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Terms of Withdrawal from the European Union (Referendum)

Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 22 March 2017

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the holding of a referendum in the United Kingdom and Gibraltar on the proposed terms for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union; and for connected purposes.

On 23 June 2016, a narrow majority voted for the UK to leave the European Union. I deeply regret that outcome, but I am a democrat, and I accept it. However, a week from today, the divorce proceedings will begin, and the country now faces a greater period of uncertainty than most of us have ever experienced. One thing is for certain: democracy did not end at 10 pm on 23 June last year.

Not long ago, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union himself made the case very eloquently for what is now the proposal of the Liberal Democrats and others. He referred to a first “mandate referendum” and a second “decision referendum”, and said:

“The aim of this strategy is to give the British people the final say, but it is also to massively reinforce the legitimacy and negotiating power of the British negotiating team.”

I could not agree with him more; it is a great shame that he does not agree with himself anymore.

Last week, in rejecting a second referendum on independence for Scotland, the Prime Minister said:

“I think it wouldn’t be fair to the people of Scotland because they’re being asked to make a crucial decision without all the necessary information—without knowing what the future partnership would be, or what the alternative of an independent Scotland would look like.”

She is now asking the people of the United Kingdom as a whole to proceed to forge a relationship with the rest of Europe, and, indeed, the world, on exactly that basis—on the basis of a decision taken last June

“without all the necessary information—without knowing what the future partnership would be”.

The Secretary of State’s original case stands: we started this process last June with democracy, so we must end it with democracy, too. I accept that we have had our “mandate referendum”, in which the British people voted to leave, but voting for departure is not the same as voting for a destination. The Government should now give the British people a “decision referendum”, to be held when the EU negotiation is concluded, so that the British people have all the necessary information and know what our future partnership will be, because it is the people who are sovereign in this country. The people can and must have their say over what comes next, and this Bill would enshrine in law their right to do so.

Last week, when debating even the right of Parliament to have the final say on the Brexit deal, the Government displayed ludicrous inconsistency and double standards. The Brexiteers asked us to “take back control”, yet the first thing they do is undermine the principle of democratic accountability in our Parliament by refusing even to allow a meaningful vote in this House. The detail, or even the general nature, of the deal that the Government may reach with the European Union is currently completely unknown—a mystery to us and to them—yet the British people are now told that they must simply shrug and accept any old deal, irrespective of its content or quality. When the deal is done, it will be signed off by someone. The only question is, who? Will it be the politicians, or will it be the people?

My party believes that the deal should be signed off by the people. No plans, no instructions, no prospectus and no vision were offered to voters by the leave campaign. With respect, I did not agree with the case for Scottish independence put forward by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) in 2014. But, credit where credit is due: there was a 670-page prospectus of what Scotland outside the United Kingdom would look like. The leavers did not present the British people with such a prospectus; all they gave us was a lie on the side of a bus—hardly comparable. The pro-independence campaign in Scotland presented the Scottish people with not just the option of departure but the option of destination. Of course, the Scottish people voted against both the departure and the destination, but had the result gone the other way, there would have been no need to hold a people’s vote on the final deal on independence from the United Kingdom.

I still believe it is absolutely impossible for the Government to negotiate a better deal with Europe than the one we currently have as a member of the European Union. Nevertheless, the negotiations will happen and a deal will be reached. Surely the only right and logical step to take is to allow the people to decide whether it is the right deal for them, their families, their jobs and their country.

No one knows what the final deal will look like, but we do know that the Prime Minister has already given up on the United Kingdom’s membership of the single market, without even putting up a fight. In January, after months of saying that Brexit means Brexit, she finally came clean: Brexit means jumping out of the single market—the world’s biggest marketplace—with all the consequences that will have for people’s jobs and our economy. The Prime Minister is entitled to make that choice, but let us be absolutely clear: it is a choice. That is one of the reasons I was so astounded that the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and many in his party—although not all, of course—made the decision to vote with the Government on article 50. This House did not vote to enact the will of the people; this House voted, if we are to be generous, to interpret the will of the people.

Just like the Conservative party in its 2015 manifesto, I passionately believe that ending our membership of the world’s biggest free market will do untold damage to this country. It is vital for our economy, which is why my party and others refuse to stop making the case that the deal must include membership of the single market. The Prime Minister had the choice to pursue a form of Brexit that united our country, reflected the closeness of the vote and sought to heal the divisions between leave and remain. She could have fought to keep us in the single market, if she wanted to; she has chosen not to. She is pulling us out before the negotiations have even begun. Yes, the British people chose Brexit, narrowly, but nobody voted for the severance, irrelevance and decline that an unforced exit from the single market will bring. It is this Conservative Government who have chosen this Brexit.

The referendum vote does not give the Government a mandate for absolute severance from Europe. For 40 years now, the anti-European crowd have been saying words to the effect of, “Well, in 1975 I voted to be in the common market; I didn’t vote to be in the European Union.” Now, we turn that completely on its head, because in June people narrowly voted to leave the European Union, but no one voted to leave the Common Market—they simply were not asked. Nor did they vote to place a question mark over the status of their friends, neighbours and loved ones who happened to be born in another part of the European Union. The inaction of the Government and their unwillingness to guarantee the rights of millions of EU citizens living here is shameful; it is absolutely contrary to the British values of openness and tolerance to refuse to do so.

With this Bill, I am seeking to reinforce and strengthen the will of the people—to allow them to exercise their democratic right and duties by giving them a choice about what we and our children will have to live with for generations to come. They would be able either to accept the deal the Government achieve, or to say “Thanks, but no thanks” and opt to remain in the European Union. The gate has been opened and the direction is set, but the only way to achieve democracy and closure for both leave and remain voters is for there to be a vote at the end. If the Prime Minister is so confident that what she is planning to do is what people voted for, why not give them a vote on the final deal? What is she scared of? What started with democracy cannot end with a stitch up. The deal must not be merely rubber-stamped by politicians: it must be agreed by the people.

Question put and agreed to.


That Tim Farron, Mr Nick Clegg, Tom Brake, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Norman Lamb, Greg Mulholland, Sarah Olney, Mr Mark Williams, Heidi Alexander, Geraint Davies, Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Edwards present the Bill.

Tim Farron accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 May, and to be printed (Bill 161).

Pension Schemes Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 2)


That the Order of 30 January 2017 (Pension Schemes Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows:

(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.

(2) Proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.

(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.—(Christopher Pincher.)