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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:33 am on 19th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 10:33 am, 19th October 2019

My Lords, your Lordships’ House is sitting on a Saturday for the first time since 1983 and for only the fourth time in 80 years. These occasions have typically been to debate a serious foreign threat to the vital interests of the United Kingdom: the outbreak of the Second World War, Suez, the Falklands. Today, we sit on a Saturday to try to resolve a serous internal threat to the unity and future of the Conservative Party. There is no reason, other than the Prime Minister’s macho commitment to leave the EU by 31 October, for the Government’s decision to recall Parliament today.

Such a timetable is a complete abuse of the parliamentary process. It does not allow the appropriate impact assessment to be made, for the relevant Select Committees to consider the proposals, or for the Commons and your Lordships’ House to give proper consideration to the withdrawal Bill. It barely gives us time to read and compare the documents. The withdrawal agreement itself—some 535 pages—was available for the first time for noble Lords to pick up from the Printed Paper Office just this morning.

We certainly have not had time to identify and work out what some of the changes mean. For example, the sections in the political declaration on dispute settlement and the forward process have been substantially rewritten. Why? Parliament is being asked to approve these changes with no effective ability to question Ministers on them. It is a disgrace.

It is, of course perfectly understandable for the Government to want such a timetable, because if they were to give Parliament time to look at the deal properly, a number of its highly undesirable consequences would become clearer. There would, for example, be time to have an economic assessment. Latest figures from UK in a Changing Europe suggest that the hit to GDP of this deal would be about 6.4%. This is broadly in line with the Government’s own analysis of last November, which suggested that, with the kind of restrictive immigration system the Government have in mind, such a deal could have an even bigger effect. For the north-east, north-west and the West Midlands, the fall in GDP would be considerably higher again.

There would be greater time to expose the fact that, as a consequence of the new deal, EU components of goods manufactured in the UK will no longer be treated as of domestic origin. Given the low proportion of UK content in cars, for example, this would have the effect of making it impossible to export any car manufactured in the UK to a third country duty free, even under a free trade agreement. This raises the spectre of the end of bulk car manufacturing in the United Kingdom.

More time would enable us to examine the threat to the level playing field on environmental standards and employment rights, which were guaranteed in Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement but are now relegated to the eminently amendable political declaration, with no presumption there that we should follow future improvements in standards under EU rules. More time would give us the opportunity to question whether, as the Conservative John Baron has claimed, the Government see this deal as leading to the equivalent of a no-deal Brexit at the end of the transition period next year.

More time would enable us to examine the economic impact on Northern Ireland. Under this deal, businesses in Northern Ireland will have to pay up front to “import” from Great Britain. They will be able to claim that money back only once the goods have been sold and once businesses can prove that the goods remained in Northern Ireland. Small and medium-sized businesses provide 75% of employment in Northern Ireland. For those with tight cash flows, this deal will have a crippling effect.

More time would enable us to expose the threat to the union that these proposals pose, for, unlike the May deal, under this deal we are moving to a position where there is no border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic but there is most certainly a border for goods and services between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Under these proposals, the economic union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is effectively no more. Politics follows economics. It is impossible to see how the proposed arrangements will not provide further impetus for a border poll on the island of Ireland, and one that might prove successful.

The impact on the union with Scotland is also clear. Northern Ireland will have freer access to EU markets than Scotland. Scotland will want the same, understandably, and the only way it will get it is by independence. This deal is a further recruiting sergeant for the SNP. For the Conservative and Unionist Party to hail this deal as good for all parts of the United Kingdom, when it will lead to its disintegration, is frankly shameful, but typical of the lengths that the current Prime Minister will go to try to preserve the unity of the English Conservative Party.

Of course, Conservative MPs dismissed the Northern Ireland proposals put forward by the EU at the start of the negotiations, yet now they line up on a deal that is essentially the same thing to support it. Just over a year ago, the Prime Minister said that EU proposals to have a customs border in the Irish Sea were,

“little short of an attempt to annex Northern Ireland”.

In your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, said:

“We will not permit a customs border down the Irish Sea, which would put at risk the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK”.—[Official Report, 4/9/18; col. 1754.]

Those were wise words. Yet the very thing which was anathema in January is now a triumphant achievement, the gateway to a British utopia. I am sure that in winding up this debate, he will explain why his views and those of the Prime Minister have changed. I am sure that all noble Lords are struggling to understand.

At this moment, it is unclear whether the Prime Minister has the numbers to get the deal through the Commons. This is despite the capitulation of the “Spartans”. Where, in their hour of crisis, is their Leonidas? Under pressure to save the Tory party, the leader of today’s Spartans has shown the backbone of the eponymous Belgian chocolate, rather than the courage of the hero of the pass at Thermopylae.

There has been one amendment tabled in the Commons which would delay today’s meaningful vote on the deal, but even if it passes, a number of things are clear. First, a letter will need to be sent under the terms of the Benn Act, seeking an extension. Secondly, if the Government lose the meaningful vote on the deal—either today or at a later date—then the only way to get a resolution to the impasse is to consult the people. As we discussed earlier in the week, this could take the form of either a general election or a referendum, and for reasons which I set out on Monday, a general election is by far the inferior method of making what is—