Dominic Raab is a member of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee, and is MP for Esher and Walton.
Mark Twain remarked that “the secret of getting ahead is getting started”. I appreciate some of the House of Lords’ concerns about Brexit. But the best way to mitigate them is for Parliament to back the Government – not hold it back – so we can get on and deliver the best deal for Britain, and Europe.
Take the position of European nationals living in Britain. We all want to see this resolved – along with assurances for British expats abroad. Theresa May has said this is an early priority, and our EU partners say we can’t resolve the issue until we start formal negotiations.
In a report released today, the cross-party Commons Committee on Exiting the EU (of which I am a member), points out that there is no question of the Government deporting large numbers of EU nationals already here. Frankly, those pro-EU politicians and pundits suggesting otherwise have been engaged in some pretty irresponsible scaremongering.
The committee, comprised of both Leave and Remain MPs, also recommend that the Government unilaterally commit to safeguarding the rights of EU nationals. Yet, whilst I share some of the concerns of Lords who last week voted to amend the Bill going through Parliament, their amendment does absolutely nothing to secure the position of EU nationals. It’s a procedural gambit, calling on the Government to come up with some proposals – not actually guarantee rights – three months after we begin Brexit negotiations.
That couldn’t give the EU nationals in my constituency the reassurance they need. Why on earth would we delay the start of negotiations over such a vacuous process point? The best way to give those families affected genuine reassurance is to let the Government crack on, and get the issue resolved as swiftly as possible with our European partners. That’s why elected MPs in the Commons rejected a similar proposal last month. The Lords haven’t offered any credible reason for MPs to change their mind.
On Monday, attention in the Lords will turn to the Parliamentary vote on the deal the government brings back from Brussels, in two years’ time. The Government has rightly already committed to having a vote, in both Houses, on the final deal. In addition, any changes to UK law would require legislation in the normal way.
That is not enough for some die-hard Remain peers calling for a ‘meaningful’ vote. The truth is the only meaningful vote certain Lords will accept is one that would render meaningless the will of the British people. Their amendment requires Parliament to approve the final deal before the government agrees it, and would bar the UK from leaving the EU without such approval. The Lords are trying to give themselves a veto over Brexit.
In reality, the UK deal will have two parts: the terms of divorce, and the terms of the new relationship with the EU. If Parliament rejects the divorce, there is absolutely no chance we’d secure better terms going back to Brussels, just because politicians at home grumbled – so it would be pointless.
In relation to the future relationship with the EU, if Parliament rejected the deal, it could send us back to address specific points with the EU – but that shouldn’t delay the UK’s departure in 2019. Given the two year period for Brexit negotiations, laid down under EU law, there would not be enough time for the UK government to shuttle back and forth to iron out any creases. Crucially, if the EU knew it could prevent us from leaving by offering a lousy deal, that would fatally weaken Britain’s negotiating leverage – not to mention risk frustrating the referendum result. The Lords’ proposal is undemocratic in principle, and entirely counter-productive in practice. That’s what ‘meaningful’ means.
It’s time for a bit of honesty from Labour, and their Liberal Democrat allies in the Lords. The procedure for the Brexit negotiations is tight, but that’s not because this government is being inflexible. The constraints are enshrined in UK law, because the last Labour government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown negotiated and signed us up to the Lisbon Treaty, backed to the hilt by the LibDems. Indeed, it was the UK government that came up with the proposal for Article 50, to deter any country from contemplating leaving the EU.
Labour’s current leader in the Lords, Angel (now Baroness) Smith, was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Gordon Brown, when he ratified the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. She is uniquely well placed to fess up to the folly of the Lords’ amendment, and the Labour party’s responsibility for the restraints governing Brexit negotiations – which she and her colleagues now rail against with such synthetic indignation.
Their Lordships have an important scrutiny role. And, in one sense, it’s reassuring that they’ve come up with no new ideas, and no new arguments. But, now, it’s time for the political haggling at home to end, and the serious diplomacy abroad to start.