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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:37 pm on 19th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Willetts Lord Willetts Conservative 2:37 pm, 19th October 2019

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the register of interests and immediately pick up one of the points made by my noble friend Lord Balfe. He referred to the image in the opening statement of Britain as a kind of back-marker, always trying to stop things happening in Europe. That is indeed how we have approached a range of issues in Europe, neatly summarised as Britain’s diplomacy being to drive in the fast lane, but very slowly, with everyone else flashing their lights behind us.

We indeed approached a range of European negotiations in that spirit, but that is not the only way in which we acted in Europe. Often, Britain took a lead in projects that were in our interest and consistent with our economic objectives. For example, European trade deals were heavily influenced by British requirements and a British agenda, and we pushed them forward. It will be very hard for us, as a much smaller economic entity, to secure as much as we did when we were shaping the agenda of such a large bloc.

Similarly, the single market was a great British project led by Margaret Thatcher. There are noble Lords in the Chamber now who played a crucial role in those great Thatcherite economic reforms. As the economists work out the value of privatisation and trade union reform, our membership of the single market and the competitive pressures it created is up there as one of the drivers of our economic success. It was a great Thatcherite project.

There was another project: that of John Major, successfully completed by Tony Blair, to deliver peace in Ireland. In the passionate speech of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, we heard from the Lib Dem Benches the authentic voice of unionism, expressed with power and emotion.

The reason why this is not a happy day for many of us is that we see two great successes—the promotion of the single market and the securing of peace in Ireland—as under threat. Of course, as a remainer, I realise that that exposes us to the charge of bad faith—that is, were we ever going to respect the result of the referendum? In a way, that was the challenge put by my noble friend Lady Morris of Bolton when she asked how we could have made it so hard. Briefly, I want to explain how I think things have gone so wrong. One reason is that the red lines drawn in the Lancaster House speech were very different from the Brexit proposition in the referendum. That suddenly narrowed our options and meant that the single market and the customs union, which many people had assured us we would be able to continue as members of, post Brexit, were suddenly no longer acceptable. As my noble friend Lord Lansley pointed out, there was also this diplomatic disaster: instead of negotiating our future economic relationship alongside the departure terms, we conceded, stupidly, that these should be sequential and that we should leave and subsequently negotiate. It is those types of mistake that have hardened attitudes on both sides.

It was not predetermined, therefore, that we would have the difficult three years that we have had, nor that many of us would conclude—as I have reluctantly done—that, once a final proposition is before us, we need to put it back to the people for a confirmatory vote to be sure that that is absolutely what the people thought they were voting for when the original referendum was held.

I hope that the Prime Minister’s deal makes its way through both Houses. I thought that the tone of his speech this morning and the way in which my noble friend the Leader of this House presented it—that is, talking about the interests of the different parts of the country, with the 52% and the 48%—was the right tone to adopt. If that had been the philosophy for the past three years, taking account of both the votes in Northern Ireland, Scotland and London and the clear preferences of the business community, we would not be in the position that we are in today. The tone was very welcome, and the only logical conclusion from the approach set out is that there should be a confirmatory referendum.