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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:48 pm on 6 December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Crossbench 1:48, 6 December 2018

My Lords, after nearly 30 months since the referendum of June 2016, out of the mists of uncertainty there now loom the withdrawal agreement and political declaration agreed by the Prime Minister with the EU. I greatly respect the Prime Minister’s concentration on reaching an agreement and her steadfastness under fire. There has been nothing like it since the charge of the Light Brigade.

If the House of Commons approves the agreement, the way will be clear for the UK to leave the EU on 29 March next, though there will follow a period of uncertainty and discussion about the outcome that will continue to dominate and distort public debate. If the other place does not approve the agreement, there is hardly time before 29 March for a renegotiation even if the EU were willing to co-operate in such a process. We should probably have to seek agreement to defer the date of withdrawal while further negotiations were carried on.

The Prime Minister has told us—she has done so again this morning on the radio—that the choice we now have to make is between her deal, no deal and no Brexit. If her deal is rejected, we are left with a choice between no deal and no Brexit. Leaving the EU on 29 March with no deal would, I think we all agree, be an economic, social and political catastrophe in the short and medium term, and would probably have lasting consequences for the longer term. It would bring closer the prospect of the break-up of the United Kingdom. The economic consequences of withdrawing on the terms now negotiated by the Prime Minister would be much less adverse than those of coming out with no deal but still more adverse than the economic consequences of remaining in the EU.

The forecasts and scenarios which point to these conclusions are of course no better than the assumptions on which they are based. But they are reasoned predictions by responsible authorities. All the Brexiteers can do is to scream “Project Fear”. They do not have reasoned counterpredictions of their own to support the case for leaving the EU. As one commentator put it recently, the Brexiteers encourage us to charge over the top, with no idea about what is on the other side.

The Prime Minister’s agreement seeks to reconcile three logically irreconcilable objectives: to take us out of the European Union; to maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom; and to preserve the Belfast agreement and the frictionless, soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The means by which it seeks to do so is a fudge. Like most fudges, it would come unstuck under pressure. If maintaining the integrity of the United Kingdom and preserving the Good Friday agreement are objectives of the highest priority, which we are not prepared in any circumstances to compromise, as they should be, then we have to consider the implications of that on the objective of leaving the EU. The Prime Minister’s deal fails both on the economic ground and on the ground of its implications for the integrity of the UK.

A long time ago when I was young, I was advised that when you do not know what to do, the best thing to do is probably nothing. The option of remaining in the EU is not just the least worst option open to us; it would be the right choice for us. If the choice must be between no deal and no Brexit, how should such a decision be made? Can it be made, as it should, in the traditional constitutional way by a vote in the House of Commons? Or does there need to be a second referendum, either to confirm the result of the first or to provide a mandate for reversing it?

The Prime Minister has said that there will be no second referendum. Referenda are alien to our system of representative democracy and are an unsatisfactory way of resolving complex issues. But we had one in June 2016, and I do not think that it is undemocratic to believe that the British people are entitled to be given the opportunity of changing their minds, if they wish to do so, in the light of all that has happened and become known since June 2016.

I also suspect that most of the British public are bored stone cold with Brexit, and would like to see it go away altogether. A second referendum may be the best way— perhaps the only way—of achieving that. At least it would establish a greater degree of certainty about the direction in which we should be going.