Robert Armstrong: Worse than Suez –Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet secretary on how he would reform Brexit relations with the EU

How can the Parliamentary deadlock voer Brexit be broken? Robert Armstrong, a former Cabinet Secretary, has made a rare political intervention.
How can the Parliamentary deadlock voer Brexit be broken? Robert Armstrong, a former Cabinet Secretary, has made a rare political intervention.
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IT is nearly 70 years since I joined the Civil Service. In all that time, I do not think that I have ever felt, even at the time of Suez, a stronger sense of shame at the spectacle which we are presenting to an astonished world.

As one journal put it, Brexit is breaking British politics. A country once envied for its political stability, steadiness and maturity has descended into a chaos of division and indecision.

How long can Theresa May survive as Prime Minister?

How long can Theresa May survive as Prime Minister?

Both the main parties are deeply divided, as indeed is the nation. The constitutional arrangements which have stood us in good stead for at least a century are being put under severe strain.

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The principle of collective responsibility, which is an essential condition of effective government, has been abandoned – I devoutly hope only temporarily.​

Even if the Withdrawal Agreement proposed by the Prime Minister is eventually approved, the negotiations on the future relationship with the EU will drag on for many months, if not years, and the problems of Brexit will continue to dominate political discussion, the business of government and Parliament.

Graeme Bandeira's latest cartoon.

Graeme Bandeira's latest cartoon.

If the Withdrawal Agreement is further rejected after the House of Commons voted decisively against leaving the EU with no deal, it will be too late for the Prime Minister to kick the can down the road again. We shall have to seek an extension to the Article 50 deadline.

The Prime Minister has spoken of a strictly limited extension of three months, to the end of June. I understand that the elections to the European Parliament may complicate any idea of going beyond that date, but is three months long enough to negotiate a deal which will be acceptable to the European Union and to the House of Commons — something we have failed to do over the last two years?

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Would that not merely postpone the cliff edge, and leave us with a continuing chaos of division and indecision? Shall we not need a longer period of extension?

If need be, perhaps the existing British MEPs could be invited to serve in the new parliament until whatever date is fixed for finally leaving the EU.

But I wonder whether the problem is even more profound than that. If the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected, the question will be whether there can be any deal for our withdrawal from the EU that is acceptable both to the EU and to the House of Commons as now constituted.

If there cannot, any attempt to find such a deal is doomed to failure. If that were so, any extension of the deadline would be unavailing; it would just be prolonging the existing agony.

The one thing for which there appears to be a majority in the House of Commons is that it is not acceptable to leave the EU without a deal. If leaving with no deal is not acceptable and if there is no possibility of finding a deal which would be acceptable to a majority in the House of Commons as presently constituted, the only remaining option is no Brexit.

Only in that event would an extension of the Article 50 deadline serve any useful purpose. We should be obliged to revoke the notice of withdrawal from the EU and undertake not to submit a notice to withdraw from the EU during the lifetime of the present Parliament. Of course, no Parliament can commit its successor.

I wonder whether the time has come for a change of direction. We have been negotiating with the European Union on the terms on which we should leave it.

Has not the time come for us to negotiate with the European Union on the changes that might enable the Prime Minister to recommend to the British people that we stay despite the mandate of June 23, 2016?

We hear much of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave but rather less of the 16-odd million who voted to stay.

It would be worth pursuing the possibility of discovering rather more closely what issues inclined 17.4 million people to leave the EU, and then to negotiate with the EU to see what could be done to remedy those issues. It would be a change of direction and of discussion.

However, having drained the current discussion almost to the dregs, it would surely be worth looking at ​something that would enable us to call to the Union for something which would positively allow us to recommend to the British people that we should stay in the European Union.

The Prime Minister would probably want to talk in the first place to the President of the French Republic and the Chancellor of Germany to see what possibilities there were.

However, those possibilities are now important and very much worth pursuing.

Finally, the European Union is not perfect. It is recognised that it is in need of reform, and with the EU, reform is an agonisingly slow process. However, the reasons why and the purposes for which it was set up remain valid and vital.

In or out of the EU, the UK is part of Europe. Our historic role has been to provide a balance of power in conflicts between the larger continental powers. Surely it is in our interest to take part in a process of reform of the EU, which many people want and see coming? It would be in its interest as well as in our own if we were able to contribute to shaping and directing the process of reform.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster is a cross-bench peer. He was Cabinet Secretary under Margaret Thatcher and spoke in a House of Lords debate this week on Brexit – this is an edited version.