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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:52 pm on 19th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Bull Baroness Bull Crossbench 2:52 pm, 19th October 2019

My Lords, it has been a privilege to hear so many thoughtful speeches today, and I have—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, counselled—listened as well as heard. As a former professional dancer, I feel obliged to try to help the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, with his dance analogy, but I fear it may not be possible, without three legs, to do one step forward and two sideways without some element of double-crossing.

In our first take-note debate I gave my version of a speech, echoed by other noble Lords, noting that the UK’s future success, the viability of key business sectors and the livelihoods of the people they employ depended not on the bulky withdrawal agreement but on the series of “best endeavours”, “should” and “aim to” that punctuated the slimmer, non-binding political declaration. Some 10 months later, this pair of documents could well offer an apt political metaphor: the one in the background, despite having no legal status, is the one we need to pay attention to.

In comparing November’s political declaration with today’s, it would be easy to miss the differences. As the Institute for Government’s helpful explainer confirms, much remains the same. Both display the same lack of ambition on services, despite their contribution to the UK economy. Both promise to end freedom of movement, despite its importance to sectors such as health, social care, creative and cultural, and the obvious truth that closing the doors to our one country means shutting down for future generations the freedom to live and work in 27.

Mr Johnson’s deal is, for the most part, Mrs May’s deal. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, from a position of expertise, confirmed that the substantive text is unchanged. It did not take long for social media to post its memes with the rueful observation, “We are all Theresa May now: an idea suggested by a woman is ignored, until it is proposed by a man”. I am aware that this comment may be fully appreciated only by noble Baronesses in your Lordships’ House.

But the differences are there. The aspiration is now for a free trade agreement, not frictionless trade. Gone is the ambition for a shared customs territory and close regulatory alignment to form “a bridge” to the long-term relationship. The intention for dialogue at “parliamentary level” on the direction of the future relationship is replaced with the weasel-wordy “at appropriate level”. Level playing field provisions are downgraded from the legal status of the withdrawal agreement to the non-binding political declaration.

With so much distrust built up over Brexit, it is hardly surprising that there is reluctance to trust areas like labour rights and consumer and environmental standards to a political declaration with no teeth; or to believe the Chancellor when he says that there is,

“no need for a new impact assessment”,

on this deal, because, in his words, November’s is “still out there” and,

“anyone can look it up”.

So, it is fortunate that the research unit, UK in a Changing Europe, has done the work to compare the potential economic impact of this deal with that of Theresa May’s. Under May’s deal, based on the reduction in trade alone, it predicts that income per capita would be 1.75% lower than under the status quo. The equivalent figure for the Johnson deal is 2.5%. Add in the knock-on effect of reduced trade on productivity and the per capita GDP figure reduces further, down 4.9% for May’s deal and 6.4% for Johnson’s. Take into account the negative impact of restricted migration on the economy, and the reduction could be up to 7% over 10 years.

I am aware that those are only predictions, but they are based on standard economic modelling and the best available information, and major industry sectors and trade bodies also believe that this deal is worse for the economy than the last one. So, I ask the Minister, is this a new deal, or is it not? If it is, where is the impact assessment and the time for proper scrutiny?

Today, the decision rightly rests with the other place, and its Members must use their best judgment to decide whether this deal serves the interests of the whole of the UK. I hope that they will not be influenced by the latest of what I have to admit are brilliantly judged slogans from Mr Johnson’s team. This generation cannot sell out the next just because we have had enough. “Get Brexit Done” plays on the understandable fatigue of the public, but it rides on a false promise that it will all be over on 31 October. No: this is where the real work begins, to say nothing of the work involved in reuniting a nation split down the middle.

“Get Brexit Done” may be a neat slogan but, as with its predecessor, “Take Back Control”, the reality is not so simple. As Mario Cuomo memorably said:

“You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose”.