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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:21 am on 19th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 10:21 am, 19th October 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. There were some points of difference from what the Prime Minister said, which I will come to. I listened carefully to what she said. It is now 1,212 days since we heard the outcome of the 2016 referendum vote, and few could have foreseen how Brexit would lead to our politics and our country being so uncertain and bitterly divided. Nobody could have predicted that Parliament would be sitting on a Saturday to debate the merits of the “new” Brexit deal, which is inferior to the one previously rejected by an historic margin.

The noble Baroness says that the Government will now speak for the 52% and the 48%. I had hoped that honouring the referendum result meant more than just one side saying, “We won, you lost. Get over it”. I had hoped that, during this process, there would be a recognition that in this huge democratic exercise, while 17.4 million people voted to leave, more than 16 million people made it clear that they were very much against that. So yes, there is a mandate, but not one to ignore the wishes of almost half the voting public. The real challenge for the Government was not just to leave the EU but to do so in a way that respected the votes of all their citizens, and to seek to unite our country rather than foster division. In that challenge, the Government have failed—spectacularly.

Our politics is not built on a winner-takes-all system. When one party wins a general election, it does not take every seat in the House of Commons. Our system and constitution ensure a voice and a role for the Opposition, as well as a clear, scrutinising, advisory role for your Lordships’ House. In the Statement in the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister made several references to the role of that House. The noble Baroness spoke instead of an ongoing role for both Houses of Parliament. It would be nice to know which the Prime Minister intends.

As we know, power in our politics lies ultimately with Parliament as a body, not just with the Prime Minister or the Executive. It was your Lordships’ House that ensured a role for all MPs in reaching a final decision on how we leave the EU, with our amendment on a meaningful vote for the elected House. That is why they are sitting today—which they may not thank us for.

The way Boris Johnson is trying to portray his deal is reminiscent of Theresa May’s Brexit offer, when she also claimed that it was “taking back control” and the “best” and “only” deal possible. As it was previously, the route to the deal before us today was a rollercoaster ride. I have to admit to some cynicism about how much of that has been stage managed. Deadlines were imposed and missed. Expectations were ramped up, only to be dampened down. As ever with this Government, sabres were rattled and then hastily tucked away again. Then, all of a sudden, the proverbial white smoke emerged. Now I do want to put on record that we should all be immensely grateful to the negotiating team officials for their hard work and dedication throughout the entire process. It has been a huge challenge.

Other than to debate matters of war, the last time this House sat on a Saturday was in 1949. At that time, the very concept of some kind of Europe-wide union was a hope held by some men and women who, having lived through a terrible conflict, sought to forge a path to a sustainable, long-term partnership of peace and prosperity. Yet here we are, 70 years later, examining a revised withdrawal agreement and political declaration for our departure.

Despite the assertions of No.10, let us remember one thing: it was not the current Prime Minister who forced Brussels to reopen the withdrawal deal. Given that a majority of MPs rejected the previous agreement three times, the EU heard the very clear message that Mrs May’s deal could not be ratified. For many Conservative MPs, the issue was the backstop—but that, after all, was intended to come into force only if all else failed. Jonathan Powell, who did so much in Downing Street with Tony Blair to bring about the Good Friday agreement, said that while some,

“claim they have got rid of the backstop … they have in fact transformed it from a fallback into the definitive future arrangement for NI with the province remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union”.

So, instead of leaving the future status of Northern Ireland up for negotiation in the next stage of talks, a new set of arrangements will be in place until at least 2024, with a further two-year wind-down period if consent is withdrawn. Even the DUP, which has kept this Government afloat, rejects this. I am sad to see that DUP Peers are not in their places today and contributing to this debate. These proposals introduce a border down the middle of the Irish Sea, despite the previous derision of the Prime Minister and his ERG allies on this.

Our concern with the original deal was that Mrs May had failed to provide enough clarity over the UK’s future relationship with the EU in areas that we consider crucial. It was unclear what form of trade relationship she envisaged beyond cross-border trade being “as frictionless as possible”. That meant little certainty for businesses, preventing industry from planning ahead and unlocking new investment. There were no concrete commitments on UK participation in EU agencies, nor on the extent of future co-operation on security matters. That potentially left consumers getting a worse deal and our security services facing significant gaps, putting UK citizens at risk.

The political declaration is aspirational, and it is of major concern that it now contains issues that were previously nailed down in the legally binding withdrawal agreement—for example, the level playing field for social rights. Now this is in only the political declaration, which merely references maintaining present standards,

“at the end of the transition period”,

and notes:

“The precise nature of commitments should be commensurate with the scope and depth of the future relationship”— which is uncertain. So there are no guarantees on employment or environmental protection beyond the end of the transition period.

Paragraph 25 of the original declaration, which committed the UK to considering long-term regulatory alignment, has vanished, and there are other indications that the Government will be able to pursue wholesale divergence, to the detriment of businesses, employees, consumers and the environment.

In some areas, however, Mr Johnson’s Brexit provides a greater degree of certainty—but not in a positive way. The Government’s ambition is limited to negotiating a free trade agreement, rather than seeking a closer arrangement such as an association agreement. The Treasury’s own analysis predicts a loss of more than 6% of potential GDP growth in the next 15 years, equivalent to each household losing well over £2,000. The political declaration confirms that the agreement will include rules of origin requirements, thus selling out the UK car industry.

The level playing field commitments in the political declaration are vague. That is why the TUC’s Frances O’Grady warns that the deal is,

“a disaster for working people”,

that would,

“hammer the economy, cost jobs and sell workers’ rights down the river”.

Meanwhile, the National Farmers’ Union is concerned about British standards being undercut, with our market potentially opened up to products that could not be legally produced in this country. So what is before us seems to take us a step closer to hardcore Brexiteers in the ERG, rather than a common-sense Brexit that could have benefited citizens and the economy.

So this does not strike me as a “great new deal”, as the noble Baroness read out in her Statement—and it does not seem to have struck others in that way, either. The CBI’s Carolyn Fairbairn speaks of business having,

“serious concerns about the direction of the future UK-EU relationship”,

with the new deal being “inadequate” for the service sector, which makes such a significant contribution to our economy. The Institute of Directors, while admitting some guarded relief at recent progress, says that,

“if a passable deal is in touching distance then politicians on all sides should be pragmatic about giving us the time to get there”.

This is key. The deal is unsatisfactory. I have always thought that the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act—the Benn Act—could have been a lifeline for a Prime Minister close to a deal but without the final details. He should use that time available—no ifs, no buts and certainly no second letters.

But everyone is losing patience. An extension will work on only two grounds: first, if a Prime Minister is willing to compromise to gain a majority in Parliament; or, secondly, to seek a public mandate. If MPs do not accept the deal today, the impasse cannot continue. We have moved on from abstract views and opinions. Nobody who voted in the referendum of 2016 could have even imagined the deal being presented today by the Prime Minister. At the beginning of this process, when Article 50 was invoked, I argued against a second referendum. We had barely started dealing with the outcome of the first. But now, with all that has gone before us and the incompetent way in which Brexit has been handled by the last three Prime Ministers and their Governments, we have a responsibility to put the real choice—the actual choice—to the public. If this is the best Brexit that a Brexit-believing Prime Minister considers can be delivered, why not seek a public mandate for it? Anything less would be a dereliction of duty.