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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:36 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 8:36 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, I agree with every word that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, has just said, and my speech continues from where he left off. It seems to me that plan B is to revoke Article 50 and to put this nightmare behind us, because there is no other credible way to resolve this crisis on terms that are acceptable to the country.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said that his mentor was Lord Carrington, whom I also held in very high esteem. However, my mentor, and indeed friend, was Roy Jenkins, who always said that in politics the key to success was constantly to argue to solutions, not to conclusions—to get on with it. We now seriously need to get on with it because after two and a half years of this fiasco the country is not prepared to wait much longer. However, whatever we do must be towards a solution, and that solution must actually work rather than being a form of words or a ruse that simply kicks the can down the road.

Although the Prime Minister has exhibited a combination of incompetence and intransigence unmatched in recent times—one can debate whether it goes back to Anthony Eden, Lord North or Charles I, but among our rulers it is almost unmatched—she makes a good point when she says that the only way of stopping no deal, which people do not want and the House of Commons has now voted against twice with big majorities, is to have either a deal or no Brexit. That is correct. She keeps stating it because she thinks that if she forces the House of Commons to vote again and again, ultimately it will vote for her deal. However, there is no sign of that at all, and indeed she is the standing refutation of it, because today, in the extremity of our situation, she could not even come to the House of Commons to propose a third meaningful vote. I say “meaningful”, but the Prime Minister treats the votes as meaningless and hopes that ultimately she will win one and it will become meaningful.

Anyone who was in the Gallery of the House of Commons, as I was earlier, knows that there is no chance whatever of the House of Commons agreeing her deal at a third vote. You just needed to listen to the parliamentary leader of the DUP and a whole group of representatives of the ERG—which I have come to dub the “Economic Ruin Group”—to know that there is no prospect of her deal going through on a third vote, and we are right up against the wire. The House of Commons has, by decisive majorities, twice voted against no deal. Therefore, either there has to be some new deal or there has to be no Brexit. Those are the only options and, if we are to argue to a solution, those are the only potential solutions.

We have heard the mantra from many noble Lords on the other side of the House today that it is unconscionable that we should have no Brexit, but I do not think it is unconscionable at all. Parliament is here to exert its wisdom. As we are a democracy, it would of course then need to submit its judgment to the judgment of the people. That would happen either in a general election or—more likely in the circumstances in which we find ourselves—a referendum. It looks to me, in arguing to solutions, that we will end up with revocation followed by referendum, or a referendum followed by revocation. Those are the only credible solutions. If we get the long extension that may be necessary, we could spend many months getting to that conclusion, but it has been clear for a year that the basic Brexit proposition is imploding. We are a democracy, so there has to be a democratic role beyond simply a parliamentary vote in this process. That is where I believe we will get to.

The problem with the Prime Minister’s deal—the reason that it has gone down twice and will go down a third time—is that it does not remotely deliver the objective that was set out at the beginning: a deep and meaningful partnership with the European Union while leaving it. That was the constant mantra and objective that we heard from the Government Front Bench day after day. It does not remotely do this. It is not even a partnership that lasts beyond 21 months; there is no deal beyond then.

When the Prime Minister made the speech in Lancaster House that set the whole process off, she said:

“We will provide certainty … it is in no one’s interest for there to be a cliff-edge for business or a threat to stability”.

These were the key words on which this whole process was launched and she invoked Article 50:

“Instead I want us to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article 50 process has concluded”.

That was the basis on which this whole process started, whereas where we are now is with a withdrawal agreement that simply gets us legally out of the European Union—ostensibly this Friday, but that will be delayed—with no long-term agreement whatever. Indeed, the reason that we need the backstop and all these much-touted alternative arrangements is precisely that we do not have agreement about a future partnership by the time the two-year Article 50 process has concluded.

That is why, in an unprecedented statement, the TUC and the CBI joined forces last week and said:

“Our country is facing a national emergency. Decisions of recent days have caused the risk of no deal to soar … we ask you”—

I remind noble Lords that it is the TUC and the CBI saying this to us,

“to take three steps to protect the jobs, rights and livelihoods of ordinary working people. First, avoiding no deal is paramount … Second, securing an extension has become essential … Third, ‘the current deal or no deal’ must not be the only choice”.

This is the situation we face now.

The reason that it will not be possible to get a majority in the House of Commons for this deal or anything remotely close to it, is that it does not even begin to safeguard the long-term economic or security future of the country. The political declaration is one load of waffle. It is what the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, described when he resigned as a “gangplank into thin air”. It is still a gangplank into thin air. We are being asked to leave all the benefits of the European Union for a mess of pottage. Walter Bagehot once said:

“The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it”.

That was deeply unfair; it is a wonderful assembly, and the closer you look at it the more impressive it becomes. But the cure for admiring the political declaration and the withdrawal agreement is indeed to read them.

The political declaration is one of the most threadbare documents ever presented to Parliament on a major policy issue. On these huge issues affecting the whole future of the country, it says, at paragraph 22 that,

“the Parties envisage comprehensive arrangements that will create a free trade area”—

I repeat, “envisage”, with no provisions made whatever. Paragraph 25 says:

“In this context, the United Kingdom will consider aligning”,

with the European Union, “in relevant areas”. “Consider” and “relevant” are totally undefined and there are no follow-up provisions. Paragraph 55 says that,

“the Parties will explore the possibility to facilitate the crossing of their respective borders for legitimate travel”.

That is an astonishing statement. We are just about to leave the European Union on the basis of exploring whether we will agree with the European Union the facilitation of the crossing of our borders for legitimate travel. If we had not become inured to this Brexit catastrophe, anyone reading these documents would think we had taken leave of our senses.

I like paragraph 107 best of all. It says:

The Parties should consider appropriate arrangements for cooperation on space”.

Where that will lead the negotiations over the few weeks before the Prime Minister brings back the next iteration of her political declaration, I do not know. Who honestly believes that that will lead to a solution?

There will now almost inevitably be a long extension of the Article 50 process. It is vital that we do not exchange the pursuit of one unicorn for the pursuit of another. The idea which is in danger of gaining ground is that the reason why this deal did not work was that the Prime Minister was a singularly inept negotiator and her red lines were singularly intransigent. Well, she was an inept negotiator and her red lines were intransigent but, in my view, there is no other deal that will maintain a deep and special partnership with the European Union that could conceivably be negotiated. The quest for it will simply set us off on another two or two-and-a-half-year search for the Holy Grail that will almost certainly end in further catastrophe, and, of course, completely preoccupy Parliament, the Government, the Civil Service and our national life while it goes on, while we pay virtually no attention to any other public policy issues of great concern to the country.

The loss of trust and faith in politics if we engage in that process will be profound. It might simply lead to Brexit fizzling out without any further democratic process, because of ultimate exhaustion. However, rather than doing that, it would be much better to use the opportunity of the extension to resolve this issue by revoking and having a referendum, or having a referendum and then revoking, rather than searching for the Holy Grail.

I do not want to detain the House longer, so I will simply stress that what is now loosely referred to as “Norway”, and which may be part of the indicative votes in the House of Commons, is something that will disintegrate in the hands of those who seek to negotiate it, as soon as they try to unpack it and turn it into a proposition. There is no common understanding at all of what is in this box marked “Norway” and there is profound misunderstanding about what it contains. In particular, it does not contain a customs union, so it will not be a solution to the problems of Northern Ireland. The things it does contain are things that there will not ultimately be a majority for in the House of Commons, if there is a desire for Brexit at all. It contains no change whatever in freedom of movement and those rules. You just need to read the speeches and comments made by the Norwegian Prime Minister and those who actually know what goes on in Norway to see why it will not be viable.

My strong plea to Members of the House of Commons, who will take these key decisions in coming weeks, is to not exchange one unicorn for another. As the Norwegian Prime Minister put it:

“We do agree with the EU that you cannot be cherry-picking … Norway is outside [the EU], but we are inside the single market ... We do accept that decisions on the four freedoms are done in Brussels”.

The Norwegian MP Heidi Nordby Lunde warned us that,

“the Norwegian option is not an option … The three countries in Efta have to agree on all the regulations coming from the EU, so if one country vetoes something we all have to veto, which means that if the UK enters the Efta platform and starts to veto regulations that we want, this will affect not just the UK but also us as well”.

She went on to warn:

“If, as I understand, UK politicians do not want to be ruled by regulations coming from other countries, why would they accept a country with 38,000 citizens like Liechtenstein being able to veto regulations that the UK wants. That would be the reality”.

As soon as you get into the Norwegian option, you realise that it will crumble in your hands. The right thing is not to proceed in pursuit of unicorns, but instead call a halt to the whole grisly process that we have been going through, and to do it democratically by revoking and then holding a referendum.

When the Prime Minister asked the House of Commons to invoke Article 50, she said:

“At moments such as these—great turning points in our national story—the choices that we make define the character of our nation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/3/17; col. 251.]

The choices we make on behalf of the people in the coming weeks will define the character of our nation. I want it to be defined by putting the people and the national interest first, not pursuing unicorns, and respecting the right of the British people to have good government that looks after their long-term interests.