EU Council - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:11 pm on 17th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 7:11 pm, 17th December 2018

Well, my Lords, another Monday, another Prime Minister’s Statement. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for repeating today’s offering, not that it offers very much. Last week, the noble Baroness referred to these Statements as her “weekly treat”, but I doubt that she or the Prime Minister feel the same way today. How relieved they must be that Parliament is not sitting next Monday—as far as we know.

This is not a Statement from the Prime Minister that gives any assurance or confidence that she knows where this is going or, indeed, where she is going. In last week’s Statement, following a weekend of assurances that MPs would vote on Tuesday, the Prime Minister refused to allow MPs to make a judgment on her deal. Rather than face defeat she pulled the vote, citing her wish to go back to the EU, although none of us was really clear what she was trying to get. Was it a change or a clarification? In the end, it was neither. Yet again, it was about her living in the moment, delaying a difficult decision, averting today’s immediate crisis without any credible plan for tomorrow.

So what is today’s Statement about? The Prime Minister has now been forced, at the very last minute, to indicate when the Commons will be able to vote on her agreement, but despite continued efforts to present the vote as a choice between her deal and no deal it remains the case that MPs will accept neither. What are the alternatives? We know that the Prime Minister does not want a further referendum, but I have to say I do not think she understands that the main reason this idea is now gaining greater currency, including apparently in her own Cabinet, is because of the failure of her own leadership. Noble Lords will have seen reports that Mrs May’s chief of staff and her de facto deputy have discussed a further referendum as a means of breaking the current impasse.

Her Statement today, briefed out yesterday, to warn against a further public vote, is yet another example of her attempts to manage her own party rather than delivering for the people and businesses of this country. It is hard to know where her support now is. Despite winning a vote of confidence from her MPs, it is clear that if we assume, as I think we must, that the remaining Government members all voted for the Prime Minister in the secret ballot, she now has the support of only around half her Back-Benchers. All the while, some of her Cabinet colleagues—I use the word loosely—are attempting to take control of the Brexit process amid an unseemly jockeying for position in the chaos that now passes for government.

The Prime Minister cannot expect the world to stand still while she holds on to her deal, fearing its rejection by MPs but allowing nothing else to move on or make progress. It is worth recalling Sherlock Holmes, who said—or had it written for him, I should say—that:

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.

So although the Leader of the Commons will make arrangements for the meaningful vote during the week commencing 14 January, that will be almost two months since the publication of the draft text and a mere 10 weeks until Article 50 expires. Surely MPs should have been allowed to eliminate the impossible—which, as noted earlier, are both the Prime Minister’s deal and the no-deal option—because for the past week the country has been paralysed by Mrs May’s reckless time-wasting. As things stand, this will continue now until the middle of January. We have said for months that parliamentarians should have been involved in mandating the negotiations.

The Education Secretary appears to have been convinced, proposing at last week’s Cabinet conference call a series of free votes to flush out which, if any, majorities exist in the Commons. The International Trade Secretary appeared to agree on “The Andrew Marr Show”, stating that he,

“wouldn’t have a huge problem with Parliament as a whole having a say”,

on what the options were. That may well be the only sensible thing we have heard on Brexit from Liam Fox. The Business Secretary added his support to that suggestion today, but still Mrs May stubbornly ploughs on towards the cliff edge. The public and businesses are desperate for certainty. Last week we saw the announcement of 5,000 job losses at Jaguar Land Rover, with our departure from the EU confirmed as part of the reason. As the deadline looms, others will be making investment plans, or not.

The Statement notes that European Council conclusions are legally binding, but this was not the test that the Prime Minister set herself last week. The Prime Minister says negotiations are ongoing. The Commission disagrees. I have a couple of fairly simple and straightforward questions for the noble Baroness. First, given this pressing need for certainty, with the deadline looming, can she confirm whether, in her opinion, any meaningful change, clarification or progress was secured at the summit? Our view is that it is wrong for the Government to try to stumble into the Christmas Recess without putting the matter to a vote and allowing Parliament to move the process forward. I have to say to the noble Baroness that it really feels now that the Prime Minister is deliberately orchestrating a delay to ensure that there is an irresponsible choice between her deal and no deal.

The noble Baroness heard the truncated debate in your Lordships’ House earlier this month—I know she sat through a very large part of it—and the wide support for the no-deal part of the Motion in my name. She will also be at tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting, where apparently there is to be a discussion about spending an extra £2 billion on no-deal planning. Many in your Lordships’ House will consider this a dire use of taxpayers’ money. Would it not be better to cut that Cabinet debate short and use the time to prepare to get a view from MPs before Christmas on what is impossible, so that the time that remains—the sand is dropping out until the end of March—can be used to achieve something that is possible? Is the noble Baroness prepared to relay such a message from this House to the Prime Minister at the Cabinet meeting tomorrow?