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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:17 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 5:17 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, I regret that I cannot agree with the concluding words of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, for whom I have, as we all have, great respect and to whom we should always listen with great respect. This has been a remarkable debate so far. There has been one extraordinary suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Howell. I am afraid that my reaction is similar to that of Brenda from Bristol: “Not another one”.

The most important single point that has been made was in the very notable speech of the most reverend Primate, when he reminded us that we are not at the end of the Brexit process. We are not even at the beginning of the end of it; we are at the beginning of the beginning. We have to get on with it. I speak as one who was deeply distressed by the result of the referendum, who believes we are giving up far more than we will be able to retain but who has to acknowledge that a referendum—I do not like referendums—has produced a narrow but decisive result. We have to work on that basis.

I could not take part in the debate in December. I was in hospital, but I was able to follow it at a distance. I talked to doctors and nurses who came to see me fairly regularly, all of whom were extremely exercised by this issue. Those nurses came from Italy, Portugal and Latvia, as well as from the United Kingdom, but they were all united in one thing—they were very concerned about what was going to happen. When you are away from a place, as I was—it was deeply frustrating to be away from your Lordships’ House—you tend to see things from a different perspective: in the words of the great Scottish poet, as others see them.

One thing that perplexed people was all this emphasis on Northern Ireland. I have a great love of Northern Ireland. I had the honour to chair the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs in the other place for the whole of my last Parliament. But we have to remember that in Northern Ireland a significant majority of people voted to remain. Our colleagues from the Democratic Unionist Party should remember that, and take note of what people in Northern Ireland have been saying about the agreement that has been negotiated. Many of them, as we have seen on the television and heard on the radio, say that—as I would say—this is certainly not a perfect deal, but they would much rather end uncertainty and agree it, than do what the DUP want to do. A degree of humility on the part of the DUP would be no bad idea. We all have to recognise that compromise is essential. To those of my noble friends in this House and honourable friends in another who are Brexiteers: it was a narrow victory—a victory certainly, but one that means those who won should look very carefully at the fears and misgivings of those who lost.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, said in his excellent speech that he felt trapped. I know the feeling—it is rather how I feel. I have come to similar conclusions as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. I recognise that leavers cannot dictate terms from the club or institution that they are leaving. But I also recognise that it is completely morally wrong—the most reverend Primate touched on this—to take risks for other people. Take risks for yourself, but not for others. One of the most interesting speeches during the recent Christmas Recess was made last week at the Oxford Farming Conference by the Secretary of State, Michael Gove. He said that no deal would mean great uncertainty, and he even used the word “chaos”, for farmers. I wish he had thought of that two or three years ago. Nevertheless, far better a sinner who repenteth. If he can say that, we have great knowledge that that would be the worst of all outcomes.

We then come to the second referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, spoke in favour of it, and the most reverend Primate did not totally dismiss it. But just look across the road from your Lordships’ House. See the passions that have been aroused over the last two years, and particularly in recent months. See what would happen with another divisive referendum. Reflect on the tactics displayed in that brilliant Channel 4 film on Monday night. If you do all those things and think you are confident that there would be a sweeping victory for what I would consider to be the best outcome, I would say “Think again”.

We have a deal before us. It is not ideal, but much can be developed from it. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, referred to that. I plead with my honourable friends in another place particularly: let us take what we have and build upon it, and not prolong the chaos and division that have done so much to disfigure our country since 23 June 2016.