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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:59 am on 19th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative 10:59 am, 19th October 2019

My Lords, this is not the time or occasion for “we told you so” speeches and remarks, but it is odd how many supposedly well- informed people and authorities have got it wrong about the possibility of a deal. They clearly totally underestimated the will and resolution of the Prime Minister. It was not just in politics: the Times said there was no chance of a deal; the Financial Times said with great authority that there was absolutely no possibility of reopening the withdrawal agreement, except for the excellent Mr Münchau who spotted that there was. Several authorities in this very House, with great expertise and knowledge, asserted that there could be no possibility of any alternative to the backstop. The BBC now blames “conventional wisdom” for getting it wrong; what it means, of course, is that it got it wrong itself. All these people said that it was impossible to open the withdrawal agreement again and that there was no alternative to the backstop. Well, there was, and it is before us now. It is a huge opportunity for this country to go forward.

Many speeches have been based on the proposition that the Northern Ireland protocol happens tomorrow morning or on 1 November. It does not; this deal means a standstill of 14 months and an opportunity to develop sensible solutions in many areas. The Joint Committee has to work out the details of the protocol over the next 14 months. Even if it comes into operation, it does not do so until the beginning of 2021—after December 2020. It becomes relevant only if there is no comprehensive and balanced free trade agreement with zero tariffs, which is the prime aim and intention of Her Majesty’s Government and other negotiators. If that happens, the controls down the Irish Sea become largely redundant.

The nation as a whole is a winner from this deal, but I concur with my noble friend Lord Baker that the real winner is Northern Ireland industry. This explains why industrialists throughout Northern Ireland are very anxious that this deal should be passed—Northern Ireland industry, Northern Ireland consumers and Northern Ireland prosperity. I speak as a former Minister of Commerce in Northern Ireland and know how incredibly difficult it has been over the last 20 to 30 years to attract investment to Northern Ireland. It is possible—we succeeded to a certain extent in my day—but I have no doubt that the position will be vastly improved with this deal.

I have a question for my noble friend when he winds up. At one stage, there was mention—perhaps a little fantastical—of a bridge between England or Scotland and Northern Ireland. Is that really a possibility? Would it not help physically to reaffirm the closeness between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom: that we are all part of the same United Kingdom? That would be a great improvement.

If the Prime Minister loses this afternoon, or if the Benn-Letwin legislation prevails, will the EU actually grant the extension that that policy requires? I suspect that there will have to be a very short, technical extension anyway to get the withdrawal agreement through. I also suspect that the EU will be extremely reluctant to grant the three-month extension that the Benn-Letwin legislation requires. Mr Macron has made it clear that he does not want it, as has the Polish Prime Minister. Several others have suggested that this is not an appropriate delay and would merely lead to new difficulties three months on. I therefore doubt whether the three-month extension would be granted. Those who believe that it would, who believe that the Prime Minister will lose this afternoon and who argued for the conventional wisdom that there could be no deal were wrong then, and will be wrong again.