My Lords, General Alexander, commanding the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940, arrived on the beaches of Dunkirk riding a bicycle that he had liberated from a French peasant and surrounded by his staff jogging along beside him. As he stood on the top of the beach looking down at the columns of soldiers queueing out to sea and the dive-bombers and wreckages on the beach, he turned to his staff and said, “Gentlemen, I cannot bring myself to believe that this campaign is quite going in our favour”. I think that I know how he felt.
I am sad to say that I shared the view of Jo Johnson when he described the Government’s negotiations with the European Commission as the greatest failure of British statecraft since the Suez debacle. From beginning to end, it has been an agony to watch and, like Suez, it has become an international humiliation.
The political declaration accompanying the withdrawal agreement is really a memorandum of understanding or a letter of intent—in other words, an agreement to agree—but it has no legal force and is to all intents and purposes not worth the paper it is written on. Of course, its contents are very nice and we might agree with them, but for practical purposes they are worthless. The language is more suitable for a prenuptial agreement where two parties are lovingly planning a long-term relationship, rather than a divorce settlement where the parties are going their separate ways with a degree of animosity, as there sadly always is in such situations. When I put this point to the Prime Minister’s chief of staff last week, he admitted that my analogy was not absolutely wrong.
It has become apparent that the UK negotiating team, and thus presumably their political masters, had become victims in some strange way of Stockholm syndrome, where the position of the two teams had evolved over the passage of the snail-like negotiations from being adversaries on opposite sides of the table to being partners setting mutual goals in their slow slog to almost any agreement they could reach.
As we cannot rely on the political declaration, we inevitably fall back on the withdrawal agreement. Both the Attorney-General’s advice and the excellent summary of it given yesterday by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, make it clear—if there was any doubt before—that we will be tied by the backstop until the Commission releases us, which depends entirely on its good will. I have some difficulty in relying on that good will, because there has been precious little of it in evidence to date.
We all know that 52% voted to leave the EU in the referendum and 48% voted to stay, but none whom I am aware of voted to be half in and half out, which is where the Government seem to be inviting us to go. While the alternatives seem equally unpalatable, it is unlikely that another place will vote for a general election. I view a second referendum only as a further abdication of responsibility and a failure of political leadership.
It seems for the most part to be the remainers who lost last time who now seek another vote—obviously because they think they could win it—but, if memory serves me right, they thought that they would win last time too. If they were to have their vote and lose it—after what I dare say would be another ghastly campaign—would it be because the electorate had failed to understand the arguments a second time round? Perhaps they would finally get it right a third time. I do not fear the result but, like the most reverend Primate said yesterday, I dread the process and the effect it would have on an already divided society. I could not support that route.
We are in this position because of a complete absence of political leadership, both in my party and, perhaps even worse but less obviously noticeable away from Westminster, in the party opposite. However, it goes deeper than that. As my noble friend Lord Ridley suggested yesterday, great swathes of the British institutions, the majority of the body politic and the political establishment seem to have fallen victim to the same strain of Stockholm syndrome that has corrupted the Prime Minister and her Brexit negotiating team.
The most damaging consequence of that has been to leave us with apparently only two options: to accept the Prime Minister’s deal—which it is becoming increasingly clear the House of Commons will reject next week—or to “crash out” of the EU, as the BBC so helpfully describes it. Neither of these two options seems particularly attractive. I listened with great interest yesterday to the noble Lord, Lord Owen, championing EFTA, the EEA and what is known as the Norway option. It is certainly better than the other two options on the table today.
I do not recognise leaving the EU on WTO terms as “crashing out”. After all, those are the terms on which we trade with increasing success with the rest of the world beyond the EU, and our trade with them is growing, whereas our trade with the EU is in decline, as is the EU itself. It strikes me that the term “crashing out” is designed primarily to dissuade us from looking too closely in case it turns out to be more attractive than other options.
The Government’s failure adequately to prepare for no deal, which really means a global trade deal or even a “clean global Brexit", makes our departure from the EU more difficult and more likely to lead to a period of disruption. They rightly deserve criticism if they have not made those preparations. It is another area where we have not been given sufficient information on which we can safely rely.
I have no means of knowing how long any disruption might last or how serious it might be, but I share my noble friends’ doubts about Treasury forecasts. I also share the sadness expressed by the noble Lord, Lord King of Lothbury, that the Bank of England’s reputation for impartiality has been damaged by being drawn into this. We have heard repeated scare stories about food and medicine shortages and planes being unable to fly, but people such as my noble friend Lord Lilley, who is sadly not in his place at the moment but whose knowledge and judgment in these matters are far greater than mine, are confident that such claims are vastly exaggerated. Indeed, it is this type of claim and counterclaim that has contributed so much to the difficulty of reaching informed decisions and consequently makes calls for another referendum even more irresponsible. If we have difficulty informing ourselves about these important and complex matters, why would we throw the decision-making at millions of people who have even less ability to get that information and make the right decision?
As matters stand today, the result of the referendum requires us to leave the EU, and we will do so on
As speaker number 91 out of 183, I accept that we are only approaching half-time in this debate. However, unless I have missed something, I have heard an awful lot about how we got into this mess but only two suggested ways forward, assuming that the Government’s deal is rejected next week. It is on those options and any others that might emerge that we should now concentrate.
The past is fascinating, but today it is the future that matters. I recognise that a majority of your Lordships, out of touch perhaps with the British people, do not like it, but our future lies outside the European Union. It is on that future, and making a success of it, that we must concentrate.