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 4:01 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Howard of Lympne Lord Howard of Lympne Conservative 4:01 pm, 11th March 2019

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, will forgive me if I resist the temptation to turn this debate into one on the BBC.

In the debate that took place in your Lordships’ House on 27 February, my noble friend the Duke of Wellington, who is of course in his place, said:

“The sad truth is that our political system has failed badly in the two and a half years since the referendum”.—[Official Report, 27/2/19; col. 273.]

I respectfully agree, and it is perhaps worth spending a few brief moments on the reasons for this unhappy state of affairs.

The referendum delivered a result that most of our political class neither expected nor wanted. Most Members of the other place voted to remain. The proportion of Members of your Lordships’ House who did so is even greater. Of those Members of both Houses, some recognised that, since the decision on this fundamental issue had been delegated by Parliament to the people, it was their duty to embrace the result and fully implement it. Others recognised the existence of that duty but, in the words of Mr Nick Timothy, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, saw the fulfilment of it as an exercise in damage limitation, rather than an opportunity that could bring great benefits to our country. Others—far too many others—in both Houses have consistently attempted to thwart the will of the people and to seek, by one means or another, to reverse the decision that was clearly made in 2016. That, combined with the intransigence of the European Union, is why we have come to this pretty pass.

Today’s debate comes when it looks as though the Attorney-General’s efforts to negotiate an acceptable way out of the backstop have failed. I am a great admirer of the Attorney-General. He is a man of outstanding ability and, I believe, great integrity. I do not, for one moment, think he would change his advice on the backstop unless the results of his negotiation made it possible for him to do so.

The basic problem the Attorney-General faced—which we face—lies in the terms of the agreement that was so overwhelmingly defeated in the other place. The unique achievement of that agreement was to substitute for our untrammelled, unilateral right to leave the European Union without having to ask anyone’s permission to do so a regime which we could leave only with the permission of the European Union. That is the nub of the problem, and that is why it is so impossible for many of us to support the Prime Minister’s agreement.

It is often said that those of us who hold those views should be prepared to compromise. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I am certainly prepared to compromise. There are many aspects of the withdrawal agreement which I dislike, but I would be prepared to put up with them all if we can get out of the backstop. I do not even ask for the backstop to be replaced, as was required by the Brady amendment which was passed in the other place. A legally binding codicil enabling us to leave would be enough for me, but it does not look as though we are going to get it.

So what should be done? It is essential that we leave the European Union on the 29th of this month. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, has said, it might very well lead to an explosion of anger if we do not. We owe it to the 17.4 million people who voted to leave, and we must do it if we are not to inflict incalculable harm on the democratic fabric of our country and the bond of trust between people and Parliament, which has become so badly frayed and which must be restored.

The set of circumstances in which we would leave without an overarching agreement is usually described as a “no-deal Brexit” but, as has frequently been pointed out—not least by my noble friend Lord Forsyth during “Any Questions?” on Friday night—this is a very misleading description. Agreements have already been reached on a number of issues, ranging from aviation and road haulage to shipping and nuclear energy. I would have liked there to be many more. Following my noble friend Lord Bridges’s mantra of “I told you so”, if the Government had taken the advice that I offered in the debate in your Lordships’ House on 5 December, when I urged them to co-ordinate their preparations with the European Union, there would by now be many more. It is not too late.

The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, who would, I think, be alarmed to hear that I am about to quote him with some approval, even if it is rather qualified, suggested the way forward in his speech in your Lordships’ House on 27 February. He quoted the evidence that Sir Ivan Rogers had given to his committee. Sir Ivan had said that, if there was no deal, within a week British officials would be on their way to Brussels to negotiate solutions to all the problems we have heard that would create. I differ from the noble Lord and Sir Ivan only on the timing. The discussions to which they referred would not take place a week after we leave; they would take place before we leave, and as soon as it became clear that we are leaving without an overarching agreement.

That is what would happen if the political system to which my noble friend the Duke of Wellington referred was not failing us so badly. That is what would happen if the political class had been determined to honour the result of the referendum and held its nerve, and it could still happen. It would lead to a temporary extension of the current trading arrangements during which we could negotiate a permanent agreement with the European Union, which would benefit both parties. It could happen, and I hope that it will happen. It probably will not happen, and our political system will, alas, continue to fail us.