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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 1:02 pm on 6th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct 1:02 pm, 6th December 2018

My Lords, for a remainer like me who deeply regretted and still regrets the outcome of the 2016 referendum, there was never going to be—never could be—a happy ending to this story. For that reason, I have reluctantly come to support the deal now on offer. I make five points.

First, imperfect though I recognise the deal to be—although not as damaging as some would urge—I support it as the least-bad option now available. It is a better solution than any alternative way ahead and as good a Brexit as any we can now hope to achieve. Its defects, or comparable defects, were necessarily implicit in the original referendum vote. The very fact that it satisfies no one, least of all the diehards on either extreme—those still intent on remaining and those equally intent on leaving with no deal—seems to me a plus. I acknowledge that everyone loses a little, but no one loses everything and there are no winners. That gives the best chance of actually healing the divisions that now exist and ending the present nightmare—the mess that we all agree we are now in. I cannot pretend that it brings final clarity and certainty, because uncertainties inevitably remain as the political declaration is worked through.

Secondly, if Parliament is to reject this deal, my hope would be for the EU to give us just a jot more, perhaps on the backstop. Alternatively perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, urged yesterday, we should move—pivot is the fashionable word—to rely on our EEA membership. I myself advocated that during the debate in summer 2017 on the Queen’s Speech. I pointed to a number of specific benefits of such a course, several of which, including freeing ourselves from the common fisheries and agricultural policies, are now mirrored in the deal on offer. For my part, however, I do not regard the conceivable benefits of such further negotiations as worth the delays and risks that they would carry.

Thirdly, in common with most of your Lordships, I believe the no-deal scenario to be disastrous, particularly for the most vulnerable in our society. Yet there remains the real risk of such an outcome if the present deal is rejected. Those still canvassing for that—the zealots, as some would call them; I prefer to call them the non-compromisers—are perhaps trying to run the clock down so that it actually happens. Noble Lords should beware and recognise that, absent further legislation, that would indeed happen on 29 March 2019.

Fourthly, in earlier debates, I spoke in support of a second referendum in the hope that enough of the electorate, appreciating the real difficulties of leaving the EU and the limitations of even the best deal available for leaving, would have changed their minds. But I have come to conclude that that hope does not outweigh the grave disadvantages of such a course, which are as follows. The first is the delay, the disruption and the acute further divisiveness involved in a further referendum. Secondly, there is the real risk that a majority may still vote to leave. I fear that that could and likely would result in a hard, no-deal Brexit. That risk was identified and convincingly explained in a piece by Jenni Russell in today’s Times. Thirdly, even if a majority voted to remain, those who in 2016 voted to leave would be up in arms, feeling, however unjustifiably, cheated of their earlier victory. I think that many of your Lordships would agree that the 2016 Brexiteers included the most politically disaffected, disengaged and disadvantaged people in our society. Were we now to remain, I fear that they would feel betrayed by Parliament such as to cause lasting damage to our democracy and the public’s faith in our political processes.

Fifthly and finally, I come to the vote next Monday night on the Opposition’s Motion and on my noble friend Lord Butler’s amendment to the Motion. On that, I agree precisely with what my noble friend said in his speech yesterday. Of course it is for the other place to take the decision on this deal, and of course, as indicated, I would emphatically reject a no-deal outcome. But I cannot regret the deal proposed given that it is the best outcome now available to us. I shall vote for the Butler amendment and I hope that sufficient numbers of others will do likewise so as perhaps to influence possibly one or two Members at least of the other place to decide in that way.