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My Lords, there is one matter on which I am able to agree with the Prime Minister: that the Government should get on with Brexit. As much as I regret the result of the referendum, I think it has to be honoured, as indeed do the pledges in the major parties’ manifestos in the 2017 election. It grieves me to make this point, but I also fear that, after all that has happened, it is no longer practical to think in terms of a return to the status quo ante and Britain simply resuming its position in the EU as if nothing had happened.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, I wish the Government well in their efforts to secure a deal; I hope they succeed and I look forward to supporting it if they do. This brings me to the first point on which I disagree with the Prime Minister: the repeated assertions by him and his allies that it is somehow because of remainer plots and prevarications that we are still in the EU. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, referred to this. The reason why we are still in the EU is, above all, that the Prime Minister—before he became Prime Minister—and other leavers in the Conservative Party, among our so-called allies in the Democratic Unionist Party and in the Labour Party would not support Mrs May’s efforts to secure a deal. Far more people who voted remain in the referendum supported her than opposed her, and it was the so-called leavers who created the difficulties.
My next point of disagreement with the Prime Minister concerns his insistence on a departure date regardless of terms. To announce in advance that one will walk away from a negotiation on a given date means announcing in advance when one will be giving up the struggle. I have to say that if ever there were an act of surrender, it is that. Instead of leaving in a huff, like a child not getting its way in a game, the Government owe it to the nation to stay at the table until they get the best deal they can. That is what Mrs Thatcher did during the epic struggle over the British budget negotiation, which I remember all too well on a personal basis. That is what Mrs Thatcher did and what the Government should do now. This point is particularly apposite in the light of all the documents concerning the Government’s plans that were issued just before this debate. Obviously, like everybody else, I have only had an opportunity to glance at them, but a glance is quite sufficient to show that they contain a number of new elements, to put it mildly, and move a number of goalposts. To expect our negotiating partners to get their minds around all that and reach conclusions in the time allotted is really asking too much.
As the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, pointed out, there is all the difference in the world between a deal and no deal, between an orderly and a disorderly departure. Leaving is a massive step: it changes the whole direction of Britain’s trade and external relations after a period of over 40 years. It is vital that such a manoeuvre be conducted with the minimum disruption possible. As older Members of this House will recall, when we joined the European Community, as it then was, we had a transition period in order to adjust to the disciplines, the rules and so forth we were taking on. We had a transition period going in and it would be greatly in our interest to have a transition period going out. I say that not just because short-term disruption will cause pain to the British people—whether it is more pain or, as my noble friend Lord Lilley said it will be, less pain—but because it is certainly going to be disadvantageous. I have not heard anybody argue that the consequences of a no-deal departure would actually be beneficial to the economy.
So, there is that short-term reason but also, the manner in which we leave will create the platform on which we will be building for the future. If we are, as far as possible, to minimise the disadvantages of leaving the European Union and maximise the opportunities it may offer, we need to go about the process in a deliberate and orderly fashion. Growing apart from the European Union should be a managed process, like separating conjoined twins, not some exercise carried out in a rush in order to meet an arbitrary timetable. One reason we are in the mess we are is that those who campaigned to leave the European Union had no idea what means were required to do so. They wanted an end but they did not understand, or did not think about, the means. If we were to crash out now, whether it will be as easy as my noble friend Lord Lilley says or as difficult as others say, that would be the worst possible basis for building for the future, for minimising the disadvantages and for taking advantage of the opportunities.