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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:01 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Ricketts Lord Ricketts Crossbench 8:01 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to follow what the noble Lord said about Article 50. He and many others have used the word “humiliation”, and I think there is a lot of truth in that. I think we are seen around the continent as a country that has lost its way in a bizarre fashion: a once great nation now caught up in an endless psychodrama. I have sensed that the mood in Europe has hardened against Britain over the past few weeks and months. For much of the negotiation that the Prime Minister conducted, they were prepared to give us the benefit of the doubt. It would be like any other European negotiation: it would be tough, there would be moments of drama but in the end there would be a deal. The Prime Minister would go back and get agreement for it in her Parliament and it would be done.

As the meaningful votes have come one by one and she failed to get agreement, I think the mood has darkened. I think it changed first to incomprehension and now to exasperation—and even to humour. Noble Lords may have seen that the French Europe Minister, Mme Nathalie Loiseau, said that she had renamed her cat Brexit because every time she got up in the morning, the cat mewed furiously to leave the house, but when she opened the front door, it did not want to go out. It then transpired that she may not have a cat at all, but the point is right.

Of course, this is not a laughing matter. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, is not here, but I shall trample on his place to say that an argument can be made that last week was perhaps the greatest international humiliation for a British Prime Minister since the Suez crisis. Then, noble Lords know well, the Americans put their foot down and declared that we would stop our invasion of Egypt, running a UN Security Council resolution against us and threatening to pull the plug on sterling.

That was a brutal end to British pretensions to great power status but a salutary lesson, which put British foreign policy on to a different basis for the future. Perhaps there will be something salutary about last week, but you have to look quite carefully to find it. We saw the Prime Minister open proceedings with a petulant letter as if, somehow, the Europeans were to blame for the decision she had had to take to delay the date of 29 March. She then went to Brussels, failing entirely to convince her colleagues that she could win a third vote or that she had any kind of plan for what to do if she lost it.

I think that at that point, her colleagues thought: we have to take this over and find a way that the British are unable to find themselves. When can a British Prime Minister have cut such a lamentable figure at an international meeting?

If I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, there was more to their deal than he suggests. It was a very clever way to do two things: first, to open up some space in British politics for new thinking to begin to take hold; secondly, to avoid the blame for their having pushed Britain out on 29 March or not allowing it to come up with other options. They avoided the sense that they were dictating to Britain by encouraging us to come up with our own options and have created space.

The contrast between a divided British Government, unable to get beyond the next vote in the House of Commons and a group of very busy and distracted European leaders finding the time to roll up their shirtsleeves and come up with an astute political move to change the dynamics in British politics was remarkable. That is what may be salutary from this. Let us hope that it may be a source of inspiration. We must be under no illusion that this is our last chance to avoid an acrimonious breakdown in our relations with our nearest neighbours, who also happen to be the largest economic bloc in the world and vital partners in our security.

Many noble Lords have drawn attention to the Prime Minister’s words in the other House this afternoon:

“Unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen”.

That is very encouraging. Is it really true that there is now zero risk of a crash-out under any circumstances? What if the House of Commons spends the next two weeks in more factional manoeuvring, votes down the Prime Minister’s Bill again and fails to find a majority for anything else? Are we then not still confronted with the cliff edge on 12 April rather than 29 March? If so, there will certainly be no extra time available from the EU. There will be no managed no-deal: the EU will look after its interests and have scant sympathy for the catastrophe that will overtake Britain—not just Britain as a country but the hundreds of thousands of British citizens who have made their life choices to live in the European Union and are still desperately anxious about what the future holds.

I really hope that that will be avoided, for the reasons that most noble Lords have referred to in this debate, and I think that there are signs that the alchemy that the EU began to work at the European summit is having its effect. It is obviously very welcome that MPs will now be holding indicative votes in the other place.

As the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, said, it is pretty extraordinary that within a few days of the point where, up to now, we had been due to leave the European Union, finally, MPs turn their attention for the first time to trying to work out where there may be a majority beyond the Prime Minister’s deal. These are votes that should have happened before Article 50 was ever triggered. I hope that they will come up with a new way forward that will meet what is a very modest test set for us by the European Union,

“to indicate a way forward … for consideration by the European Council”.

I think it means by that not just a process but, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, some sense of direction as to where we want to go, where we might be coming down on the fundamental choice referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, of what future relationship we want with the EU.

I think it may have also expected that that would trigger off a rather wider cross-party consultation than the event at Chequers yesterday. Perhaps that wider cross-party view will begin to emerge if the Letwin amendment passes in the other place this evening.

In any case, I agree with others who have said that we are in such a mess that, rather than trying to ram through the Prime Minister’s unloved deal by just a few votes in a country that is deeply divided, we should have a pause and a rethink. I cannot prove it, but I think something shifted last week. The 1 million people march and the five and a half million people who signed the petition in just the law few days calling for a revocation of Article 50 suggests that something is shifting. Therefore, it is essential to test public opinion again.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is right when he says that we will not resolve this in the next two weeks. These are fundamental issues about our future relationship with the EU, which we have not got near to settling in the last two years; but, it is right that we should embark on that journey and that, when there is a way forward, it should be put to the people in another referendum. I hope the way forward will involve revoking Article 50 to give us time to think this through again. I am persuaded that the very best course for the UK is to stay in the EU, and that there is no other relationship that will bring us anything like the same benefits. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said that he does not think the country is in any mood to revoke Article 50. I think the petition gives a different impression of where the country may be moving. In any case, it is an entirely legitimate, democratic way of proceeding now that everyone in Britain has discovered something of the true costs of separating ourselves from the EU. If the House of Commons prefers a different sort of Brexit based on maintaining the customs union, or the single market, or both, then that too is sufficiently different to require putting it back to the country in a referendum.

I do not believe the EU would be willing to give us an indefinite extension of Article 50, because that just continues the uncertainty for much longer. All other EU countries have issues of their own. If you open a French newspaper, “Crise” is the headline, but it is not referring to Brexit; it is the affront to French sovereignty from the violence around the gilets jaunes demonstrations. Every other European country has its issue.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake: the EU is more than an economic group: it is a community of values, and it is the group of countries with which we share our deepest and most important relationships. I favour revoking Article 50.