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 3:48 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley Conservative 3:48 pm, 11th March 2019

My Lords, I start with an apology, as my remarks are grouped around three of the most irritating phrases in the English language: “I told you so”; “I would not have started from here”; and—a newcomer that the noble and learned Lord just mentioned—“Nothing has changed”.

I shall start with “I told you so”. Exactly three months ago, I warned that, if the Government’s deal were rejected, they would win a vote of confidence, the EU would refuse to make any meaningful concessions on the backstop, Parliament would then attempt to block no deal and we would land up in a constitutional crisis, fuelling economic uncertainty and putting in doubt whether the UK would leave the EU at all. I told you so. There are many reasons why we have landed in this chaos, but the main ones are these: the lack of honesty from the start about the choices we face; there being no clarity as to what is more important, trade or sovereignty; the Government losing their parliamentary majority; and their failure to prepare effectively for no deal.

I should like to focus briefly on that last point. Last month, the Government published a report on their preparedness for no deal, which said:

“In December 2018, the Government took a decision to make preparations for a no deal exit the principal operational focus within Government”.

December 2018 was just four months before we are due to leave; that should have happened back in January 2017, when the Prime Minister said that,

“no deal is better than a bad deal”.

The Government should have gone into overdrive then, to ensure that the UK was ready to leave without a deal. But let us look at what has happened instead. A third of the most critical projects for no deal are not on track, just six of the 40 EU trade deals have been grandfathered, and just 15% of the 240,000 businesses that trade with the EU have signed up for an economic operator registration and identification number, which, in the Government’s words,

“greatly increases the probability of disruption”.

Then, as noble Lords will remember, there was the dress rehearsal of the lorry traffic jam in Kent, described by the Road Haulage Association as “too little too late”, and, of course, the fiasco of giving a ferry contract to a company that has no ships. It has been a sorry episode, which reads like a cross between “Dad’s Army”—“Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring”—“Blackadder”—“I have a cunning plan”—and “Carry On Brexit”. It might be amusing but for the fact that the stakes could not be higher. I would not have started from here.

I turn to my third phrase, “Nothing has changed”. Since January, there has been no material change to the withdrawal agreement or the political declaration. If we leave, we will still be walking the gangplank into thin air. Despite this, I remain of the view that the consequences of rejecting this deal, as the noble and learned Lord said, remain worse. Since January, however, two things have changed.

First, as the noble and learned Lord just mentioned, if Parliament rejects the deal, it will now be given the choice, and the chance, to vote to extend the negotiations. An extension—especially a long one—would be an admission of failure by Parliament that it cannot fulfil its primary purpose: to decide and legislate for our country’s future. Worse, a long extension would throw us into Brexit limbo—which no doubt will be christened “Brimbo”—fuelling uncertainty and throwing Brexit into doubt. How long will the extension be? What if Parliament votes for six months but the EU says it must be 21 months, or vice versa? Will we agree with the EU? More importantly, as the noble and learned Lord asked, what is the purpose of an extension? What is going to change? If, at the end of six, nine or 21 months, Parliament still cannot agree, what then?

Some hope a long extension would give us time to prepare more effectively for no deal. But Parliament, as I have said, will remain opposed to no deal unless we have a general election that creates a parliamentary majority for no deal. Others see a long extension as their chance for a second referendum. I am opposed to a second referendum and I do not believe it could ever be delivered by a Conservative Government, so that too would require a general election.

I repeat what I have said before: I voted Remain, but I believe that we must honour the result of the referendum and leave the EU, with a deal, as soon as possible. Our nation’s future cannot continue to twist in the wind.

If Parliament rejects the deal, I believe there are only two options that avoid Brexit limbo. Either the Prime Minister ditches her red lines and seeks a cross-party consensus on the future relationship between the EU and the UK, or she makes a vote on her deal a vote of confidence. Both options may split the Conservative Party, and both may lead to a general election, but the democratic imperative is to deliver on the wishes of 17.4 million people who voted to leave. If Parliament cannot decide on what is best, or if the Prime Minister cannot convince Parliament to support her policy and refuses to compromise, it is time for a new Parliament.