Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:33 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Patten of Barnes Lord Patten of Barnes Conservative 3:33 pm, 14th January 2019

Like others, I return to the scene of the accident to discuss this deal. I do not think that I imagined hearing the Secretary of State for International Trade on the radio this morning say that it was the “least damaging” way of leaving the European Union. I thought that it was a pretty spectacular example of how to pay a compliment.

I will make two points about assurances and two points about threats. I have no difficulty accepting that the backstop is temporary—or that “temporary” is a word in every known European language. I am sure that we can find ever so many examples of the President of the Commission and the President of the Council smothering the word “temporary” in warm milk and honey. That is not really the point. The point was made with pellucid clarity during our aborted debate before Christmas, when my noble friend Lord Howard pointed out that under Article 50 we have the unfettered ability to leave the European Union, but we cannot leave the backstop without the agreement of 27 members of the European Union.

The second assurance touches on that. We are told that we should not worry about the future because everything is taken care of in the political declaration. However, the political declaration is a bucket list. If you look up “bucket list” on the internet, the first thing you get is “abseiling down a waterfall”. At least that is not in it, but everything else we could conceivably want is put into that bucket list—with no guarantee that any of it will be deliverable.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, made a remarkable speech before Christmas about the future of research and science if we leave the European Union under any terms, even with the backstop. There are no guarantees about what will happen to our research community and to universities in the future. That is why all the university leaders have written to us expressing their grave concern about what is happening.

I turn to the threats. The first threat, which has been touched on already, is the suggestion that if we do not accept this less than perfect—I think that is the polite way of putting it—deal to leave, it will be no deal. It will be what the Leader of the House of Commons called—as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, this is a somewhat oxymoronic concept—a “managed no deal”. It will be managed presumably with all the competence we showed in dealing with the change in railway timetables last year; with all the competence, panache and swagger we showed in dealing with a drone at Gatwick; and with the competence we showed last week in managing a traffic jam in Kent—now there is a big thing to do.

I am sure that most members of the Cabinet agree with the Secretary of State for trade and industry, who said that it would be damaging to this country—and I cannot believe that the Prime Minister, too, does not believe that it would be damaging to us. So why on earth are they flirting with it as a way of trying to press us all into doing something which most of us think would be extremely unwise and would keep the debate about the European Union going indefinitely—because that is what the political declaration is all about?

The other threat is the idea that unless we vote for the Prime Minister’s proposal, or leave without it, the country will be divided for the foreseeable future. What the hell do we think the country is at the moment? I have never known it so divided. This is partly because of decisions taken to try to manage members of a part of the Conservative Party, my party, who have for years, with commendable fortitude—although I think they are wrong—worked away to get us out of the European Union. We could deal with the idea that if we vote for this deal on April Fools’ Day people will sit around on the village green singing “Kumbaya” and holding hands—or perhaps, in the presence of the right reverend Prelates, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”—but the idea that this will end the debate is for the birds. I am afraid that this argument will pollute British politics and British society for a long time to come.

As I said, I recognise the fortitude, determination and intellectual honesty of some of my noble friends who have pursued this over the years. They have, to borrow from Iain Macleod, schemed their schemes and dreamed their dreams. But now we wake up to this terrible shambles—never glad, confident morning again. The trouble about civil wars—even civil wars in political parties—is that they do one hell of a lot of collateral damage: in this case not just to the Conservative Party but to the country. I feel passionately that in the days ahead we should do what we can to limit the amount of collateral damage. Even though we cannot do it completely and even though we recognise that there will be an impact on British politics for the foreseeable future, we should at least try to do it in a way that does not make this country poorer or less influential in the world, and in a way which will enable us to look our kids and their children in the eye in the years ahead.