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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:21 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley Conservative 9:21 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, as the tail-end Charlie, I will try to keep my remarks short so that we can go home to bed. At the core of this debate lies a very simple question: do we wish to fulfil the wishes of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU and withdraw on 29 March? Obviously, as we have heard today and in preceding days and weeks, some people do not want to leave, period. While I totally disagree with them, I respect their honesty. We know where they stand. They will reject every deal. But if like me, who voted remain, you believe that the referendum result should be honoured, should we agree to this deal?

As we have been hearing, this deal is the result of indecision, muddled thinking and a failure to answer clearly the core Brexit question: what matters more, access to EU markets or parliamentary sovereignty? As a result, we have the backstop—a concept that we should never, ever have agreed to—and a political declaration that still leaves a multitude of questions unanswered. It is a gangplank into thin air, but the direction is a little clearer. We now know that it is attached to port, not starboard.

That said, let us not forget some very basic points about what we have before us. This agreement will ensure that we leave the EU on 29 March. We will then enter a transition agreement, at the end of which we will be out of the EU’s political union. Today’s payments to the EU will stop. According to the political declaration, we would have complete control over immigration. The UK would, it seems, remain close to the EU on the regulation of goods, but we would have more control over our services. The supremacy, but not the entire role, of the ECJ would be over, and we would be out of the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy.

It is a compromise and, unsurprisingly, like most compromises it is disliked by both sides. There is a devil in the detail, but it is a devil we know. The core point is that it means we will leave the EU and enter a transition in just 80 days’ time. Contrast all that and those imperfections with the consequences of rejecting this deal entirely: a growing constitutional crisis, with Parliament demanding we must not leave without a deal; increasing economic turbulence; and growing pressure to have what I believe would be a highly divisive second referendum, or worse still, simply revoking Article 50. Maybe I am wrong and Parliament will suddenly accept the risks of leaving without a deal. Maybe those risks about the impact of no deal are just fear mongering. But on an issue of this magnitude, for me “maybe” and “fingers crossed” are not good enough.

That brings me back to my core point. If, like me, you believe that the imperative is to honour the result of the referendum, is it worth risking this chaos by rejecting this deal? I have a strong suspicion that the majority in the other place are prepared to take that risk, and next week they will reject the agreement as it stands. If this happens, and if the EU still does not budge and change the treaty, what then? If you want to honour the result of the referendum and leave the European Union; if you believe Parliament will defeat a vote of confidence and oppose leaving without a deal; if you agree on these points, then something will have to give here at Westminster so the withdrawal treaty is passed by Parliament. The only way I can see this happening is by building a solid parliamentary consensus around a position for the next phase of the negotiations that finally, honestly and clearly answers that basic question: what matters more, trade or sovereignty?

Given the parliamentary arithmetic, this might well mean acknowledging that the Prime Minster’s red lines—drawn up before the Cabinet had properly considered what it wanted to achieve, and before the Conservatives had lost their majority in the Commons—would now be preventing a deal and putting at risk the democratic imperative: leaving the European Union. There are a number of options being mooted. My preference, under this scenario, would be to be part of a customs union and abide by EU regulations for goods and agricultural products, as this will deliver on the core aim of leave voters—to take complete control of immigration while delivering free and frictionless trade. We would be in, for want of a better term, a common market.

The irony is that the basic building blocks of this position are there in the political declaration. I fully accept that this approach is not perfect. For example, it would probably mean we would be unable to strike trade deals covering goods on our own. But to coin a phrase, we cannot have our cake and eat it. If this deal is defeated next week, if the EU still does not make any concessions, those of us who prefer compromise to chaos and wish to honour the result of the referendum will need to put party interests to one side and put the national interest first, second and third. But as things stand, I support this deal. With all its imperfections, it will fulfil what I see as the democratic imperative: to leave the EU on 29 March and honour the wishes of 17.4 million people.

Debate adjourned until tomorrow.

House adjourned at 9.28 pm.