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I thank the Leader for repeating the Statement. My guess is that it was through gritted teeth, given that we are not leaving this Friday. However, that Statement leaves us no wiser, no more confident and no less ashamed to be led by a Government and a Cabinet unable to lead, to unite, to listen or to put the national interest first.
But first, a confession: 10 days ago, when we were debating the Private Member’s Bill of my noble friend Lord Grocott to end by-elections for hereditary Peers, I noted that I was not here by virtue of the achievements or wisdom of my father. Perhaps I misled the House, because I learned from my much-loved father—and maybe it was his wisdom that, in one way or another, got me here—a tale he told me when I was eight or nine, which has stayed with me. It was about a passing-out parade—he was in the military—where one proud mother, viewing the march, sighed, “What a shame that my son is the only one in step, and all the others have got it wrong”. It does not take much imagination to hear the remaining supporters of our Prime Minister echoing the same: “What a shame that only she is right and all the others have got it wrong”.
Who are the others? They are the Church, business, the CBI, the TUC, the Government of Wales, the people of Northern Ireland, your Lordships’ House and, significantly, the EU, its Commission and 27 leaders of member states. That is quite a roll call to dismiss. The 27 Prime Ministers or Presidents from across the continent are experienced in governing, politics, negotiating and consensus-building. The Archbishop of Canterbury—whose task of uniting 85 million Christians worldwide the Prime Minister has made look like a walk in the park—has launched five days of prayer as we approach Brexit. Business—the people importing and exporting—knows the cold reality of tariffs, non-tariff barriers, checks, delays, transport and handling costs, and also the need for legal, banking and contract certainty. The TUC and the CBI, which we normally call two sides of industry, have quite exceptionally joined together in the light of the “national emergency”, in their words, to warn that a no-deal,
“shock to our economy would be felt by generations to come”.
The First Minister of Wales is imploring the Prime Minister to work on a cross-party basis to amend the political declaration, not the withdrawal agreement, and then to negotiate with the EU to adapt the framework. Gibraltar and UK citizens abroad will feel the reality of a no-deal exit in hours or weeks of departure. Your Lordships’ House is staunchly against no deal and repeatedly in favour of a customs union. The Opposition have spelled out our alternative approach and are open to continued EU trade via a customs union and single market alignment. The Commons—the elected Members steeped in their own communities, their businesses, people, trading and academia—are knowledgeable about the realities of a chaotic or ill-designed Brexit. The Prime Minister’s senior colleague Philip Hammond says that a no-deal Brexit,
“would cause catastrophic economic dislocation in the short term and in the longer term it would leave us with a smaller economy, poorer as a nation relative to our neighbours in the European Union”.
But the Prime Minister ignores all these. She continues to threaten no deal and, instead of talking to them, invites to Chequers Jacob Rees-Mogg, Steve Baker, Dominic Raab, David Davis and Iain Duncan Smith—the very people who have been writing her script for two years and now will not support her deal. Oh, and I forgot Boris Johnson, who seems to think we have an implementation period without a deal. No, ex-Foreign Secretary, no deal means no transition period. He does not even understand that—and these are the people who our Prime Minister heeds.
Now, to avoid no deal, we need the Prime Minister to listen to those she has ignored and to amend the future framework, even at this late stage. The FT’s Jim Pickard commented today:
“It’s March 25, 2019 and MPs are about to have multiple votes on what kind of Brexit we might have. If you’d told people this two years ago they’d have thought you were out of your mind”.
We do, however, have a breathing space, the Prime Minister having been thrown a lifeline—albeit just 14 days—by the European Council. It will be only a breathing space, and not a suffocating pause, if we open a fresh approach to our future relationships with the EU, an approach shorn of the Prime Minister’s disastrous red lines. We know that this is possible: Michel Barnier said that the political declaration that sets out the framework for our future relations could be made more ambitious in the coming days, if a majority in the House of Commons so wishes.
The Prime Minister, however, appears bent—we have heard it again just now—on trying to flog her very dead horse. For some of us her deal, which has been overwhelmingly rejected twice by MPs, is the Monty Python parrot. Here we are, however, in the last chance saloon, so our MPs must be heard and their preferences set out. This is in the national interest and is the democratic way forward. Despite the most extraordinary view of the ERG’s Steve Baker, who claimed that “national humiliation is imminent” through these indicative votes—his way of listening to elected politicians—