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 7:26 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 7:26 pm, 11th March 2019

My Lords, I am as bereft of inspiration for novelty of thought as other noble Lords, such as the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, have expressed themselves to be this evening. In any case, I fully agree with the substance of what many other noble Lords have said, not only my usual suspects, such as my noble friends Lord Newby and Lord Thomas of Gresford, the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Kerr, and my fellow ex-MEPs, the noble Baronesses, Lady Crawley and Lady Quin—including the latter’s much-appreciated warm tribute to Simone Weil—but much of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, strongly resonated with me, as did almost everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong.

We are in the middle of the theatre of the absurd. The Prime Minister is in Strasbourg negotiating the finer points of the backstop, on the basis, as my noble friend Lord Thomas said, of the reasonableness of the man on the number 87 bus. We heard reference to “Waiting for Godot” from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, and to a combination of “Dad’s Army”, “Blackadder” and Carry on Brexit from the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. Even as a child, I was never a fan of “Through the Looking-Glass” and I do not think that anyone can be a fan of the way that the Prime Minister is behaving now.

This is now not just a Brexit crisis but a constitutional crisis. That this Government have trashed our country’s reputation for good governance and for being stable and orderly is self-evident. We have had Cabinet irresponsibility as well, as the noble Lord, Lord True, said. I agree with him on that—maybe only on that. The UK has been made into a laughing stock for being a dysfunctional and out-of-control basket case. Like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I will remember the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, expressing his shame at the situation. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, pointed out the contrast between this out-of-control situation and the slogan “Take back control”. It is quite ironic.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, that the responsibility for this situation lies squarely with this Conservative Government and Conservative Party. It does not lie, as the noble Lord, Lord Howard, and latterly the noble Lord, Lord True, suggested, with remainers. It never has and it never will.

Even worse, the UK’s reputation for being a reliable negotiating partner and for acting in good faith has been thrown on the scrapheap, which is ironic given the reproach to the EU over the backstop and its good faith over exiting that mechanism. As my noble friend Lord Newby noted, towards Parliament the Prime Minister has acted through sleight of hand and abuse of process, and even with sharp practice.

Not only that, the UK’s respect for the rule of law and due process has been put seriously in doubt. The noble Lord, Lord Howard, regrets that we are following the Article 50 process of the treaty that we ratified and consented to be bound by. Many noble Lords believe that the Shamima Begum case also raises doubts about the Government’s observance of the rule of law and, one could add, their respect for another Commonwealth country: Bangladesh. These seem strange messages to be sending as the 70th anniversary of the Commonwealth is celebrated.

There are also serious questions about this Government’s real respect for the people and the trust that is necessary for democratic governance. We have heard much about how, if Brexit is not delivered, public trust will be destroyed. Apart from the fact that most of the public are watching in appalled disbelief, if they have not switched off entirely, it is ridiculous to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, did, that the “democratic imperative is to deliver on the wishes of 17.4 million people who voted to leave”. Apart from the fact that the Brexiters cannot decide precisely what those wishes are, it is typical disregard of the majority of our population, who either voted remain, did not vote at all or have come on to the register since 2016. I share the anger of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, at the way all these groups have been ignored.

How can a Government who insist that they must deliver Brexit also insist on holding over the people the threat that they may not be able to deliver their food and medicine? The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, pursued the theme that the EU is punishing us. It is not punishment to be denied, as a non-member, the benefits of membership. You would have thought that fairly simple to understand. On the contrary, it is cakeism to expect to continue to enjoy all the privileges without all the obligations. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, was right to say there was a lack of honesty about the need to make choices in the trade-off between economic advantages and sovereignty.

I give your Lordships as a prime example of the effrontery of Brexiters refusing to recognise that you cannot have it all the article in today’s Evening Standard by former Minister George Eustice. Free movement has been demonised by the Brexiters. The Prime Minister enthusiastically took up that cause; indeed, she cited it as the top achievement of her withdrawal agreement that free movement would end, ignoring that free movement is enjoyed by many British people. George Eustice is a keen leaver who has just resigned as a Minister to champion a hard no-deal Brexit, but in today’s Standard he writes:

“Think of the waitress who served you coffee today, the cleaners working late tonight, the care worker who will help your grandmother start the day tomorrow or the farm worker who has been out in the rain to put fresh vegetables on your table. Do we value these people and the work they do?”.

Yes, remainers value these people. He concludes that we need a scheme for lower-skilled, not just high-skilled, employment, which is precisely what we have enjoyed for all the years of EU free movement. You really could not make it up.

The Justice Minister Rory Stewart said at the weekend that every alternative to May’s deal is unknown and uncertain. That is not true. We know what we have as a member of the EU. To some extent, we also know what no deal means: huge chaos, cost and extra bureaucracy. The thing we do not know much about is what the future relationship will be, as it is largely a blindfold Brexit. The only honourable thing for the Prime Minister to do now is to put the matter back to the people to choose between her package and the known known we enjoy now. That, of course, needs an extension, which sounds, according to tweets, almost in the bag, with only the length of that extension in question. The Prime Minister thus has a last-minute chance to redeem some of her and her country’s reputation by doing the right thing during that extension.