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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:58 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 8:58 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, I was indeed delighted to see the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and his wife in Lincoln Cathedral yesterday. We attended matins together in one of the most glorious of all European buildings. Whenever we talk about Europe, I always think that though my identity might be English and my nationality British, my culture and civilisation are European. We owe so much to the intermingling of those who practised the arts and the crafts through the ages on our wonderful continent.

I do not propose to expand on that, but there is just one thing that I have been asked to say by my noble friend the Duke of Wellington, who unfortunately has had to withdraw from the debate. He wanted to convey his apologies, which I gladly do, and also to say that, imperfect as it might be, he is foursquare behind the deal on offer.

I have been a member of the Conservative Party for 63 years. I joined in a momentous year: 1956. Within a year I held office as a young Conservative chairman and have had some kind of office or position in the party ever since. Politically, I have never felt more depressed. I have never felt more concerned, and, like a right honourable friend of mine in another place, I have at times over the last three years felt ashamed. I am deeply concerned that a group of Conservatives have almost held the country to ransom. I refer to the ERG. They are coming close not just to splitting the party—which of course is less important than the country—but to wreaking real havoc in our nation. I hope that they will draw back now and realise that if they want any sort of Brexit, the one sort currently on offer and on the table is the one that the Prime Minister has put there.

The Prime Minister is a good Christian woman, whom I admire very much. However, I wish that she had been a little more flexible and a little less obdurate, and that when she talked to the nation last week, she had done so not from a lectern but at a table—rather as the Queen does when she gives her Christmas message—and talked to the people. That is what we need. I also thought it a pity that, while I understand why she wanted to talk to certain Members whose transfer of allegiance could be of enormous help to her, the news yesterday and the newspapers this morning were dominated by a certain group of people going to Chequers—as if they mattered more than any others. That was a great pity.

In spite of all that, I hope she gets her deal, but I was in the Gallery of the other place when the Prime Minister made her Statement today, and it does look as though she may not put it to the Commons before, or even on, 29 March. As I understand it, we would then have a period of a fortnight, until 12 April. The sands really are running out. It is the last chance saloon. I very much hope that the time will be used profitably. In a remarkable speech earlier today, my noble friend Lord Bridges made some extremely telling points, but in two weeks we have to be able to convince our friends and neighbours—I use those words deliberately and repeatedly—in the European Union that Parliament is working towards a solution. If her deal has not been accepted, we will have to show that there is a basis for agreement. I sincerely hope that we will.

I have talked in your Lordships’ House before about the creation of a committee of both Houses. There would not be time to create one in the remaining fortnight, but there would be an opportunity, which I commend to my noble friend Lord Callanan. He will be winding up this debate and has exercised enormous patience and good humour over the last two years or more. I put it to him that there would be some merit in putting together the Exiting the European Union Committee, chaired by Mr Hilary Benn, in another place, and your Lordships’ European Union Committee. There is an enormous amount of cross-party experience and ability in those two bodies. It could do no harm for them to have a dialogue and consider the various options that, by then, might have been or could become the subjects of indicative votes. We have to find something around which we can coalesce or, in spite of the Prime Minister’s protestations—which I was glad to hear—there will be a real danger that we crash out.

The only person who has talked with insouciance about that in this debate has been my noble friend Lord Lilley, but most of us, looking at the TUC and the CBI in that remarkable partnership last week, listening to industrialists, farmers and others in the country, know there is enormous concern about the potential damage that could be inflicted in the short term. There is also a degree of national humiliation in this country. People have looked to this country, over the years, as the embodiment of good sense, effective diplomacy and real leadership, and they say, “Where are those now?”. We had a group of French schoolchildren and their teachers in Lincoln Cathedral last Thursday, and I fell to talking to some of them. They were desperately sad that we appear to be moving out, but desperately anxious to maintain the friendships that have, over the last century or more, united our countries since the great entente cordiale of 1904.

It is crucial that we do everything possible to ensure that, by 12 April, we have done enough to convince our European friends and colleagues that we should have more time to arrive at a mutually agreed solution. Some of your Lordships have talked in this debate about a very long extension. I understand the worries about the European parliamentary elections and do not think that, if we were making real progress in our discussions, it would be impossible to ask for an extension of the sort the Prime Minister went to Brussels to ask for last week—until the end of June. It would be possible, I hope, to iron out the heads of agreement that would enable us to proceed, without having to go through all the trouble of participating in European elections. I understand why some people think that that would be breaking faith and would cause more turmoil and upset. Our people are too bitterly divided, at the moment, to do anything that will divide them more.

I was at a function in Lincoln on Friday night and talked to a lot of people, many of whom said, “We are confused. We are frustrated. We are getting angry. You’ve got to deal with this in Parliament and you’ve got to deal with it soon”. There is not much time left but, if the deal goes down or is not brought forward to be voted on, the responsibility bears upon us all in both Houses, but particularly those in the other place, to find a way forward that will not cause undue delay. I believe that your Lordships’ House has so much wisdom within it that the putting-together of those two committees could play a significant part in working towards the conclusion that surely we all want.