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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:10 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Horam Lord Horam Conservative 6:10 pm, 11th March 2019

My Lords, we are in a mess. Apart from the effect on our external reputation, as expressed so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, what dismays me as much as anything else is the amount of time we have had to spend on this subject at the expense of other critical subjects, such as sorting out universal credit, skills or apprenticeships.

In economics, there is the concept of opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of Brexit has already been extremely high. Add that to the business cost: I noticed this morning in the Daily Telegraph business section—which has a rather more factual approach than its editorial side—that nearly £1 trillion of assets have been taken out of this country already, largely to Dublin or Luxembourg. Add that to the administrative cost to both businesses and government and the overall cost is very big indeed. Sadly, as has been pointed out, that will continue for several years to come.

We need decisions. Indeed, I am almost in the position of my colleague in the other House, Sir Oliver Letwin, who said that any decision would be welcome at this stage. Of course, that is dangerous; politicians will recognise the moment when some humourless ideologue has been going on for so long on the subject that all reasonable people just want to give in to something they later regret. I hope that we will hang in there and continue with the debate, even if it means more debates such as this one.

In my view, we should support the Prime Minister’s plan. I am with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. It is obviously flawed but it gives us a transition period in which we can look at the situation. Frankly, even the disadvantages of the backstop were exaggerated. There is no incentive for the European Union to keep the backstop going because it would mean that we could stay in the customs union and pay no costs. It is ludicrous to think that it would want it to carry on. It will be in our mutual interest for us to get out of it when it is appropriate to do so.

However, we know the situation. The Prime Minister’s plan may not go forward, in which case there will be no deal—or no overarching deal, as the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, pointed out. That will be disruptive. In the “told you so” section of his speech, my noble—and good—friend Lord Bridges pointed out how little had been done in the time available: so little, so late. We in this Parliament should always remember the truth: the people who are most disrupted are not us or Members of the other place, but the most vulnerable in society—that is, the illest, the poorest and those least able to resist the sort of disruption that is likely with a problem departure from the European Union.

Hard-line Brexiteers say, “Well, we can use WTO terms, no problem”. Very few people use WTO terms, per se. For example, between the European Union and the United States, there are no fewer than 100 sectoral agreements. All of that has to be reproduced in new schedules so it is hardly surprising that Liam Fox, who was so insouciant earlier in his career as International Trade Secretary, is now one of those who are strongest in favour of saying that we must support the Prime Minister’s deal. He knows the score. The fact is that we need that agreement and the trade agreements that will flow from it.

I remind the House that in coming out of the European Union, we will go into a situation where we will have to sell the idea of doing a deal with a country of 65 million people rather than a unit of 500 million people. That will be especially difficult and we do not actually know what our future relationship will be with the 500 million people who remain in the European Union. I suspect that the Prime Minister, who is a very responsible person and deeply conscientious, will be very unlikely to allow a no-deal exit to happen, as Yvette Cooper has said. We are therefore back with the votes this week. A lot has been said about what the opinion polls are going to say, but we do not know enough about what the Commons is thinking as regards the various alternatives. MPs should be given the chance to hold some indicative votes to determine whether there is a solution that commands a majority vote in the House of Commons.

We know broadly what the two alternatives are. One might be called Norway and include a customs union, while the other might be called “clean break Canada” or whatever. Those are the two alternatives. They have been described by the columnist Matthew Parris as either humiliation or ruin. I do not go along with that—Matthew is getting slightly overwrought in his present concerns—but we do have to decide between those two alternatives. There are responsible and sensible arguments both ways, but we should know what is likely to go through the House of Commons. As the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, pointed out, what is the point of going back to the European Union if you do not know what you are going to get through your own Parliament? We cannot make that mistake again. We have to find out what the Commons thinks by some form of indicative vote. If the Government cannot manage, frankly, the Commons will have to, and the sooner the better.