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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:43 pm on 14th January 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Viscount Chandos Viscount Chandos Labour 5:43 pm, 14th January 2019

My Lords, I rise to express my strong support for the Motion in the name of my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon. In doing so, venturing perhaps where angels fear to tread, I will concentrate on its affirmation of the House of Commons’ primacy in determining the matter—and, with that, as my noble friend said in her opening remarks, its right and responsibility to,

“find a way through the current impasse”.—[Official Report, 9/1/19; col. 2228.]

First, on the deal itself, it has been argued that, as it is disliked by almost everyone, this is the result and nature of compromise. Like, I suspect, many of your Lordships, I have voted for the triggering of Article 50 and the withdrawal Act in the expectation that any agreement emerging from the Government’s negotiations would inevitably require significant compromise on all sides, given the multiple contradictions in, particularly, the Government’s original objectives. The breadth of dislike, however, is not itself an indication that it is a good compromise—precisely the opposite. The question is: could there be a better compromise?

Over recent weeks, admiration has also been expressed for the resilience and persistence shown by the Prime Minister in delivering an agreement of any sort while responding to the countless ministerial resignations and challenges to her position. I am sorry to say that my conclusion is that Mrs May is to Prime Ministers what Eddie the Eagle was to Olympic ski jumpers: respected for courage and determination, but a loner who either goes tumbling into a snowdrift or finishes 90 metres behind the other competitors.

It is an extraordinary achievement to have failed so comprehensively to build any form of consensus or co-operation across the parties, particularly when the policy of the Labour Party, succinctly summarised by my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham, hardly presents a yawning chasm to bridge. Would a permanent customs union be a better compromise than what is envisaged by the Government? Yes, without a doubt. Would the adoption of an EEA, EFTA, Norway-plus-based arrangement be better still? Yes, absolutely—without underestimating the challenge of inspiring the necessary degree of confidence in the country at large that, in particular, their reasonable concerns about immigration can be addressed by the safeguarding measures in the EEA agreement. Strong and specific national measures are also needed, such as a migration impacts fund, which was abolished by the coalition Government at a substantially higher level than the Labour Government set it up for in 2009.

The rising cross-party level of support for Norway-plus in the House of Commons, as well as the support for it from prominent Brexiters such as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, is perhaps a cause for cautious optimism. The Members of the House of Commons will of course come to their own conclusions, with your Lordships’—I hope—friendly counsel. How then, can they,

“find a way through the current impasse”?—[Official Report, 9/1/19; col. 2228.]

Even that professional fantasist Dr Fox is predicting that the Government will lose tomorrow’s vote. The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, suggested on Wednesday that the Government should make the vote one of confidence, as did the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. Since his long and distinguished career in the House of Commons, the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act has made that impossible. But he is right: morally, it is a matter of confidence, so I very much hope that my right honourable friend the leader of the Opposition will table an immediate vote of no confidence.

Who knows what the result would be? I am not sure that the confident predictions that Mrs May would survive would necessarily prove correct. Do I believe that a general election would, even with an extension of Article 50, be helpful in resolving the Brexit stalemate? That is far from certain. But under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a general election is called only if no other Government has been formed within 14 days that has been able to win a positive vote of confidence. Surely that is how the House of Commons can best and most effectively assert control. Not by setting up a parallel phantom Government, but by giving its clear support for a defined period to a Government—whether a formal coalition or a minority one—that can take the existing withdrawal agreement and both modify the political declaration, to customs union or Norway-plus, and introduce a cross-party political process for its subsequent implementation.

I recognise that while it is easy to advocate this from the safety and tranquillity of this House, this is a big ask for the Members of the House of Commons. But if they are unable to seize that sort of opportunity, the alternative would inevitability be a general election, and in all probability a referendum after that.