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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:21 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 7:21 pm, 13th January 2020

My Lords, to me and my family, 31 January will be a very sad—indeed, heartbreaking—day. For the last 50 years we have taken part in a project in which we have got rid of barriers, reduced the importance of frontiers and opened opportunities for travel, study and scientific collaboration. It has been a wonderful programme and I am not sure that anybody has come up with a better one for Europe since the Roman Empire. Now, we are getting off that programme altogether and leaving it to others to take it forward. Incidentally, I am sure that the continentals will make a success of it. My view is that they will move forward much more successfully and rapidly without us than they would have done if we had still been part of the European Union. That raises the question of how much influence we will have with them in that process.

When people said to me over the Christmas break in Lincolnshire, “What do we do now? Is remain really dead?”, I said, “Remain may not be dead for ever but the best policy would be to pretend that she was dead, at least for the next 10 years.” There is no point at all in raking up the arguments of the last three or four years. I accept the view expressed by many this evening that this issue falls within the ambit of the Salisbury/Addison convention. Any of us who sit in this House have to be faithful to the unwritten or understood aspects of the British constitution, on the basis of which we sit here, and we cannot just decide unilaterally and suddenly, without warning, to break those understandings, which are very important.

I never felt that there was much moral force in the referendum because of the terrible lies told by the leave campaign and because of the breach of the financial rules, which would have resulted in the disqualification of a candidate in a parliamentary election. However, the decision of the British people in the recent election was absolutely clear. It was a conscious and deliberate democratic decision. I regret it, of course, but there is no point in denying that fact, and it has been confirmed by the House of Commons, which voted on this Bill last week. Therefore, we have no choice in that matter.

However, it is very bizarre to think that that principle can protect matters not even mentioned in the Conservative Party manifesto. The issue of whether the Government would be allowed, if they wanted, to extend the period of negotiation for the new regime is not mentioned at all in the manifesto, so one cannot possibly say that that falls within the ambit of the Salisbury/Addison convention. On that, it seems that we should be more than entitled—in fact, we have a duty—to look at the reality and merits of that proposal, which I consider very bizarre.

Anybody who has ever engaged in important negotiations knows that the one thing you do not want to do is to tell your opponent that you are in a terrible hurry. It also means that you cannot use certain ploys that can be useful in some negotiations. You cannot walk out for two or three weeks, which might be something that you want to do. You cannot try to halt proceedings while you undertake a study of a particular subject that has come up, although it might be very much in the national interest to do so. What the Government now propose does not make any practical or tactical sense whatever, but unfortunately it will create the worst possible suspicion about British good faith. The feeling will be, “Ah, Mr Johnson wants his hard Brexit after all and has created an excuse to produce it.” I do not know whether that is the truth, but it is unfortunate that those suspicions might arise.

We have to look forward and see what could happen in the far distant future. I really do not know what will happen but the idea that our membership of the European Union would be excluded for ever is quite absurd. We shall be living next door to our continental neighbours for the rest of time and most people would agree that we shall need to collaborate with them far more closely than ever—economically and environmentally, and on matters of law and order, terrorism, strategic threats and so forth. It would be absurd to exclude the possibility of recreating a European Union such as we now have—maybe a much more successful one. That is something that we have to think about over the next 10 years, although no doubt we will not do anything about it over that period. Of course, the future cannot be predetermined but it would be quite wrong to say that that possibility should be excluded ab initio, and it is very likely that we will come back to that solution.

One thing that has been said in the debate today that strikes me as very worrying is that the Government are very excited about the prospect of having regulations different from those of the continent, expressing our sovereignty and our new freedom and so on. I have to tell noble Lords opposite that that is a poisonous mushroom and they should not touch it. If that is brought in, it will destroy the British manufacturing industry. No one will ever invest in a manufacturing plant in this country designed to sell not merely in this market but in the rest of the single market if they do not know what the regulatory framework will be and if it could change arbitrarily and diverge between this country and the continent. You would do enormous damage to this country if you went down that route. That is a word of very sincere warning.