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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:17 pm on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 8:17 pm, 2nd October 2019

My Lords, for once we have a debate that is timely, following as it does so quickly in the wake of the Prime Minister’s conference speech and indeed the publication of the documents delivered this afternoon to Brussels. Having said that, one really must ask whether the “take it or leave it” approach is a basis on which to secure the mutual trust that is essential if we are to achieve a harmonious relationship with our European neighbours.

I have quickly read the documents published today and, however they are dressed up, these proposals will place Northern Ireland in a different relationship with Europe to that of Britain, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, noted a moment ago. The reality is, if the UK is outside a European customs union area and the Irish Republic is inside that customs union, there will inevitably be a border between the north and south of Ireland. There are only two ways of avoiding this: first, if both the UK and the Irish Republic remain in a customs union—and that could of course still be possible even if the UK ceases being a member of the European Union—or, alternatively, by the reunification of Ireland. This is an option that, in our many Brexit debates, we have skirted around. Now, following the Johnson ultimatum, it cannot be avoided. It would be subject of course to the endorsement of the majority of electors in both the north and the south. The world of politics is full of unintended consequences, and one such example is that Brexit may lead to a united Ireland.

Those Members of this House or another place who still advocate or concur with a no-deal Brexit must face this reality: their course of action may well lead to the end of the United Kingdom in its present form. Such constitutional change could well accelerate Scotland’s departure from the union, which would then confront Wales with a fundamental decision on our future as well. Noble Lords might imagine that such a scenario would have its attractions for me, as an advocate of maximum Welsh autonomy. But let me make it quite clear: it does not. The maximum independence for our respective nations must be within a framework of the free movement of people, goods and money. Such a framework is provided by the European Union, providing free movement for its 28 member states. That is one reason, though not the only reason, why I so strongly support the UK remaining in the European Union.

The Prime Minister could have announced today that he was willing to compromise and interpret Brexit as being delivered within a framework that would permit the ongoing free movement of people, goods and money between the UK outside the EU and Ireland within the EU. That would implicitly mean free movement with the whole of the EU. Had that been so, I too would have been willing to compromise—as, indeed, Plaid Cymru did when we accepted the joint White Paper published by the Welsh Government in 2017 on that matter and along those lines. But Mr Johnson will not compromise, so those of us who wish to retain such links with our continent cannot retain confidence in this Government. That lack of confidence is reinforced by the determination of Mr Johnson to leave the EU without a deal if no agreement is achieved by 31 October. Crashing out in this way would be economically devastating for Wales, as many noble Lords have argued many times. I shall not repeat those arguments, although I note today with interest that Northern Ireland is being offered a new deal while Wales is not.

The Prime Minister once again today indicated that he will not ask for the 31 October cliff edge to be delayed in order to secure a deal. In taking such a stance, he is specifically refusing to respect the legislative revisions endorsed by this Chamber. If in two weeks’ time there is no agreement with the EU and no undertaking to extend the Article 50 date, then MPs must surely vote no confidence in Mr Johnson and his Government. I hope they do so and follow that with a resolution of the House indicating their support for another senior MP, be that Kenneth Clarke, Margaret Beckett or whoever, to head a cross-party Government to sort out this whole sorry saga. The Speaker could convey the name of that person to Her Majesty the Queen, even if the Prime Minister were unwilling to do so. That new Government should then move rapidly to reach a compromise deal with the European Union which involves rethinking our customs union relationship with our continent.

I realise that such a version of Brexit will not be acceptable to all Brexiteers; but neither is a no-deal Brexit acceptable to all leave voters, let alone all remainers. That is why there must be a confirmatory referendum in which the Brexit proposed by the cross-party Government is tested against the status quo. Such a binding referendum could then be held early in the new year, allowing Brexit to be finally resolved by March. That would enable an election to follow in May with the Brexit issue resolved and every party able to address the pressing social, environmental and economic problems facing these islands. I appeal to MPs of all parties to reject the Boris bluster and replace him with a Prime Minister who will respect the legislation on the Brexit timetable and allow us to find a consensus way forward.