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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:52 pm on 19th October 2019.

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Photo of The Duke of Wellington The Duke of Wellington Conservative 1:52 pm, 19th October 2019

My Lords, as always, I declare my European interests as detailed in the register.

I did not speak in the debate earlier this week, as the details of the new withdrawal agreement were not yet known. They are now known. We have today heard some excellent speeches opposing the new deal and I agree with much of what has been said. However, with considerable misgivings, I now commend the Government for having reached an agreement with the European Union which, if agreed by the other place, will enable this country to leave the EU in an orderly fashion. It always seemed to me, and to many others, that to leave with no deal was the worst possible outcome. Indeed, there is a clear majority in this House and the other House to prevent such a disorderly exit.

Today, we are invited by the Minister to take note of the new withdrawal agreement laid before this House. My own view is that, however imperfect it is—and it certainly is imperfect—it should be supported. It is imperfect in many ways but, in particular, it introduces a different status for Northern Ireland, and this will have consequences for the union. Many noble Lords have explained that—in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Reid. There must surely be certain MPs who today regret that they did not vote for the earlier version of the deal negotiated by Mrs May last year.

I have always said that I would have voted for the original agreement and that I would vote for a different deal negotiated by the new Government. It would be churlish not to give credit to the Government for having secured an agreement against difficult odds. However, I deeply regret that on this passage the Government decided to try to prorogue Parliament unlawfully a few weeks ago. Both this Government and that of Mrs May, one has to admit, have too often given the impression that they wished to diminish parliamentary involvement in this most difficult matter. Even if the other place supports the new agreement in a meaningful vote this afternoon, I think it will still be necessary to seek an extension to Article 50. The legislation, when presented to Parliament, will be highly complex and will require considerable scrutiny in both Houses. It would be incorrect to rush through such an important Bill just because of a totemic date and a leadership campaign commitment.

The most important aspect of a withdrawal agreement is that it contains an absolutely necessary transition period, widely recognised as desirable by all reasonable people, but we must be aware that uncertainty will continue. It is only after we leave that the real negotiation can begin. If it has been difficult to negotiate a withdrawal agreement, it will be far harder to negotiate a long-term trade agreement with our closest trading partner, the EU, not to mention our hoped-for new trade agreement with the United States. So we are faced with several more years of uncertainty, which is so undermining for so many investment decisions.

To my great regret, the British electorate decided by a relatively small margin to leave the EU, but it would be completely wrong to pretend that the withdrawal agreement will boost the economy, increase investment, accelerate growth or improve the public finances. Still, I have concluded, with great sadness, that the political arguments for supporting the deal are probably the most important today. We are surely in a place where few would have wanted to be, and we must hope that after we have left, and the necessary general election, the new Government seek not just a free trade agreement but the closest possible economic arrangements with the European Union. That is surely in our national interest.