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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:56 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Conservative 3:56 pm, 14th January 2019

My Lords, I first draw attention to my interests as set out in the register, in particular as chairman of the British Insurance Brokers’ Association.

It is no secret that I greatly regret the result of the referendum. In common with the Prime Minister, however, I believe it is right that we respect that result. I recall what one of my political colleagues in Bristol, the late Tony Benn, wrote in an open letter to his constituents in January 1975, which was reproduced in the Spectator:

“We should all accept the verdict of the British people, whatever it is; and I shall certainly do so”.

Having found himself comprehensively on the losing side, he was as good as his word even though his views on Europe never changed. I now find myself in an equivalent position. I want to follow up the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln, particularly in his appeal for respect and humility. We must all, however, be increasingly conscious of the real and present danger of a “no deal” or “cliff edge” Brexit on 29 March.

It is possible, perhaps even probable, that the withdrawal agreement and the accompanying political declaration will not be accepted this week. We may not relish that outcome but we must be ready for it. In the space of a week, the House of Commons has effectively indicated on two separate occasions that, in the event of the agreement not gaining majority support, a so-called no-deal Brexit would not be an acceptable outcome. That is why I believe we must now move into the transition or implementation period, in particular seeking to ensure that our financial services sector—which I would argue is the jewel in our economic crown—will continue to enjoy, at the very least, the kind of access to EU markets that it currently enjoys.

One of the most inspirational memories of my lifetime has been the people’s uprising that brought down the Berlin Wall. Even as we leave the institutions of the European Union, let us not—please—get back into the business of building walls. We know where that leads and it is not to freedom.

There is a method, clearly set out in Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, for a nation state to leave the European Union, and it has been followed. This country signed that treaty in good faith and, as is our habit, we have behaved honourably as we sought to disengage ourselves from it. That required us to negotiate with our EU partners, again in good faith, then to come to an agreement that would maintain both trade and good will. That is precisely what the Prime Minister has achieved.

The agreement may not be perfect, but no agreement ever was, is or will be. We hear a great deal of assertion about what the people voted for in June 2016. The fact of the matter is that the proposal on the ballot paper in the referendum was for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union—no more, no less. The leave campaign did not present a detailed manifesto and there was no menu of choices: soft Brexit, hard Brexit or no deal. The agreement secured between Her Majesty’s Government and the European Union is wholly consistent with the referendum result.

The general election in 2017 saw both major parties, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, committed to respecting the referendum result. Both increased their share of the vote substantially; between them, they received over 80% of the total votes cast. None the less, there is a full spectrum of opinion, both here and among the wider electorate, and we must take great care not to exacerbate social and political divisions at this difficult time. In the vile treatment of Anna Soubry and others, we see the consequence of overheated and hyperbolic rhetoric. As the right reverend Prelate said, this is a time for calm reflection, not hysteria, and certainly not antagonism.

The Prime Minister seeks to build on consensus and move on. I believe we should wholeheartedly support her in that. If Parliament rejects the agreement, we are heading into uncharted waters, as my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater reminded us so eloquently at the start of today’s debate. Brexiteers risk losing Brexit. Remainers risk losing everything. This is no time to be playing with fire. In the great British tradition, let us compromise, come together and move on.