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 4:37 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative 4:37 pm, 11th March 2019

My Lords, there may well have been further discussions on the withdrawal agreement since last month, but there have been no developments of note since the House first debated the agreement last year. To use that irritating phrase, nothing has changed. There is nothing to debate.

Like other noble Lords, I put my name down to speak in the hope that there would be something of substance to debate today—but it was clear over the weekend that Monsieur Barnier’s best and final offer was not worth the five tweets that he used to deliver it. The response of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU was rightly robust, and the talks now seem officially deadlocked. So where does that leave us? The Government ought to invite the other place to reject the withdrawal agreement tomorrow as they have failed to achieve a replacement for the Northern Ireland backstop, as the other place clearly demanded in January via the Brady amendment. If the Government persist in asking the other place to approve the unamended withdrawal agreement tomorrow, I have every confidence that it will be rejected again, and the other place will be right to do so.

All the focus has been on the backstop, and many have become reconciled to approving a withdrawal agreement if the EU were to shift its position sufficiently on it. But the backstop is merely the worst bit of the withdrawal agreement. Even if it were fixed, it would still be a terrible deal for now, and the political declaration promises no better for the future. If the other place rejects the package tomorrow, it will be doing a great service to our country.

What happens next is the big question. Noble Lords who have heard me speak before will know that I am not afraid of leaving the EU without an immediate deal. I would regret the fact that we had left without a deal, but I would have no regrets whatever if we left without this particular deal. I continue to believe that the Prime Minister did at least get it right when she said that no deal was better than a bad deal. The most recent polling evidence from ComRes is that the public increasingly agree with that. Support for no deal is up six percentage points at 44%, with rejection of no deal trailing at 30%. I hope that all Members of Parliament, particularly in the other place, will reflect on the fact that Parliament has been out of step with the country as a whole since the referendum result. If Parliament continues to work against the express will of the people, I fear the consequences for our democracy.

In the past few weeks we have seen increasing activity on both sides of the Channel to prepare for a no-deal scenario. Planes will continue to fly. Goods will continue to flow between the UK and the EU—in particular, if common sense prevails, around the Calais-Dover crossing. Citizens’ rights are being protected. Financial services will not grind to a halt. The scare stories on everything from radioisotopes to toilet rolls have been shown to be not much more than the product of feverish imaginations. Even the Governor of the Bank of England has significantly toned down his message on the impact of leaving the EU with no deal. Project Fear is gradually being unmasked.

There is more to do to prepare for our exit, as my noble friend Lord Bridges reminded us, and the road may well have a few bumps in it. But an exit on WTO terms would not be the end of the world. An even better way forward would be for us to work with the EU so that we can continue to trade on a tariff-free basis. We can do that on a temporary basis under Article XXIV of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It would need only a skeleton trade deal of perhaps a couple of pages, and it would give us up to 10 years to negotiate a free trade agreement—and even the pessimists do not think that we would need that long.

We could not do this alone. The EU would have to agree, and that may require a degree of flexibility that we have not seen evidence of to date, but it would be a triumph of common sense over dogma. If we could work together to achieve this, it would be important for all of us. Importantly, unlike with the withdrawal agreement, we would be set free to pursue our own trade agreements with other countries and to determine our own policies on tariffs with the rest of the world.

To date I have been proud that our Government and the vast majority of our party have remained committed to delivering the result of the referendum. I hope that we will now hold our nerve and complete the task of leaving the EU on 29 March.