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 7:35 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 7:35 pm, 11th March 2019

Listening to Ministers—not tonight, but on other occasions—one might think that the lack of an agreement is all the EU’s fault. However, of course, it is we who chose to leave the EU: that is, we as a country, not necessarily as individuals. Mrs May chose her red lines before she understood the task or consulted those who did. Mrs May chose to trigger Article 50 and thus our exit day. It was the Prime Minister who chose our negotiating lead: he resigned. Mrs May chose our second negotiating lead: he resigned. Mrs May chose our third negotiating lead: he could not hack it, so she then sent the Attorney-General over, and now we find that he cannot hack it.

The truth is, of course, that all those faults lie with the Prime Minister. She failed to reach out to the 48% —who, my noble friend Lord Rooker reminded us, are 15.8 million people—who might accept that they lost the referendum but surely still have the right to a Brexit that would be the best possible one for the country. She failed to reach out to the Opposition, even after she lost her majority, to see whether a deal could be honed which could be supported across the Commons. She failed to heed anyone other than the ERG, whose concerns for the countries, regions and interests of the UK have yet to be demonstrated. She negotiated a deal that she cannot even sell to her own Parliament: it was defeated by 230 in the House of Commons and looks set for a similar defeat tomorrow. Is it any wonder that one Cabinet source told the Telegraph:

“I would say there are only two ministers in the Cabinet who still support her”?

We heard earlier that one of these is “Failing Grayling”.

How much better it would have been for the country and, indeed, for her premiership, had the Prime Minister heeded this House, but also the Opposition, and crafted a deal which would see us in a customs union with the EU, solving much of the Northern Ireland border checks issue and, importantly, preserving our supply chains and our manufacturers’ major trading routes. Blinded by those ludicrous red lines, the Prime Minister ignored the one path out of her dilemma. In doing so, she ignored the majority of those who voted in the House of Commons against her deal, seeking to bend only to a minority of those who voted against her: the hard Brexiteers. Of course, they fixated on the backstop because, truth be told, they had never considered the Northern Ireland dimension of Brexit before 23 June 2016. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, reminded us earlier, it was the UK which proposed a backstop. The EU agreed to it and now the UK is saying, “Oh, we do not now agree with our own proposal, so please will the 27 change it?”

Throughout this sorry saga, the Prime Minister and her team have shown little respect for the EU, its Parliament, which has to agree the deal, or its key players, who find themselves addressed via a lecture in Grimsby, rather than across the table.

The Government have failed to respect both the EU negotiators and staff who have devoted untold hours to implementing a decision taken by the UK and the 27 rather busy Prime Ministers who keep having to add this to their already demanding agenda. Indeed, it hardly seems conducive to a better outcome for our Foreign Secretary to threaten that relations with the EU will be “poisoned for many years” if Brussels fails to budge in the talks and that,

“future generations, if this ends in acrimony ... will say the EU got this wrong”.

There is no blame to our government; everything is the fault of the EU. Perhaps that is what leads the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, to say that he has never felt a greater sense of shame.

As the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, has made clear, the one way not to leave the EU is without a deal, because of the sudden imposition of WTO tariffs and the ending of existing commercial relationships all built on zero tariffs and shared rules—all without even a transition period for business, importers, exporters and our ports to prepare. As for holidaymakers, perhaps 1.5 million of their passports may not work across the 27 member states because there is not enough time left on them. Their health cover will be lost; there will be queues at Eurostar and ports. This is to say nothing of their not being able to take their pets with them. They will not like that hard crash out as reality bites. Crucially, it would leave our UK citizens living across the 27 countries in a legal limbo, their healthcare, residency, jobs, and even driving licences uncertain. That is all without the opportunity costs mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Horam, and the health, crime, housing and education issues that we are not dealing with because of the attention and money being spent considering no deal.

The noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, warned of a loss of trust if we fail to leave on the 29th of this month. But there will be a much greater loss of trust if we leave in such a way as to damage the very people who voted for Brexit. So where do the Government go from here? It is possible they are going to need a Bill I have just been sent. It is the Bill on how to revoke Article 50—the draftsman was worried that the Government did not have it, so just in case they need it I offer it to the Minister.

If the Prime Minister fails to engage with the Opposition, with those willing to take the country forward on a consensual, constructive route, she risks being written up in history, either as my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith described—as Vladimir waiting for Godot, perhaps with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, as the boy, waiting for an impossible majority to arrive—or perhaps, more seriously, as a chapter in the next Christopher Clark version of The Sleepwalkers. This is the book on how the 1914 leaders took Europe to war by simply sleepwalking into it. She may do the same by dozing on the job, so that the UK falls, heedlessly and unnecessarily, into the economic insecurity and diplomatic catastrophe of an unplanned, unwarranted and unnecessary no-deal exit from the near half-century of co-operation, growth and development we have had with our near neighbours in the EU.

It is not for this House to pass judgment on whether the Prime Minister has the confidence of the Commons. But I can say with absolute confidence that the Opposition have little faith in her approach to Brexit, in her deal and in her ability to negotiate an acceptable way forward in the interests of the whole of the UK. Our future is in her hands. I hope that makes others sleep easy, because it does not me.