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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:21 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 4:21 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, it is somewhat odd to be debating an identical government Motion with a month’s gap, during which time, in the Brexit negotiations themselves and despite the announcements the Government have made today, there have been no significant developments whatsoever—a reality reflected in the Commons simply continuing its adjourned debate on the topic rather than having a new Motion or amendments.

There was therefore a temptation to simply repeat the speech I made on 5 December. I was attracted to this option by the true example of a vicar friend of my wife’s who, having preached a sermon on a Sunday morning, found that his colleague who was due to preach at evensong was taken ill during the day. Stepping into the breach and having no time to prepare a second sermon, he simply repeated the one he had given in the morning. He was therefore rather disturbed to see in the congregation one of the churchwardens, who normally only attended in the morning but who had had visitors for lunch who wanted to see the church. At the end of the service, the vicar greeted the churchwarden with some trepidation. The churchwarden approached the vicar beaming. “Another corker, vicar”, he said. It was clear that he had not listened to at least one, and possibly both, of the sermons. But I suspect that your Lordships’ House is somewhat more attentive than the average churchwarden, so I shall repeat neither the speech nor the exact arguments I made a month ago.

The challenge in fashioning another speech, however, is that, as far as the withdrawal agreement and political declaration are concerned, nothing of substance has changed. I am unaware of a single MP who threatened to rebel last time but has pledged to support the Government this time around.

Although nothing has changed in the agreement itself or the views of MPs, this does not mean that nothing has changed beyond Parliament. The first thing that has changed is that the Government have stepped up spending for a no-deal Brexit. Given that the Commons will never vote for a no-deal outcome, as evidenced by yesterday’s vote, the spending of billions of pounds against an outcome that is simply not going to happen was always going to be a colossal waste of public money. But the way in which the Government have chosen to do this has turned mere profligacy into farce.

It was bad enough having a Health Secretary boasting—and I use the word advisedly—that he had spent tens of millions of pounds on refrigeration units. But when the Department for Transport prepares to give £14 million to a shipping start-up that seems to have difficulty differentiating between a roll-on roll-off ferry and a takeaway pizza, things have reached a new low. Having 89 lorries at Manston practise at being a traffic jam is merely the icing on the cake of a litany of episodes which make “Dad’s Army” look like a model of discipline and efficiency. No wonder the rest of the world looks at us today as it does with a mixture of pity and amazement.

Secondly, in the real world, businesses and individuals are making their plans and putting them into effect. Financial services companies have now moved some £800 billion-worth of staff operations and customer funds to continental Europe. The number of staff who have already moved is 2,000 and rising rapidly. Polling of business leaders now shows some three-quarters of them pessimistic about the year ahead, with Brexit by far their biggest headache. This, of course, means lower investment and will eventually lead to fewer jobs. The fact that manufacturing in some sectors is holding up because companies are building up their stocks against the possibility of a no-deal Brexit is at best a temporary relief.

In the public sector, and in the NHS in particular, there is growing evidence that EU workers are leaving or not choosing to come to the UK because of the potential consequences of Brexit. The organiser of a Facebook group of 15,000 Italian nurses working in the UK, for example, estimates that some 10% have already left, with another 10% planning to do so. Given that over one-fifth of London’s nurses are EU citizens, this leeching away of EU staff is already causing problems which the delay in getting to a Brexit decision is only making worse.

Thirdly, because of these real-world developments, people are increasingly saying that they do not trust their politicians to take the final decision on Brexit and that they do not wish to leave the EU. Over recent months, the polls have told a consistent story that a majority of the population now want a referendum and, in such a referendum, a majority would vote to remain. In the latest poll by YouGov, for example, taken over the Christmas break, some 54% said that in a further referendum they would vote to remain and 46% said that they would vote to leave. With every passing day, the demographics are bringing on to the electoral register a group of young people of whom 85% wish to have a future as European citizens. Even groups which have been traditionally hostile to a referendum are changing their minds—the latest being the influential business body London First, which on Monday said that, in the absence of a Commons majority for a Brexit deal, the issue should be put back to the people.

On the basis that the Government’s Brexit deal would make the country poorer, less secure and less influential—arguments that I made last time and I hope I have not repeated today—and in the light of these recent developments, I strongly urge Members of your Lordships’ House to support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith.

While it is clearly for the Commons to decide on the next steps, we should be clear what the options are. The Government’s deal is an option, but it is set to be defeated. No other negotiable deal is available, despite the probability that the Prime Minister will respond to a defeat next week with yet another futile trip to Brussels in search of unicorns.

Crashing out is a theoretical option, albeit one of a kamikaze nature, which the Commons has already, in effect, rejected. As the ECJ ruling on 10 December proved, this is not an inevitability if the Government’s deal is rejected. We have the sovereign right as a country to unilaterally revoke our Article 50 notification. Talk of crashing out by accident is nonsense. It could only happen if the Government chose to do so and the Commons agreed.

A general election is an option, but this would itself solve nothing and serve only to split Labour and the Conservatives further.

Going back to the people with a chance to remain in the EU is an option. As the House knows, the view on these Benches is that this is the best—