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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:52 pm on 16th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Labour 5:52 pm, 16th October 2019

It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, with whom I agree very much, as well as my noble friend Lady Quin, who made an outstanding intervention.

That great American philosopher, Neil Sedaka, used to say—indeed, sing:

“Breaking up is hard to do”.

My goodness, we have been exposed to that truth in the past three years. Debating the gracious Speech is a tradition that this House looks forward to. Whether one is in the Government or in opposition, aspects of the Government’s programme are normally worthy of serious consideration, if not agreement.

However, we have been presented this year, extraordinarily, with what has been called by some a political stunt, by others a fantasy wish list and, by me, the next scene in the Whitehall farce that British politics has become. While the Government may have been promoting this farce, we are all to blame for the bad acting in it, in a way. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, is right: there has been far more fury than focus in this Brexit debate over these past three years. That is coming from a committed remainer such as myself—or remainiac, as we have been called. We are seen to be sticking so closely to our red lines that the whole country is now beginning to see red. The nation’s dentists report that they have never known so many people to be grinding their teeth in their sleep.

As my noble friend Lady Quin said, we have had a draft Conservative manifesto put before us in a most elaborate and, I have to say, cynical fashion weeks before a probable general election—not usual, given the Government’s severe lack of a majority—outlining a programme of work that will not even get started, let alone completed and implemented.

Yes, of course, looking at the gracious Speech, it would be absurd not to want the UK to punch above its weight in global affairs, invest more in our Armed Forces, keep to our NATO commitments or honour the Armed Forces covenant. Yet, as other noble Lords have asked, how will all this investment and global activity be possible when the same Government are contemplating a no-deal Brexit that could, according to independent sources, knock more than 8%—or 6% under the Prime Minister’s deal—off our country’s gross domestic product, thus beckoning a recession? There is all this talk of investment when we are about to cut ourselves off from our largest world trade partner.

As my noble friend Lady Hayter said in her authoritative speech yesterday, the UK’s,

“relationship with our near neighbours, trading partners and close friends lies at the heart of our wider global defence, security, commercial and diplomatic relations”,—[Official Report, 15/10/19; col. 38.] with the rest of the world. The world is looking askance at us and wondering if, as a country, we are having a spectacular breakdown. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, in an excellent speech yesterday, spoke about his uncomfortable conversation with an Australian taxi driver; we have all had those conversations, in Paris, Dublin, New York or Birmingham. If only, as the poet said, we could see ourselves as others see us.

The gracious Speech refers to,

“seizing the opportunities that arise from leaving the European Union”.

Will those opportunities, when they come to, say, farming, include the slaughter of livestock that cannot be exported in the event of no deal? Will they include the opportunity to remove ourselves and our future influence from European forums for vital research into science, medicine and technology, or the opportunity to see the possible end of our motor industry—I ask that as a former West Midlands MEP—or, perhaps, the opportunity no longer to share intelligence on much criminal and terrorist activity in Europe with our European partners? Of course, there is always the opportunity to mess up 20 years of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland and a century of relations with our closest trading partner, the Republic of Ireland, which is at the moment staring at tens of thousands of job losses in the event of our no-deal Brexit. There may—as my noble friend Lady Quin said—be an opportunity to see the break-up of the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, for whom I have a great deal of respect, spoke yesterday about the “golden” trade opportunity of leaving the EU; he managed to say it with a straight face. This “golden” opportunity assumes that our trade with the world beyond the EU will quickly make up for our leaving. Yet, the ONS —the Office for National Statistics—tells a different story. It tells us that the EU accounts for 48% of goods exports from the UK, while goods imports from the EU are worth more than imports from the rest of the world combined. How long will that take to change?

This reminds me of a speech one Boris Johnson made to the Conservative Party conference in 2018 when he spoke about the fantastic trade opportunities soon to emerge between Peru—yes, Peru—and post-Brexit Britain. I do not know how much quinoa he expects us to eat per head of population, but because of geography —which even Boris Johnson cannot change—and because of the size of the country’s GDP and its capacity, Peru, for all that it is a wonderful country, will never be a major trading partner for us. Of course, his implication was that EU membership has corrupted our awareness of so many other exciting parts of the world. Yet here on our doorstep, we are deliberately turning our back on the maximum trade opportunities we could squeeze from our largest and nearest trading partner, the EU.

Deal or no deal, I cannot for the life of me understand what these so-called Brexit opportunities are. What I can see is a future of diminished opportunities and a poorer, less tolerant, less outward-looking country, where civilising regulation in the workplace, equality, consumer rights and the environment are sacrificed to a deregulation vision of the “Singapore on the Thames”, which my noble friend Lord Liddle referred to in his riveting speech yesterday. Perhaps it will be more like Armageddon-on-Sea. I see a future in which our grandchildren will not have the freedom their parents had to be British and European. Shame on us; this country and its young people deserve better. They deserve a confirmatory vote.

The last time I spoke on Brexit in this Chamber, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, whose patience has been much tried over the past few years, dismissed what I had to say by suggesting that I had taken too much sun during the Recess. I presume he was quoting Hamlet saying to Claudius that he is,

“too much i’ the sun”.

If the noble Lord can set out the sunlit upland opportunities of both a Brexit deal and a no-deal Brexit, I am willing to listen, but I cannot guarantee that I will be convinced.