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Leaving the European Union - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:58 pm on 21st January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 6:58 pm, 21st January 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. I concur at the outset with the Prime Minister’s comments about Northern Ireland. It is an ongoing situation. As a former Minister in Northern Ireland, I know the impact that this will have on local communities. With all the work that has gone in over the years to bring peace to Northern Ireland, this will be devastating to so many. It proves how right it was that, across both Houses and across all parties, people worked together to get the Good Friday agreement and bring peace and stability to local communities.

We requested that this Statement be taken earlier in the day and that the time for Back-Bench contributions be extended. I am sorry that the Government were unable to accept that and rejected that request. However, after reading the Statement, I think I understand why. There is not much that is new or of any real substance. The Prime Minister made her Statement today as a direct result of Dominic Grieve’s amendment, which accelerated the timescales previously laid down in legislation, giving her three days to respond to the decision of the House of Commons.

This Statement is another reminder for your Lordships’ House of the value of the meaningful vote provisions in the withdrawal Act, which originated from an amendment passed in your Lordships’ House that required the Prime Minister to return to Parliament if her proposed deal—her “plan A”—was defeated. It was—overwhelmingly. But while Brexit remains Brexit, plan B does not mean plan B. It does not even look like an A+, perhaps more like an A-.

Following a historic and unprecedented defeat for the Prime Minister’s agreement, Mrs May offered to talk to MPs from all parties, with the Government approaching those meetings in what she called “a constructive spirit”. Yet it appears that the constructive spirit lasts only as long as it takes to agree with the Prime Minister. Despite having been challenged by the parliamentary leaders of all opposition parties—excluding the DUP, of course—to take a no-deal exit off the table, Mrs May has held firm and refused to do so.

We know that, under Article 50 and the withdrawal Act, no deal is the legal default, but the Government can change that. The Prime Minister should certainly acknowledge that it would be a calamitous outcome for the UK and therefore that it is of no value at all as a bargaining position. If the threat of a no-deal exit was being used by Mrs May to shore up support for the plan A deal, it was a spectacular misjudgment and failure. She rightly promised a change of approach, including a greater role for Parliament in setting the mandate for future trade negotiations. But, once again, within days we find out that nothing has changed. The Prime Minister said in her Statement that she had,

“listened to colleagues across Parliament from different parties and … different views”.

She might have listened, but she is clearly not truly hearing what people are saying.

A constructive spirit means willingness to compromise from all parties. In any negotiation that must be the starting point or there is simply nothing to be gained. It is no good the Prime Minister meeting the hardliners in the European Research Group and the DUP while sending her de facto deputy and her chief of staff to meet others on the other side of the argument. It is no good ruling out an option—an EU-UK customs union—that the Opposition support and the EU appears to be willing to negotiate while continuing to risk a chaotic no-deal exit that would leave citizens, businesses and communities with no certainty whatever.

Yet, rather predictably, the Prime Minister has today presented a so-called plan B that, as I have said, looks extraordinarily similar to her plan A: go back to Brussels for further talks, even as the clock ticks down; ask again for concessions on the backstop, even though the EU has been clear that it is not up for renegotiation; and then blame others for holding up Brexit, even though it is the Government who have negotiated an agreement that has been comprehensively rejected by all parties. In this House, we passed a Motion by an overwhelming majority, believing that the agreement would weaken our prosperity, security and global standing.

I do not know whether the noble Baroness can confirm this, but according to media reports on Friday Mrs May held a series of crisis phone calls with EU leaders, including Chancellor Merkel, in the wake of her historic defeat. Despite her offer to hold talks with opposition parties and build a cross-party consensus behind a new deal, EU diplomatic sources said that the Prime Minister’s demands were in fact completely unchanged—something that was “greeted with incredulity”. She has clearly made a conscious decision to reject common-sense solutions that could bring politicians and voters of all colours together in order to have another attempt at securing concessions and assurances that she has already failed to win back in December. It appears that this is simply an effort to keep her premiership alive—or, if not alive, at least on life support.

The Prime Minister ignores at every step of this process the fact that her hardliners have shown that they will not be swayed. They have undermined her authority at every turn and taken her right to the brink. Their opposition to the deal is as strong as Mrs May’s stubborn determination not to cede any ground to others, even if this could gain wider support and prevent a no-deal or a blind Brexit. This was highlighted at the weekend when a former Downing Street adviser was asked by Andrew Marr whether he had ever seen Theresa May compromise. His response? “I can’t think of one off the top of my head”. In other words, everyone—the Opposition, the EU 27, Cabinet members and Back-Benchers alike—has to shift position: everyone except Theresa May. That is no way to run a Government or a country and it is no way to conduct one of the most important and complex negotiations that a UK Government have ever participated in. If the Prime Minister’s objective is to deliver a Brexit that can bring the country back together, I have to say to the noble Baroness that that approach is doomed to failure.

While I disagree with much of the Prime Minister’s approach on Brexit, I welcome the clarity offered on the Good Friday agreement. I am sure I am not the only noble Lord who was concerned—we heard earlier that many noble Lords were—by the comments reported over the weekend. It surely must always be inconceivable that the Government would seek to reopen that agreement as a way of trying to break the impasse on the EU issue. Doing so would be completely unacceptable. It will be good if the noble Baroness could reinforce that in her comments.

I also welcome Mrs May’s announcement relating to the waiving of fees for EU citizens applying for settled status. That is another issue on which your Lordships’ House spoke early in the Brexit process and the Government should have acted months ago. We also welcome the commitment that we have asked for before that Ministers will brief Select Committees in confidence, rather than the only option being for MPs to force an issue by action on the Floor of the House of Commons. Could the Leader of the House confirm that this briefing will extend to our own EU committees and that they will also be briefed in confidence? I welcome the belated recognition that the Prime Minister needs a negotiating mandate from Parliament.

With each Statement and each vote, we continue edging towards 29 March and the disaster that would be no deal. I have a couple of questions for the Leader of the House. First, if, when the House of Commons has its debate next Tuesday, it instructs the Government to take a no-deal outcome off the table, how will the Prime Minister respond?

Secondly, however Mrs May responds to next week’s Commons votes, can the Leader of the House confirm that there will be the opportunity to consider the outcome in your Lordships’ House? I know that a formal Statement will be repeated, but she will recall that last week the Prime Minister made a point of order at the end of business. However the Statement is made, it would be helpful if this House could consider the outcome and Mrs May’s comments.

Finally, with so few legislative days available between now and 29 March, will the Government build on their commitment to engage with Select Committees and release the relevant clauses of the draft EU withdrawal agreement Bill to the Constitution Committee to enable some form of pre-legislative scrutiny? When the noble Baroness comes to answer those questions, I urge her to bear in mind her oft-repeated assurance that the Government are planning for all eventualities. As always, the House remains ready to be helpful to the Government, but we have stressed time and again that that can happen only if we have the relevant information at our disposal.