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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:18 pm on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 5:18 pm, 2nd October 2019

My Lords, I will simply say of the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, that his likening of the European Union to the Soviet Union will be hugely resented by all those countries of central and eastern Europe that were colonies of the Soviet Union but are free and democratic members of the European Union.

From the outset, Ireland has been the Achilles heel of Brexit and I believe it will ultimately defeat it. That is not because the impact of Brexit on Ireland is different from its impact on the whole of the United Kingdom. The three key impacts or problems of Brexit—that it will impede and imperil free trade, the free movement of people and close relations between European neighbours—apply to the United Kingdom as a whole, in our relations with the European Union as a whole. However, they are magnified in the case of Northern Ireland because it has a greater proximity to the Republic of Ireland than we have to the generality of the European Union and because they threaten a straightforward breach of the Good Friday agreement. That agreement does not regard it as acceptable that there should be any move towards a harder border in Ireland, but that is of course the policy of Brexit in respect of our relations with the European Union as a whole. That is why Theresa May agreed the backstop. It is why the Minister has many times justified the backstop to this House, in the way that he descried it earlier.

Since the Government changed and Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, the Brexit policy has descended into doublespeak. What now happens all the time is that Ministers say something is sensible and workable when it is clearly nonsense and unworkable, and that something is true when it is manifestly false. We have seen that with Ireland in just the last 48 hours. We have been told that there will be different customs regimes and regulatory rules over time—the question is what time—that will not require any customs checks on or near the border.

I have only had the chance to look briefly at the documents to which the Minister referred earlier, which were published today, although they will be forensically examined over the next few days and weeks. On my immediate reading, it looks as though these propositions will disintegrate. In the Prime Minister’s letter to the President of the European Commission, he says one key aspect of the proposals is that they provide,

“for the potential creation of an all-Ireland regulatory zone on the island of Ireland, covering all goods including agrifood”.

While this regime is in place,

“goods regulations in Northern Ireland are the same as those in the rest of the EU”.

It is worth stressing those words: they are,

“the same as those in the rest of the EU”.

However, a following paragraph says:

“Under these arrangements Northern Ireland will be fully part of the UK customs territory, not the EU Customs Union … It has always been a fundamental point for this Government that the UK will leave the EU customs union at the end of the transition period”.

Those statements cannot both be true. If the island of Ireland is going to be an all-Ireland regulatory zone, which is the same as that of the rest of the EU—i.e. the customs union and the single market—it cannot also be true that Northern Ireland will be fully part of the UK customs territory. The Minister’s explanations of these matters are so clear to the House, so I look forward to his explanation at the end of the debate.

This doublespeak suffuses all the Government’s statements on Brexit. Like the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, I have read the Prime Minister’s speech in Manchester, and we see it in that speech too. The Prime Minister tells us that “the alternative” to these proposals just published “is no deal”. That is not correct. The alternative to these proposals is not no deal. Parliament has said that, this House has agreed that, and her Majesty has given Royal Assent to a Bill that says that the alternative is not no deal. The alternative is that the Government will be required to apply for an extension of our membership of the European Union. That is the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act, so that was a straightforward untruth. What then happens will be for Parliament to decide. Parliament is the sovereign body in the United Kingdom. If it decides there will be a referendum or a general election, it will happen in the context of the United Kingdom not leaving the European Union at the end of October.

The Prime Minister also said in his speech that, if we stay in the EU at the end of October, we will pay,

“a billion pounds a month for the privilege, followed by years of uncertainty for business and everyone else”.

The key point that Members of your Lordships’ House will be well aware of—because of the hour after hour that we have spent debating the EU (Withdrawal) Act and the agreement reached last year—is that, if we leave the European Union at the end of October, we will pay £39 billion as part of the exit deal. As far as I am aware, but the Minister may correct me at the end of the debate, the Prime Minister is not proposing to unpick that. One certainty about us leaving with the withdrawal agreement and whatever changes are agreed between now and then is that we will have years of uncertainty for business and everyone else, because there will be no long-term relationship between the European Union and us. We are faced with constant doublespeak, which misleads the British people and debases the quality of public debate.

I am afraid that this doublespeak goes to the heart of the character of the Prime Minister. He believes, he tells us, in having customs checks and simultaneously in having no customs checks. He says he will comply with the law, but he has no intention of doing what it says. He uses vile, crass, inflammatory language, while claiming to be a model of restraint. He is unfit to hold office and the sooner he goes, the better.