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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:56 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Kinnoull The Earl of Kinnoull Crossbench 6:56 pm, 14th January 2019

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow my titular neighbour, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone.

As someone with no dietary requirements, on any cafe or restaurant menu there is invariably for me more than one right answer. On the Brexit menu before us today, however, there is less than one right answer. Thus I find myself in that same maze that my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead described in his speech of 5 December, which has been referred to many times in our five days of debate. Other than accepting the deal on offer, I agree with him that there are three ways out of the maze: no deal, go back to the people or seek to renegotiate. Having spent a career assessing risk, I naturally look at each of these three routes through those spectacles.

The EU Select Committee examined the no-deal option in exhaustive detail and published a report in December 2017. Our report was unanimous and concluded that the outlook following a no-deal Brexit was full of risk. I do not have time to develop the point as others have done in our five days of debate, but, to me, this route looks to represent an unacceptably high risk of significant economic damage, particularly for the trade-in-goods part of our economy. In saying that, I accept there is a line of logic that suggests that mini deals would be done in a no-deal situation to ameliorate matters. That can, and does, reduce some risk, and I feel I have taken account of it in reaching my conclusions.

The second way out of the maze is to go back to the people. As a Scot, I am a veteran of two recent referenda. They are deeply divisive of our community and fraught with bad behaviour on the part of the campaigns themselves and their supporters too. In the Scottish referendum, there was much low-level criminal damage, intimidation and dreadful cyberactivity, to finger only some of the unsavoury elements. In the EU referendum, feelings also ran very high, with many families and friendships riven.

In his speech on 5 December, the most reverend Primate talked of the importance of healing, and last week spoke of the need for reconciliation. In both instances the whole House agreed with him. I fear that another referendum stands a substantial chance of seeing considerable unrest and the opening and reopening of many awful wounds—Anna Soubry MP got a personal gypsy’s warning of this, which reached the front page of the Times last week. In any event, I agree with the many noble Lords who have suggested that such a referendum is unlikely to settle the issue permanently.

The third way out of the maze is to seek to renegotiate. At the start of November, the Select Committee visited Brussels for two days, immediately before the announcement of the potential deal. As ever, we met substantially all the various interlocutors whom we had got to know through the process. I had the strong impression that both sides were at their limits and that the appetite for further negotiations was very low. In addition, the apparatus that the EU negotiates through is very clunky. Behind Monsieur Barnier is a committee structure which involves all the EU 27. We sat through a lengthy meeting with that committee’s secretariat and learned through practical examples of the great difficulties and sheer length of time it takes to achieve consensus on even small issues among the EU 27. We are, therefore, out of both negotiating time and negotiating appetite. Accordingly, there is a strong likelihood that an attempt at a substantial renegotiation will make little, if any, significant change and push us towards no deal.

However, during that same Brussels trip I was much encouraged by our lengthy visit to the Canadian embassy. They told us how they were already making small incremental and mutually beneficial changes to their brand new treaty agreed only in 2017. We had a similar report from a very senior Swiss official at an informal meeting in London the following week. Both commented that concluding a treaty was not the end of the matter but the start of a conversation. I fear the backstop less than many because of those two sessions. Thus, at the start of December I felt that the correct route was to accept this pretty unpalatable deal. It represented the lowest risk to the UK, our fellow citizens’ lives and jobs and the 3.5 million EU citizens living among us. But the Prime Minister seems likely to face defeat tomorrow so, accordingly, I will comment briefly on how one might conduct a renegotiation which stood some chance of succeeding.

It seemed to me in early December, and still today, that there would have to be a strong body of agreement among MPs on the ask—and that that ask must be simple. In cricket, or at least junior cricket, the wicket-keeper is covered by the backstop. The backstop is covered by a longstop, the date after which the backstop would fall. I am sure a winning, simple ask might be found in that thought. In this, I am encouraging the Prime Minister to have another go following today’s exchange of letters. I would also say, just out of interest, that most insurance policies that I have ever been involved in have had a cancellation provision.

On a serious point, I would submit to the EU that in a no-deal situation the economy of the island of Ireland would have a very high risk of significant damage; that would itself threaten the Good Friday arrangements; and that, accordingly, such a longstop was thus more consistent with the Good Friday arrangements. Going into any negotiation, however, is still jettisoning the bird in the hand, and from the menu with less than one right answer I think we should take this deal.