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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:34 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Maude of Horsham Lord Maude of Horsham Conservative 6:34 pm, 13th January 2020

My Lords, it is a pleasure to congratulate the two maiden speakers in this debate. I worked closely with my noble friend Lord Barwell when I was chairman of the Conservative Party some years ago. Both he and the noble Lord, Lord Mann, made powerful maiden speeches here today, and I am sure the House looks forward to hearing much more from them in the months ahead.

I draw attention to my interests in the register. In some of them I attempt from time to time to give advice about issues around Brexit and occasionally to try to predict what might happen. This has proved challenging, but I hope some certainty is beginning to emerge.

I was neutral in the referendum campaign three and a half years ago. I thought that the upside of leaving claimed by the leavers and the downside claimed by remainers were wildly exaggerated. I do not believe that the most important factor in Britain’s future economic success or influence in the world lies in whether Britain is a member of the European Union.

In my brief period as Minister for Trade, I found myself attending the WTO’s biennial meeting. We hear much about the top table that apparently we will not be at after we leave. I got to the meeting and found that I was not at the table at all. I was representing the Government of the fifth-largest economy in the world and I did not have a seat at the table.

What matters is what we ourselves do, how we configure our own domestic economic arrangements and how we play our role in the wider world, strengthening and using our unique combination of national assets.

There was a clear decision in the referendum. It had to be implemented and implemented briskly. The inability of the Government and the House of Commons over the last three and a half years to make that happen has inflicted short-term damage on the perception of this country around the world, at a time when it matters more than ever that our reputation for effective diplomacy and political stability is not just maintained but enhanced. So it is essential that the Bill is passed without delay.

I very much agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said. It is certain that any amendments passed by this House will be reversed by the House of Commons. As my noble friend Lord Cormack said powerfully, if this House is unwise enough to lock horns with the House of Commons, it will do itself possibly irreparable harm.

So far as the next stage after 31 January is concerned, much has been made of the constrained timescale for negotiation. Of course it looks challenging, but the outlines of a deal are already there, and it is notable that since the Brexit vote in 2016 the EU has started to show that it is, after all, capable of conducting trade negotiations rather more rapidly than at its previous glacial pace, piqued by the criticism made of it during the referendum campaign.

Of course, this negotiation does not have to be—indeed, it should not be—the last word that sets the relationship in stone for all of time. As my noble friend Lord Howell powerfully argued earlier, this is a dynamic world in which change happens increasingly swiftly and unpredictably. It would be a mistake for us to spend years seeking perfection in a protracted negotiation that is likely to be obsolete before the ink is dry on it.

I have one final point. This is not just a trade negotiation. It needs to cover the whole range of ways in which Britain collaborates and will collaborate in future with the EU. Of course, this must include the security, defence and intelligence relationships, on all of which Britain can continue to be an essential partner for our nearest neighbours. I hope that this time the Government will not be pressured into giving way on this at the outset. In the early stages of the Article 50 negotiations, the EU—having fulminated about how there could be no cherry picking—ruthlessly picked the cherry labelled “security and intelligence collaboration”, and the then Prime Minister permitted this. I hope this mistake will not be repeated.