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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:56 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench 6:56 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, if we take the period from the start date of the EU referendum campaign to the end date of the implementation period—if the Government’s proposed deal goes ahead as planned—the whole Brexit process will have taken close on five years. That is five years in which Brexit has completely dominated the political debate in this country to the exclusion of almost every other important issue. It is sobering to ask what we will have to show for investing so much of our collective effort into this one issue: a more divided country, a weaker economy, a fractured politics and a much less influential role in the world. I find it hard to think of a more dispiriting period for Britain in its recent history.

The Second World War lasted six years and left an utterly devastated Europe, but out of that war came a new economic, political and social order. Does anybody really think that we can have the same sense of optimism about what will come out of Brexit? I say “if” the current deal goes ahead as planned because there is every prospect that it will be voted down when the Commons votes next Tuesday. Even now, we do not know what concessions the Government might scramble to secure in the final days before that vote but, as things stand, the Government will be defeated and, in my view, they deserve to be defeated. The deal negotiated is not an acceptable basis for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.

The objections to the deal have been well rehearsed in this House today—and indeed on other days—and elsewhere, so I do not need to repeat them all here. Put simply, it concedes too much power now and leaves too much to be resolved for the future. I did not personally feel comfortable with the use of the term “appeasement” by the former Governor of the Bank of England, the noble Lord, Lord King, but there is no doubting the sense of defeat here. It is hard to see this deal as worthy of the sixth largest economy in the world.

The Government’s defence of the deal has focused less on the merits of the deal itself and more on the potentially dire consequences of the alternatives. On the risks of a no-deal Brexit, I would agree with them. Much of the debate on a no-deal exit has been on the immediate disruptive effects and the state of our preparations to handle them. This is indeed a real issue, and I have argued before that preparations would have needed to start a lot earlier, and a lot more money spent, for us to be confident about our ability to manage this effectively.

However, by far the bigger issue is the risk of an economic shock at a time when the global economy is faltering and the UK economy is fragile. The Global Economic Prospects report by the World Bank, published today, makes sobering reading. While I can see the attraction for ardent Brexiteers of a clean break—in one bound we are free—the risks of a severe economic shock are simply too great to contemplate.

I observe that the most prominent advocates of the no-deal option are what I would call people of means—people who are able to manage the economic consequences whatever they are. Some can even decamp to their homes on the continent if the going gets really rough. Most of the population of this country are not in this happy position. Our primary concern should be with the economic interests of those people and we should not be putting their livelihoods at risk. I say to those who advocate a no-deal Brexit that simply putting the word “managed” in front of the words “no deal” does not change the level of risk by one iota. So, I support the amendment and I will vote for it on Monday night.

If you eliminate the current deal and no deal, there are two potential ways forward: to go back to Europe and seek to renegotiate a very different deal, or to have a second referendum. These are not mutually exclusive options. Both would require a significant extension or revoking of Article 50. At the very minimum, the Government must recognise the reality that if they lose next Tuesday there must be an extension of Article 50. Not to do so at that point would be a complete abdication of their responsibilities. Even if the deal were agreed next week, the timescales for passing the remaining legislation are extraordinarily tight. Further delay following a defeat would make them impossible.

If we seek an extension to the timetable on Article 50, we will need a clear reason for doing so. In my view, the clearest and best reason would be to hold a second referendum. I did not start out with this view at the beginning of the process but the grievous misjudgments by the Prime Minister along the way, and the unpalatable choices now facing us, make it the only plausible option. It has significant difficulties, but I do not buy the apocalyptic predictions of some Ministers. It is perfectly reasonable—indeed, not uncommon —in countries where referenda are more regularly used to give people the opportunity to express a second opinion. We are a parliamentary democracy. It is not an insult to the British people to ask them to look again at the choices now that we know the tangible options rather than the theoretical ones we were presented with at the time of the referendum. The bigger insult would be to suggest that their view would remain rigidly the same regardless of what we have learned since.

The most recent YouGov poll, reported in the Observer at the weekend, suggests that, faced with the current choices, people would now vote to remain. But that is not the main issue. Those campaigning for a second referendum, whatever their individual reasons for doing so, are fundamentally right on one key point: Parliament is at an impasse and it is time to let the people decide.