Angela Smith speech in the House of Lords, Wednesday 9th January 2019
My Lords, here we are again. I often have a sense of déjà vu when it comes to Brexit, but even more so today, as we resume the debate that started before Christmas.
I have to say to the Noble Lord The Minister that never before I have heard a winding up speech in opening a debate and there can be no clearer evidence that nothing has changed since the vote was pulled. And when he makes a reference to March 29th next year, we know he is reading last year’s speech.
There was only one reason we were unable to complete it last year. The Prime Minister, recognising she was going to lose by a large margin stopped Parliament expressing any opinion on the Deal she is presenting as the very best she can get – and therefore the only option on the table.
Of course, it’s the best deal that Mrs May is presenting to Parliament – it’s the only one. And by that same measure it’s also the worst. Not even her most loyal supporters offer any confidence that this is a good deal, let alone better than what we have now. There’s no glowing praise, or great admiration for brilliant negotiating skills. Just recognition of her dogged determination to get something – anything – she can present as a win.
Even with time rapidly running out, the Government pulled the vote before Christmas – delaying certainty for individuals, communities and businesses across the UK. They wanted answers but all they got was a political tactic designed to get the Prime Minister through to the end of last year, and the first few weeks of this one.
My Lords, on Monday, with Mrs May not willing to go to the Dispatch Box in the other place, Labour forced the Government to update Parliament on any progress it had made with the EU, and whether that justified the delay.
I listened carefully but as I said then, I didn’t hear anything new, and certainly nothing to persuade me that her decision to pull the first vote was anything other than an attempt to buy time. I asked two key questions:
- Other than seeing off a further leadership challenge by Conservative MPs, what has really changed since the vote was pulled?
- And does the Government understand the scepticism of many, including business groups, that the delay was just a political ploy to take this decision right to the wire – trying to force through an inadequate deal, knowing that Parliament will simply not support a No Deal outcome?
Media reports suggest that the Prime Minister has told her Cabinet that she expects the deal to be rejected in next week’s Commons vote. But if the Government appears conflicted on what the consequences will be if the agreement is turned down by MPs, the real Project Fear is Mrs May’s threats of the consequences of rejecting this deal. Threats that differ depending on the audience she is talking to.
Brexit supporters are told it could lead to the UK remaining in the EU. Yet, those who voted Remain are told to support this deal – or just crash out. Both can’t be true. And that threat alone is already hurting businesses, manufacturing, academia and the city – and it’s hurting now.
I tabled a motion ahead of December’s debate, which we debated at length before the House was adjourned. And I’m grateful to colleagues across YLH for further discussions over recent weeks, and Noble Lords will be aware that an updated motion has been tabled in my name. Our aim remains the same – to frame the debate around three key issues.
Firstly, to recognise that it is for the House of Commons to determine this matter and find a way through the current impasse.
During our lengthy debates on the Withdrawal Bill, we were clear that this House should not have a veto on Brexit, and we provided MPs with a meaningful vote. But this House has an important constitutional role. We consider the detail and offer an opinion to the elected House. My motion allows YLH to do just that.
Secondly, and crucially, that the threat of a no deal exit – a danger that looms ever larger as a result of the Prime Minister’s actions in the December debate – is emphatically rejected.
As I said last time: while there are some who fondly imagine the only consequence of no deal is for the UK to step back in time and pick up where we left off 45 years ago, the reality is so very different.
The world outside the EU has not been static. Much has changed in that time and we can’t just reset the clock. And this was recognised by MPs in last night’s vote on the Finance Bill – and indeed in their vote this afternoon in dealing with the urgency of the situation we are now in.
It is not often that I quote a Conservative MP, but Oliver Letwin spoke for many when asserting: “we will not allow a no-deal exit to occur at the end of March.” Regrettably, and despite the clear advice of YLH, rather than ruling out No Deal, the Government has stepped up its planning such an outcome in recent weeks.
The Minister makes no apologies for this but I think he should because billions of pounds, from government and business, have been devoted to these preparations, despite the Chancellor being fully aware of the dire long-term economic consequences that a no deal would bring.
This week, at the disused Manston airport, the Government had a much-heralded exercise for a No Deal Brexit in relation to cross channel transport. It was absolutely farcical – they only managed a roleplay with 89 lorries, and that included a Thanet Council refuse vehicle.
That certainly is far fewer than the intended 150 and a long, long way from the thousands of vehicles that currently cross the channel every day. It is little wonder that the managing director of Harrier Express described it as a “dress rehearsal for our own execution”.
Also, as my Noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe noted yesterday, the plans to deal with port and shipping capacity are even more inexplicable with the Transport Secretary awarding “a £14 million contract to a company with no money, no ships, no track record, no employees, no ports, one telephone line and no working website.”
My Lords, Chris Grayling really is the gift that keeps on gaffing.
The incompetence of the Government means at times it feels like a tragic comedy. It’s so bad, it almost feels unreal – like we’re living in a Carry On film – ‘Carry on Brexit’. Or perhaps my Lords, “Carry On Screaming”.
All the while, major legislation remain stalled. In the case of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill – a piece of the puzzle that absolutely has to be in place by exit day – weeks of parliamentary consideration has been lost.
As we discussed in response to an Oral Question on Monday, piles of statutory instruments are parked on desks across Whitehall rather than having been tabled for consideration. And whilst the minister boasts that there will only, ONLY, be around 600 SIs to address –some are believed to be hundreds of pages long.
My Lords, if recent events demonstrate anything, it’s that there are absolutely no circumstances in which a no deal scenario has any benefit to the UK. And that is the central point of my motion, which we will put to the House on Monday.
And thirdly – my motion expresses an opinion on the agreement before us.
As I said earlier, it is not role of this House to accept or reject the deal – that is for the elected MPs. But we can – and should – express an opinion of the merits (or otherwise) of the Deal. And we are assisted in this by the excellent report of our EU Committee.
We do this not by comparing this agreement with no deal, as the Prime Minister is so desperate for us to do. But by carrying out a forensic assessment of the documents before us and expressing an opinion as to whether we consider them good enough – or not.
The political declaration provides no certainty, but outlines a menu of options that may or may not be available in future trade negotiations. The agreement we are being asked to consider represents a blind Brexit, with no certainty or clarity for the future.
The Prime Minister asserts that she has got the best deal on offer. This is simply not the case. She may have got the best deal that her red lines allowed – and even that is debateable – but that is because she chose the wrong red lines before triggering Article 50.
The public was literally promised the world – ‘a truly Global Britain’ that would have frictionless trade with Europe while boosting ties elsewhere. Instead, we seem to have alienated almost everyone. And with just over 11 weeks left, we lack the legal basis required to establish new trade relationships, immigration requirements and food safety standards.
Over the next few days Your Lordships’ House will continue to scrutinise the agreements before us and pass opinion on them. On Monday, before the Commons takes its own binding decision, I will once again ask colleagues to support a motion standing in my name. A motion with three straightforward and simple points:
- We recognise It’s ultimately for MPs and the House of Commons to decide
- But crucially, that this House believes no deal should never be an option, and
- That even if the UK exits the EU on these terms, it represents a backwards step for our prosperity, security and influence.
- Ends -