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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:32 pm on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative 7:32 pm, 2nd October 2019

It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord King. We are here to take note of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, which of course has not happened. I agree with my noble friend Lord Tugendhat that the divisive rhetoric that blames the fact we have not left on a remainer Parliament is entirely wrong. It is the Brexiters who have blocked Brexit. Sadly, extreme Brexiters have taken this Conservative Government further and further from compromise. After two years of negotiations, the withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU was rejected by Parliament, but not because of remainers or the Opposition. In the third vote in March 2019, Hansard reports that 286 Members supported the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, while 344 voted against—a 58-vote defeat for the Government. But 28 Conservatives and 10 Democratic Unionist Party Members voted against their Government. If these 38 had supported the deal, there would have been an 18-vote majority and we would presumably not be facing no deal now.

Since then, the current Prime Minister has apparently changed his mind and, despite voting for it in March, has decided that no deal is preferable to accepting the backstop. I have witnessed good colleagues resign the Whip or leave the Tory party altogether, and 21 brave MPs expelled for voting in the national interest against the no-deal Brexit that many agree would be catastrophic for our country and party. Like my noble friend Lord Cormack, I consider these MPs to be people of high integrity and true Conservatives, who should be part of a party that is traditionally a broad church, not a narrow sect that panders to a group of extremists who wish to override the will of Parliament and dismiss court rulings.

Thus far, I am grateful that Parliament and the courts are protecting normal democratic values against the extremes, but I fear politics is being put above democracy and economic logic. We must respect the result of the referendum, but we have done. Pandering to the Brexit Party or ERG extremists, and going back on one’s previous words, are not the normal Conservative values as I understood them. The Prime Minister, in his victory speech after the referendum, on 24 June 2016, declared:

“The most precious thing this country has given the world is the idea of parliamentary democracy”.

This is not just an idea; it is a reality. Our parliamentary democracy does not consist of pitting the public against Westminster and the courts. Parliament has rejected no deal time and again, and many on these Benches are incredulous at current events. Dismissing an 11:0 Supreme Court ruling as “wrong” scarcely squares with the Prime Minister’s pre-referendum promise to make British courts supreme.

Leaving with no deal has no democratic legitimacy. Michael Gove, in April 2016, assured referendum voters that the UK would continue to be part of the EU’s free trade zone. He stated:

“The suggestion that Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and Ukraine would remain part of this free-trade area—and Britain would be on the outside with just Belarus—is as credible as Jean-Claude Juncker joining UKIP”.

No deal means losing our free trade with the EU. As my noble friend the Minister said in his opening remarks that business should be ready for no deal, I ask him when the temporary tariff regime will be published. How will smaller businesses be supported, given that we are just four weeks from 31 October? Could he tell me if there is any democratic evidence that the British people insist that 31 October must be a hard Brexit deadline?

No deal is not the will of the people. For example, in the general election in 2017, more than 17 million people voted for parties opposed to no deal. In the 2019 EU elections, 54% of voters rejected no-deal parties. How does this square with the Prime Minister’s conference speech today that we must,

“dedicate ourselves again to that simple proposition that we are here to serve the democratic will of the British people”?

In his article after the 2016 referendum, the Prime Minister stated that 16 million wanted to remain, so:

“We who are part of this narrow majority … must reach out, we must heal, we must build bridges”— at that stage, I do not think he meant from Britain to Ireland—

“because it is clear that some have feelings of dismay, and of loss, and confusion”.

I totally support these sentiments, but what has happened to the man who penned them? Today’s supposed plans for the Irish border are, as many noble Lords have pointed out, not necessarily going to produce a deal. They do not seem to be designed to. Therefore, we are still heading either for an extension or no deal— 40 years of integration discarded.

Burke warned against sudden extreme change, so I finish with his wise words, which have helped me keep going in the face of so much madness:

“Never despair, but if you do, work on in despair”.