Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:33 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley Conservative 5:33 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, here we go again, debating the same arguments for the umpteenth time—I think the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said the thirteenth—for some very simple reasons, which we may be able to all agree on. But they may be worth repeating, simply because they may shed some light on where we go from here.

Brexit, as we now know all too well, is the biggest political and social challenge that this country has faced since the Second World War. The complexity of the issues and the enormity of what leaving the EU entails means that Brexit is a process that will take much longer than many envisaged and some promised. It has divided our nation from top to toe: the Cabinet, the two main political parties, communities, families. To leave the EU smoothly, we needed to be honest about the scale of that challenge from day one and build a consensus as to the way ahead. The Government needed to negotiate knowing they had the support of Parliament and that they could deliver on what is agreed in the negotiations. Obviously, since the referendum none of this has happened. In part, that is because the UK’s relationship with the European Union has been poisoning the well of Conservative Party politics for decades, and it has fallen to this Prime Minister to make that fateful choice: what matters more to the United Kingdom—trade and access to EU markets, or control and parliamentary sovereignty? Fear of splitting the Conservative Party totally asunder has meant that, years after the referendum, we still do not know the answer to that basic question.

On Brexit, the biggest issue of the day, we do not have a Government to speak of. Instead, we have a collection of individuals grouped into factions; there is no collective responsibility. To say that we have a Prime Minister would, sadly, bestow on Mrs May a level of authority she clearly does not have. I have been saying for months that the Prime Minister is in office, not in power—the last week has proven that beyond doubt—so once again I wearily ask: where do we go from here? Sadly, the options are exactly the same as those we faced 1,006 days ago: we leave with a deal, we leave without a deal or we do not leave. The final option, revoking Article 50, is what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—I am sorry he is not in his place—is calling for in his Motion. Although I totally disagree with him on this point, I respect and pay tribute to his tenacity and principled stand. Parliament voted to hold the referendum; the public voted to leave; Parliament voted to trigger Article 50; the public voted for Labour and Conservative MPs who promised to honour the result of the referendum. We need to fulfil that pledge.

Putting that to one side, I cannot see how a Conservative Government could possibly revoke Article 50. To do that we would need a general election; or it would require a referendum, which, as things stand, is also impossible to deliver without a general election. The next option is leaving without a deal, which the Prime Minister said continues to be the default outcome. Ever since the last general election, it has been obvious that Parliament opposes no deal. The Government may try to ignore Parliament, but if they do Parliament would surely vote “no confidence” in the Government on an issue such as this. Therefore, no deal likewise requires a general election. The final option is leaving with a deal. The only deal on offer is the withdrawal agreement. That agreement will not now change. The EU’s position is clear: take it or leave it.

In the days ahead, Parliament might agree, via indicative votes, that it wishes to join a customs union or the EEA. But even if Parliament reaches a consensus, I sense the very best that might happen is for this to be reflected in the political declaration, which, unlike the withdrawal agreement, is not legally binding. Parliament will still have to vote for the withdrawal agreement and put it into law. Furthermore, if the other place votes in favour of a Motion that the United Kingdom should join a customs union, and possibly the single market as well, to implement it would break Conservative manifesto commitments and would appear to require the support of Labour MPs. Is the Prime Minister willing to do that? Are she and her Cabinet willing, as I have urged before, to bridge the party divide to deliver Brexit?

Such a prospect may seem fanciful, until one remembers the point I began with: Brexit poses the biggest political and social challenge this country has faced since it fought a world war. Put like that, is it so peculiar to consider that we should come together, put party interests to one side and work together to leave the EU? At what point does the need to end the uncertainty and to leave the EU with a common approach trump party allegiance and manifesto commitments? To me, it is clear that, after 1,006 days, if we are to leave the European Union, we cannot and must not go on as we are.

If this withdrawal agreement is rejected again, and if, like me, you believe we should leave the EU—as 17.4 million people voted to do—then the Government and Parliament must build a consensus regarding what we want to achieve. If we cannot do that, we need a new Parliament. We cannot continue to debate these issues with extension after extension to the negotiations.

Let me end by saying this. Even if the withdrawal agreement is passed this week, we will still need to build that consensus as to our future relationship; otherwise, we will spend the foreseeable future trapped in the agony of this interminable debate, which is corroding trust in Parliament and undermining confidence in the economy. On an issue of such enormity as our leaving the European Union—an issue which will shape our nation’s future for generations to come—a House divided cannot stand.