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My Lords, the last three and a half years have been the most divisive, frustrating and unpleasant I have known in over 30 years’ membership of your Lordships’ House. However, as most speakers will recognise, we have an opportunity today to put that behind us and take an important step forward. We can leave either with or without a deal. As the noble Lord, Lord Birt, said, today’s debate enables us to leave with a deal. I realise that a significant majority of your Lordships, like the noble Lord, would prefer not to be leaving the EU at all, but the mandate of the 2016 referendum, supported by the two main parties at the last election, is to leave, like it or not.
As my noble friend Lady Noakes said, we have heard repeatedly that the withdrawal agreement could not be re-opened, but it has been. We were told that the backstop could not be dispensed with, but it has gone. We were assured that the Irish would not deal directly with the Prime Minister; not only has the Taoiseach negotiated directly with the Prime Minister, but it was his intervention that unlocked this deal.
In my experience, it is very difficult to do a deal unless there are two willing parties, with a degree of good will on both sides. I have observed the past three years of negotiations only through the prism of the media and through your Lordships’ House, neither of which is without bias, as your Lordships may have noticed. While there has been deplorable weakness and naivety in the Government’s negotiating positions and tactics over the past three years, it is difficult to conclude that there was much good will on the other side. Whether a deal was ever possible in those circumstances is doubtful, but the conduct of those who have consistently sought to undermine the Government’s position and have, even within the past few days and weeks, effectively conspired with a foreign power against our national interest, is quite unprecedented. In these circumstances, to have successfully negotiated a deal, as the Prime Minister has, is an extraordinary achievement. To reject today’s Motion, and thus effectively support our leaving the EU without a deal, which this House has strongly opposed, would be bizarre, to say the least.
Mrs May’s deal was unacceptable to the House of Commons because of the backstop, which could have prevented the UK leaving the EU at all. It has now been removed, which means that, whatever else, this deal ultimately will deliver a complete end to the UK’s membership of the EU. By removing the backstop and replacing it with a virtual customs border between Ireland and the rest of the UK, this deal presents some very real problems for the DUP. I understand that. While I am a passionate supporter of the union, I do not pretend to understand all the intricacies of the politics of Ireland. However, I am more than aware of the sensitivities. At the same time, I marvel at the progress made since the Good Friday agreement and deplore anything that puts it at risk. I also recognise points of principle as much as anyone else does, but I struggle to see a system of tariffs and rebates as a genuinely significant constitutional barrier for most people—for politicians perhaps, but not most people. I understand, too, the concerns about the potential democratic deficit, if that is the right way to put it, in approving this system of tariffs, but I do not see that as so much of a problem that it cannot be resolved—not by some diktat within a treaty, perhaps, but by the same good will that brought about the Good Friday agreement itself. To have climbed that huge mountain yet now to trip over this small step seems too cruel. I hope beyond hope that my DUP friends will see their way through this dilemma.
I am what is now called a Brexiteer. Like most people, I struggled to decide how to vote but in the end my heart ruled my head. If I had any doubts about how to vote, and I did, they have been dispelled by the behaviour of the European Commission over the past three years and the conduct of the remainer campaign, which has been dishonourable and demonstrably against the national interest. I am not in favour of a hard Brexit, nor a soft Brexit, because I am not entirely sure what those terms mean. I am in favour of a sensible, reasonable Brexit, detaching us from the EU completely and regaining the freedom to make our own political and economic decisions while maintaining a strong friendship with our European neighbours, with whom we share so much and with whom I look forward to sharing a peaceful and prosperous future. I do not think that is too much to ask.
My father, who sat in this House for almost 50 years and served in four Governments, taught me that politics was about not just the way you think about your country, but the way you feel about your country. He impressed on me the importance of learning to assess the mood of this House and the mood of the people. The mood of this House today is still split, but not, I think, the mood of the people. I look at the polls and I read the press. I listen to the people I meet—from all walks of life, not just my own circle of family and friends. My assessment of the mood is that, overwhelmingly, people are sick to death of the protracted mess that Parliament has made of this. But the mess is not Brexit: it is Parliament’s unwillingness to implement Brexit that angers people.