European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:42 pm on 5th September 2019.

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Photo of Lord Patten of Barnes Lord Patten of Barnes Conservative 1:42 pm, 5th September 2019

My Lords, I had not meant to intervene in this debate—and that is true. Having sat through much of the night, benefiting from the wisdom of my noble friends Lord True and Lord Dobbs while envying my noble friend Lord Forsyth—by then in his sleeper on the way to Scotland as the rest of us dealt with the filibustering that he had launched with his usual panache—I thought that I had probably had enough of all of this. However, one of the dangers of coming in and listening to a debate is that one is provoked into wanting to make one or two contributions. This is particularly the case whenever I listen to my noble friend Lord Howard. I can honestly say that, while I have disagreed with him on many subjects over the years, I have never doubted that he was anything other than a good chap.

I will come back to good chaps in a moment. There were two points I wanted to make as prequels to three points—which I will cover very briefly because they have been dealt with admirably by the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Mandelson.

I want to endorse what was said earlier about the departure from the Government of the Higher Education and Science Minister, Jo Johnson. I will not make the obvious points about Johnsons and one’s preference. However, Jo Johnson was at my university, where I am now a chancellor. I did not always agree with the legislation he brought forward on higher education in the last Session, but he was an outstandingly good and conscientious Higher Education Minister, as well as very intelligent. He is a real loss to the Administration, and I hope he is not a loss to public service for family reasons. He is a very good man.

Secondly, I want to identify myself with the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Cormack earlier about the treatment of some of our former, present colleagues. I am sure it was inadvertence which meant that my noble friend Lord Howard did not refer to them either. We were both colleagues of theirs in government. I am sure he shares my high view of their public integrity and public service. My noble friend has known one or two of them even longer than I have—he was at Cambridge with them. I am surprised that we did not hear about the appalling and hypocritical way in which they have been treated. I hope that will be undone as rapidly as possible; it was not Mr Cummings’s or Mr Johnson’s finest hour.

I shall briefly make three points, which have been touched on in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson. The first is on the trade negotiations. We have been told again and again that the reason this Bill is so suspect is that it cuts the Prime Minister off at the knees in the negotiations over our future relationship with the European Union but, as my noble friend Lord Hayward pointed out, the question is: what negotiations? There is no rustling in the shrubbery. You ask the President of the Council, the President of the Commission, the President of the French Republic, the Chancellor of Germany and the Taoiseach about the proposals that justify our Prime Minister in his observation that things are going well and the Government are putting forward all sorts of bright ideas, but there is no reply. It would be nice to hear from the Front Bench later this evening what the state of play is in these negotiations and what we are proposing—presumably somebody knows. Maybe we should just take it from Mr Cummings, the éminence grise in the regime—maybe one should call him the éminence—who has brought a new approach to personnel management at No. 10, that all this is a sham. But if it is a sham, that is all the more reason for having this legislation in place. If it is not a sham and we are making terrific progress, it seems very likely that we need rather more time to complete the progress, hence one of the advantages in a reply to a question posed earlier, and hence the advantage of a few more months being built in, if absolutely necessary.

The second point, related to that, is touched on by the “good chaps” theory, which, to be operable, needs a sense that the people you are dealing with are good chaps. One thing we know, and which underpins some of the discussions about when there should next be an election, is that there is a strong sense and suspicion—I put the point no more firmly than this, but I use a word used by my right honourable friend Kenneth Clarke—of the disingenuousness of the Prime Minister. Maybe there are those who are not absolutely sure that he and the people who surround him are good chaps. We know that eight of them voted again and again as bad chaps against the proposals that the last Prime Minister brought forward. One reason we have had this long period of delay is the activities—the high productivity rates—of the ERG during the negotiations so far.

There is another aspect of the “good chaps” thesis of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, which needs touching on. I thought my noble friend Lord Howard was rather curious in the division he drew between the Executive and the legislature in international affairs and international negotiations. I, like him, was a Secretary of State for the Environment. I used to go to international negotiations on the environment with the reports of Select Committees and with legislation from the House of Commons determining what I should try to do about ozone-depleting substances, or water or air quality. When I was a Development Minister, I had to operate within the terms that the House of Commons had agreed on the proportion of our GDP to be spent on overseas development. I had to comply with what the OECD said about that as well. When I was a colonial despot, I had to implement what Parliament had decided about the joint declaration and the terms within which Britain should exercise its stewardship in our last colonial dependency. So do not tell me that there is an absolute division between what Executives can do abroad and what the legislature has a right to determine.

My final point is about Northern Ireland. I shall not repeat the points made very well by the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Mandelson, nor shall I repeat what I have said on other occasions in this House about the Northern Ireland border. It is a sign of the beginning of dementia when you start quoting your own speeches. However, in the second speech I made on the withdrawal Bill, I said that one of only two interventions made by the last Prime Minister during the referendum campaign was about the appalling difficulties of managing the border if we leave the European Union, which was true. Two points have regularly been made about the border. First, there are terrible difficulties as soon as you leave the single market for the customs union. Some of us posed a question to the intellectually sprightly Lord, my noble friend Lord Howell, about where else in the world one could find two countries side by side with different tax regimes and different customs unions that do not have a border, and the answer is that there are none. There are ways of making it easier to deal with a border, but when you have different customs unions and different tax arrangements side by side, there is no way that you cannot have a border. The problem with that in Northern Ireland is very simple.