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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:09 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 5:09 pm, 9th January 2019

Indeed, if there was a free-trade arrangement, then of course none of what I have said applies. However, I thought the essence of “no deal” was that there would be no deal. Those who advocate no deal and living by WTO rules should be honest about what these rules mean. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, was absolutely right in his description: no deal would be a disaster, and a managed no deal is a mirage.

The second development I want to mention is the Court of Justice’s finding on 10 December, which confirmed that we have an absolute right unilaterally to take back Mrs May’s letter and that this would bring the withdrawal process to an immediate end. The only stipulations are that the two-year period, or any extension of it, must not have expired; that our decision must involve a democratic process, not just an executive act—in other words, Parliament must have voted for revocation; and that the decision must be unequivocal and unconditional, which I assume means we could not withdraw the letter and resubmit it the following day. We could not just do so as a stratagem to reset the clock, undercutting both the two-year limit and the specific provision in Article 50 for securing extensions.

I was not surprised by the court’s ruling, although I admit that I was a little relieved. Had the court reached a different view my credibility might have dropped a little bit, since I have spoken on the subject once or twice before. But my relief must have been trivial compared with that of the Dantons and Marats of the Government Back Bench, who have argued regularly in the House—and a couple of them in the columns of the London Times—that revocation would entail a negotiation. They have warned us down the years that we would lose the Thatcher rebate, or be forced into Schengen or the euro. They must have been hugely reassured that the court confirmed that there would be no negotiation. The terms of our membership would not change and could not be changed to our disadvantage.

This establishes that the country has a third option. We do not have to settle for the Hobson’s choice of the May deal or no deal. There is the option of keeping the deal that we have, secured and improved by successive Governments. Public opinion polls, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, consistently show that that is the will of the people. The margin for months has been 8%. Interestingly, it rises to 16% if you ask people to compare the May deal and staying in, and to 26% if you ask people to compare no deal and staying in. Now that people have the facts and know that we cannot have our cake and eat it—that unicorns do not exist—they can make an informed choice. It is pretty clear what that is.

Of course, putting the question to the country would require an extension of the Article 50 period, but I have yet to meet anyone in Brussels who thinks that an extension for that purpose would be refused. Brexit, though worst for us, is bad for everybody. I would expect objections if we were seeking an extension purely to permit further posturing and prevarication, or further efforts to get the 27 to agree a legally binding text contradicting the legally binding treaty. But an extension to permit consulting the country would be easily obtained. Though, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, I do not relish the prospect of a second referendum, it seems it is now clearly the least worst option on the table.

I support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition. I hope that the Opposition will soon be able to return the favour and support a people’s vote as a responsible way to resolve the deadlock in the other place.