My Lords, I was hugely disappointed when we aborted this debate a month ago to allow time for clarification, and I am relieved that things are now so much clearer.
There is still a fundamental problem with the withdrawal agreement—it is not really an agreement at all. It is a laundry list, work in progress, things to be discussed. Of course, we are told that it will be sorted over the next couple of years through “best endeavours” with the other side. But it is worth asking: “Who will the other side be?” We concentrate on ourselves; it is necessary to look across the channel.
In May, there will be EU elections, when a significant number of the current fleet will disappear beneath the waves. There will be no President Juncker. My heart breaks, but he will be gone in a few months, and his Commission with him. It is enough to bring a tear to a Brexiteer’s eye. So who will be left? Who will we be able to rely on for those best endeavours to bring about a deal? The fact is that we have no idea with whom we will be dealing or what we can expect. This non-agreement does not allow us to take back control. It is a leap in the dark.
The EU itself is in a dark place; it has its own distractions. Brexit is not its only challenge. There is the cruel chaos of Greece; the crisis hovering over Italy; the smoking streets of Paris; the fading of Mrs Merkel, and all the rest. It is not a happy place. It has its own mess to sort. Why should it bother with Britain? Promises about best endeavours on all sides simply are not enough.
If not this agreement, then what? As Sherlock Holmes once said, once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains must be the truth. What remains, dear Watson, is no deal. It is preposterous, of course—everybody says so. But so much of Project Fear is pure fantasy—scenarios which no one wants drawn in black and white. Have we forgotten how to dream in colour; how to create an understanding and a painting on many layers? No deal is made to sound like a cross between the Berlin airlift, the three-day week and a miners’ strike all mashed together. I have to remind your Lordships, we survived all those. There is a lot of backbone in Britain.
I commend to your Lordships the elegant analysis just produced by my noble friend Lord Lilley. It covers the downsides and upsides of no deal. He had hoped to be here today to present his case in person, but sadly found it impossible. What makes it all the more important is that those who are still able to open their eyes should at least read it. It is detailed, authoritative and absolutely required reading.
We must, of course, be ready for no deal but personally I want a deal—not this one, but one that does not rip my country in two. The EU itself does not want a no-deal scenario, and that is an important point. I have a suspicion that the very prospect of no deal might prove the catalyst for that elusive new deal that everybody talks about. Perhaps it will be something like the Canada-plus-plus-plus deal that Mr Tusk has suggested, but it will be somewhere between what we have now and no deal.
Ah, but what about the Irish border? A couple of days ago, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said something rather interesting. He said that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, they—meaning us—would,
“still be aligned on customs and regulations. So the problem would only arise if they decided in some way to change their customs and regulations”.
And of course we would decide to do that, at some point, but it would be in consultation and not confrontation, doing our best to minimise any difficulties for our friends. I know that that means more negotiations, but this time we would be negotiating from a position of strength, not stuck in some ball-breaking backstop. No one—not the Irish, not us—is ever going to build a hard border; it is just not going to happen. There will be no cliff edge; more a hill to climb. It is not a risk-free scenario, but surely we have not completely lost the art of stretching our imaginations along with our ambitions. What a prize it would be to be back on working terms with our friends and neighbours, having delivered on the instruction we were given by the people to take back control.
This country is engaged in an historic struggle to test the proposition that it is possible, peacefully and democratically, to withdraw from the European Union. There is no remainer solution to that challenge. If we fail, what trust remains in our political institutions could be destroyed, the weeds of extremism will flourish and the consequences for our democracy will be potentially catastrophic.