Brexit: Parliamentary Approval of the Outcome of Negotiations with the European Union

Lord Desai Excerpts
Monday 28th January 2019

(5 years, 4 months ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, I have not spoken on Brexit more than about three times in the past two years—I think that I deserve a prize for that. I spoke last on 5 December and more or less what I said then I will say again, but with a few more caveats.

My principal view is that people voted for Brexit. I voted remain; people voted for Brexit. It does not help to say, as did the noble Lord, Lord Newby, “Only 37% voted, so it does not count”. No victor in a general election has ever been chosen by the majority of voters. If we were to use a 51% rule, it would mean that all our Governments were not legitimate. That will not do. A referendum was called. People chose to vote. A lot of the young people who we now hear are very pro Europe chose not to vote. If you choose not to vote, you take the consequences. Some 34 million people voted; there was a majority of 2 million. It is up to us to deliver on that as best we can.

The deal negotiated by the Prime Minister is not the best deal, not the second best nor even the third best, but it is the best that we can get. It is not possible within the time that remains, or even if we elongate the time, to get a better deal as we like it. Both Houses of Parliament have proposed better alternatives, as if we were in a shopping mall and could pick up anything we liked, saying, “I will have this Brexit”, “I will not have that Brexit” or “I will not have a Brexit at all”. That choice is no longer open. We have started a process. We are only 60 days away from the end of it. Sooner or later, the House of Commons will have to come to its senses. Plan A equals plan B, equals plan C equals plan D: ultimately, it will have to vote for the deal; nothing else is available. There is no going back to Brussels. The sooner the penny—or maybe the euro—drops, the sooner we will realise that the deal is the deal and there is nothing more.

To those worried about the backstop, I say let us think about it this way. All the backstop threatens is that it will not be reversed in an anticipatable time—it may not take two years; it may take four or five. In the long run, that is not a serious objection to having a backstop. We know that whatever trade relationship we negotiate with the EU after Brexit will take five or six years—that is the norm. Liam Fox did not know about free trade treaties, but that is neither here nor there. Those with a public school education cannot be expected to have any knowledge of anything real, but that is their problem.

I have a question for the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who is going to follow me. If it takes five years to negotiate a free trade treaty, how come it takes only two years to get out of it? The Lisbon treaty should have said, “Having invoked Article 50, you are allowed five years to sort out the mess”, because we have realised that any kind of Brexit that we negotiate is extremely complicated and will take a lot of time. The backstop and the transition period are giving us extra time creatively to get out of the free trade treaty that we signed, so we should take every advantage of it. We do not even have to negotiate a postponement, because after 29 March all is not over. There is a transition period; all sorts of opportunities are available.

Eventually, sense will prevail and we will see the realism of the deal. On the possibility of no deal, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that the problem with Brexit and business right now is uncertainty. We do not know what the final shape of the beast is going to be. But once we know what the beast is, we will adjust. We will be able to adapt under whatever circumstances, deal or no deal. I am confident that the British economy has tremendous flexibility, and its people have great character—they can innovate, adapt and win in the end. Of that I have no doubt.

If we are in a no-deal scenario, I would adopt a suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay: we should declare ourselves a zero-tariff country. That will considerably simplify the problems of the no-deal arrangement, because, apart from problems of health and other requirements, at least we will not have the trouble of stopping people to collect tariffs from them. If we go to a no deal, attention should be paid to how much we can unilaterally ease our lives, and we should get the imports to come in as quickly as possible. They may or may not need our exports, but we need their imports. Therefore, we should concentrate on our needs.

The much-maligned Prime Minister has shown remarkable stamina; I am astonished. She is shrewd enough to know that if she plays this game long enough, ultimately everybody will get bored and agree with her.

Brexit: UK-EU Relations (EUC Report)

Lord Desai Excerpts
Monday 2nd July 2018

(5 years, 11 months ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, as I am the last Back-Bench speaker in the debate, there is not much left for me to say. We have an excellent report from the noble Lord, Lord Boswell. As many people have pointed out, we do not have many choices that are pleasant, and we can hope only that when the Cabinet meets and the White Paper is published, it will draw on some of the wisdom that the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, has provided. Indeed, he has provided the optimal solution—and if the Cabinet could not be bothered, it could just say, “The option preferred by the report of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, is the one to go for”. Of course, chance would be a fine thing.

I will concentrate on something different that is germane to the report. When the referendum was held—we will not debate whether the result was narrow or broad—had anybody in the Government drawn a picture of what it would mean to withdraw? I ask this because there was a famous episode when Harold Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964. The Civil Service had two draft reports for him—one for devaluation of the pound and the other against—and said, “Prime Minister, you have to decide”.

Did Mr Cameron ever have a detailed report on what it would mean to withdraw and what it would mean to stay? We obviously did not have to worry about what it would mean to stay. I ask this because, having lived through the experience—I am sure others will agree—I think a lot of the things that people thought were simple have turned out to be very complicated. People thought that out meant out—that we would have freedom from the bureaucracy of Brussels and could fly the flag of free trade everywhere, and that would be that.

Nobody told them about Northern Ireland. Coming from an ex-colony, that does not surprise me; the English do not always remember the rest of their empire. But they were not worried about Northern Ireland and were not even aware that a withdrawal would mean a major schism between it and the Republic, and that there would be consequences. That is quite remarkable. I have not been to see the wiring and the plumbing here in the Palace, but I presume that what nobody realised was that the community we had joined, the Common Market, was full of tangled wires like that, and that it would be very difficult to risk pulling something out and walking away.

My noble friend Lord Whitty gave the analogy of divorce, which has been used before. Most people thought that our going away would be just like walking out, without saying anything further about the law, responsibility for the children, the division of assets or anything like that. I am puzzled by this, because it says something about the quality of governance in a country. Here we are, travelling through a train wreck: the windows are shut and we cannot get out but we can see the train wreck happening. It is going to happen. The only question is whether it will be a big jolt or a small jolt—but there will be a jolt. There is the problem of governance: at what stage did the Government neglect to find out what it would mean to withdraw?

Did even the hard Brexiteers ever have a document prepared or published in which they knew all the things that would be done? I think that when we had our first debate after the referendum, the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, spoke from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench to point out that the prospect of British airlines landing at European airports was under threat. I thought, “Nobody has told me that yet”. As has been pointed out, there are also problems with sharing information on terrorists or such simple things as being able or unable to import our daily supplies.

Even when all this is over and we have certainty, we do not know what kind of settlement we will get. That is another thing we have to mention. We all wish for it to be a good one but we must all be prepared for a bad one. I am told that in the City of London, quite a lot of businesses are prepared for the worst-case scenario. One always has to prepare for a worst-case scenario, but let us be there so that we can see what the worst-case scenario is like. Right now, the uncertainty is absolutely crippling. As the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, pointed out, everybody in the insurance industry and the banking industry is worried. We ought to have a sort of working party or plan for what to do when we finally know what we have got.

I think a hard Brexit is most likely. I am not an optimist in this respect; I am a pessimist. I think we are going to get a hard Brexit because I do not think there will be sufficient agreement in the Government. But, whatever it is, we ought to be prepared for the consequences of a bad Brexit. How will we cope with a bad Brexit? What would be our options in terms of economic policy for the future? How will we adapt to a bad Brexit? At some stage, if we still have the European Union Committee or some version thereof, that should be its first task—and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, will guide us through that problem as well.

Article 50 (Constitution Committee Report)

Lord Desai Excerpts
Tuesday 22nd November 2016

(7 years, 7 months ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, I want to dwell on the distinction made in the Constitution Committee’s report between resolution and legislation. It is very important that the Government introduce a resolution confirming that they accept the result of the referendum, so that, whatever delays are involved in invoking Article 50, the people do not think that their will is being denied. Although the margin overall was 4 percentage points, the margin in England was 7 percentage points and England voted with the same difference, 2 million votes, in favour of Brexit as did the entire country—so the rest of the country cancelled out between remain and leave. England made the difference and the English public will be extremely angry if their will is going to be thwarted. So I think a short resolution confirming that Parliament accepts the referendum result would be good.

Then we may want an Act—legislation, again as recommended by the Constitution Committee—which would lay out what the Government should do before invoking Article 50. We should have a lot of parliamentary input in the process before and after, but during the divorce negotiations we should have a limited presence. I have once before advocated a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament which would have the information from the Government on Privy Council terms. We cannot really have, between this House and another place, 1,500 people trying to micromanage the Government’s negotiations. But a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament under Privy Council rules could be given all the information by the Government. It would be able to advise the Government on how to proceed and that would both give Parliament a voice in the procedure and not be too public. One difficulty in making it public is that we have a very vicious press. It will attack people for whatever reasons, as it already has done. It is very important that the Government can keep their cards close to their chest while negotiating with Europe.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr—one dare not disagree with him, I would say—that we need a smart Brexit. The correction I would make is that we need a quick Brexit and a smart framework of negotiations. We want a quick Brexit because we want to get out of this mess. Let the divorce be quick and let the cohabitation negotiations be fruitful and beneficial, because once we get the Brexit thing out it is not just the 27 we have to get on with; the other n minus 27 with whom we have to negotiate trade treaties are also waiting out there, and the quicker we do Brexit the better off we will be.