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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:44 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench 7:44 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, I agree with everything the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, has said.

While I sympathise with the Prime Minister, like others I was angry at her broadcast from Downing Street on Thursday evening. From the outset she has faced Parliament with a choice between two irreconcilable courses: freedom to make our own trade deals and set our own tariffs on the one hand, and the absence of border controls between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic on the other. At the end of his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, dismissed this problem by saying it would have to be solved and would be. But it has not been solved; hence the need for the backstop, which has been the principal obstacle in the way of the House of Commons agreeing the departure agreement.

Your Lordships’ House has now offered the other place a way of resolving that dilemma through our amendment to the Trade Bill calling for a customs union in a free trade agreement with the European Union. I will not rehearse here the advantages of that course, but I hope that there may be an indicative vote pointing in that direction in the House of Commons this week. In any case, it is a matter for the negotiations on our future relationship. The issue for today is how we escape from the impasse the country is in.

The European Union has now given us a clear choice. One option is for the other place to accept the departure deal, and we are told it must be agreed this week. In that case, the way ahead is straightforward. We have until 22 May to pass the necessary legislation to bring the deal into force. But the Prime Minister has said that she is not in a position to put the deal to the other place this week with any hope of success. She clearly hopes that that position might change, but given the shortage of time ahead of us that prospect must be remote. The alternative, if we are not to leave without a deal on 12 April, is to ask for more time. We could revoke Article 50. That is in our power. However, like the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, I think that unlikely and also wrong in the absence of a further decision by the people.

If the departure agreement is not passed and the UK is granted more time, possibly at the cost of running candidates in the EU parliamentary elections, what would that extra time be for? The EU has ruled out renegotiation of the legal aspects of the departure agreement, and I believe it. It is willing to change the political declaration but will not get down to negotiating the new relationship until the departure agreement is in force. A further delay could not be used for renegotiating the legal aspects of the departure agreement or for starting the negotiations on the new relationship. It could be used for more attempts to win Parliament round to the departure deal, but if that is to be achieved it would be better to do it now than to prolong the uncertainty.

Another purpose for a longer delay would be a further referendum. I have argued the case many times in this House that democracy, properly understood, would give the people the final say on the terms of our departure from the European Union. I do not resile from those arguments today, when that outcome may just possibly be coming into sight.

I have come to think, like others, that the least worst course is for the House of Commons to pass the Prime Minister’s deal this week, for Parliament to pass the necessary legislation by 22 May and for the Government to turn their attention to negotiating the future relationship with the EU under a leadership with fewer red lines than the present one. So, to my surprise, I found myself in a position similar to that of the noble Lords, Lord Lilley and Lord Howard of Lympne—although I reached that conclusion by a very different route.

However, if that is not to be achieved and a longer period is to be obtained, I agree that it should be used for the purposes so eloquently described by my noble friend Lord Kerr, the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. We should recognise, however, that the outcome of further discussions between the parties can be validated only by a further vote of the people—and it must be clear that if that is the course on which we are to embark, that will be the outcome.