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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 2:32 pm on 6th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 2:32 pm, 6th December 2018

My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in this debate, and sobering to listen to the experiences of noble Lords around the House. I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Smith. She did an outstanding job of explaining the interrelationship between the three elements of that amendment. The withdrawal agreement leaves us stranded neither in nor out of Europe; it denies us benefits and influence but introduces constraints and frustrations. Nor can I support a political statement that offers neither clarity nor certainty about our future key relationships. For example, we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, about the devastating implications for science. These two painfully crafted fudges, to borrow the word from the marvellous speech earlier of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, will not heal divisions. They will make things worse, and they will make us poorer.

I strongly believe that none of the risky choices facing us and that will follow from the vote next week—the day that really counts will be Wednesday—will leave us stronger, safer or more influential, except one. As has always been the case, that is to remain part of the European Union. Just as we now know how much we gain not merely in prosperity—I refer to the speech yesterday of my noble friend Lord Howarth—but in justice, security, safety, opportunity, influence and reputation from being in the European Union. We are now more aware of the ghastly possibilities that would follow a no deal, which should be taken off the table.

There are very few things that we may all be able to agree on in this House, but one might be that the game is well and truly up. We certainly recognise hubris when we see it: the hubris that stares down a Government who claim to act in the national interest—always a slippery term—but who in the past two years have failed in their first principles. The national interest would have been so much better served if the Government had trusted the nation with the truth—about the complexity, the degree of integration, and the complex web of benefits and costs—rather than with what I can only describe as the Ladybird version of Brexit. I can recommend Ladybird’s The Story of Brexit. It should be a Christmas bestseller; it makes everything very clear. To deal in the truth would have taken courage and would have been better, because Governments addicted to duplicity usually die by the same hand.

Until recently, Mrs May was still saying that the terms of Britain’s future trading relationship would be settled by the time of Brexit. That was always nonsense, and the political statement shows graphically how untrue it is. Even at this 11th hour, her letter to the nation, and indeed the Statement repeated in this House, in effect promised an extra £394 million per week for the NHS. The Statement not only inflated the sum on the side of that famous bus but contradicted the judgment of the Bank of England and the Treasury itself that there is no fiscal benefit from Brexit. Their combined evidence shows that real wages will be worse hit than GDP and that the poorest regions, which depend on what is left of manufacturing, will suffer most. There will be two nations: one optimistic and privileged, the other pessimistic and poor. What is needed is not Brexit but a new Marshall plan to restore the vitality and confidence of our entire nation. That is where reconciliation should start.

It is a counsel of perfection to say that it would have been especially in the national interest if the Prime Minister had faced down her rabid Brexiteers, but that challenge—which goes so deep into the psyche of the Conservative Party—has proved practically impossible. But as my noble friend Lord Cashman said, there is no excuse for the Government not defending the judiciary against the tabloid press and making an enemy of Parliament at every turn. The failure to defend our constitutional principles by those who set such store by sovereignty is extraordinary.

The problem is that sovereignty carries its own conditions. In a world beset by rampant nationalism, rogue states, rogue presidents, mass migration and climate change, and where economies and intelligence are so closely integrated, no nation can go it alone. We should recognise this not least in the centenary year of the Armistice, as the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, said.

I am not tempted to vote for the withdrawal agreement on the basis that, if the Brexiteers loathe it, there must be something to commend it; or because, if we do not support it, we will lose control of all the other options. I am listening to what the Chancellor said, and he said that the deal can only make the country poorer. I cannot see that on the side of a bus. That may be one of the reasons why the Prime Minister is so hostile to the idea of an election. The best she has been able to say is that her deal will not make for a better future, only a different one.

The Prime Minister’s deal is one of many options. They all carry risks, some greater than others. The skill is in navigation, clear sight and creating time and space to find the safer and better option. Nothing I have heard in the past weeks in the other place suggests that this deal commends itself to the national interest. I simply do not see—not least having heard the speech of the noble Lord, Lord McCrea—where the basis for another negotiation with Europe might be, given that we cannot change the history or the geography of the United Kingdom.

So if, come next Wednesday, Parliament is gridlocked and a general election cannot be secured, the honourable, logical and legitimate way forward is to assert a set of principles that serve the national interest because they answer the following questions: what is it that will finally draw an indisputable line under the bitter political and parliamentary divisions that Brexit has called up? What will give us the space and opportunity to reflect and take a safer course? What would our friends in Europe be most likely to support us in doing? What would give, in the face of a parliamentary stale- mate, the greatest possible legitimacy and long-term sustainability?

There is only one choice that answers all these questions. Vernon Bogdanor has written that,

“our exit from the EU depends upon the continuing consent of the people”.

We need to ask whether that continuing consent is indeed there. We need to ask the people of this country, who now know so much more about the facts and consequences, whether they still advise that we leave the European Union. There will have to be a proper process. There will have to be time. There will have to be an extension of Article 50, which I am sure the European Union will grant, as many noble Lords have already said. And there will need to be a minimum time to prepare for a referendum on options that are more robust and secure. It will be difficult, but it can be done. It is the safer option and we could all live with it.

I can do no better in conclusion than to quote the arch-Brexiteer David Davis, who said in 2012:

“If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”.

I find myself agreeing with David Davis.