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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:18 pm on 9th January 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 7:18 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, I thank the Whips and the usual channels for rearranging and extending this debate to allow the House to offer its advice at a critical time. I only hope that in our own confusion and obvious divisions we can still convey a meaningful signal to another place, but I have my doubts.

As a remainer, I would vote to stay in the EU given half a chance, because it is and was by far the best deal. However, I do not think that chance is on offer, nor do I agree with a second referendum. My noble and learned friend Lord Hope gave us the reasons for this. Even if we had 55% for remain, we would still have nearly half the country up in arms. We surely do not want to waste time going through that process all over again. I was always against the use of the referendum. I follow Lord Higgins in this. He was very clear on the position of even the advisory referendum.

What still beats me is the attitude of the ERG, or those who see themselves as the clean Brexiteers, who seem to think that leaving the EU is as simple as kicking a rowing boat offshore. Those who are not half mad have an exalted sense of their own superiority and, of course, of the purity of their brand, but it is not a brand anyone will follow. Pure brands are unavailable because we have entered a compromise and that means that none of us will get what we want. Perhaps this is why the Brexiteers are now clinging to no deal as a means of jumping off the cliff into what they believe are the waters of free trade.

I would like the PM to survive in the next few days and weeks, because at least MPs are now being given the chance to discuss her offer thoroughly before the meaningful vote or votes take place. Changing the leader is a complete waste of time. I also hope that she retains the support of the many liberal-minded Tories and pro-Europeans who have been tested to the limit by the ERG. The Conservative Party has been divided since 1964 and before that, so there is nothing new there. But I can offer the Prime Minister some advice, if she is listening. She did not get her Dominics quite in the right order: a little less Raab and a larger dose of Grieve and she still might get there on Tuesday. As my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig sensibly said, we need more resolution and optimism, as well as leadership.

What has happened to the idea of the indicative vote, said to be entertained by senior Cabinet Ministers? Was this just a pre-Christmas media spree? Perhaps the Minister could answer this on Monday. It was sensibly proposed by the Institute for Government as a means of identifying the consensus on Brexit. Noble Lords will remember the 2003 Lords reform report, which created a series of seven options on composition. It could be a valuable way through the present labyrinth because it would sound out MPs in a non-binding free vote on the various options for Brexit: the present deal, Norway, Canada, WTO and, as a last resort, Article 50 and the people’s vote. In fact, yesterday’s vote against no deal was an indicative vote. We need more of this to attract people across the floor. We need more cross-party consensus.

The Labour Party is of course in a conundrum because it has no more of a unified policy or leadership than the Tories have. However, there is common ground if only people will cross it. Sir Keir Starmer seems to understand what compromise means and he is sensibly heading for a customs union, which we all know may be the only way to solve the Irish problem. Another general election is surely the last thing we want.

The withdrawal agreement is, thank goodness, accompanied by a political declaration, which at least means that almost anything can now happen during the transition stage, especially if it is open-ended. You could call it a fudge, but it is a well-tried political manoeuvre. It is a fudge because policies of enormous concern to this country are being put on one side to placate Brexiteers. I refer to the outright rejection of the single market and the four freedoms, of institutions such as OLAF and the European arrest warrant, and the CJEU influence on our courts.

We can surely improve on the present deal, as Dominic Grieve has said, but we must also hold on to it. If the Prime Minister can see off the Brexiteers quickly, the political declaration can be given some meaning and all these vital questions can be—will have to be—carefully re-examined over the next two or more years.

As we all know, what business wants is certainty. So do the public. This has been made clear repeatedly in Parliament. We need at all costs to avoid no deal by accepting the withdrawal agreement and moving as soon as possible into a proper, enduring relationship with the EU. As the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, reminded us, whatever we think about the excesses of the EU, we must remember how many policies and standards we ourselves put into it. We must take care not to lose all those elements that we once espoused and with which we can continue to be associated.