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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:22 pm on 4th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Fairfax of Cameron Lord Fairfax of Cameron Conservative 9:22 pm, 4th April 2019

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. I want to adopt many of his points, which I would have made myself. Speaking in this temple of remain, one often feels like a Spartan facing the 100,000 Persians. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, appreciates the analogy, given the part of the world his family originally comes from.

I must say, Parliament and the majority in this place are out of step with the country. I was going to refer to several statistics, but they have already been referred to by previous speakers so I will not. However, I have one that I think has not been mentioned. A recent poll—in the past week, I think—said that 55% of all voters believe that Parliament is trying to stop Brexit. That is worrying. The reason for that is obviously the great disconnect between the current constitutional make-up—of the House of Commons, in particular—and what happened in the referendum. We all know the referendum numbers but, apparently, about 500 MPs in the House of Commons voted to remain and only about 160 voted to leave. That is the reason for the disconnect we now face. I am afraid to say that, in accordance with that poll, Parliament is perceived as seeking to steal Brexit from the people; that is many people’s perception.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, referred to palpable anger in the context of the earlier debate. There is palpable anger out there, outside this place, from people who believe Brexit that is being stolen from them. In this regard, 15 days ago, Justine Greening—a prominent remainer, of course—said:

“We can do a clean-break, hard Brexit, which I know many MPs want, and I respect that. Indeed, the millions of people who voted to leave had that kind of Brexit as their expectation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/3/19; col. 1117.]

That supports the point I have been trying to make.

I will also make a point about no deal that is not related to Brexit at all. Anybody in this House with any experience of life, particularly of business or negotiation, would tell you—common sense also tells you—that in any negotiation, your counterparty should always know that you could walk away. Take away that credible threat and—similar to what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said earlier—you are naked in the arena and have effectively raised the white flag of surrender. I am afraid to say that, in my view, this Bill does exactly that.

One or two noble Lords have spoken about the possible economic consequences of a no-deal exit. I will make just a couple of points. No one expects there to be no consequences of a no-deal Brexit—I want to make that clear—but many, including many businessmen, consider them manageable. Also in regard to no-deal planning, I refer to the resignation letter yesterday of Chris Heaton-Harris, the Minister in DExEU responsible for no-deal planning. He said that there has been an awful lot of no-deal planning by the Government and that, if anything, the Prime Minister appeared not to have been properly briefed about the extent of it. By implication, what she was saying in the public domain did not reflect that position.

A few speakers, including some from the Front Benches, have spoken about how a no-deal exit—a WTO exit—would be a disaster for business; the noble Lord, Lord Stern, referred to evidence, and so on. It depends where you choose to take your evidence from. We all know what the CBI, representing big international business, says, but that is not the evidence from the Alliance of British Entrepreneurs or from an entrepreneurial businessman I know, who told me, “Despite some disruption, especially initially, business will sort out its problems pretty quickly. That’s what business does”.

Closer to home, I pray in aid my youngest brother, who employs more than 100 people in manufacturing in the West Midlands. He exports to more than 30 countries worldwide, including several EU countries, and is the recent winner of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise: Innovation. I asked him what he had to say on this subject. He said, “A little short-term inconvenience is a small price to pay for a healthy long-term economic structure”. There are different points of view here; it is quite wrong to suggest that business generally thinks that it will be a disaster. That is a gross misrepresentation and distortion of the position.

I was going to go on and make a point that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, made before I spoke: in fact, business fears not a no-deal exit but uncertainty. Ask any businessman about that. It is about uncertainty. I am afraid that a prolonged and substantial extension would only aggravate that.

I have just a couple more points to make. I would like to say something about the position of the House of Lords, as one or two speakers in the debate have already touched on. In view of the admitted democratic deficit we have in this House and its delicate constitutional position, you might think that this place would tread carefully in opposing a majority decision of the people in a referendum. However, I am afraid that that does not appear to be the case. As I think someone else said, this place does not appear to have the self-awareness, to use that phrase, to look at itself. Outside this building, the Westminster bubble, central London and so on, everything looks rather different.