European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:09 pm on 4th April 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 9:09 pm, 4th April 2019

My Lords, this Bill is misconceived in every aspect. It mandates the Prime Minister to seek an Article 50 extension, and in so doing its authors are pursuing what we used to call a chimera. I think we now call it a unicorn; the unicorn of soft Brexit. Where sovereignty is concerned there is no such thing, and it is sovereignty that is essentially at issue in Brexit. By sovereignty I do not mean power; the power of a nation is always circumscribed. I mean our right to make our own laws in our own democratic institutions, accountable to our own people and interpreted by our own courts. On that there should be no compromise. The choice in 2016 was between leaving and remaining. That is still the choice.

The people of this country took a robust view in 2016. They were warned of the possibility of economic disruption—indeed, they were warned in lurid terms by Project Fear. None the less, they voted as they did. Remainers are wont to say that no one voted to be poorer, but the people of this country voted as they did in full awareness of the potential consequences, including the possibility that leaving might make them poorer, and that was the decision they took. That was what they decreed.

The political parties committed themselves in advance of the referendum to accept the decision of the people, and in the wake of the referendum they committed themselves to respect it. It was therefore incumbent on the Government to pursue a clean Brexit. That meant being willing to leave the European Union and trade in the future on WTO terms, while of course seeking to achieve a free trade agreement as soon as possible—a Canada-plus-plus-plus deal. That would have been possible. Had the Government, following the referendum, stated that they were going to negotiate as soon as possible a free trade deal with the European Union, but that if the European Union was not willing to grant that for some time they would none the less be willing to leave with no deal, then our negotiating position would have been very much stronger. By now, this country would have been psychologically and organisationally much better prepared than it is today.

Remainers often assert that the real reason people voted to leave was fear of immigration. It is true that a minority were very much moved by that consideration, but there is no inconsistency between believing we should leave the European Union and being an internationalist—understanding and valuing the economic, social and cultural benefits of immigration. Reassuring those of our fellow citizens who are apprehensive and nervous about immigration is a very important challenge for our leadership. The best way to do that is to make it clear to them that in future we will have the power to make our own decisions about our own immigration policy. That is among the reasons why membership of the single market and the Norway option are inappropriate for this country.

From the point of view of democracy, no deal is indeed better than a bad deal, a phrase which the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, referred to rather contemptuously as “that appalling mantra”. It all depends on your point of view; if you believe that the issue of democracy is paramount in Brexit, then no deal is better than a bad deal. There is no such thing as a soft Brexit. It is not Brexit. Soft Brexit is actually soft remain. The Prime Minister’s withdrawal deal and the political agreement would entail the continuation of very important elements of lawmaking being controlled by the European Union, with the Court of Justice of the European Union hovering over our courts. A softer Brexit still, such as the customs union, would be Brexit in name only.

If as a remainer you believe that economics is what matters above all, you can well contemplate a soft Brexit. Of course there are degrees of separation that you may be willing to consider. However, the remainers paint a lurid picture of what our departure from the EU may mean. They suggest—the noble Lord, Lord Stern, made this case just now in stark terms—that to leave without a deal would be a catastrophe; my noble friend Lord Adonis described how the country would be “trashed” in such circumstances and talked of us driving at 100 miles an hour towards a cliff edge.

I prefer the sensible and calmer language of the noble Lord, Lord King of Lothbury, who is a very respectable economist—the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, talked of reputable economists, but as far as I can see, her definition of a reputable economist is an economist who agrees with her. There are economists who do not. I prefer the view of the noble Lord, Lord King of Lothbury, to that of his successor, Mr Mark Carney, who has addressed this issue in rather alarmist terms, and I am amazed at the leaked document in which Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, described the possible consequences of no deal in melodramatic terms. How can he possibly contend that the price of food would rise by 10%? It is of course a possibility that there may be some devaluation of the pound at the moment we leave the European Union, but we will have the great opportunity—this is the crucial point—to abolish the tariffs on food and allow our people to have the choice of cheap food if that is what they want to buy.

It is not Brexit that is damaging our economy at the moment but the uncertainty associated with the Brexit process and the prolonged nature of it, which are paralysing decision-making and investment. Those who argue for a further extension, and that is what the Bill is about, are proposing to perpetuate this period of indecision and economic paralysis. The sooner we extricate ourselves from the close relationship we have with the European Union, the better the chances of our prosperity. Look at the condition of the German and Italian economies and at the structural flaws of the eurozone, with no integrated fiscal or economic policy. The European Union will change, because its present configuration is unsustainable. Either it will proceed to a much more integrated economy, as the President of France wants it to do—which I believe would be, politically, entirely unacceptable to us—or it will begin to disintegrate. The financial and economic consequences of that will be dire, and the more so if we are still in membership.