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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:52 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Mallalieu Baroness Mallalieu Labour 7:52 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, I have a clear impression that the country outside Parliament is totally fed up with Brexit. They just want us to get on with it. They are fed up with the scare stories, they are fed up with the threats and the hand-wringing, they are fed up with the uncertainty, and they are totally sick of those who, after having agreed that the result of the referendum must be respected, persist in trying to poke sticks in the spokes of legislative progress.

Surely the time has come now, in this House and of course in the other place, to look for solutions and not just to create and look for further problems. I wholly agree with two out of the three parts of the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition. The Commons will determine this matter on Tuesday if it is allowed to vote. Mrs May’s proposed deal simply will not do. It is not even a compromise; it is a capitulation with a wish list attached. Not only is it a recipe for prolonged uncertainty, as the Attorney-General’s advice—of which we have seen only a snippet—made clear, it puts us in a substantially worse position to conduct negotiations on the items in the wish list in the future.

I wish the Prime Minister the very best of luck in trying to secure some improvements, but if she thinks some nebulous reassurance about the Northern Ireland backstop will do the trick, she is going to have to think again.

On the second part of the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, which calls for a rejection of a no-deal outcome, I regret that I cannot agree. That surely is precisely the mistake which our negotiators made at the very outset of these talks. For any successful deal, you do not rule out at the outset walking away with your money. A negotiated clean break may still prove to be our best option or, indeed, our only one.

Where do we go from here? Please do not let us go to another referendum. Surely democracy works only if, having given the electorate a role on an issue, both sides agree to respect and implement the decision. If you reject a democratic mandate, you both fuel contempt for politicians and, much more seriously, undermine democracy. I know another referendum is, for some people, a last straw to grasp at in the hope of a different result but, whatever the result, the present problems would be worsened. If it was a vote for leave, we would be back trying to negotiate with the Commission with no reason to think that it would have softened in the least. If remain, we would set in concrete the current resentment and divisions and herald the start of an even less pleasant campaign, of which the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York has, I think, correctly warned elsewhere.

Despite the touching faith in polls shown by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, I suspect that the result would likely be the same, despite a campaign of fear. There are three reasons for this. First, there is no indication that 17.4 million electors who voted to leave now want to be part of a single European state with its own army. Yet that is the direction of travel in which Monsieur Juncker and the Commission are driving the train at speed. Secondly, during the recent negotiations, neither he nor Monsieur Barnier, who have been the face of the EU over the past two years, has endeared himself to the British people. Thirdly, as has already been said, the EU has itself changed since the referendum. Many of us now look with increasing concern—as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, pointed out—at some of what is happening in France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain, Poland and beyond, which is alarming. The Commission appears to have no answers—if, indeed, it is even listening.

History has shown time and again that, when politicians stop listening to people, people turn to extremes. A better deal seems unlikely, much as we would all wish it, so it must be right, surely, to intensify the preparations here and the discussions with the EU and the individual states to overcome the immediate difficulties and inconveniences. I do not make light of them at all. We are trying to extract tentacles which have forced their way into the way we run our country for many years. I do not criticise the money by which the Government propose to make sure that we are ready for what is going to happen on 29 March.

Surely the time has come for us to set our own agenda and timetable and not ask the EU’s consent—to spell out in terms what we are going to do here, albeit for a limited period, during which a long-term agreement can be reached with the Commission on Mrs May’s wish list. We should be generous with the terms of trade with the EU—no tariffs, no hold-ups at our end, generous arrangements for EU citizens here, and an immigration policy which ensures that our health service, our agriculture and industries which need seasonal workers can get them in. I understand that the Government have started to do this, and I applaud them for doing so. They will need to do it with greater intensity and more publicly before 29 March, and indeed they would be rightly condemned if they were not spending money now to do so.

The time has come to look for the solutions. The electorate has asked this Parliament to make changes to our relationship with the EU. Whether we like them or not, surely it is time now to show courage and not to retreat or try to cop out with a further referendum. Brexit can and, I believe, will be a success, but it would be greatly helped if the vast experience in this House was turned to lending a hand to create and embrace new opportunities and to retain the good bits of the EU—there were some—instead of simply trying to capsize the boat.