Sarah Ludford summarises our argument against the Future Relationships Bill

The task of summarising the Liberal Democrat argument against the Brexit deal fell to Sarah Ludford, former MEP for London and our frontbench Brexit spokesperson…

The wisest comment on the Johnson deal came from his Conservative Party colleague — if not friend — the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, somewhat puncturing the bluster and self-congratulation. He said:

“We must welcome the news that Brexit does not end in the chaos of no deal, but only with the sense of relief of a condemned man informed that his execution has been commuted to a life sentence.”

What was promised in 2016 was “the exact same benefits” as EU membership and “frictionless” trade. That was a cruel deception then and it is a very bad joke now. No wonder Mrs Thatcher was so keen to promote the single market; this threadbare Tory deal betrays her legacy, and it is not — I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Lamont — membership of the Common Market.

The lack of an impact assessment of this sorry deal, pointed out by my noble friend Lord Purvis, speaks volumes, as does a new YouGov poll showing that only 17% of the public think that this deal is good for the country. As my noble friend Lord Fox and others have fully explained, the Government’s exclusion of British businesses from the EU single market and customs union means that they face an avalanche of laborious form-filling, a huge £7 billion cost, slower deliveries and duplication of certification, inevitably leading to higher prices. Our farmers face tougher export barriers than New Zealand farmers do in exporting to the EU, and as for the ban on exporting sausages, at least in “Yes Minister” the Euro-sausage could be traded.

I will not repeat our present Prime Minister’s expletive-deleted dismissal of business concerns, but he has delivered on his infamous curse. The claim of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that dealing with all this red tape will be good for British exporters, by making them “match fit” for global trade, has rightly met with derision. Meanwhile, it was reported that the Prime Minister’s extraordinary and, I have to say, ignorant claim of there being no non-tariff barriers in the deal

“had business leaders falling off their chairs.”

There will be a plethora of committees overseeing this deal under the umbrella of the partnership council, plus those under the withdrawal agreement — 32 in all, as the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, highlighted — with no transparency and no democratic oversight, unlike the EU institutions so reviled by the Brexiters.

There is almost nothing in this deal, as my noble friend Lady Kramer and others pointed out, for the 80% of our economy represented by the services industries. There is no equivalence regime for financial services, itself a very second-rate replacement for passporting that can be withdrawn at any time. There is, as yet, no data adequacy regime for transfers vital to much of business, especially the tech industry.

Given that that 80% of our economy was sacrificed for fish quotas, there is no little irony in the fact that fishermen are up in arms, too, while the noble Lord, Lord Green, remains unhappy about the smoke and mirrors on immigration. The lack of mobility for performers and broadcasters is a body blow given the huge economic as well as cultural contribution of our creative industries, as my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bull and Lady Bakewell, articulated.

Speaking of cultural exchanges, the mean-mindedness of the Government in refusing to continue participation in the Erasmus scheme, rightly highlighted by many noble Lords, demonstrates that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Tory MPs have been tweeting demeaning claims that only middle-class kids benefited from it, which is not true. As my noble friend Lord Newby noted, it is interesting that the Irish Government will pick up the tab for students in Northern Ireland.

There are so many ways in which British citizens and consumers are losers, chief among them the loss of freedom of movement to live, work, study or retire, as highlighted by my noble friend Lord Shipley. I acknowledge that I am an Irish citizen, but that is by birth and not by scheming. There are plenty of Brexiters who hypocritically have made sure to acquire an EU passport so that they are not subject to the same constraints as those inflicted on most Brits. Other losses include the loss of protection from mobile roaming charges and the loss of pet passports. There will be new VAT and customs hassles in sending and receiving parcels to and from the continent — it is reported that the Post Office is already refusing to accept parcels – so it is bye-bye to ease of online shopping and eBaying.

As for policing and law enforcement, our citizens will be less safe, as my noble friends Lord Paddick and Lord Marks and others pointed out. We will no longer be a member of Europol, where we were a leading member. In both Europol and Eurojust, our status is reduced to having to wait to be invited to operational meetings. Our police and Border Force are locked out of the crucial Schengen Information System database, which, as many have said, was consulted 600 million times last year. The extradition scheme is not as smooth or as speedy as the European arrest warrant, but it is better than the 1957 Council of Europe convention. My noble friend Lord Marks also rightly deplored the backward step on civil law co-operation.

As my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire pointed out, there is a complete void where co-operation with the EU on foreign, external security and defence policy should be, a sector in which Britain led. This is not a case of the EU locking us out; incredibly, such co-operation is to cease at the request of the UK Government.

This Government are quick to grab the union jack and to politicise it, but what have they done for the loyal British territory of Gibraltar? The answer is nothing. Indeed, they have broken assurances to the Government of Gibraltar that a deal with the EU would not be agreed unless and until a deal was found also for Gibraltar. What guarantee can the Minister give that that gap will be remedied soon?

“Get Brexit Done” was the slogan. This deal disabuses us of any such notion. A Times cartoon tellingly shows Mr Johnson jumping from the EU frying pan into the post-Brexit fire. Cans have been kicked down the road. The gaps in coverage that need to be filled, the level playing field “rebalancing” provisions, the dispute resolution arrangements and the myriad committees all mean that we will be locked into negotiations for years to come, as my noble friend Lady Randerson pointed out.

There is no certainty. The constant spectre of reimposition of tariffs or withdrawal of financial services equivalence or data adequacy mean anything but a stable, sustainable relationship; investors will be deterred. The Prime Minister’s and Chancellor’s celebration of the prospect of divergence seems reckless to anyone who cares about national wealth and jobs.

It is a travesty that the Government are sealing the breach from the EU when opinion polls in the past year have consistently shown that more people think leaving the EU is wrong than think it is right. We are a very divided country. Appeals to rally round this inadequate deal do not cut it.

Brexit is the culmination of decades of the failure of the UK to become a modern country at ease with itself and its place in the world. Our highly centralised state, with Governments holding 100% of power on a share of the vote that consistently falls short of a majority — Boris Johnson got 43%, and that was of people who voted — means that many citizens feel alienated and voiceless.

The Bill amply demonstrates that these extraordinary powers – Henry VIII on steroids in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich — mean that taking back control means even more executive power, not parliamentary lawmaking, as my noble friend Lord Sharkey warned. Westminster gets 12 hours on this deal; the demonised European Parliament not only gets two months but is key to ratification, as this House is not.

As my noble friend Lord Alderdice said, the Government have released a dynamic that will make it difficult to hold all the United Kingdom together. In relation to Scotland, my noble friend Lord Bruce of Bennachie urged that only if we can learn and find a more constructive way of engaging with each other may we begin to see the glimmerings of a brighter future within this union.

There will certainly be a process of getting closer and closer to the EU and, as a Liberal Democrat, I hope — I am indeed convinced — that this will culminate in renewed EU membership in my lifetime; and I intend to live quite a while. In the meantime, my group cannot support this sad, sorry, inadequate deal. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Newby indicated, we will vote against it.

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  • What was promised in 2016 was “the exact same benefits” as EU membership and “frictionless” trade.

    That sentence is FALSE in at least three respects…

    1. The phrase “the exact same benefits” was not said in 2016, but by David Davis MP in the debate on Article 50 in the House of Commons on 24th. January 2017.

    2. It was not a promise, but an “aim” and an “idea”. Obviously, in a negotiation it is not possible to promise something which requires the agreement of the other party.

    3. The phrase was used specifically in connection with “a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement” and not about EU membership more generally.

    Here is the phrase in context…

    Article 50 – Tuesday 24 January 2017 – Hansard – UK Parliament:

    My right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) talks about things that were not on the ballot paper. What was on the ballot paper was leaving the European Union. I am afraid that it is very difficult to see how we can leave the European Union and still stay inside the single market, with all the commitments that go with that.

    What we have come up with — I hope to persuade her that this is a very worthwhile aim — is the idea of a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have, but also enable my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade to go and form trade deals with the rest of the world, which is the real upside of leaving the European Union.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 2nd Jan '21 - 10:00am

    By far the sharpest and most insightful assessment I have seen both on strength of argument and breadth of detail.

  • Barry Lofty 2nd Jan '21 - 11:32am

    There will be many who will not support the Lib Dems approach to the Brexit deal but speaking for myself I am delighted with the position they have taken and all the speeches contain so much Common Sense.

  • David Garlick 2nd Jan '21 - 12:12pm

    The irony is that false news will be the only source of ‘understanding/explanation of the agreement for many millions of UK voters and that enables Boris and co. to say what ever they think they want to hear and, sadly, to get away with it.
    Thanks for this excellent speech .

  • Jeff,
    You know the leave campaigners played fast and loose with their statements.
    Enough for the man on the proverbial Clapham omnibus to believe what they heard to be the case, as rightly said by Sarah Ludford.

  • Jim Alexander 2nd Jan '21 - 5:02pm

    We could of course have Voted for the Soft Brexit proposed by Theresa May which was EU Membership in everything but name – but we chose not to – preferring to Campaign to reverse the Democratic Will of the Electorate – and we paid the Price for that in the last General Election

    Its time to move on from Brexit -its done – People are fed up listening to it

    As for the Irish paying for Northern Irish Students to study abroad – thats simply the Irish Govt using Brexit the exact same as the SNP to break up the Union – the Turing Fund will allow Students to study abroad – the Irish Govt can keep there Money

  • Denis Loretto| 2nd Jan '21 - 9:38pm

    Sarah Ludford’s excellent speech did of course contain elements of lament at the UK’s exit from the EU as well as criticisms of the “deal” itself. The vast majority of Lib Dems will share her views. However the big question is what do we do now? The conference motion on this subject was amended to in effect concentrate at this stage on trying to get the best possible new relationship with the EU rather than diving into campaigning for re-entry. I think that was correct. Realistically it will be a generation or more before there can be any question of re-entry bearing in mind that the opting out of the euro and Schengen plus the Thatcher rebate would be off the agenda. In the meantime what happens to our people? As a passionate European myself I hope the Lib Dem leadership will view it as our duty to campaign for the many loose ends and inconsistencies in the current deal to be resolved in such a way as to ameliorate the damage inherent in brexit as much as possible.

  • Alex Macfie 2nd Jan '21 - 10:21pm

    Jim Alexander: Had we done as you suggest (vote for Theresa May’s so-called “soft Brexit”) then we would have got a pasting at the next election (which, I suspect, would still have been in late 2019 or early 2020) for going back on our word as the party that wished to Stop Brexit. It would have been worse than tuition fees.
    As for “Campaign to reverse the Democratic Will of the Electorate ” — surely that is what every opposition party does all the time, the aim being to *change* the “democratic will of the electorate”. Or are you one of those people who believe that once a democratic decision has been made, it is set in stone and all opposition to it should be forbidden?

  • Stephen Broadhead 3rd Jan '21 - 11:58am

    Sarah Ludford’s speech is so great that it should be printed as a Focus Leaflet and then a statement of what we want to do going forward like Single Transferable Voting (STV). A second chamber that is democratically elected and represents all the 4 nations of the UK. Ideally, the second chamber would be decentralised. Focus readers should be encouraged to subscribe to the Electoral Reform Society for updates. I pay them £2 per month but their regular emails are free.

    Brexit should be identified as the Tories new Poll Tax. Being an active member, I agreed to be the membership officer of Macclesfield Against the Poll Tax (MAPT). MAPT had 2,000 members in Macclesfield. Brexit is an ideal opportunity to undermine the Tories and Labour. This is an opportunity that we must not be miss.

    With regard to the mention of Tuition Fees above. I call myself an Expert. I volunteer my services when speaking to all parties or any person. I find that Labour and Tory supporters change the subject quickly because they actually understand it. I justify tuition fees as been brilliant for students. If you do the maths and understand percentages, specifically 9% is £90 per £1000 after £26,575 of income it is indeed excellent value for money. We should be shouting the benefits of tuition fees as loudly as possible and stating that this will not be maintained. If you query what I am saying your arithmetic may not be assured. Please search the Internet with ‘Martin Lewis tuition fees.’ I am a member of Macclesfield Lib Dems. My email address is [email protected] if you have any queries

  • Geoffrey Dron 3rd Jan '21 - 12:08pm

    Saving the Union (UK) is now crucial. The Tories in Scotland cannot resist the SNP on their own and in England they don’t care enough.

    A LibDem alliance with Starmer’s (social democrat, Bevinite) Labour, which would have been impossible with the Corbyn-led (socialist, Bevanite) party, is now on the cards and should be pursued. A starting point is UK-wide electoral reform with agreement on what is to replace FPTP (AV, STV or whatever) between the parties this year, so that both manifestos for 2023/4 can contain specific proposals without the need for a referendum.

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