Further Developments in Discussions with the European Union under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:24 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Goldsmith Lord Goldsmith Labour 3:24 pm, 11th March 2019

Let me be clear: that is not an attack on the Irish—quite the contrary. It is just that the Government have not yet confirmed where the Prime Minister is going—at least, not before I entered the Chamber. Before noble Lords get the wrong idea, when I said “deus ex machina” that was not intended as a compliment to the Prime Minister. The idea of a messenger arriving during a debate is one to which I will return. Of course, noble Lords have been in the position we are in today at least once before. When noble Lords came to debate the terms of the withdrawal agreement on 10 December, the debate was pulled because there had not been the movement the Government were hoping for so that there could be a more productive debate.

Noble Lords might recall that the theatre critic Vivian Mercer famously wrote of Beckett’s two-act play “Waiting for Godot” that, “nothing happens, twice”. Change the name of the principal from Godot to Cox and we could perhaps have a good depiction of what this House and the other place have been enduring. We are still waiting for this change, and the Prime Minister made it clear in a Statement to the other House on 29 January that what would be agreed would,

“involve reopening the withdrawal agreement”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/1/19; col. 678.]

It has been common ground that there needs to be something legally binding to change the status of the withdrawal agreement as it is at the moment. By the way, I add a little poignant note that the theatre review I referred to was published in the Irish Times.

This idea of the theatre of the absurd is not without parallel. The absurdity of where we are at the moment was given a little additional twist when, answering questions in the other place, the learned Attorney-General said that the subject of the discussions he had been having had,

“come to be called ‘Cox’s codpiece’”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/3/19; col. 1109.]

I prefer not to understand what imagery was intended by that phrase—better not to ask. The fact is that noble Lords have nothing but the existing text to debate today.

When the Minister comes to reply, will he be able to tell us whether it is correct that the negotiations involving Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox have stalled and that nothing more will come of that? Will it be the case, as some have suggested, that tomorrow the other place will be expected to look at potential words that might be put to the European Union? In that case, we all need advance sight of those words. Neither the other place nor we can express an opinion on what the effect of those words would be unless we have seen them in advance. I hope it will not be right at the 11th hour. I think the Minister has confirmed—it was a question many were considering—that the meaningful vote will in fact take place in the other place tomorrow. That is good to know. I understood him to say—but will he or his noble and learned colleague please confirm—that the other votes promised by the Prime Minister for Wednesday and Thursday, subject to the votes tomorrow, will go ahead as planned? I see the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, nodding his agreement, and I am grateful for that.

Given that there is so little substance to deal with at the moment, and that we hope to have the opportunity of dealing with it when we actually see what changes there are, I will go back to the theatrical analogy I was drawing before. Noble Lords may also recall that in the play I mentioned, “Waiting for Godot”, the character Boy—who is some sort of messenger, apparently from Godot—enters to inform the two principal characters, Vladimir and Estragon, that Godot could not come that evening but would come tomorrow, “without fail”. When the Minister comes to answer, will he tell us that we will see the new agreement tomorrow, without fail?