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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:14 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hutton of Furness Lord Hutton of Furness Labour 8:14 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, I shall certainly be supporting the Motion in the name of my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition. We have heard some excellent speeches on all sides of the debate this evening, but I will add one or two thoughts of my own. I know it has often been said of these debates that everything has already been said but not everyone has said it, so I will take my ha’porth now and add a few thoughts on this extremely challenging moment for our country.

It is true that our country and our Parliament are more divided and polarised today than at any time in living memory. Our politics have never been as toxic. I am not sure we have faced a graver or more serious challenge to the future of our country and its prosperity in the last 50 years than we do today. In short, we are in a hell of a mess. We do not have to look very far for the reasons. The 2016 referendum was both a triumph of democracy and a colossal failure of democracy. It was a triumph of democracy in that it produced a huge participation rate and turnout. Hundreds of thousands or millions of people voted who do not normally vote, and that is an amazing thing. But I fear that it was also a serious failure in our democracy. Many people were seriously misled about Brexit, and the advocates of the UK remaining inside the European Union ran an entirely negative and inevitably doomed campaign.

So how can we bring ourselves back together? Can we do that? I think it is clear to all who have taken part in this debate and have watched the news and followed events in the last few months that we will not be coming back together as a country under the terms of the Prime Minister’s agreement. That is pretty clear. She has at least managed to unite Brexiteers and remainers in opposing it. Sadly, the agreement reflects many serious errors of judgment, negotiations and communications. It has inevitably led us to this low point in our history. Invoking Article 50 when we did, with no plan and very little planning, was one of those mistakes. Her speech to the Tory conference in 2016, her later Lancaster House speech and her red lines—which effectively prioritised the ending of free movement over every other objective—were catastrophic errors. There has been a complete failure—we have heard a repetition of that today—to understand the perspective of other member states of the European Union in this process. We have been living in cloud-cuckoo-land. These are huge errors for which, I am afraid to say, the Prime Minister cannot escape criticism. I believe she has pandered throughout to what the Chancellor of the Exchequer recently called the “extremists” in her party, and it is now far too late to stand up to them.

There could never be any such thing as frictionless trade if we were to leave the European Union and refuse to accept free movement and the jurisdiction of the European court. We chose to believe something else—that the European Union would eventually concede to everything we wanted if we simply refused to budge. This is the Davis-Johnson strategy, and it was pitifully inept. When this strategy failed, the inevitable compromises enshrined in this agreement were seen by the extremists as a betrayal. What a farce. A no-deal Brexit championed by the ardent Brexiteers would effectively involve a British Government reneging on their clear legal commitments under existing EU treaties and breaking the Good Friday agreement. This is absolutely unthinkable.

The Government’s fundamental problem is this: the Prime Minister, who we all wished well in these negotiations, is now trying to appeal very late in the day, at the last possible moment, to the centre ground—to people like me, who wanted to respect the outcome of the referendum but who want us to leave on the best possible terms. Sadly, her scorched-earth policies have destroyed that centre ground.

Now that we have all digested the terms of the Prime Minister’s agreement, at least 21 months of voiceless rule taking leading, at best, because of her red lines, to what can only probably be described as a bog-standard free trade agreement at some indeterminate time in the future, it just does not represent a good enough deal. We remain, sadly, as divided as ever. Exhortations for us to come together will not work because this deal is not good enough.

It is pretty clear to all of us, and I am sure we know this in our hearts, that the Prime Minister will have to put a different policy to the House of Commons if she seriously wants an agreement to leave the European Union to be accepted. There is no alternative in front of us, so I think the Article 50 process will have to be suspended. If she cannot get House of Commons agreement for a deal, I see no other option than a general election or a second referendum. That will not be straightforward. Ivan Rogers said quite rightly in his excellent speech at Liverpool University that there was nothing likely to be more toxic for British politics than a second referendum. He might be right that there would be nothing more toxic than a disorderly Brexit.