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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:50 pm on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 8:50 pm, 2nd October 2019

My Lords, we are now in the endgame of Brexit: less than four weeks to go, a choice between crashing out, staying in or some sort of ingenious or fantastical deal over the Irish border.

The Lords, we all accept, is a revising Chamber. We look at the detail of what the Government propose and whether it is workable. Some noble Lords have spoken of the referendum three years ago giving “instructions” from the British people to Parliament, but those instructions did not go into any detail. They did not tell us whether “the people” wanted to maintain co-operation between police forces and exchanges of data on crime and terrorism, and they did not tell us whether the UK should stay in the European space programme or the Joint European Torus on fusion research.

Boris Johnson spoke this morning of the JET Culham research campus as a British asset, but there is a reason it is called the Joint European Torus, and it is not clear yet whether we are planning to shoulder its full cost and staffing ourselves. It is in the Henley constituency and it has a European school. He was deliberately misleading his audience.

The Prime Minister, we know, is not a details man. He showed his eccentric and limited grasp of the details of trade policy in a speech in New York last week, which I happened to catch on television. In it he took as his prime examples of UK exports that would benefit from deregulated access to the US market four items: socks, cauliflower, haggis and lamb. The Minister must be familiar with the research behind this statement. Can he therefore tell us what proportion of UK exports is currently composed of cauliflowers, what scale of expansion in domestic cauliflower production is envisaged, and how easy it will be to supply cauliflowers to California while they are still fresh? I had understood that the UK was at present a net importer of cauliflowers and that it produces them for only one month a year. However, the Prime Minister must understand the sector much better than I do, since he placed more emphasis on that than on high technology, the creative industries or services.

In his update last week, the Prime Minister accused Parliament of living in a fantasy world. I see Mr Johnson and the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, as living in an alternative universe. They and their allies told us three years ago that negotiations with the EU would be quick and easy. They also said that the eurozone was about to collapse, that staying within the EU would leave us “shackled to a corpse”, and that the EU was a “superstate” over which we had no influence.

Now Dominic Cummings says that leaving without a deal will be “a walk in the park”. Mr Johnson says, “Let’s get it finished”, as though there will be nothing more to negotiate after 31 October and no more financial contributions to shared European programmes. Several speeches in this debate have clarified that Britain’s future relationship with the EU remains to be negotiated, in principle and in detail. At best, we will find ourselves a second and poorer Switzerland; at worst, an offshore island like the Irish Free State 50 years ago.

I listened to the Prime Minister’s conference speech this morning. He has a wonderful sense of comic timing—he would have had a successful career as a stand-up comedian. However, he wears his principles lightly and he happily propounds contradictory statements one after another. His best comic line was entirely nonsensical, and I think that I ought to quote it:

“When the chlorinated chickens waddle from the hencoop where they are hiding, that is the vision of the country that we will put to the people”.

I am sure that that is entirely clear to all noble Lords present. For me, the worst contradiction was between his declaration—“I love Europe”—and his use of the language of war to describe our relations with the continent.

After the referendum in 2016, Boris Johnson wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph that claimed that Britain would remain in the EU single market after Brexit. Reportedly, that was one reason that Michael Gove decided that, as he then declared,

“I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”.

Gove was right then, as was Johnson, but both changed their minds.

We have heard some of the wilder interpretations of our difficulties with Brexit in this debate, which remind me of the overlap between Brexit believers, climate change deniers and other conspiracy theorists. The noble Lords, Lord Lilley and Lord James—I do not see the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, in his place at the moment—clearly see the EU as an evil empire, although the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, prefers to define it as the Soviet Union rather than the usual depiction of it as the German Empire. The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, ascribes the lack of progress with Brexit to “scheming and plotting”—by, I assume, malign forces in Parliament and elsewhere. The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Epsom, even suspects a deep judicial plot.

As several noble Lords have said, we are also straining Britain’s constitutional settlement. On the “Today” programme this morning, the Conservative Party chairman, James Cleverly, said:

“There is little point in electing representatives unless we listen to them”.

I cheered up immensely. However, he was actually referring to the DUP and not the UK Parliament. As far as the UK Parliament is concerned, the Prime Minister is whipping up the populist theme of the people against—I assume, an allegedly corrupt—Parliament. That is very dangerous for British democracy. Democracies can die if political leaders cease to defend their principles. Democracy is not just about voting but about the rule of law, respect for an ordered political process, freedom of speech, the toleration of dissent, and limits on and careful legislative scrutiny of executive power.

When the Attorney-General declares, “This is a dead Parliament”; when the Daily Mail declares that the Supreme Court’s recent judgment saw democracy begin to die, as it did the other day; and when the Prime Minister describes an Act of Parliament as the “surrender Act”, we are drifting on to very dangerous ground.

The Minister may remember the Queen’s Speech of two years ago, which set out an ambitious legislative agenda to prepare for an orderly Brexit. Of the list of Bills then produced, the taxation Bill passed, as did the Nuclear Safeguards Bill and the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. The Trade Bill has gone through both Houses and is waiting for ping-pong. The immigration, Fisheries and Agriculture Bills are still waiting for Commons Report stage. As Jacob Rees-Mogg admitted in the Commons last week, fear of amendment has led to government delay.

This means that—although the Minister may try to assure us that the necessary legislative framework will be in place for the UK to leave on 31 October—that can happen only if the Government are given Henry VIII powers to put through a very large number of statutory instruments to allow them to push a massive legislative programme through in two weeks; otherwise, we will not be ready and will need to extend.

This week, the Mail on Sunday headlined allegations from “a senior Number 10 source”—in other words, close to the Prime Minister—that:

“The Government is working on extensive investigations into Dominic Grieve, Oliver Letwin and Hilary Benn and their involvement with foreign powers and the funding of their activities. … The drafting of … legislation in collusion with foreign powers must be fully investigated”.

Later in the article, Philip Hammond’s name was added to this list of potential traitors. Number 10 thinks that three recent Conservative Cabinet Ministers have now gone over to the enemy.

The hostile foreign power with which the Prime Minister’s Office alleged that they were colluding was not Russia or China but France, an ally of the UK for more than 100 years. The Prime Minister’s frequent references to “our friends in Europe” presumably includes the French. But refighting the Second World War, for this pocket Churchill, makes him contradict the whole idea of friendship with our neighbours across the channel, through references to “surrender”, “traitors”, “betrayal”, even “the Dunkirk spirit” as the war is endlessly replayed.

We know that the Prime Minister likes to compare himself to Churchill. The press increasingly compares him to Trump: constantly campaigning rather than governing, dividing the country while talking of uniting it. Watching the Prime Minister’s update to the Commons last Wednesday, I thought more of the comparison with Viktor Orban, the authoritarian Prime Minister of Hungary, who has coined the phrase “illiberal democracy”, by which he means democracy in name only, without the rule of law and without independent media. Like Boris Johnson, he started off as a social liberal. I even shared a platform with him at a conference in 1997 when he was seen to be one of the rising liberal modernisers in eastern Europe. But then he discovered that appealing to nationalist resentments, attacking the European Union, sneering at intellectuals and demonising immigrants whipped up public emotions and consolidated his hold on power.

On the Conservative Benches behind the Prime Minister last Wednesday, Brexiter MPs were attacking the “liberal establishment” as the core of the alleged parliamentary plot to thwart the will of the people. The liberal establishment, as I understand it, includes the mainstream media—except the Telegraph, the Mail and the Express, but including above all, the BBC, of course—as well as experts of all kinds, the universities and the academic class, the churches, the judges and the Civil Service. That covers most of us present in this Chamber; it includes people who think, who have respect for evidence and who believe in reasoned debate. The populist right, which has taken over the Conservative Party, defines itself against this as the illiberal anti-establishment, speaking for the people against the elite. Noble Lords need only look at Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson himself to see how ludicrous their claim to represent the people against the elite is.

I can think of two earlier instances of the Tory party losing its mind. The first was in 1687-88, when Tories supported the King against Parliament and patriots such as General John Churchill appealed to a foreign power—the Dutch—to invade Britain in what we now remember as the Glorious Revolution. The Tories at that point were supported, politically and financially, by the authoritarian French. The second instance was in 1913-14 over Ireland, when Tory politicians fanned the flames in Ulster, coming close to promoting civil war against the elected Government in Westminster. We were saved from that threat of civil conflict by the disastrous outbreak of the First World War. We have to hope that this third bout of madness will not lead to another such political, economic and constitutional disaster. We appeal to those reasonable Conservatives—followers of the one-nation tradition, from Disraeli to Macmillan to Cameron—to help us return British politics from right-wing populism to reasoned debate.