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My Lords, I fear that we are on the verge of a very great constitutional crisis—probably the greatest since the Conservative Party leadership flirted with defying the law in the last days of the Asquith Government before the First World War on the question of Irish home rule. It was only the First World War that saved us from that, and no one would want to see that as the deus ex machina which saves us this time. What is the crisis? It is that, from what, on a quick reading, we know of the Government’s alternatives on the Irish question today—and of course we have not had a lot of time to look at it—I cannot believe that they are a serious proposition. To me, they come across, I am afraid, as a ruse invented in London to put the blame on the European Union for a no-deal breakdown.
They are not serious for four principal reasons. First, they breach the solemn promise that was made in the December 2017 joint agreement between the EU and Britain—a promise, by the way, to which Boris Johnson was fully a party, as a member of the Cabinet who did not resign at the time—that ruled out the reintroduction of a customs border in Ireland and promised a solution based on full regulatory alignment. It is all very well for Mr Johnson now to claim that these reintroduced customs checks would not be “at or near” the border, whatever that might mean. The central point is that the new Government have changed the whole basis of their approach to the Irish issue from that of their predecessor under Mrs May—from one of how to achieve the full alignment that makes talk of borders unnecessary, to one of how to minimise the disruption of customs controls. The fact is, for all that the noble Lord, Lord Howell, says, there is nowhere in the world where customs controls do not require physical infrastructure.
Secondly, the British Government are expecting the Republic and the whole of the EU to sign off on this principle without detailed agreement on the practicalities. That suggests that the Government do not actually have an answer on the practicalities.
Thirdly, the UK is apparently proposing that this arrangement will be temporary: it will have a life of only four years and then it will be up to the Northern Irish. However, in practice, the way they have put it, as I read it, is that it would give the DUP a veto: it would not be representative of Irish opinion in Northern Ireland as a whole.
Fourthly, is this a take it or leave it offer or not? I hope that the Minister will enlighten us, because if it is take it or leave it, it does not fill me with optimism. Therefore, let us not be under illusions: under this Government we are heading for no deal. And let us not kid ourselves that the deal they would actually seek if they avoided no deal would be that much better, because their firm intention is that Britain will leave both the single market and a customs union at the end of the withdrawal agreement’s transition period. We may avoid chaos in December, but 14 months later we would have the certainty of no frictionless border with the EU, a self-imposed calamity for all our manufacturing industries with integrated supply chains, and potentially significant disruption to our present competitive position in services.
The Government may say that that is nonsense, and that by then they will have negotiated the most wonderful Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU. Let us be clear: they will not have done. That is not just because of the shortage of time. There has been, again under Mr Johnson, a very significant change of government policy. Boris Johnson wants Britain to be a competitor with the EU, not to converge with the EU’s standards. He wants to jump EU regulations; he wants to remove EU protections; he wants to slash taxes. Can he be serious on this point? How can our EU neighbours offer us preferential access to their markets if our policy is to create a deregulated tax haven across the channel, 20 miles away? It is not going to happen, and we will suffer a great deal as a result. So I fear that we are in a very difficult situation on Brexit.
I will end with a word about democracy. A general election, which the Conservatives want, could result in a majority in Parliament for no deal—but that could be won, under our first-past-the-post system, on 33%, 34% or 35% of the vote. For me, and for many others in this Chamber, that would have absolutely no legitimacy. The only democratically legitimate solution to the problem that we have is a referendum. If we want to avoid a constitutional crisis, that is where we should now go.