Angela Smith speech to House of Lords, 19th October 2019
Twelve hundred and twelve days after the outcome of 2016 referendum vote, few could have foreseen how Brexit would lead to our politics and our country becoming so uncertain and bitterly divided. And nobody could have predicted that Parliament would be sitting on a Saturday to debate the merits of a ‘new’ Brexit deal inferior to that previously rejected by an historic margin.
I had hoped that honouring the referendum result meant more than just one side saying: “we won, you lost, get over it”. I hoped that there would be recognition that, in this huge democratic exercise while 17.4 million people voted to Leave, over 16 million made it clear that they were very much against the idea.
A mandate yes, but not one to ignore the wishes of almost half the voting public. And the real challenge for the Government was not just to leave the EU, but to do so in a way that respected the votes of all its citizens and seek to unite our country rather than help foster division. In that challenge the Government has failed – and spectacularly so.
Our politics is not built upon a ‘winner takes all’ system. When one party wins a general election, they don’t take every seat in the House of Commons. Our system and constitution ensures a voice and a role for Opposition, as well as a clear scrutinising and advisory role for YLH.
Power in our politics, as we know, ultimately lies with Parliament as a body – not just the Prime Minister or the Executive. It was YLH, that ensured a role for all MPs in reaching the final decision on how we leave the EU, with our amendment on a ‘Meaningful Vote’ for the elected House.
The way Boris Johnson is trying to portray his-deal is reminiscent of Theresa May’s own Brexit offer when she also claimed that it was ‘taking back control’ and the ‘best and only deal possible’.
And, as it was previously, the route to the deal before us today has been a rollercoaster ride. Although I admit to some cynicism about how much of that has been stage managed. Deadlines were imposed and missed. Expectations were ramped up, only to be dampened down. And as ever, with this government, sabres were rattled and put away again. Then, all of a sudden, the proverbial white smoke emerged.
I do want to put on record that we should all be immensely grateful to the negotiating team officials for their hard work and dedication throughout the entire process. It has been a huge challenge.
Other than to debate matters of war, the last time this House sat on a Saturday was in 1949. At that time, the very concept of some kind of Europe-wide union was a hope held by some men and women, who having lived through terrible conflict sought to forge a path to a sustainable long-term partnership of peace and prosperity. Here we are, 70 years later, examining a revised withdrawal agreement and political declaration for our departure.
Despite the assertions of No.10, let us remember one thing: it was not the current Prime Minister who forced Brussels to reopen the withdrawal deal. But given that a majority of MPs rejected the previous agreement three times, the EU heard the very clear message that Mrs May’s deal could not be ratified. For many Conservative MPs the issue was the backstop. But it was, after all, only ever intended to come into force if all else failed.
Jonathan Powell, who at Downing Street with Tony Blair did so much to bring about the Good Friday agreement, said that whilst some “claim that they have got rid of the backstop, they have in fact transformed it from a fallback into the definitive future arrangement for Northern Ireland with the province remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union.”
Instead of leaving the future status of Northern Ireland up for negotiation in the next stage of talks, a set of new arrangements will be in place until at least 2024, with a further two-year wind-down period if consent is withdrawn. Even the DUP, who have kept this Government afloat, reject this. These proposals introduce a border down the middle of the Irish Sea – despite the previous derisions of the Prime Minister and his ERG allies.
Our concerns with the original deal was that Mrs May had failed to provide enough clarity over the UK’s future relationship with the EU in areas that we consider crucial. It was unclear what form of trade relationship she envisaged, beyond cross-border trade being ‘as frictionless as possible’. That meant little certainty for businesses, preventing industry from planning ahead and preventing unlocking new investment.
And there were no concrete commitments on UK participation in EU agencies, nor the extent of future cooperation on security matters. That potentially left consumers getting a worse deal and our security services facing significant gaps, putting UK citizens at risk.
The Political Declaration is aspirational, and it is of major concern that it now contains issues previously nailed down in the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement. For example, the level playing field for social rights. Now only in the Political Declaration, this merely references maintaining present standards “at the end of the transition period” but notes that “the precise nature of commitments should be commensurate with the scope and depth of the future relationship” – which is uncertain. So, there are no guarantees on employment and environmental protections beyond the end of the transition period.
Paragraph 25 of the original Declaration, which committed the UK to considering long-term regulatory alignment, has just vanished. And there are other indications that the Government will be able to pursue wholesale divergence – to the detriment of businesses, employees, consumers, and the environment.
In some areas though, Mr Johnson’s Brexit does provide a greater degree of certainty – but not in a positive way.
The Government’s ambition is limited to negotiating a free trade agreement, rather than seeking a closer arrangement such as an Association Agreement. The Treasury’s own analysis predicts a loss of over 6% of potential GDP growth in the next 15 years, equivalent to each household losing well over £2,000.
The Political Declaration confirms that the agreement will include rules of origin requirements, thus selling out the UK car industry.
The level playing field commitments that remain in the Declaration are vague. That’s why the TUC’s Frances O’Grady warns that the deal is “a disaster for working people” and one that “would hammer the economy, cost jobs and sell workers’ rights down the river.” Meanwhile, the National Farmers’ Union is concerned about British standards being undercut, with our market potentially opened up to products which could not be legally produced here.
So, what is before us seems to take us a step closer to the hardcore Brexiteers in the ERG, rather than a common sense Brexit that could have benefited our citizens and the economy. That does not strike me as, a “great new deal” – as the Prime Minister suggests. And it doesn’t seem to have struck others as great either.
The CBI’s Carolyn Fairbairn speaks of business having “serious concerns about the direction of the future UK-EU relationship”, with the new deal “inadequate” for the service sector which makes such a significant contribution to our economy. And the Institute of Directors, whilst admitting some “guarded relief” at recent progress, says “if a passable deal is in touching distance then politicians on all sides should be pragmatic about giving us the time to get there.”
And this, my Lords, is key. The deal is unsatisfactory. I’ve always thought that the Withdrawal No. 2 Act – the Benn Act, could have been a lifeline for a Prime Minister close to a deal, but without the final details. He should use that time available. No ifs, no buts and certainly no second letters.
But everyone is losing patience. An extension will only work for somebody willing to compromise to gain a majority in Parliament, or to seek a public mandate. If MPs do not accept the deal today deal, then the impasse cannot continue.
We’ve moved on from abstract views and opinions. Nobody who voted in the referendum could have imagined the deal presented by the Prime Minister today.
At the beginning of this process when Article 50 was invoked, I argued against a second referendum. We had barely started dealing with the outcome of the first. But now, with all that has gone before us and the incompetent way in which Brexit has been handled by the last three Prime Ministers and their Governments, we have a responsibility to put the real choice – the actual choice – to the public.
If this is the best Brexit that a Brexit-believing Prime Minister considers can be delivered, then why not seek that public mandate for it. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty.
Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon