This would seal the deal. The fact that it cannot or will not do so reinforces the fears of many that, sadly, it is not going to be a good long-term partner for us.

However, we have to recognise the current situation and that translating plebiscites into practical policy is always a matter of compromise. That is what this deal is, and that is why I support the Motion.