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Speech in response to PM statement on Brexit Cabinet meeting at Chequers


Angela Smith speech in the House of Lords, Monday 9th July 2018

My Lords, Harold Wilson reportedly remarked that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. How the Prime Minister must wish that were true.

Picture the scene on Saturday afternoon. Having achieved an agreement at Chequers, the Prime Minister can enjoy the fine weather and positive mood sweeping the nation:

  • England have booked their place in the World Cup Semi Finals;
  • Lewis Hamilton has qualified on pole for the British Grand Prix;
  • A plucky Kyle Edmund takes the lead – albeit temporarily – at Wimbledon.

All is well. This is the high-point of Theresa May’s premiership. Yet, fast forward to Sunday evening when David Davis informs the Prime Minister that he is now “unpersuaded” by the Chequers position and is unwilling to play the role of a “reluctant conscript”. He resigns. Steve Baker follows.

And just in case there was any doubt as to the dissatisfaction in the Brexiteer camp, Boris Johnson has also, after getting others to test the water first, taken the apparently ‘principled’ decision to resign.

With just 264 days until we leave the EU, we have a brand new Brexit Secretary and will soon have a new Foreign Secretary.

David Cameron as Prime Minister was so sure that he would get his own way in the referendum that he did not even plan for a ‘Leave’ vote.  That my Lords was arrogant and irresponsible.

Theresa May as Prime Minister, confident that she had a plan, promised the country “strong and stable government in the national interest” in an unnecessary general election.

And we’re being asked to believe that Government is delivering a “smooth and orderly Brexit”, even though no one can agree what this means, and nobody believes it.

Following the June summit, the President of the European Council issued a “last call” to the UK, pleading for progress to be made ahead of the October summit.

Last Friday – 464 days after the triggering of Article 50 – the Cabinet met, debated, and apparently reached a decision. For a brief moment in time, the Cabinet was united. There was radio silence from the usual suspects. And now we have chaos at the heart of Government, when we most need stability.

There are rumours of letters being submitted to the 1922 Committee. One Conservative MP dared to declare: “I think Theresa May’s premiership is over.”  Far from offering answers, this melodrama only raises questions.

Luckily for YLH, the Noble Lady, the Leader, was at Chequers and the Cabinet meeting. I wonder whether she could comment on reports that the advice of the Commons Chief Whip, was that the Cabinet had to back this facilitated customs arrangement as a so called compromise, otherwise MPs would vote to stay in a Customs Union? 

Also, after spending the day with the Mr Davis and the Mr Johnson did she get any inkling of the dramas about to unfold?  Was the PM right to be so confident that she had convinced them, brought them with her and won the day?

My Lords, the Government’s plan is not the one that would’ve been adopted by Labour – not least because it includes no real plan for services, which account for almost 80% of our economy. But with only six weeks of negotiations before the October summit, there is at least now a proposal on the table. It isn’t quite what the Prime Minister presented at Lancaster House, or Mansion House. And it will not be clear what the EU27 make of the offer until a White Paper is published later this week.

EU diplomats are displaying a level of discipline that would baffle some in the Cabinet. Reinforcing the view that this was more about the Conservative Party than the national interest, the Environment Secretary acknowledged yesterday that the agreed position amounts to a fudge – in part because of party divisions, but also due to parliamentary arithmetic.

Having tried different versions of Brexit on for size, the Cabinet has chosen one which is a soft shade of pink:

  • The UK will leave the Single Market, but continue to maintain a common rulebook for goods;
  • The jurisdiction of the European Court will come to an end, but UK courts will be bound to have due regard of future rulings;
  • The UK will no longer allow free movement, but will offer a ‘mobility framework’ that allows continued travel, study and work in each other’s territories.

While this blurring of the red lines suggests a recognition of the political and economic reality, can the agreement really be said to amount to a “substantial evolution” in the Government’s thinking? My Lords, it seems not.

Instead of combining elements of two customs plans already rejected by the EU27, surely a better approach would have been to propose a formal customs union with the EU – a position supported by business organisations and trade unions.

While some argue that a UK-EU customs union would prevent us striking new trade deals, it is worth noting that while the Cabinet was locked away, the EU announced it will sign its new agreement with Japan on Wednesday. A reminder that while this Government is consumed by Brexit, the EU just carries on.

Could the Noble Lady, the Leader of the House, indicate whether the Government will seek to be a party to the EU-Japan trade agreement after Brexit? Or does HMG really plan to turn its back on all existing agreements after the transition period, in order to pursue participation in the as yet unratified Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Over the weekend, it was suggested that the new ‘mobility framework’ may allow for the preferential treatment of EU migrants. The Prime Minister refused to rule this out, but the Leader of the Commons said on the Daily Politics that “there will be no special favours for EU citizens”. Can the Noble Lady, the Leader of the House, provide clarity on this specific point? 

My Lords, I want to ask about the area that most concerned David Davis, albeit for very different reasons. Paragraph 6(f) of the Government’s statement from Chequers asserts that Parliament will have a lock on incorporating future EU rules into the UK legal order, meaning that “choosing not to pass the relevant legislation would lead to consequences for market access, security cooperation or the frictionless border.”

Does this mean that each and every individual EU regulation would require the consideration of both Houses? If so, has the Government estimated how much parliamentary time this would require each year?

Would this proposal, if accepted by the EU27, amount to a Swiss-style sector-by-sector agreement whereby, for example, the UK’s failure to implement a measure on car safety may lead to the loss of market access to that sector, and therefore the imposition of tariffs?

So where does that leave companies such as Jaguar Land Rover who have already expressed their concerns?

And how can the Government avoid implementing the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ if the EU27 cannot be sure that the UK will honour its commitments?

My Lords, although the Chequers proposal may offer more clarity on the Government’s thinking, it is no more coherent than previous Brexit plans.

Whether you voted Leave or Remain, confidence in the Government’s management of Brexit is at an all-time low. And, as a result, faith in politics is seriously undermined. Luckily, the Cabinet will meet again tomorrow. There will even be a new face or two – or perhaps more – around the table.

Can I therefore echo the thoughts of the NL, Lord Finkelstein, in his excellent article in The Times newspaper, who urged Theresa May to follow the example of Robert Peel by putting the national interest ahead of her own party.


Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

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