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 4:53 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of The Duke of Wellington The Duke of Wellington Conservative 4:53 pm, 11th March 2019

My Lords, as always, I declare my European and agricultural interests as detailed in the register, including my membership of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1989—indeed, I was elected to the European Parliament on the same day as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin.

It is difficult to believe that we are today again debating the EU withdrawal agreement. Article 50 was triggered nearly two years ago. The withdrawal agreement of over 500 pages has been negotiated between our Government and the European Union and agreed last November. Under the terms of the withdrawal Act we leave in under 20 days, yet the House of Commons does not appear to be minded to agree the terms of the withdrawal. So, as we have all thought on many occasions, we could not have made this up—a British Government unable to get their business through the House of Commons and a House of Commons apparently incapable of deciding what it wants.

This Parliament and our way of governing ourselves has been admired for centuries. But at this significant moment in our history, as we extricate ourselves from our 46-year close treaty with our European partners, we are failing. The noble Lord, Lord Howard, referred to me having said that before and I apologise for repeating that phrase, but the fact is that we are failing. Every member of the Government and every Member of this Parliament must take some responsibility for that.

From the moment of the 2017 general election, I believe that we became irrevocably committed to honouring the result of the referendum, much as I and many others regretted that. Now we must leave, but with a deal. No Minister of the Crown, nor member of any British Government, can allow the country to leave without a transition period. The risks to so many fragile commercial activities are just too great, and every day we hear of new potential problems.

Should the Prime Minister’s deal not be approved tomorrow, it is almost certain that the other place will vote to reject no deal the following day. At that point, there is no alternative to seeking an extension to the Article 50 process. There have been suggestions that any extension would be a betrayal of the British people, but nothing, actually, could be further from the truth. A short extension of no more than three months is simply a practical way to gain more time to try to reach an agreement and avoid leaving without a deal and all the inherent dangers of such an eventuality. I well understand the misgivings of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, and others about a delay, but the lesser risk is to seek a little more time.

Any MP voting against the Prime Minister’s deal who does not recognise that we will have to seek an extension is in denial. The ultras, who still have an ideological desire to leave at any cost and without a deal, are seriously misguided and cannot be allowed to inflict such damage on the country. Although I have said it before, I feel obliged to repeat my plea to all parties, factions and groups to compromise at this moment. The deal is what we have. It gets us to 29 March and an orderly departure. It gives us 21 months or longer to negotiate our long-term new treaty with the EU. There will be no shocks on 30 March as nothing will change, provided that we leave with a deal. But the negotiation of the long-term arrangements must then have cross-party and intraparty agreement on what we want. We cannot again allow a lengthy and detailed treaty to be negotiated until the Government of the day are confident that they have broad support in the House of Commons.

We are not in a good place, but it is clear to me that the only way out now is to approve this less-than-perfect agreement and move to the next but much more important phase.