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My Lords, when the Prime Minister made his “do or die” statement during the Conservative leadership campaign, I felt strongly, and said at the time, that he had boxed himself in. He is now seeking to release himself from that box by agreeing to something that both he and his predecessor Theresa May said no British Government could or should ever contemplate: putting a border in the Irish Sea.
Politics is often described as the art of the possible. For this Prime Minister, it is the art of the expedient. For all the bluster and tough talking by the new Government, much of the withdrawal agreement and political declaration negotiated by Theresa May remains unchanged. In so far as it has changed, it has been materially for the worse. Those who say that it opens up the prospect of a harder Brexit, greater regulatory divergence and a race to the bottom on workers’ protections are right. We have seen assurances from the Government today on that, but why were those things taken out of the agreement in the first place?
There is a connection between this and the economic impact. We do not have the Treasury’s economic assessment, as others have observed, but we have the economic modelling of the independent think tank UK in a Changing Europe, which says that this deal will be significantly more economically damaging in the long term than the May deal. This economic damage will be even greater if we have the equivalent of a no-deal Brexit in December 2020, as some of the hard-line Brexiteers are secretly hoping for. Whatever short-term boost there is to the economy from reaching a deal will quickly evaporate as trade barriers start to be erected. Here is the connection, as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, pointed out: to respond to that economic challenge, workers’ rights and conditions will be under threat.
The Johnson deal materially adds to the risk of the United Kingdom breaking up. Much has rightly been said about Northern Ireland, but if this deal goes through, a second referendum on independence in Scotland would be almost impossible to resist and would have a much stronger prospect of succeeding. Like John Major, I find it genuinely surprising that some of the most passionate supporters of the union are willing to put that at risk for this deal.
In short, I did not much like the May deal and I like this one even less. The only reason this deal is being given houseroom at the moment is Brexit fatigue. I doubt that there is anyone in this room who is not heartily sick of Brexit. Indeed, Sky News now runs a separate news channel where the B-word is not used. It is also right to say that Brexit has crowded out many vital issues facing this country and damaged trust in our democracy. However, as so many others have said, agreeing this deal now does not end the uncertainty or Brexit. The Brexit nightmare will continue for years to come. It will be like the film “Groundhog Day”, but without the laughs. We will still wake up to the latest Brexit news on our radios; the only thing that will have changed is that John Humphrys has now retired.
It is now three years and four months since the EU referendum. The terms of our departure now proposed are almost unrecognisable from those which were promised at the time of the referendum. It may be that, despite all this—despite the fact that the benefits are so much smaller and the costs so much higher—the public still feel that leaving the EU is worthwhile. However, given the extent of that change and the deep divisions we have in Parliament, we should let the British people make that choice. If I were not in this Chamber today, I would be on the People’s Vote march.