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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:02 pm on 16th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench 5:02 pm, 16th October 2019

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd, whose championing of so many causes over the years I have greatly admired. As I have listened to this excellent debate, I have reflected on how refreshing it is to be debating the UK’s role in the full range of foreign policy and defence issues, not just Brexit. We had an inspiring prospectus of the UK’s opportunities from the Minister, who opened the debate, but more sobering assessments from others, notably the noble Lords, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard and Lord Ricketts. I feel, therefore, that I should apologise to the House for taking my eyes off that horizon and returning to the tripwire of Brexit before our feet.

As I have said previously, I hope that the Government can get a deal with the EU, although I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that, for purely practical purposes, an extension to the deadline of 31 October looks inevitable. In that respect, I return to the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in yesterday’s debate. He pointed out that Article 50 requires that a withdrawal agreement should be negotiated taking account of a framework for a future relationship but not determining the details of that relationship. It would be presumptuous on my part to endorse the noble and learned Lord’s interpretation of the legal meaning of Article 50 but it seems to me, as it does to him, that the arrangements on the Irish border are part of the future relationship with the European Union. They turn crucially, for example, on the customs arrangement with the EU, which is surely part of the future relationship.

EU officials are quoted in this morning’s newspaper as saying that, if an agreement is reached in the next day or two, the technical details may take until 1 January to finalise. If this is right, it is in the interests of both sides to leave the arrangements for the Irish border and the backstop out of the withdrawal agreement—the very thing the Government have been asking for. The withdrawal agreement could then be signed, perhaps by 31 October, and the technical details of the border settled in accordance with the agreed framework in the implementation period.

Yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, was asked by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and myself whether this was a correct interpretation of Article 50. The noble Lord did not agree with us. He said that it would not be wise to finalise the withdrawal agreement with technical details of this sort remaining to be settled, and that it would not be likely that either side would want to do so. I am glad to see the noble Lord in his place; he will correct me if I have misquoted him. However, he, the draftsman of Article 50, did not say that the suggestion of the noble and learned Lord and myself was based on an incorrect interpretation of that article. If a deal is reached with the EU in the next day or two and only the drafting of the technical details threatens to hold up the settling of the withdrawal agreement and our departure from the EU, it seems that it would be worth considering going ahead with the withdrawal agreement without the backdrop and leaving the technical details to be turned into legal form in the implementation period. This is meant to be a helpful suggestion to the Government and it would be helpful if the Minister would give his reaction to it in his winding-up speech.

Now I will say something that I think will disappoint my old boss, the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine. Over the past three and a half years, my position on Brexit has evolved. I continue to think that membership of the EU is overwhelmingly in the UK’s and the EU’s interest. Immediately after the referendum, I argued that, when the terms of our departure were known, it was the Government’s duty to give the people a further vote on them. Depending on the result of a future election, or even of the legislation to implement an agreement, a further referendum has again become a possibility.

However, I regret to say that it is now too late for that. That train has left the station. Even if a further referendum resulted in a majority for remaining, it would not reunite our country. Those who believe in Brexit would not give up. We would be an internally divided and truculent partner in the EU, and that would not be in the EU’s interests or ours. I have felt for some time that our, and the EU’s, best interests lie in our leaving the EU with an agreement and turning our efforts to the new relationship. I supported Mrs May’s deal.

Like the majority of this House, I voted for an amendment to the EU Trade Bill seeking a customs union with the EU. Of course, that would remove the difficulty over the Irish border at a stroke. From the outset of these negotiations, it has been clear that we could not go our own way in making trade deals with third countries without having border controls with the EU. That means border controls between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which would be contrary to our obligations under the Belfast agreement. That might be inconvenient but it is true. Our Government have repeatedly refused to face up to that point; they have not dared to take the Trade Bill back to the Commons for fear that the Commons would endorse the amendment passed in this House. If we are to get Brexit done while honouring the Belfast agreement, we have to make some compromises. That is what the Government are having to face up to at this very moment. If they compromise too far, they risk losing the support of their Members in the House of Commons. If they do not compromise enough, they will not get the agreement of the Irish Government or the EU. There is indeed a narrow path to tread.

To those who argue that remaining in the single market and a customs union with the EU is Brexit in name only, I say that it is much more than that. We would free ourselves from the federal ambitions of the EU. We would revert to the sort of trading relationship we entered into in 1972 but with the advantage of the many collaborative agreements that we have reached with our European partners since that time. We have enough economic power and other strengths to have an influential and mutually beneficial future relationship with the EU.

Over the past three and a half years, I have compromised in my views. If an agreement comes before the House of Commons on Saturday, I hope that others will do the same. It is overwhelmingly in our national interest and the interests of our children and grandchildren that we should do so.