Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:10 pm on 9th January 2019.

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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) 4:10 pm, 9th January 2019

Well, My Lords, here we go again. I often have a sense of déjà vu when it comes to Brexit, but even more so today, as we resume the debate that started before Christmas.

I have to say to the Minister, never before have I heard a winding-up speech open a debate, and there was no clue or evidence that anything had changed since the vote was called. When he makes a reference to “29 March next year,” we know he is reading last year’s speech.

There is only one reason why we were unable to complete the debate last year. The Prime Minister, recognising that she was going to lose by a large margin, stopped Parliament expressing any opinion on the deal she was presenting as the very best she could get, and therefore the only option on the table. Of course it is the best deal that Mrs May is presenting to Parliament—it is the only option she is presenting to Parliament. By the same measure, it is also the worst deal she is presenting to Parliament. Not even her most loyal supporters offer any confidence that this is a good deal, let alone better than what we have now.

There is no glowing praise, no great admiration for brilliant negotiating skills; just a recognition of her dogged determination to get something—anything—that she thinks she can present as a win. Even with time rapidly running out, the Government pulled the vote before Christmas, delaying certainty for individuals, communities and businesses across the UK. They wanted answers, but all they got was a political tactic designed to get the Prime Minister through to the end of last year and the first few weeks of this one.

On Monday, with Mrs May not willing to go to the Dispatch Box in the other place, Labour forced the Government to update Parliament on any progress they had made with the EU, and whether that justified the delay. I listened carefully but, as I said then, I did not hear anything new, and despite this document—belatedly and, I have to say, disrespectfully published today—I have seen nothing new to persuade me that her decision to pull that first vote was anything other than an attempt to buy time.

I have two key questions. Other than seeing off a further leadership challenge by Conservative MPs, what has really changed since the vote was pulled? Do the Government understand the scepticism of many, including business groups—that the delay was just a political ploy to take this decision right to the wire, trying to force through an inadequate deal, knowing that Parliament will simply not support a no-deal outcome?

Media reports suggest that the Prime Minister has told the Cabinet that she expects the deal to be rejected in next week’s Commons vote, but the Government appear conflicted regarding what the consequences will be if the agreement is turned down by MPs. The real Project Fear is Mrs May’s threats of the consequences of rejecting this deal—threats that differ, depending on the audience she is speaking to. Brexit supporters are told that it could lead to the UK’s remaining in the EU; yet those who voted remain are being told to support the deal, or we will just crash out. Both cannot be true. That threat alone is hurting businesses, manufacturing, academia, the City—and it is hurting now.

I tabled a Motion—referred to by the Minister—ahead of the debate in December, and we debated that at some length before the House was adjourned. I am grateful to colleagues across your Lordships’ House for further discussions in recent weeks. Noble Lords will be aware that an updated Motion has been tabled in my name.

Our aim remains the same: to frame this debate around three key issues. The first is to recognise that it is for the House of Commons to determine the matter and find a way through the current impasse. During our lengthy debates on the withdrawal Bill, we were clear that this House should not have a veto on Brexit, and we provided MPs with that meaningful vote. But this House has an important constitutional role: we consider the detail and offer an opinion to the elected House. My Motion allows your Lordships’ House to do just that. The second, and crucial, issue is to ensure that the threat of a no-deal exit—a danger that looms ever larger as a result of the Prime Minister’s actions in the December debate—is emphatically rejected.

As I said last time, while there are some who fondly imagine that the only consequence of no deal is for the UK to step back in time and pick up where we left off more than 45 years ago, the reality is very different. The world outside the EU has not been static, just waiting for us. Much has changed in that time and we cannot reset the clock. This was recognised by MPs in last night’s vote on the Finance Bill—and, indeed, in their vote this afternoon—in dealing with the urgency of the situation we are now in. It is not often that I quote a Conservative MP, but Oliver Letwin spoke for many when he asserted that,

“we will not allow a no-deal exit to occur at the end of March”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/1/19; col. 264.]

Regrettably, and despite the clear advice of your Lordships’ House, rather than ruling out no deal, the Government have stepped up their planning for such an outcome in recent weeks.

The Minister said that he makes no apology for stepping up such preparations for no deal. I think he should make some apologies, because billions of pounds, from the Government and from businesses, have been devoted to these preparations, despite the Chancellor being fully aware of the dire long-term economic consequences that no deal would bring. This week, at the disused Manston Airport, the Government held a much-heralded exercise for a no-deal Brexit in relation to cross-channel transport. It was absolutely farcical. They managed a role play with only 89 lorries, and that included a Thanet Council refuse vehicle. It was certainly far fewer than the intended 150, and a very long way from the thousands of vehicles that currently cross the channel every day. It is little wonder that the managing director of one company, Harrier Express, described it as, a “dress rehearsal for our own execution”.

As my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe noted yesterday, plans to deal with port and shipping capacity are even more inexplicable:

“The Transport Secretary has awarded a £14 million contract to a company with no money, no ships, no track record, no employees, no ports, one telephone line and no working website”.—[Official Report, 8/1/19; col. 2127.]

Chris Grayling really is the gift that keeps on gaffing. Given the incompetence of the Government, it feels at times as if we are living in some tragic comedy. It is so bad it is almost unreal, as though we are living in a Carry On film: “Carry On Brexit”—or perhaps more appropriately, “Carry On Screaming”.

All the while, major legislation remains stalled. In the case of the withdrawal agreement Bill, a piece of the puzzle that absolutely must be in place by exit day, weeks of time for parliamentary consideration has been lost. As we discussed in response to an Oral Question on Monday, piles of statutory instruments are parked on desks across Whitehall, rather than having been tabled for consideration. The Minister boasted earlier this week that there will be only 600 SIs to address. Some of those are believed to be hundreds of pages long. If recent events demonstrate anything, it is that there are absolutely no circumstances in which a no-deal scenario has any benefit for the UK. That is the central point of my Motion, which I will put to the House on Monday.

Thirdly, my Motion expresses an opinion on the agreement before us. As I said earlier, it is not the role of this House to accept or reject the deal—that is for elected MPs—but we can and should express an opinion on the merits, or otherwise, of the deal. We are assisted in this by the excellent report of our EU Committee, for which we should be grateful, and we should express our opinion not by comparing this agreement with no deal, as the Prime Minister is quite desperate for us to do, but by carrying out a forensic assessment of the documents before us and expressing an opinion as to whether we consider them good enough, or not. This political declaration provides no certainty. It outlines a menu of options that may or may not be available in future trade negotiations. So the agreement we are asked to consider represents a blind Brexit with no certainty or clarity for the future.

The Prime Minister asserts that she has the best deal on offer, but that is simply not the case. She may have the best deal that her red lines allowed—even that is debatable—but that is because she chose the wrong red lines before triggering Article 50. The public were literally promised the world: “a truly global Britain” that would have frictionless trade with Europe and boost ties elsewhere. Instead, we seem to have alienated almost everyone.

With just over 11 weeks left, we lack the legal basis required to establish new trade relationships, immigration requirements and food safety standards. Over the next few days, your Lordships’ House will continue to scrutinise these agreements and pass our opinion on them. On Monday, before the House of Commons takes its own binding decision, I will once again ask colleagues to support a Motion standing in my name that has three straightforward and simple points: that we recognise that it is ultimately for the House of Commons to decide; that, crucially and vitally, this House believes no deal can never be an option; and that, even if the UK exits the EU on these terms, it represents a backward step for our prosperity, security and influence.