I have been in the House of Lords all day today. I didn't put in to speak in any debate, but wanted to listen to debates on the European Union in particular. (The business for each day is established only a week or so beforehand – not great for people with diaries like mine.)
Following a debate on “the conditions in which Palestinian children are living and the impact on their health and wellbeing”, the first EU debate was a Topical Question for Short Debate (limited to sixty minutes): “to ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the impact on British farmers of the decision to leave the European Union”.
The debate was good, intelligent and informed – normal for the House of Lords. Then we moved on to the second debate (limited to 2.5 hours): “that this House takes note of the European Union referendum result for government policies in ensuring safe staffing levels n the National Health Service and social care services.”
What was notable about contributions to both debates was the realism rather than romanticism about our Brexit future. The EU referendum debate was not rehearsed by Leavers or Remainers, but promises, 'facts' and 'lies' were given a good run around by many contributors on all sides of the House. The debate will be available on Hansard tomorrow, so I won't rehearse them here. But, two phrases used repeatedly by government ministers stand out for me, and both have ongoing resonance as we now walk into our promised glorious future.
First: until we actually leave the EU it is “business as usual”. It sounds reassuring; just a shame it is patently not true. Ask the NHS with its recruitment challenges. Ask academics who already are finding very real (and expressed) threats to funding – not only in the future, but now. Ask farmers who will be waiting a long time to find out what will happen to their subsidies when the Common Agricultural Policy no longer applies. I could go on, but read the debate when it is published.
In one sense, we can live with the prolonged uncertainty we have chosen, and we can take responsibility for facing the consequences of our decision. But, we should do it on the basis of reality and not language that promises what it cannot deliver. If we were going to have “business as usual”, there was clearly little point in having the referendum and voting to leave.
Second: statements that the UK “will” get the best deals for Britain, and so on. I have rehearsed this many times before. Negotiations have two or more parties. We don't negotiate with ourselves, guaranteeing the best deal for our benefit. We negotiate with countries we have mocked for decades as being incompetent, duplicitous and corrupt. And they are going to be well disposed to giving the UK the best deals – presumably at the expense of their own countries? Really?
Well, we will see what emerges in time. I hope we will get good deals, but this cannot be taken for granted (especially when we don't have any skilled negotiators anyway). And that is the point. The government should use the word “may” and not “will”. I guess “will” is intended to create (or reinforce) confidence that all will be well and all things shall be well. But, it cannot be justified at this point. “May” is more accurate.