Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I begin by reminding noble Lords of some of the promises that have been made. On 9 April 2016, Mr Michael Gove said:
“The day after we leave we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want”.
On 10 October 2016, Mr David Davis said:
“There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside”.
On 20 July 2017, Mr Liam Fox said:
“The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history”.
There are plenty of other Panglossian examples of how everything was to be,
“the best in the best of all possible worlds”.
But given what has happened since, a rather better literary reference might be,
“Never glad confident morning again”,
because those statements display a facile misunderstanding of the nature of the European Union, its origins and its core values. They proceed on a simplistic assumption: “They need us more than we need them”.
We are now commemorating the end of the First World War. Some of us are already wearing poppies. That war caused terrible loss of life to the United Kingdom. Mainland Europe suffered the same but also the humiliation of invasion and occupation. A short 21 years later there was more death and destruction, more humiliation and even more occupation. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the countries of mainland Europe sought to find another way? The way they chose was to rebuild the nations of the mainland not as rivals but as partners, so they created the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 through the treaty of Paris. Its purpose was to provide the coal, the furnaces and the steel to rebuild their countries. But that success—I will not take noble Lords through every iteration of it—embraced and emboldened further co-operation until finally a single market and customs union was formed. It embodied the four freedoms, of goods, capital, services and labour; it is said that Lady Thatcher was a strong supporter of that proposal.
The creation of the four freedoms was as much about security as about economics. Countries that embrace these freedoms do not go to war with each other—they have too much to lose. These freedoms are an investment in stability; they are political as well as economic. To coin a phrase, “This whole issue is not just about the economy, stupid”. It is because of these foundations that Barnier and Brussels cannot and will not make any concession that undermines these freedoms. To do so would at the same time undermine the very stability that the European Union has been created to continue.
In the case of Greece, membership of the European Union brought an end to the dictatorship. In the case of Italy, it allowed that country to embark upon reconstruction of its infrastructure, which might not otherwise have been available. In addition, so far as I know there are not yet many movements in either Greece or Italy to leave the European Union, nor indeed to give up the benefits which it allows.
The quotations to which I referred do not understand the fundamental emotion, if you like, which is to be found in the attitude of Germany. For a long time after 1945, Germany was influenced by a sense of guilt. It is perfectly clear from Mrs Merkel that Germany is now influenced by a strong sense of responsibility to protect the structures which stand in the way of the terrors of death and destruction which were seen in the first half of the 20th century. That has produced this attitude: if you want to leave the European Union, that is your prerogative, but you cannot pick and mix the advantages of membership once you have gone. Allow it once, and others may want to do the same, and there will be a break-up of the structure which has been of such importance to those countries who joined it. In the unlikely event that we left NATO, we would no longer expect to be able to rely on Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty—how could we? The simple fact is that as soon as you are outside the European Union, you become a third party, with which the European Union will be willing to co-operate but not to the prejudice of its core values. That is why I say that the Prime Minister’s continuing optimism to the contrary is misplaced.
None of those who thought it was going to be easy ever understood the central obstacle of the constitutional values of the European Union and its determination to protect them. Nor indeed did anyone anticipate the viciousness of the battle for the soul of the Conservative Party, to a point where some commentators even say that its continued existence is at stake. Now we hear that the Prime Minister may have enjoyed a temporary and no doubt welcome respite following events yesterday evening, but none of that deals with the question of the 5% which she recently told us she still had to achieve. Since we have had Conservatives in government, they must take responsibility, first of all, for the determination to have the referendum and its consequences.
We should consider some of the mistakes made: first, Mr David Cameron’s insistence on calling a referendum rather than toughing it out against UKIP and its fellow travellers in his own party, and then the lacklustre and complacent campaign against leaving, headed up by Mr George Osborne.
I thank the Liberal Democrat group for being unequivocally in favour of our continuing membership of the EU. As the first referendum two years ago was an advisory and quite legitimate giving of an opinion, does the noble Lord agree that it is important that the people should be entitled to a second consideration of this important matter now, after the incredibly bewildering and complex negotiations?
I am glad that I have so quickly persuaded the noble Lord.
The second matter that I wish to draw to the House’s attention is the unremitting and, it must be admitted, highly successful campaign against the Liberal Democrats conducted by the Conservatives in the 2015 general election. However, the consequence of that was to remove the need for a further coalition, which could have been David Cameron’s defence—as it was between 2010 and 2015—against Conservative MPs hell-bent on withdrawal. The consequence of that is that the credibility of the Government’s position has been substantially undermined, as indeed it was by the assumption on the part of Mrs May that a general election would produce an increased government majority and strengthen her hand. All those weaken the negotiating strength of the Government, which has been further undermined by the civil war in the Conservative Party, where there is still open and reckless ambition and unrepentant revolt—notwithstanding what may be thought to be the temporary ceasefire of last night.
The Prime Minister—who would have believed it?—has found it embarrassingly necessary to use a threat to the European Union that if she were to be replaced because of a failure to reach an accommodation with the 27 leaders, then negotiations with a successor would be even more difficult. Baroness Thatcher would not have approved.
We do not know what the final package put before Parliament will be, but the chances of it being approved by the Commons melt by the hour, as bitterness and abuse replace loyalty and respect. Who will bet the farm that the Government will get any proposal brought back by the Prime Minister through the House of Commons?
What are those who oppose a second vote afraid of? If they are as confident as some of those quotations have suggested, what is there to be lost, so far as they are concerned? I understand those who take the view that in a parliamentary democracy we should not rely on a referendum, but that door was opened when the decision was taken to hold a referendum as to whether we should stay or leave. Some claim that it would be undemocratic to allow such a vote—that it is a novel and dangerous principle to give the people of the United Kingdom the chance to pass judgment on proposals which are a world away from what they were promised, and which will have an impact for decades to come.
Parliament, on the other hand, is sovereign; it can change its mind, and it frequently does. Sometimes we repeal legislation which has been passed earlier in the same Session. It is argued that the people of the United Kingdom cannot be given the same opportunity: that, once cast, the vote to leave must be implemented, whatever the political, economic or social consequences; that the resulting, inevitable uncertainties must be accepted, whatever the financial cost; and perhaps—I speak as someone who comes from north of the border—that the risk of the break-up of the United Kingdom must be accepted, along with the risk of the destabilisation of the island of Ireland.
In the course of the referendum campaign, no one told the country that a decision to leave would result in the depreciation of the pound, an increase in inflation and a rise in the cost of living. No one told the country that we might have to stockpile medicine and food. No one told the country that the car industry would be beset by uncertainty. Where now is the letter of comfort given to Nissan, to which such great importance was attached? It has since been regarded as insufficient, so far as Nissan is concerned.
The people were assured that the vote to leave would be followed by a trouble-free and successful exit, and that the economy would prosper. What else was meant by the three unwise men to whom I have already referred? More than that, the people were given to believe that their Government would conduct the necessary negotiations in an effective and unified way. In all of these expectations, they have been failed. They have been failed by incoherence and incompetence. The people of Britain have a right to be allowed to pass judgment on any deal forged in such circumstances. They should be given that opportunity. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, who spoke with authority, eloquence and transparent sincerity. None the less, I profoundly disagree with him. There are good reasons to argue against a second referendum—reasons that even remainers ought to think about extremely carefully. I was pleased that the noble Lord did not—except in his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes—use the phrase “people’s referendum”, which seems to me an Orwellian use of language, designed to conceal meaning. He knows as well as I do the arguments against the use of that phrase, and so I shall not weary the House by going on about them. However, it is, frankly, a dishonest use of language to say that this would be a people’s referendum in some sense more democratic than the first.
In addition to other arguments, some practical questions have to be put about a second referendum. First, how long would it take to hold a second referendum? We have no standing law to permit the holding of referendums, so it would require legislation. People who have looked at it think that at best, if we were lucky, it might be a year before we could implement a referendum.
I am sorry, but I have only four minutes. The noble Lord will be able to speak later.
A second issue is: what would the question be? Some say it ought to be on the deal that has been negotiated; some say it ought to be on no deal. Would the choice on the ballot paper be between the existing deal and no deal, or for renegotiation on terms yet to be revealed? If the result was that we had to renegotiate the renegotiation, would we then have a third referendum to validate the second referendum? On what terms would we rejoin the EU—or could there be a fourth referendum to validate the third referendum?
The noble Lord did not really refer to the many assurances that were given in the referendum campaign, by all parties, that we would honour the result. The fundamental impression is that many people simply cannot accept the democratic result of the referendum. This, of course, is in the long tradition of the EU, which has in the past bulldozed through policies for integration, even when public opinion has been cautious or opposed to them. Since the EU was founded, there have been no fewer than 48 referendums held on integration measures and accession. Not once has a referendum been rerun when the vote was in favour of integration, even when it was by a narrower majority than that in the referendum we had. On two separate occasions and on two separate issues, Ireland had to run a referendum again; the Danes had to run another referendum; and the French and the Dutch were not allowed to have the result of their referendums on the constitution accepted.
Some EU spokesmen have been quite open about this. In 2005, Mr Barroso said:
“They must go on voting until they get it right”.
Mr Juncker, again in 2005, before the French referendum, said:
“If it is a Yes, we will say ‘on we go’, and if it’s a No, we will say ‘we continue’”.
Raymond Barre, the former Prime Minister of France, said he could not see why the public should be consulted at all about European integration. It was precisely because of this that many people voted to leave the EU. Tony Blair, who one would have thought could have used his experience and contacts to help the Government, has said that the result of a second referendum would have to be definitive and respected. Big deal—that is what he said last time about the referendum we had.
Some people say that a second referendum would be a healing process. That seems the most improbable argument of all. It would create a permanent division in our politics. People already feel great disillusionment and disdain for our system is widespread. I believe that a second referendum would be a disaster of the first order for democracy. It would undermine the very basis of democracy because it would suggest that a decision by a majority is insufficient to make that decision legitimate.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, referred to and dismissed people who say it would be undemocratic to have a second referendum. But it was the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, himself—who has, I am sorry to see, left the Chamber; perhaps rather conveniently—who just before the referendum result said:
“When the British people have spoken, you do what they command. Either you believe in democracy or you don’t”.
Well, I believe in democracy.
My Lords, I wish to set out the key issues for the conduct of the second referendum as I see them. In this, I take a different view on some issues from the UCL report on the subject published on 8 October.
First, we will need to secure an extension of Article 50 for the purposes of conducting such a referendum, probably a three-month extension so that the referendum can be held in May.
Secondly, the existing Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act should be superseded by a dedicated EU referendum Act.
Thirdly, this dedicated referendum Act should set up an independent commission solely for the EU referendum. That commission should regulate impartiality, spending and the conduct of the referendum.
Fourthly, the question to be put to the people should be set out in the dedicated referendum Act. It should probably be a straight choice between the Government’s Brexit deal and staying in the European Union, but obviously that depends on whether there is a deal.
Fifthly, there should be no third, no-deal option, because “no deal” does not exist. None of those who are against Mrs May’s current negotiating position because they think it is too pro-EU in fact wants to leave the EU without a treaty that ensures the continuity of aviation, the ports, the movement of people and goods and so forth. Most of the radical Brexiters, including Boris Johnson, are in favour of a financial settlement with the European Union which involves us honouring debts. It must be a cardinal principle that no proposition is put to the people that is imprecise and/or cannot realistically be implemented.
Sixthly, one campaign should be recognised on each side and both campaigns should be fully responsible. There should be no repeat of 2016 when two leave campaigns existed and there was no clear and robust accountability.
Seventhly, social media should be regulated—both its content and its funding—and all foreign intervention in the campaign should be prohibited.
Eighthly, the franchise should be extended to 16 and 17 year-olds, as in the Scottish referendum.
Ninthly, the referendum should be held in university term, which is why I suggest it should be in May, so that students and young people can vote easily.
Brexit concerns the future of young people pre-eminently and we should encourage and facilitate their engagement to the maximum extent possible.
My Lords, to put this debate in context, we need to understand the claims of those who say that further public consultation on Brexit is not needed because the public voted for Brexit, they knew exactly for what they were voting for and it would be undemocratic to revisit the issue. The reality is that the public voted on the principle of leaving: they voted for a blank canvas on to which many different and contradictory hopes and aspirations were painted, and now that the picture is becoming clearer, it is obvious that what the leave campaign promised is simply not on offer. So it is not undemocratic to give people the opportunity to vote on the final deal, including the option to remain. Indeed, many of us know people who want that chance, such as those who saw that insidious, mendacious advert on the leave bus, which suggested that the NHS could be richer by an additional £350 million a week if people voted to leave.
One such person was my friend Jane, who voted to leave because of that advert. She felt she had no choice because her two daughters are doctors and she knew how desperately the NHS needed money. Of course, now it is clear that the NHS will not get any extra money—because of Brexit less money is available, because the economy has slowed down—she bitterly regrets the way that she voted.
That is not the only false claim that the Brexiteers made. There was also the wickedly dishonest argument that we needed to leave the EU to stop 80 million Turks arriving in the UK, and that free from the shackles of the EU, countries around the world would be queuing up to do trade deals with us. But the whole idea of finding new markets is a fantasy. Most countries already have special preferential deals with the EU, including Canada. Japan, Australia and New Zealand are already negotiating one, so Britain will start from a disadvantage once it leaves the EU. The only major country that will or may be interested in a special relationship with Britain is the United States—but crucially, it would be on the United States’ terms, which could result in dilution of our food standards. President Trump has already been very clear that he is more interested in a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the EU rather than the UK, because of the size of its market compared to ours.
But the failure of campaigners for Brexit to understand the complexities of the Irish border has been the single biggest failure of the whole process. As somebody who was born and brought up in Ireland, it just fills me with horror. The level of ignorance shown on this issue by key politicians is almost beyond belief. Arlene Foster’s recent interview in the Daily Telegraph, in which she said that some parts of the Good Friday agreement could be changed in the light of Brexit, and that the agreement was not sacrosanct, was beyond irresponsible.
Just as the outrageous claim by Boris Johnson—
Like the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, I only have four minutes, so you will forgive me if I do not; thank you.
Just as outrageous was Boris Johnson’s comparison of the Irish border to two London boroughs—absolutely extraordinary. The Good Friday agreement, which ended 30 years of sectarian violence, must be protected at all costs. But while the Government and the country are held to ransom by the DUP, too many voices are being ignored, and only a people’s vote on the final deal can ensure that these voices are finally heard.
Gold medal to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, once the fastest man in Europe, for securing a debate on the issue of the hour—and would that we had an hour each to explore it. For those who have but 20 minutes, I commend The Roadmap to a People’s Vote, published a month ago. In the short time I have, I will draw on it to make four quick points. First, why a people’s vote? Because the people want it. Polls in the late summer showed clear backing, 45% to 35%, for a public vote on the outcome. The majority rose to two to one, 50% to 25%, in the event of no deal. These majorities are still rising. The people want to have their say.
Point two: why do they want to have their say? Because nobody voted for the Brexit we seem to be going to get. Fewer than one in five now believe that the Government will get a good deal; over 60% believe they will be worse off; and a larger majority believe the negotiations are going worse than they were led to expect. The quotations from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, were very apposite. The policy was to have our cake and eat it. The people now know that is not possible—it is not working out as they were promised—so it seems right to ask them whether they nevertheless want to go ahead.
Point three: is that feasible? Is there enough time? The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, and I think on a previous occasion the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, have said that a referendum would take a year. I do not think so. The UCL Constitution Unit report the other day suggested 22 weeks; the Roadmap suggests it could be even faster. However, I acknowledge that it would be necessary to stop the Article 50 clock and obtain an extension of the two-year negotiating period. This would not be a problem. It is important to distinguish between two scenarios here, thinking about the position of the 27. The 27 might well cavil at the idea of an extension to permit the present UK negotiating team to carry on negotiating in the way they are. The EU has other priorities, and the Lithuanian lady got it right the other day when she said after the European Council that “this is a difficult negotiation; it is difficult to know what they want, because they don’t know what they want”. If it is merely to carry on the process, I am not sure the necessary unanimity for an extension would be available. But I am quite sure that 27 democracies would never prevent our putting the outcome to a democratic decision in May, June or September. For that scenario, an extension could be instantly obtained.
A stronger objection is my point four: that a referendum would be socially divisive. I agree. A second referendum would be. However, it would not be nearly as divisive as Brexit without one. The polls now show a decisive majority wanting a second vote and an admittedly much smaller majority not wanting Brexit. If that persists, to drag the country out while denying it a vote would be bitterly and lastingly divisive. The economic and societal consequences of that for jobs, growth, investment and living standards would hit home over time and hit the poorest the hardest, as Sir John Major pointed out the other day. That is a recipe for deep and lasting resentment. It would not then be the people’s Brexit; it would the politicians’ Brexit, the Government’s Brexit, Parliament’s Brexit. The most democratic course is also the least divisive: Parliament should seek the verdict of the people.
A people’s vote on the outcome of the negotiations of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU sounds like, “I don’t like the outcome of the original vote, so I’d like another bite of the cherry to see whether it can be reversed”. The result in June 2016, albeit by a small margin, was a decision to leave. It is my understanding that there is no turning back on a referendum. It would be a complete farce if you could have another crack of the whip. However, there is a good argument to void that vote, if it can be concluded that the public were totally misled. It is my belief that a large section of the British public were misled in forming their decision to vote to leave.
I have been the chair and major shareholder of public companies. As a board, we were obliged, when sending out a prospectus to shareholders and the public, to have all comments and forecasts made by us scrutinised line by line by auditors and lawyers in a very tough due diligence and verification process. No such process exists for the claims politicians make to convince the public—who, by the way, rely on and trust them—to place their vote. In some cases, misleading shareholders has resulted in prosecution and imprisonment. Applying the public company principle, it would follow that those people who will be responsible for putting this country into five to 10 years of post-Brexit turmoil based on lies—such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove for the £350 million lie on the red bus—should be imprisoned, or at least prosecuted.
On the eve of the Brexit vote, on 22 June 2016, I was invited by David Cameron to take the lead for the remain camp in “The Great Debate”, which took place on the BBC. To this day, I kick myself for turning it down. At the time, I felt that I was not qualified enough to stand up and discuss the various intricacies of leaving or remaining in the EU. Instead, the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, took my position. He did the best he possibly could.
I am being polite. Having watched the debate, I was fuming that somebody did not ask Boris Johnson to put his hand on his heart, look down the lens and tell the British public that the £350 million was a truthful statement. One thing is for sure: I know that, in my forceful manner, I would have made him admit that he was lying. Who knows, perhaps that could have swung the vote.
Similarly, Gisela Stuart, a German immigrant who took advantage of our joining the EU in 1973 came here in 1974. She has flourished: she has become an MP, a mother of two and, I believe, a grandmother. She is an immigrant who flourished and contributed, yet that night she stood in the leave group criticising immigration by implying that 80 million Turks were about to come running to our country—a total lie. She said, “It’s simply a statement of fact that uncontrolled immigration puts pressure on services”. I would say “Pot, kettle”.
We have no understanding of the negotiations taking place between us and the EU. I hope and believe that a rabbit will be pulled out of the hat shortly. Common sense must prevail that we get at least a trade deal. I am a businessman and I sympathise in a way with the Prime Minister, who is possibly in a frustrating position of knowing how the negotiations are going but not being able to publicly disclose the status. The media, bless them, make up their own stories that everything is going to be a disaster when in fact they do not know what is going on at all. My experience in business when negotiating with another party is that you do not lay all your cards on the table; you have to keep your cards close to your chest. One cannot keep the public at large in touch blow by blow. This would effectively destroy our negotiating power.
I seriously believe that the public were misled. For that reason, I believe the public should be entitled to a vote on the final negotiated terms.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sugar. I very much agree with what he said about the referendum, which has ended up in a Brexit situation. The plain and simple term that we might use is that the public were given a false prospectus. Lie after lie emerged. I am afraid the fact is that, if we have another referendum, we will find a similar situation where the public will be misled. It might, however, be helpful to discover what has happened to the Brexiteers’ bus and plaster on the side of it the cost of withdrawal and the effect that is likely to have on the National Health Service.
I was very fortunate only a short time ago, on 19 July, to initiate a debate in this House on the overall case against referendums. I am anxious not to repeat what I said on that occasion, but I will repeat the essential point that I believe the use of referendums is not democratic. It is sold the whole time as being democratic. The reality is that referendums tend to undermine what we in this country have always meant by democracy—namely, the system of representative parliamentary democracy whereby people are elected to represent their constituents. They are representatives, not delegates. The trouble with the referendum is that, the moment we have a referendum result, we find a situation where Parliament and Members of Parliament are bound by that referendum. They are made to be delegates. That inevitably affects their position and does not enable them to exercise their judgment as they would wish.
I note with interest that the debate we are having is not simply, “Let’s rerun the previous referendum”; it is saying that we should have a referendum on the result of the negotiations. That would again be open to the danger I have just said. The crucial thing is that Parliament should have the chance to have a vote that enables it to decide on the result of the negotiations. That will be a tremendously important task.
I was interested to see the enormous size of the march that took place in favour of the kind of proposition we have before us, but I do not think that there is the slightest doubt that the overwhelming majority of those who took part in it were really, in fact, against Brexit. They hoped that the chance of another referendum would enable them to overturn that result. As I say, that issue is separate from the result of the negotiations, but that is the way they felt. I think very strongly indeed that that would be an inappropriate way to do it.
Finally, I turn to the question of the way the referendum might be cast. The Bill for the last referendum—I took part at length in the debates—could not have been clearer in favour of an advisory referendum. It was not a mandatory referendum, but the moment the result was announced, everyone on the government side treated it as if it were. We hear time and again—indeed, some of us heard again last night—that the referendum was an instruction to Parliament. It was no such thing. We really cannot have a situation where the rights of Members of Parliament to govern this country are undermined by them being given instruction by referendum.
My Lords, continued Brexit negotiating crises cannot hide a blindingly obvious outcome facing this country. Even if the Prime Minister were to get absolutely everything she has demanded from the European Union under her Chequers plan—which, as Brussels has made clear, is highly unlikely—she would be abandoning the 80% of the economy in the services sector and lumbering taxpayers with a £50 billion divorce bill.
The difference between what was offered by Brexiteers in the June 2016 referendum and what is achievable has been widening into an unbridgeable gulf. As former Conservative Prime Minister John Major has said,
“no form of Brexit will remotely match up to the promises made by the leave campaign in the referendum: they were vote-gathering fantasies, not serious politics. … those who … persuaded a deceived population to vote to be weaker and poorer … will never be forgotten—nor forgiven”.
How can even those who feel obligated by the referendum result justify backing an outcome that will make their constituents worse off, deepen poverty, trigger unemployment, damage the economy, leave us with much less control and less influence on the global stage, and torpedo the Good Friday peace process in Northern Ireland? How is that better than the deal we already have inside the European Union?
Meanwhile the no deal which dogmatic Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg cheerfully trumpet would, the Government themselves report, include a series of disasters: customs barriers and tariffs; new visa and driver green cards; the reintroduction of mobile phone roaming charges; the grounding of flights; bans on British hauliers; the loss of existing trade agreements, via the EU, with 70 third countries; and the collapse of the port of Dover on day one.
Moreover, the Government will only guarantee the replacement of European Union regional development funds up to 2020. These have been critical for areas such as Wales. They were worth fully £9.9 billion paid directly to the Welsh Government between 1999 and 2018, excluding substantial funds paid directly to Welsh businesses, universities, groups and individuals.
The Prime Minister is blackmailing MPs and the country by demanding either her terrible Chequers deal or a no-deal Brexit. When did a British Government last threaten Parliament with such an irresponsible choice?
It seems to me that there are now three possible alternatives to either Chequers or a no-deal Brexit. First, force an election to achieve a new Government with a different mandate, but few think that likely. Secondly, vote for a different Brexit model, such as Norway’s alignment to the single market. But that is vigorously opposed by ardent Brexiteers and would, in any event, still mean queues at Dover and a hard border in Ireland, as it does not include a customs agreement. Thirdly, a people’s vote. Parliament should amend the Chequers proposal as it sees fit then put that to the people, handing back to voters the choice between whatever the proposed terms of Brexit are and staying in the European Union.
We began this saga with a people’s vote in 2016, which decided narrowly to leave. We should end it with a people’s vote to decide whether any deal, or no deal, is really what voters wanted all along, or whether, given the chaos and damage that now beckon, they want to think again and remain within the European Union.
My Lords, it is a refrain constantly repeated by Brexiteers and Ministers that, somehow, a new referendum would be undemocratic because it shows contempt for the people’s vote to leave. I wonder whether they have ever thought about what democracy means. It is the essence of democracy that people are allowed to change their mind; dictatorships forbid it. Democracies allow changes of Government, but according to Brexiteers it now seems that we are not allowed to change a referendum verdict. The people’s will is sacrosanct once they have spoken, but then they may not change it even if they want to because the result turns out not to be what they voted for.
But, say Brexiteers, what they voted for was leave and we are leaving. They also voted to leave the customs union, say the Government, and the single market and the jurisdiction of the ECJ—so we are leaving all those. Really? Was that choice on the ballot paper?
As far as I am aware, there was only one, very widely based poll, taken on the eve of the referendum by YouGov, on what people expected from Brexit. There were general replies: “Taking back control, especially of immigration”. But, significantly, all respondents expected no downside from Brexit of any kind but sunny uplands instead. There was nothing about customs unions, the single market or the Irish border. I do not know whether there will be no deal, but I would not bet against it. If there is a deal, it means that the Irish border issue will be fudged or somehow postponed.
Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, if we leave, the country, and especially the most vulnerable, will be poorer according to the Government’s own forecasts. The result will not be what the people voted for, but the so-called democrats in the Government will do their best to stop the people having a realistic choice. A realistic choice would be between the outcome and remain. It is increasingly clear, as the figures cited by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, show, that that is what the people want. In their opposition to the idea of the people having the final say, Brexiteers show what they really mean about respect for the will of the people.
My Lords, last Saturday, my younger son and I attended the first demonstration that I have ever taken part in. Its most memorable features were its sheer scale, the sunshine, the placards reading, “Conservatives against Brexit” and “Labour against Brexit”, the patience and good nature of a crowd that was calm, quietly determined if clearly very worried, and the fact that for the vast majority, this demonstration was manifestly not party political. My favourite poster was, I assume, done for the benefit of our ex-Foreign Secretary; it read: “Testiculi ad Brexitam”.
Our dilemma began more than 60 years ago, as the issue of our relationship with our continental European neighbours began to gnaw at our political consciousness and to fragment our changing sense of national identity. It has been a running sore within the Conservative Party and has now manifested itself around the leadership of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. The political paralysis, the manifest lack of leadership and the growing sense of concern that we are going about this in the worst way possible as the clock relentlessly keeps ticking are some of the elements which impelled me to march on Saturday.
Franz Kafka would recognise the dilemma we have gotten ourselves into and he has wise words to guide us forward:
“Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable”.
What I accept, and what I also think is the right interpretation of the 2016 referendum, is that it was argued and voted on predominantly not on party-political grounds. UKIP was a single-issue vanishing meteor; Conservative and Labour were, and remain, deeply split. I suspect that all of us in this House know a great many intelligent, thoughtful and deeply worried MPs from all parties, none of whom is standing on digital soap-boxes and playing to the gallery.
The reason that the last 28 months have been so chaotic, frustrating and unfocused is that Her Majesty’s Government, and in particular our Prime Minister, have decided to try to manage the complex and highly delicate process of extrication from the EU on rigidly party-political lines, a direct and deeply unfortunate repudiation of the non-party-political referendum result. What is politically acceptable and expedient for the ERG is not right; it is manifestly wrong. How dare any narrow political grouping have the intellectual arrogance and narrowmindedness to claim that it alone knows how to interpret and enact the will of the British people.
How do we get out of jail? I think we have to return to what is right. We have to remember and recognise that the will of the British people on the subject of the EU is expressed neither clearly nor helpfully by interpreting it on party-political lines. Since our two largest parties lack the will and the courage to manage their own affairs competently, we should recognise that the non-party-political will of the crowd takes priority. I think we have to go back to them—back to ourselves—and frame the dilemma we face with brutal frankness, minimal spin and maximal content. Many may find this intolerable and unacceptable. In my view, it is the right thing to do.
My Lords, I recall with embarrassment that some 60 years ago in the final of the Observer debating tournament a judge said that he could not determine from my speech on which side of the motion I had spoken. I shall try to avoid that judgment today, although I accept that these are very difficult questions. The genesis, of course, was set out very clearly: it was a Prime Minister—incredibly because until that time he had blown on the flames of UKIP—who was seeking party unity and chose to have a referendum to end the debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, set out the problems of referendums: what do they decide? I think it was President Mitterrand who said that in referendums in France the French people always give the answer to the wrong question. There may be some element of that on this occasion. The case against was put very powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, repeating much of what the noble Lord, Lord Hague, said in his article in the Telegraph on 1 October: namely, that there may be no majority for any other option; that it would take a long time; that it was unclear what question should be put; that there would be anger among some at a perceived betrayal of the people’s verdict; and that it would not end the debate.
Having lived through the European debate for a very long time, since I joined the Foreign Office in 1960, I can see that the spectre of Europe has haunted our politics for a long time and will probably continue to do so. However, I believe that other considerations will trump—if that is a word one is allowed to use nowadays—the points made so well by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. In the referendum, we are told that the people spoke—but nobody is quite sure what the people said. Since they did not speak clearly, what did they say? Did they favour the sort of outcome that Norway has, where effectively there would be no immigration controls and decisions would be made over which we have no control? Canada is another option: there are clearly many alternatives.
We are assured by the Government that the deal is now 95% certain. Well, even if that extra 5% were concluded, there would clearly be a case for a choice to be made clear between any deal, if one were to be agreed, no deal and the status quo.
One thing which I have been convinced of by sitting on one of this House’s EU sub-committees is that the experts in the various areas we have tackled, be it in consumer protection or dispute resolution, or be it now in intellectual property, are all convinced that any alternative is worse than the status quo. That has become clear to me and, I hope, to most of those on the committee. I believe firmly that, if we are confident that this decision is very detrimental to the national interest, we should seize any opportunity to reverse it. What are we otherwise to do? Are we to fold our arms, seeing that which is looming, and say, “We can do nothing about it—let it inexorably move on into the cul-de-sac”?
Finally, some noble Lords may recall from their schooldays that in classic Greek tragedy, when an impasse was reached they would have a god from a machine: a machine would be pulled on to the stage and an answer would be found from the deus ex machina. It may well be that this second referendum, which is in our national interest, is that god from the machine.
My Lords, it is already abundantly clear that Brexit will harm Britain’s economy and diminish our standing in the world. That is true even if the Prime Minister secures something like her Chequers plan. For all the professionalism of the Civil Service—I pay tribute to Sir Jeremy Heywood, who sadly had to announce his resignation as Cabinet Secretary yesterday, and to Olly Robbins, who has been disgracefully attacked in parts of the press—all it has been able to achieve in this chaotic period of negotiations, given all the splits in the Cabinet and the difficulty of coming to any kind of consensus, is a withdrawal agreement and the sketchiest possible outline of what might follow later. That is so far from what people were promised in the referendum that it is entirely reasonable that they should be asked whether that is indeed what they are now prepared to accept.
Given the state of our politics, it is entirely possible that even that outcome will not be achieved: either the Prime Minister will come back to the House of Commons without a deal, or she will come back with a deal that will then be rejected by that House. No deal would be catastrophic for this country. We are completely unprepared. No one voted for a situation where the Government have to charter ferries to bring in essential supplies, as if the UK were subject to some sort of UN sanctions. It will be a humiliating breakdown of our parliamentary system if the Commons votes down a deal brought back by the Prime Minister but does not then accept a general election to follow it.
In those circumstances, there is only one democratic option: to put the issue back to the people. It would be more democratic than the 2016 referendum because people have a real choice between an outcome—whatever it is—and retaining our membership of the European Union. It would be in the interests of leavers as well as remainers to secure a popular mandate for a decision of that gravity for the future of the country, for all the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and others have given. If it was legitimate for the Prime Minister to call an election less than two years after the previous one, surely it is entirely justifiable to have a referendum on the outcome of a negotiation more than two years after a referendum, on the prospectus described by the noble Lord, Lord Sugar. I agree that the EU would grant an extension in those circumstances. It is not in the interests of any EU country to see a chaotic Brexit, given the many other issues the EU is having to cope with in this dangerous and turbulent world.
It is true that hundreds of thousands of young people will have come on to the voting register since 2016. Is that a problem? No, it is profoundly just to give them a vote. Their lives, and those of our grandchildren, will be affected far more deeply by what we decide in the coming months than the lives of any of us sitting in this Chamber today.
My Lords, I begin by quoting one of the greater Prime Ministers of this country, Clement Attlee. In the late 1940s, the UK drew up the constitution of what became the Federal Republic of Germany. Attlee had to decide whether there should be provision for referenda in the constitution of the federal republic. His reaction was that referenda are the tools of despots, demagogues and dictators and in no way should they be allowed into any constitution, let alone that of Germany.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, is no longer in his place because about a week before the referendum, I was debating it with Sir Bernard Jenkin in East Anglia. At that time, it looked fairly certain that the yes side was going to win. A questioner in the audience asked the panel, “If your side loses the referendum, will you accept the result?” Bernard Jenkin very clearly indicated that he would not. He said, “I’ve been campaigning for this for many years, so of course I would not accept the result. This is what I believe in, and this is what I believe the British people should do”. Always being honest, when the same question was put to me, I said exactly the reverse, but the same thing. I said, “No. I strongly believe in Europe. I don’t think we will lose the referendum—those are historic last words—but if we do, I will carry on campaigning for us to remain in the European Union”.
The first thing we should do is to strip away all this nonsense. Many of us who campaigned to remain want to use this opportunity to remain. Of course, a lot of rubbishy things were said. You should never put anything to a referendum. If you remember, de Gaulle lost a referendum on regional government, which forced him to resign because the people of France were not voting about regional government in France but were thinking, “We’ve had enough of this man de Gaulle. He’s been around for 10 years”. Once Charles de Gaulle said, “I will resign if the referendum goes against me”, he lost.
Having said that, I am prepared to argue for a confirming vote on this momentous decision. We have votes regularly in this country. It seems to me not unreasonable. Things have changed. I note that when the Scottish nationalists lost the referendum in Scotland, they immediately said that they were going to campaign for another one. They keep on campaigning. Incidentally, I seem to remember that there is a provision in the Ireland settlement for a referendum on a united Ireland. Maybe that is the way out of the hard border. Maybe we should ask them if they would like a referendum on it, just for Ireland.
The one thing I would counsel everybody against is believing that the result would be different. I think it is highly likely that the British people will say, “Sod those politicians. They’re trying to make us reverse our decision, and we’re not going to”. While I am very much in favour of another vote, I am in no way sanguine about the outcome.
Finally, the disaster of the referendum was that it was all based on fear, and all we are doing now is frightening people: “You’ll have no medicine”; “Your food will stop”; “You won’t be able to fly”. Europe has to be about hope. It has to be about the future. It has to be about those sunny uplands. It cannot be about terror, fear and dreadful things happening. Yes, let us have another referendum, but for goodness’ sake, let us stop campaigning all the time on fear and campaign on our moral duty and the future of Europe, of which we are a part and of which we should be proud.
My Lords, “just in case” is enshrined in our culture, our legal system and our character. In home ownership, we put in an offer before we have a survey done and proceed to buy. In pay negotiations, we instruct trade union officials and then get a vote on the final deal. In consumer rights, we buy and then we have a cooling-off period. Tenancy rights are being scrutinised in this House now, and we are talking about allowing prospective tenants to have their deposits back should the tenancy not go ahead. When it comes to marriage, many get engaged and have their banns read before their wedding. In divorce, the decree nisi comes before the decree absolute. These are six straightforward examples to show that the British way of life is underpinned by “just in case”—that is, making a first decision and then having final approval when all the facts are known. There is nothing to fear from making a decision between whether to remain and the final deal now that all the facts are known—just in case.
In my belief, “just in case” is a better strategy than that adopted by the current and the previous Prime Minister, which I describe as a strategy of “making no decision at all and kicking the can down the road”. Rather than sort out the infighting in the Conservative Party over Europe, the former Prime Minister David Cameron adopted the “kick the can down the road” strategy and it ended in disaster. The current Prime Minister is on the brink of doing the same now. We now know that the most likely deal is not a final deal at all but a temporary one under which we will have a customs union for three to four years. It is another “kick the can down the road” strategy. It will allow Conservative leavers to believe that they can get fully out, it will allow Conservative remainers to believe that they can get further in, and everyone gets home for Christmas in the mistaken belief that it will all go away—but hostilities will commence again in January.
This matters because temporary deals bring uncertainty. Already over the last two years we have seen inward investment slump and domestic policy in crisis: apprenticeships have halved; violent crime is escalating; arrests are now down to one in 10—that is arrests, not convictions; universal credit is in chaos; social house building has halved; elderly people are now being looked after in acute beds in hospitals because there is little care in homes; and record numbers of homeless people are living on our streets. I say to my side that not all of this is ideological; some of it is an inability to govern in an environment where there is no certainty. Please do not let this go on for another three or four years. Please stop kicking the can down the road. Let us get a deal and put it to the people so that they have the final say, just in case.
My Lords, I say to those who take the view of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, that to permit voters to change their minds in changed circumstances if they wish, or to stick to their guns if not, is an affirmation, not a denial, of democracy. Others have spoken of the lack of clarity of the leave campaign. I debated against Jacob Rees-Mogg, who promised the students of Sussex University—who were largely unimpressed—a global Britain, free trade deals and an end to free movement, while Daniel Hannan MEP courageously told a more reactionary Eastbourne audience that he favoured staying in the single market and continued freedom of movement.
The Government’s position is now clear, unachievable as it may be: leave the customs union, leave the single market, no hard border with the Republic, and one regulatory framework for Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Without all that, they say there will be no deal, with all that that means for jobs, travel, borders, food, medicines and so on, yet the Government will deny the people any further say. They say Parliament will have a meaningful vote, defined by the Minister as a vote between deal and no deal. But what if there is no deal? What would the meaningful vote be then—no deal or remain? Could Parliament alone legitimately overturn the 2016 result? It certainly could not insist on a return to the negotiating table; it is too late for that, and it would not achieve anything. Will the Minister give us the answers?
So what are the prospects? Will the EU back down on a backstop? I believe no. We agreed it in December, and for the EU, it is fundamental. Will an extension of the implementation period that is time-limited or terminable at the UK’s will make any difference to the EU? I think not. Will the Government back down on our remaining in the customs union indefinitely? Plainly not. Will the Government back down on a single regime for Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK? No, they would lose the support of the DUP if they did and could not govern.
If there is no deal, would not the Government’s best way out be a referendum between no deal and remain, rather than risk losing a confidence vote? The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is hardly relevant here, because no other Government could be formed within 14 days. Along with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, I believe that we would get an extension to hold a referendum. It would also be in Labour’s interest, given its divisions, to commit to a people’s vote. Its favoured general election would inevitably and rightly be concerned with multiple issues facing our country, not just Brexit.
If we get a people’s vote, may we talk about the issues with more respect than last time for the rules, the truth and each other—not just about the economy, but about peace and international co-operation, the environment and climate change, cross-border security, education and research and the value of freedom of movement to our young people? Let us be ambitious for our country and for our continent.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Marks. I do not wish to take one side or the other in this debate; I shall limit my remarks to a few short observations about the statutory and regulatory context in which a second referendum would take place, subject to major revising primary legislation. Very little has been said about that so far. The governing Act is the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which contains a set of provisions which are clearly designed to achieve fairness in the referendal process. It seems obvious to me that it would be unsafe to ignore those provisions in the course of any attempt to achieve a second referendum, because it would be very dangerous to give the impression that the process was in any way being accelerated or rigged to achieve the outcome which, it may be fair to say, the political class would, generally speaking, wish.
Along with the Roadmap to a People’s Vote, which is an interesting document, I commend to your Lordships another document, which is quite bulky. That is the Electoral Commission’s report on the 2016 referendum. It contains a lot of constructive material, which time does not permit me to refer to. It reminds one of the course of events in 2015-16. It took, give or take, about nine months for the referendum Bill to move from introduction in the Commons to completion. By completion, I do not mean Royal Assent, I mean the passing of three essential regulations before the referendum could take place. There was then a further three-month period in the spring of 2016 before the referendum could take place.
During that entire period, the Electoral Commission played a critical role, and it seems to me that it would have to play much the same role in any second referendum. First, it was under a statutory obligation to comment on the intelligibility of the referendum question. It did so in 2015 in a way which led to the question being changed from one in clearly leading form to one in an acceptably binary form. That task may well be much more demanding if there is to be a second referendum. I have not yet heard any clear formulation of the issue—or issues, perhaps—that would be presented to the voters at a second referendum. That would have to take place, and the Electoral Commission’s role as an objective, non-party body, is clearly critical.
Following the completion of the legislation, the Electoral Commission played an important role in registering permitted participants and designating lead campaigners. All of that takes time. That has led the Electoral Commission to make what seems to me a significant recommendation. Recommendation 2 states:
“Referendum legislation should be clear at least six months before it is required to be implemented or complied with”.
By “should be clear”, it explains that that means that the legislation, including any secondary legislation, should be in place six months before the referendum is held.
It would be unwise and perhaps constitutionally improper to attempt to sweep aside those procedural protections if there is to be a second referendum. That would suggest that the suggested date for the second referendum of May next year is hopelessly optimistic. We are nowhere near a position in which we can begin to formulate the issues. Anyone who campaigns for a second referendum—I fully understand why that campaign is being undertaken—needs to address the matters to which I have referred.
My Lords, there have already been many important speeches in this debate. I found particularly significant the opening speech from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, and the powerful way in which he portrayed the whole political initiative and purpose behind the work of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community. Not for the first time, I regretted that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, came to the past decision in his political life that he did, because he is right. If we are to have any future in Britain, we must start talking about hope, vision, a sense of dynamics, purpose, social commitment and international commitment: the recognition that we belong inescapably to the world and that history will judge us by how we get to grips with playing a constructive part in shaping, developing and strengthening that world community.
I am very unhappy about the concept of another referendum. I find it very difficult to reconcile the concept of referendums with that of representative parliamentary democracy. What the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said is perfectly true: we have been told over and again that the people have decided—I find that difficult because it seems to me that it was a small majority of those who voted who decided, not the British people—and that our job is therefore to get on with doing what they require. That is not representative parliamentary democracy. Our job in a representative parliamentary democracy is to deliberate on the great, challenging issues and come to conclusions within the parliamentary system on what needs to be done. It is crucial as this goes forward that there is a decision in Parliament. That should be immediately followed by a general election in which, because we want the widest possible support from the public as a whole, they are given the opportunity to vote for political parties, which will have to make plain their position on the outcome of the vote in Parliament. That is trying to make the best of a bad job, but it is the right way and the rational way to do it.
I just make one other point. It is naive to suppose that the issues that face us are just about membership or non-membership of the European Union. They are indeed, as we have been reminded already, about all the issues of security, economics, social policy, education, family law and the whole range of life. Therefore, the British people need to be in a position to make a decision. In the context of that wider debate, is this going to be enabling and helpful for what we want to achieve or not? We were very foolish—and I count myself as guilty—to go down the road of referenda. They have no place within a representative democracy.
My Lords, in February 2016, when the referendum was called, the EU did not even feature in the top 10 things in the British people’s minds. They had four months to make a decision about such a complex issue—I have been in the thick of it for two and a half years and I am still learning. For the previous two referenda that we had, the results were 67% conclusive; this result was 52:48. While 17.2 million people is a huge amount, what about the 16 million people—also a huge amount—who voted to remain? We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, and others about the lies and the £350 million on the back of the bus. Nigel Farage himself said that if the result had been 52:48 to remain, he would fight for a second referendum. What a hypocrite.
Now we are told that this is the will and the instruction of the people and that we have to implement it. But the world has changed in two and a half years: Turkey is not going to join the EU; the migration crisis that scared so many people at its peak in 2015 has receded significantly, sad though it still is; Trump is President; there is a trade war with China; and we have seen in such an awful way what is happening with Russia’s influence. Some 100 leave constituencies have now changed to remain constituencies, according to the polls and—this is the most important thing— there are youngsters, including two of my children who were not old enough to vote at the referendum, who are now old enough to vote and it is their future that we are talking about. When it comes to the youth, 90% want to remain. Is this democracy? A dynamic democracy moves along. In a normal electoral cycle of five years, what happens? By March 2019, we will be two-thirds of the way through a normal electoral cycle and we are being held to something that is two and a half years out of date already. In a normal electoral cycle, if you win by one vote or 0.1%, you have won. But then, in five years’ time, if people do not like you, if you have lied or misled, they can just change their mind and chuck you out. Now we are being told by people like Jacob Rees-Mogg that, “It’s the long term. It’s 50 years”. Well, as Keynes said:
“In the long run we are all dead”.
This is all absolute nonsense. Some 700,000 have marched—the most since the march against the Iraq war. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has pointed out, the polls are now 45:35 for a public vote on the outcome, which increases to 50:25 if there is no deal. The Prime Minister has said time and again that:
“No deal is better than a bad deal”,
but that is rubbish. Chuck Chequers? You chuck rubbish. What about Canada-plus-plus-plus? Forget the fact that it took eight years to agree a deal with Canada—it does not work. And the backstop is a conundrum. Northern Ireland is the Brexit Achilles heel. Further, going global is a nonsense. Today, 45% of our trade is with the EU—it may be receding—and 20% on top of that is FTAs through the EU. So 65% of our trade comes through the EU—do we want to give that up for the 35% that we do not have, including the Commonwealth, which makes up only 9% of our trade? That is £8 billion—and I would pay that for the peace that we have had in our decades in the European Union. People say, “But what about all the laws that are put on us by the European Union?” That is rubbish: the laws are made by us here in this Parliament; I have seen that for 12 years.
This is all absolutely ridiculous, with all the equivalence and trying to get as good as it gets—I thought that things were going to get better. As for parliamentary democracy, there is a lot wrong with the EU—I do not like the euro or the way that the European Parliament works—but, on balance, we are far better off remaining in the European Union for the sake of our citizens, our economy and our business. We have had our cake and we have been eating it too for 45 years. We now have the tyranny of the majority: Northern Ireland voted to remain; Scotland voted to remain; London voted to remain; business voted to remain; the youth voted to remain. Our union has been threatened. We have been sold a pup and now the Government want to bypass Parliament by not giving us a meaningful vote. The British people are being bulldozed into this train crash.
What saddens me most is that Britain is losing its standing in the world day by day. London has already lost its position as the number one financial centre in the world to New York. The truly democratic thing for us to do would be to go back to the people and say, “Now you have the facts—not the utopia, not the dream, but the reality. If we have a deal, do you prefer the deal or to remain? If there is no deal, would you rather remain?” That would respect the will of the people.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow so many compelling speeches. I start by telling noble Lords about an article that I did not write in the Times. About two weeks before the referendum in Scotland, I consulted a friend who was working on the union campaign. “We’re going to win,” he said, “But I have one remaining worry. I’m concerned that Alex Salmond will offer voters a second referendum”. If he does that, my friend said, “We will lose 65-35 or worse”. The risk of supporting independence would have been removed. I realised that he was right, and the thought was powerful. I decided that I had better not write a column about it, because I did not want to help end the union by giving Mr Salmond any ideas.
If, during the European referendum, we had said that there was going to be a second chance to vote, it would have changed the result profoundly. Leave would have won a heavy victory and would have established a national consensus behind Brexit. Any second vote would have started in a fundamentally different place. But during all the debates in Parliament no one suggested two votes; no one proposed a second referendum. A second referendum might easily be even more divisive than the first. I respect the hopes of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, that it would be an urbane discussion on climate change—good luck with that. It would also very likely produce an outcome that remains disputed. Let us be clear that this so-called people’s vote, if it ever took place, would indeed be a second referendum. The idea at the Labour conference that it might be a referendum without a remain option was obviously ridiculous. Mr Corbyn appeared to suggest that we might be offered two options in such a referendum, both of which he was against.
What is being proposed now is a fresh vote on Brexit. I agree with almost every argument that I have heard about the damage of Brexit. I voted remain and I agree with them partly because I made those arguments myself in the campaign. But we lost. That is what the referendum was about: testing public support for precisely the arguments and threats that we are now repeating in this Chamber. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, was auditioning for “Just a Minute”—he was all right on hesitation and deviation but not on repetition. Proposing that now, when we did not say previously that we should have a second referendum, is highly undesirable and not a costless option. Millions will feel that we have betrayed our promise. Some are even suggesting a three-option ballot using preference voting; in other words, suggesting that we defeat the result of the last referendum using the voting system rejected in the referendum before that.
We promised people they could make the choice in an up and down referendum. A second referendum is therefore an outcome to be avoided if it can be. But to say this is not enough, I am afraid. I finish with an observation and a warning. The observation is that, if Parliament cannot agree on a deal, there may well be a second referendum, however undesirable. The warning is to my Brexiteer friends. Having voted to remain, there are many of us who regard it as our constitutional duty to make our very best efforts in good faith to deliver Brexit. We do not, however, expect to be making that good faith effort alone. I am not going to make it by myself. You cannot look to us to deliver your Brexit if you will not make compromises yourself. You cannot expect us to tip the country into chaos because you will not make the good faith effort that you demand from us. Good faith cannot be a one-way street. So the warning is this, and I hope you are listening and understand that I am not alone: you cannot take the rest of us for granted.
My Lords, I voted in the referendum to remain. I still believe we should have remained, but I have argued consistently that the referendum was a democratic vote and that, therefore, we must respect the outcome. I take the view that, overall, we are lacking in confidence rather than beginning another debate. The country has the capacity to plot its own future and to build its own history.
I ask myself, am I the only person who did not understand the problems of the referendum that would need to be addressed? We are now faced with an outcome of uncertainty that we have created ourselves. That represents a challenge, which we must face up to. Yes, of course we want to maintain a good relationship with our neighbours—as well as our trading, our security and all that goes with stability on the continent of which we are a part. But at the end of the day, we are a country with a long history and a proud history. On that we should build confidence, not just for this generation but for the generations to come.
We have a democratic structure, which gives us the opportunity to change course and change our minds when we feel it is in the interests of the country to do so. All we lack is the confidence—and indeed the purpose—to make a difference to our future.
My Lords, this is a very important debate at a crucial moment. I met young people—fifth and sixth formers—in my local area to listen to what they thought about this. They felt that this was a time on which people would look back and ask a lot of questions. One question they wanted an answer to was: will our leaders draw back from the brink of disaster and, if not, why not? It will, as they saw it, seem so obvious to future generations that to proceed with an act of fundamental cultural and constitutional change, based on a referendum result with the narrowest of majorities, was an act of irresponsibility. In their clubs and schools, they told me, changes to rules or the constitution, need a two-thirds majority. Why was this not included in the referendum?
Lots of people have criticised the referendum so I shall not go on at length. But two points were made to me. First, why, since under-16s could vote in the Scottish independence referendum, could they not vote for the future of their country within the EU? Secondly, they asked, if the leave campaign has been found to have acted illegally, as the Electoral Commission has said, why have there been no prosecutions? I could not answer those questions. But it seemed, when we looked at what was still to be resolved, that there is an enormous amount, including on freedom of movement and its effect on business, science, medicines and healthcare. We have heard about Sir Paul Nurse’s letter and seen the BMA briefing. For individuals and families—not only organisations and their interests—the effects could be extremely worrying.
Will people need visas to travel to the EU and, if so, in what circumstances? Will people need private health insurance? Will older people be able to travel? Will travel insurance be too expensive for many people? These are the sorts of questions that are being asked. Returning to the young people I spoke to, they want the chance to share cultural and educational programmes such as Erasmus and Horizon, not to mention other opportunities in music, arts, culture and sport that are so important to them. The effect of Brexit on all these things has been well documented in your Lordships’ House by the work of the Select Committees.
How will it look to future generations that the UK left the most advantageous arrangements on the narrowest of majorities and entered into fundamental change to settle for something that in large part still needs to be decided during the transition period? If you talk to civil servants in Brussels, or to key witnesses, as our Select Committees do, they will tell you that there is so much still to be resolved. As a third country, having already left the EU, we will be trying during the transition period to resolve so many important issues for the future of our people, from a position of weakness.
Many people have talked about why we should have a referendum. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, on his report, The Roadmap to a People’s Vote. I will not go into detail on it but I want to underline his point: yes, it will be divisive, but it will be much more divisive, and for a very long time, if we do not have the referendum. The options are very limited: leaving without a deal will be catastrophic; leaving with so little settled that we will still have to negotiate our future relationship with the EU from outside the EU will also be very damaging. I would definitely support a vote. Many people now say this offers the only way forward to resolve the current impasse and give our country another chance based on proper knowledge and facts.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, for initiating this debate. It gives me the opportunity to explain my own journey from being a sceptic about the case for a second referendum to joining the march in support of it last Saturday.
As a realistic remain voter—as I would call myself—I was naturally disappointed with the result, but felt that our focus should move on to limiting the damage from our departure. An immediate call for another referendum looked to me like a refusal to accept the outcome of the vote. Two and a half years on, my views have firmly changed, for three main reasons, including, first, the truly disastrous process of the negotiations. With the possible exception of Liam Fox, I do not think that anyone believed this would be easy, but no one could have conceived how badly it would go. The blame is variously laid at the door of the intransigence of the European Commission or—rather unfairly, indeed absurdly—on a secret remain agenda on the part of the Civil Service. Like the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, I pay tribute to Sir Jeremy Heywood. The true cause of the problem lies in a series of grievous misjudgments on the part of the Prime Minister and the Government: the triggering of Article 50 without a clear plan, thus handing the powerful lever of time over to the Commission; the setting of red lines around the single market and the customs union, building false expectations and rigidity into the negotiations from the start; and the calling of the general election in 2016, which wiped out the Government’s majority and left them hostage to the DUP and minority groups within their own party.
As a direct consequence of these misjudgments—this is my second reason for supporting another referendum—we are now faced with some very unenviable choices. Those who express strong concerns over the Chequers proposals, and say they are worse than the status quo, have a point. We will become a rule taker and risk being perpetually on the wrong end of future EU trade negotiations. Equally, the economic and social risks of a no-deal Brexit are so immense that they cannot, and should not, be countenanced.
I do not need to speak at length on this, as the CBI, the TUC and the NAO have all already done so. It strikes me that those who are relaxed about a no-deal Brexit are very often “people of means”, able to withstand the severe economic shock that would almost certainly follow. Our concern should be for the bulk of the population, for whom this is simply too big risk to take. It may be that, even at this late hour, the Prime Minister can still secure a good deal with the EU and persuade Parliament to support it, in which case today’s debate will have been redundant. But if she cannot—this seems the most likely outcome—a no-deal Brexit must not be the answer.
My third reason for changing my view is the progressive loss of Britain’s standing and influence since the referendum in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world. Contrary to all the assurances given at the time, the reality of a diminished Britain is there for all of us to see. I expected leaving the EU to result in our having a smaller economy, but not in our becoming a smaller country.
I am very much aware of the challenges that holding a second referendum will bring. But in the circumstances that we now find ourselves, it seems the only viable option. Sherlock Holmes, in The Sign of Four, says to Watson that,
“when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
The need for a second referendum is now the improbable truth that we should recognise.
My Lords, although I remain a remainer, I now earnestly hope that the Government will soon be in a position to put a proposed final deal to Parliament and that Parliament will accept it. In that event, I would not support a further referendum with the inevitable delay, disruption and divisiveness and the difficulty in formulating the questions, and so forth, that that would entail. But it seems very far from inevitable that such a position will be arrived at. In that event, I see the likely alternatives to be crashing out of the EU with no deal, or a general election, both of which are appalling prospects. In that situation I would then strongly support the plea for a further referendum—to call it a people’s vote is absurd, as of course is the Prime Minister’s description of it earlier in the week as a politicians’ vote. The referendum question would then be clear: the deal as negotiated or remain.
Today I touch briefly on what seem to be the two central arguments advanced against a further referendum. The first is that it would be undemocratic. But surely, to invite the public to vote again now that much of the misleading rhetoric of 2016 has been exposed and the true options have become altogether clearer, respects rather than ignores public opinion and is the true democratic way. The point is so obvious that it needs no elaboration. The second contention is that the political establishment would be seen as attempting to deprive Brexiteers of the fruits of their earlier victory. But suppose that the majority was now to favour remaining, whether because some voters have changed their minds in the light of their altered perception of the consequences or because a younger generation of voters would now be included, or both, or whatever. In that event, by what logic could Brexiteers claim that their 2016 victory entitles them still to prevail over a contrary majority view? I can see no logic in that at all.
Suppose that a majority in fact continues to favour Brexit, as well it may. Consider the benefits of a further vote to that effect: Brexiteers crowing, confirmed in their view; remainers finally resigned—if not reconciled—to that consequence; and the Government vindicated in their proposed course and substantially immune from the sort of criticism they will be exposed to if and when, following Brexit, things go catastrophically wrong.
My Lords, last Saturday, along with the noble Lords, Lord Russell and Lord Kerslake, and more than 700,000 others, I marched through London. It was an uplifting experience. Clearly, the weather god is on our side—the sun shone on our efforts. One of the most impressive moments was when five MPs from five different parties took to the stage together to make the case for a people’s vote. Unlike my noble friend Lord Lamont, I see nothing Orwellian or absurd in the term “the people’s vote”. It is probably just as well that my noble friend is not in his place, because here I must declare an interest as a director of the People’s Vote Media Hub—which would probably sound terribly Orwellian to him. The reason why the people’s vote has adopted that name is to distinguish itself from the referendum of two years ago. It is not a rerun of that referendum. We are seeking a vote on the terms of any deal that the Government can bring forward. We have to still believe that there will be a deal, of sorts, but even if there is not and what is on offer is no deal, surely the public should have a chance to say whether this is really what they want.
In Parliament Square, Sarah Wollaston, who is a doctor as well as an MP, made the case for why any believer in democracy should support a people’s vote on the deal. It is all about the concept of informed consent. A patient might agree in principle to a certain course of treatment, but if he then learned that the side-effects are likely to be deeply damaging and the chances of success only slight, the attraction of that treatment might lessen and he might decide that he would rather not proceed. If the patient had just turned 18, and the original go-ahead had been provided not by him but by his parents, the individual on the trolley, about to be wheeled into the operating theatre for some potentially life-threatening surgery, might feel that the situation was positively Orwellian.
We are in an extraordinary situation. The Government know that they are trying to do something which will inflict long-term damage on this country. They are doing so when the economy is still fragile. Austerity may be over but the economy is not strong and individuals’ finances are precarious. Last month, credit card spending in the UK reached an all-time record level: £10.7 billion. Last year, spending outstripped earnings by an average of £900 per household. Many of those households have no cushion to help them through the difficulties that Brexit would inflict: higher food prices, job losses, and more taxes to fund that extra cash for the NHS. The rich will be insulated—they are already moving their money offshore. That arch-Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg, no less, has increasingly been directing his funds to Dublin. Those who have fared worst over recent years would suffer most from Brexit. This is looking increasingly like a posh boys’ Brexit. Those ordinary people deserve the chance to decide whether they want to consent to the Brexit that is on offer, or not.
It seems that some take the view that the country made its bed two years ago and must now lie in it, no matter how uncomfortable. The public may share that view—I doubt it—but we should at least put the question to them. Why are those who favour a bed of nails so reluctant to ask voters whether they wish to share it?
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. I offer my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, on the introduction of this very important debate. I have spoken little but have listened a lot to these matters over many months and have become increasingly alarmed at the Government’s conduct of these affairs. I should be clear that I was, and continue to be, a remainer.
As of today, we have no overall deal on the withdrawal Bill, nor on the political declaration on our future relationship with the EU. Should there be a deal agreed by the EU and the Prime Minister, there is no certainty that it would pass muster in the House of Commons. The possible thrust of any deal is not likely to attract our support, given the perceived threat to jobs, freedom of movement and peace in Northern Ireland. We do not expect any deal negotiated by the Prime Minister to satisfy the six tests which my party has laid down as being necessary for our support. We would, of course, strongly oppose any no-deal Brexit, not least because of its hugely negative impact on the economy.
It is not difficult to outline the challenges; it is more difficult to see the solutions. This is no wonder, given the cavalier approach to the original referendum adopted by David Cameron, which simply did not lay out the steps and the consequences of alternative outcomes.
So what about a second people’s vote? The key argument in favour of a second referendum, which I support, is that the full consequences of withdrawal—the unpicking of 40-plus years of increasingly closer integration—could not possibly have been fully contemplated and known when the vote took place. We need consider only the monumental significance for Ireland and some of the budget issues, and reflect on the huge range of matters covered in reports from your Lordships’ House over recent months. Just today, issues have been raised about medicines and the ports. Therefore, as a matter of principle, the public should be provided with an opportunity to reaffirm, or otherwise, their initial view, in light of the mass of detail that has emerged as the negotiations have ensued. This should run even if a deal was supported by the Commons.
Those who oppose this position argue that this is in fact no different to what happens at our national elections, where voters might make up their minds on an amalgam of matters, with the mix varying from voter to voter. It is then left to the Government to implement as best they can. That position is not without some logic, but given the scale and long-term significance of what is at stake, and concerns about the veracity of the information that was provided in the campaign, I favour some form of people’s vote.
Of course, all this begs the question of whether it is feasible to hold a further referendum, and we have heard several contributions on that today. The Constitution Unit has offered us its view on the practicalities of a second referendum. Given that it would be difficult to conduct such a poll before the departure date of 29 March, it considers that the Article 50 period would need to be extended. The process would need primary legislation. It would need question testing and processes for designating lead campaigners. There is the question of whether, in the interests of cohesion, and given the fractious nature of our debate to date, it would demand three questions: deal, no deal or stay. The unit stresses the importance of conducting the vote in a manner which maximises legitimacy, where the options and consequences are clear. It would require a vote in Parliament.
I support a second vote, although this does not necessarily have to take place by way of a referendum. I prefer these matters to be put to the public in a general election where they can vote, not only on the issue, but on the team they want to take the matter forward. They can put an end to the incompetence which has characterised so much of the negotiations, and which many contributions today have reflected on.
My Lords, last week the Prime Minister was questioned by Conservative MP Heidi Allen, who asked whether she accepted,
“the reality that there is no way that no deal will pass through this House. I ask with the greatest respect: what option does that leave us other than going back to the people? What else can we do?”.
The Prime Minister chose her words with care:
“If, at the end of the negotiation process, both sides agreed that no deal was there, that would actually come back to this House, and then we would see what position the House would take in the circumstances of the time”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/10/18; col. 426.]
That is surely the correct constitutional position. Especially with a minority Government, with no likely majority for any specific outcome amongst MPs, that is the crucial fact of political life. In our parliamentary democracy, this applies whether the Government comes back with a deal or recommends no deal. Clearly, in both circumstances, the Prime Minster and her Ministers, whatever they may have said previously, have to contemplate how they can get the approval of the British public.
Both the reports to which references have been made, one from the Constitution Unit at UCL entitled The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit and The Roadmap to a People’s Vote, come to similar conclusions when identifying the most likely scenarios for a new referendum. The former sets out the most likely sequence as follows:
“More likely, a cross-party majority in parliament in favour of a second referendum could force the government’s hand … Procedural considerations could provide an incentive for ministers to propose a conditional referendum of this kind as a compromise in the event that the ‘meaningful vote’ motion is initially rejected”.
In other words, as MPs from all four major parties have said in recent days, this may well prove to be the only viable option for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet—it is her “Get out of jail free” card. Meanwhile, it is surely unthinkable that Mr Corbyn could successfully whip all Labour MPs to support her, let alone the ERG headbangers; they too will insist that the trust should be put in the people.
We come now to the practicalities, to which reference has been made. I have looked at these with other Members of your Lordships’ House, with the aid of these two important reports. I have examined the bare necessities for a new referendum Bill, to make sure that we have the basic elements in place if and when such a Bill is required. The two reports give us some invaluable guidance. We will have to accept that the very tight timetable, both for the legislative process and the campaign itself, imposes rigorous constraints.
The new Bill will have to be drafted to mirror the 2015 Act as far as possible. It must have the same franchise, to avoid accusations of the establishment “changing the goalposts”. Similarly, the choice must be binary: either to accept the Government’s recommendation, whether it is an eventual negotiated deal, or a no-deal situation, crashing out and falling back on WTO rules; or to remain a member of the EU on current terms, which is obviously the clear choice. The one big area of reform that must be incorporated relates to the inadequacy of transparency of the digital campaign in 2016; there are already proposals available for that. Otherwise, only relatively minor tightening-up is necessary.
Is there time to complete this legislative process through both Houses, and also to have the campaign itself? First, that depends on the Commons getting on with the “meaningful vote” in good time. Secondly, as has already been said, it depends whether, and on what terms, the other 27 member states agree to the postponement of the Article 50 deadline. It seems that that will be helpful, as has also been said.
In summary, the Minister may huff and puff at the conclusion of this debate, but he is not an elected Member of the House of Commons. Neither he, nor the Prime Minister, can stop this development, nor will they wish to do so, if all the other options are closed off for them. It is practical, political and constitutionally appropriate, and it looks increasingly inevitable. Those of us who marched on Saturday can be confident that we are on the right side of history, just as we were on opposing the illegal invasion of Iraq, and that the tide of public opinion is with us.
My Lords, two years ago a political party trying to settle an internal dispute set us off on this path, imagining that the result was a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, an unscrupulous but impressively motivated alliance delivered a protest vote from a population suffering the uneven effects of austerity, globalisation and deindustrialisation, and then had absolutely no idea what to do next.
The referendum question did not ask if we wanted to leave at any price, or any cost. It had no footnotes about NHS staff, or the value of the European space programme, nor did it allude to the need for an Irish border backstop, or the just-in-time supply lines of Jaguar Land Rover.
But that is okay because, for all that, we have politicians. A representative democracy entrusts politicians on behalf of the electorate to balance a complex matrix of allegiance—to country, to party, to the latest manifesto or referendum result—with the needs of their constituencies and local businesses, alongside their responsibilities to the planet, human rights and children. Politicians are expected to turn big ideas into technical solutions, and find political consensus in pursuit of a prosperous society that delivers for all, particularly the most vulnerable.
The Brexit votes, with rare and admirable exceptions, have failed to deliver on that compact. The complex role of the representative has been denuded into the single idea of delivering on “the will of the people”. This is short-term party expediency to protect supposed electoral prospects.
No time limit was given on leaving. The result required thoughtful consideration and further consultation with almost every sector, stakeholder and citizen—we might even have taken the time to prototype a technical solution to the Irish border issue. Yet in spite of the wild claims of the leave campaign and a partisan media beginning to unravel, both Houses, heavily whipped, rushed through Article 50, blindly creating a cliff edge, without plan or parachute.
What of the will of the people? Theresa May effectively endorsed the view that the referendum was not definitive by calling an election to secure a mandate—a mandate that the electorate refused to give her. However, rather than think again or take into account the new will of the people expressed rather differently in the light of her minority Government, she made her plans entirely dependent on the values and interests of the DUP.
In spite of the volte-face, where the two main parties, once remainers, are now leavers, Parliament has failed to provide clarity, numbers, ideas, leadership or even the basic crisis management skills required to answer the urgent set of questions in front of us.
We are a divided nation: divided in the referendum; divided in the election; divided in the Cabinet; divided in the Government; the Opposition divided between its membership and leadership; divided between young and old. To suggest that a second referendum would divide us further is simply fantastical, and a general election cannot resolve a single-issue question when all parties are putatively on the same side.
Democracy does not mean asking the people once and sticking by it whatever the consequences. Democracy entails transparency and engagement with the electorate. No leave campaigner offered us the current scenario, and no remain campaigner had a plan for leave. And absolutely no one voted for a Canada-plus, a Canada-plus-plus, a hard, a soft, a Chequers, a blind or a brave or a bodged Brexit. That simply was not on the ballot or in the conversation.
We have to give the people another vote on the reality that is now on the table, to allow them to determine their own future, because all other democratic options have been squandered.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, for tabling this debate. It seems reasonable to me that, as the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, they should agree to the terms under which this happens. The terms should be clearly explained to everyone who has a vote so that they can decide what to do. Many people did not want to leave and it has turned out to be very complex. It will change the way people have to live, which may cause endless frustrations, unless the negotiations are seen to be satisfactory. It will be interesting to see whether the Minister can give your Lordships any assurances today over concerns we may have about leaving the EU.
I declare my interest as president of the Spinal Injuries Association. Many of our members are severely paralysed, and some cannot move or feel from the neck down. Some have had catastrophic accidents, while others may have had medical conditions. On Tuesday this week, we had our all-party parliamentary group AGM. Our members are most concerned by the difficulties and insecurities that are emerging in the workforce due to Brexit. Many of our members who live in the community have personal carers from the EU. Unlike many of the British, who have their own homes and therefore do not want to live-in or work at weekends, people from the EU, who make good personal carers, come to work and save money by living in. They go on interesting holidays and save money to build a house when they go home. Our members were very worried when they heard about a report that recommended that only the brightest and the highly paid would be allowed into the UK to work. Of course we need those people, to work in research and in universities, but our members need good, honest people—not high-flyers—who will enable them to live in their own home and give them help when they need it.
It is regrettable that, upon its departure from the EU, the UK will cease to be a full member of the European Medicines Agency, which deals with safety in medicines and medical trials. It has already left London and gone to Amsterdam, which is sad, as we are leaders in this field. The Royal College of Nursing membership has made it clear that the implications of Brexit for the health and care system will be numerous. There are risks that are not credibly addressed and that may damage population health, as well as severely impact on their ability to provide safe and effective care for their patients in both the short and long term.
We need more doctors, nurses and all sorts of staff, such as radiologists. We need safe health systems. Already, we have lost many EU workers because of Brexit. Do the public know what is happening, even now, before we have left?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, for securing this debate. To try to overturn the people’s vote of 2016 through another referendum would be like saying that a general election result should be invalidated less than half way through a Government’s term of office, simply because they were not doing well in the opinion polls. It would be totally undemocratic. No less undemocratic would be for the establishment to thwart the outcome of the people’s vote in the 2016 referendum, yet that is the prospect which I fear we are facing.
If we failed genuinely to leave the EU, the rest of this Parliament would become a fruitless attempt to rebuild trust with the majority who voted to leave in the people’s vote of 2016. I am afraid that the chances of such an attempt succeeding are about the same as the chances of Chequers delivering Brexit.
My noble friend Lord Lamont of Lerwick alluded to the false argument that a second referendum would be healing. I agree with him that it would not. Similarly, extending a transition period for a possibly permanently temporary period, while paying for the privilege of being subject to laws over which we would have even less say than before we supposedly left, would only prolong the agony. By contrast, as we have already heard, having the confidence to leave now on the basis of a Canada-plus free trade deal or, if necessary, on WTO terms if the EU fails to compromise, holds out the prospect of stability and prosperity free of an increasingly unstable EU, whose eurozone looks increasingly likely to collapse. Otherwise, I fear that when the people realise that, despite our protestations that we have left the EU, we are actually still having to do what the ECJ tells us, then far from getting better, the pain will only get worse.
We cannot claim, as an unelected legislature, to represent the people. That is why the responsibility of the elected House to stand up for Brexit is so much greater. I therefore appeal to colleagues in the other place to look beyond the fog of Brexit fatigue and the understandable desire to settle for a deal—any deal. I urge them to reflect on the punishment that the people would rightly inflict on those who promised to honour the result of the 2016 people’s vote, only to betray their trust and do the opposite. In deeds as well as warm words, the people’s vote in the 2016 referendum must be honoured.
My Lords, like 66 million of our fellow citizens, I was unable to get along to the march on Saturday—I was watching Stoke play Birmingham. But had I been there, I would have wanted to ask a couple of questions at least of the organisers—questions that have not been answered by many of the proponents of the people’s vote today, or if they have they have not always agreed with one another. My first question would have been: what question will be put to the people? Sundry different answers have been given to that. At the very least, before you ask for a people’s vote, you should agree on what the question should be and what should be on the ballot paper. It is not much of a slogan to say, “What do we want? A people’s vote. What’s the question? Ask me later”.
Secondly, I would like an answer to the question: what is the difference between a people’s vote and a referendum? That is an important question to ask, because if it is a referendum let us say it is a referendum. My noble friend Lord Adonis, who is disarmingly frank on these matters and who is sadly not in his place at the moment, said that there is no difference: it is just spin. He may have been joking but, my word, he was spot on. I am amazed that the Table Office agreed to capitalise “People’s Vote” on the Order Paper. It is answering its own question, basically. A people’s vote sounds a wondrous thing even when it is a huge mistake, as I believe it to be.
What are the arguments in favour of having a second referendum, which is what it is? They say that people change their minds. Well of course people change their minds, but are we to have referendums every two years on the subject? I voted to leave in 1975. I had to wait 41 years for the chance to see my view reflected in a vote. Let us test the integrity of the people’s vote campaigners. Would they agree to another referendum two years after the one they propose? Let us check every couple of years—it would be never-ending.
Another argument is that a people’s vote would end the divisions in the country and solve the problem of a possibly frozen Parliament. It would not, of course, do anything of the sort. A people’s vote would exacerbate the differences in the country and Parliament is simply a reflection of the divisions. How patronising is the people’s vote campaign? It is effectively saying, particularly to those of us in the Midlands and the north who voted so heavily to leave, “You got it wrong last time. Unlike us remainers, you didn’t understand the issues properly”. In the finest traditions of democracy, EU-style, if you get it wrong you must keep voting until you get it right, as they know well enough in Ireland and Denmark.
If I say nothing else to this House I will say just this sentence: democracy is threatened when people with power say to those without, “We know what’s good for you better than you know yourselves”. I have heard that in numerous contributions to today’s debate. The truth is that the so-called people’s vote is not an isolated event. It is part of an unremitting campaign to reverse the result, which started the day after the 2016 referendum. The aim has been to delay, discredit or reverse the referendum result. It started with the argument that we have almost forgotten now which said, “Oh well, the referendum doesn’t really matter. It’s only advisory. Don’t bother about it. If the Government want to do something else they can please themselves”. I would love to know whether this people’s vote will be advisory. I have a sense from listening to people that it is pretty mandatory. It will be the last referendum we have as far as the people’s vote campaign is concerned.
Then we were told that the leave campaign was invalid and probably needed police investigation because too much money was spent. There is no mention of the £9 million that the Government spent, which I helped to pay for and which I deeply resent. By the way, what about the money that is paying for the people’s vote campaign? It seems to be a wonderfully wealthy organisation from what we see in the adverts, but do we see the accounts? Perhaps that can be answered at some stage. Then it was the Russians who tricked us all into voting to leave—apart, of course, from the much cleverer remainers, who saw through all that.
So now it is the last throw of the dice. Let us have a second referendum to reverse the results of the first one. As a lifelong Stoke City supporter, it would be wonderful if whenever we lost a match we could demand an instant replay. But I say to the irreconcilable hard-line remainers—and there is no polite way of putting this—you lost, get over it. Surely the responsibility of us as parliamentarians, particularly in this unelected House, is to say that we were the ones who asked the people to vote, so it is now our job to respect and implement the result. Unless we want the gap between people and Parliament to get even wider than it is at present, our job is to facilitate leaving the European Union, and to do it quickly.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Shinkwin. It is also refreshing because we have had 30 consecutive speeches in favour of a referendum and we have finished with two powerful ones from them. I do not relish the prospect of a further referendum. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, and others who think that it would be horribly divisive. But I do not think that that can be a sufficient reason in a matter of this importance to funk it. We have to face up to the need for it.
I have always believed that the British people should be able to make as informed a decision as possible on the subject. The decision made in 2016 could not have been informed because the terms of our departure were not then known. So when the terms are known, unless Parliament is confident beyond peradventure that they satisfy what the people voted for in 2016, there is a duty to allow people to review their decision.
Leavers should want that too. The leavers may well win a further referendum as they won the 2016 referendum. If so, although I would personally regret that decision, I agree with my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood that it is an outcome greatly to be desired. Then, leavers and remainers will be secure in knowing that the people have taken as informed a choice as possible. There can then be no recrimination if things turn out badly. If they lose, and the people decide to remain, the leavers will then avoid the charge that they have strong-armed the British people into something which, once informed, the British people did not want.
Why, then, should leavers oppose a further referendum? I have always respected those who argue for leaving. I have always acknowledged that there are good arguments for leaving this flawed and in many ways corrupt organisation. But if the reason governing those who oppose a further referendum is their fear that the people may change their mind and vote to stay, I have to say that is not a responsible or even honourable position. People should not be strong-armed into doing something which it turned out that, once informed of the terms, they do not want to do. Maybe the people will vote to leave. Maybe they will not. Without a further referendum we will never know, and this is too important an issue on which to act in ignorance.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate, and I thank my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem for introducing it. There have been strong contributions across the House. My strongest memory of this debate might well be the recollection of the noble Lord, Lord Russell, of a banner from last Saturday that he felt was directed at Boris Johnson: “Testiculi ad Brexitam”. I have to be very careful to get the plural. The pithier Anglo-Saxon version is probably not suitable for this Chamber.
My noble friend Lord Tyler referred to various scenarios that could lead to a people’s vote. Intriguingly, in her Statement on Monday, the Prime Minister vowed not to give in,
“to those who want to stop Brexit with a politicians’ vote”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/10/18; col. 48.]
But a people’s vote is a different thing, and I do not exclude the Prime Minister herself calling for it. The UCL Constitution Unit remarked in its report that,
“in a crisis scenario it may prove the government’s only way out”.
This may well account for the war-gaming that is apparently going on in Whitehall. It may well be, of course, that the Labour Opposition reach the same conclusion. Objectors, including some speakers today, claim it is undemocratic to hold a further vote. How can any vote be undemocratic? Even if that claim is true, it would apply to the Prime Minister’s wholly unnecessary general election last year.
My noble friend Lady Doocey made the point that in 2016 people voted for a blank canvas on which a variety of pictures of Brexit were projected. I think this is the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, who claimed people knew what they were voting for in 2016. The noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, pointed out that even if the Chequers deal or something similar to it was the final product, it is so far from what people were promised that a second vote is justified—let alone if there is no deal. It would in fact be more democratic to hold a further referendum, because people would have a real choice. As the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said, this saga began with a vote by the people, and it should end with a vote by the people. This is the very opposite of the claim made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, of politicians telling voters that they know what is best for them—it is voters deciding what is best for them.
My noble friend Lord Campbell asked “what are those who oppose a second vote afraid of?” I think that was just answered by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who remarked that it was neither responsible nor honourable to oppose a second vote because of fear of the outcome. My noble friend Lord Marks said that a second vote is an affirmation, not a denial, of democracy. That is surely right, and it would be anti-democratic not to give people the final say, with informed consent. We know that various Brexiters have posited just that scenario on occasions in the past: a first vote in principle and a second vote on the facts: David Davis, John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage, even Jeremy Hunt in 2016 suggested a vote on the outcome. It is not just the usual suspects. The British Medical Association and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, mentioned, the Royal College of Nursing are calling for a people’s vote because of the mess Brexit has got into. Sir John Sawers, former chief of MI6, is so worried about the threat to Britain’s strategic position and its security that he has now come out. It is surely unusual for the former head of the Secret Intelligence Service to put his head above the parapet like that.
It was the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, who made the point that this is not a rerun or repeat of 2016. That is a fallacy. She gave half a dozen examples of scenarios where people have an opportunity to review their choice. It is not about changing their mind, but reviewing, with a view to confirming or withdrawing their choice. The obvious one is house purchase. You see what looks like a wonderful house, put in a bid and then the surveyor’s report says the house is about to fall down and it will cost hundreds of thousands to repair. It still looks like a lovely house, but it is not credible to carry on with the purchase.
I will not dwell on feasibility, because the report from the UCL Constitution Unit, which is an objective one by academics, has answers to questions of timing, how the question would be drawn up, and so on. It would be wonderful if the people’s vote would be held on 23 May, which is the date on which we would otherwise be voting for MEPs; we might then have to have a later vote for MEPs, before 2 July. Clearly we would need to regulate online campaigning, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said. Perhaps there would be an opportunity to have citizens’ assemblies, as they did so successfully in the recent referendum on abortion in Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, claimed it would exacerbate divisions to have a second vote, but as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, it is less divisive than not having one. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, said this is not a reason to funk it—we must face up to it.
I would like to end by quoting the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, in his foreword to The Roadmap to a People’s Vote, from the people’s vote campaign:
“Indeed, to waste time or to do nothing are perhaps the worst options of all. History will not…be kind to any politician who hides behind purely logistical arguments, legalese or arcane parliamentary procedure in order to deny people a vote on the outcome of these Brexit negotiations at such a fragile and crucial moment for our country”.
My Lords, in addition to thanking the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, for the timeliness of this debate and the historical approach he took, may I also pay tribute to the near three-quarters of a million who took to the streets on Saturday, calling for people to play a part in decisions about the future of our country, and asserting their right to have their voices heard? Agree with them or no, it was testament to the importance of this issue, to the demand for proper engagement from every region of the country, and to the energy of young people—and some not so young—in their desire to influence the outcome of the negotiations. It was also a vote of no confidence in the Government, and a reflection of the fear that the Prime Minister is leading us to an outcome that no voter envisaged on 23 June 2016, with a hard exit from nearly 50 years of close co-operation with our continental allies—an outcome that would damage the economy, jobs, our children and grandchildren’s prospects, even our security and policing, let alone the rights of our citizens resident abroad, and EU citizens living here.
As we saw in the Standard poll last night, public confidence in the Prime Minister’s ability to negotiate her way out of a paper bag is at an all-time low. No wonder when she cannot unite her own party and appears to dismiss Whitehall advice, pleading from business, farmers, supermarkets, ports and airports, the International Chamber of Commerce, consumers and haulage firms, and stark warnings of no deal both in the Government’s technical notices and from the NAO, as we heard earlier.
No one envisaged us leaving without a deal. As the CBI shows, 15% of the companies that have prepared no-deal contingency plans intend to shift jobs overseas. Medicines and fresh food would quickly be in short supply. Travel would be hampered and international driving licences and visas needed. We know the list; we have read the documents. Last week in Dover, I heard from port authorities that with 500 lorries passing through every hour, they have no facility to hold them for even two minutes to check contents, tariffs or VAT, or to ensure that the correct person or vehicle is going through. So do not expect fresh food in your shops if we fail to get a deal.
Even in leave areas, no one voted for a catastrophe or to rupture our relationship with the EU, trash our economy and see jobs exported or investment fall. Rather, as we heard, voters were promised a stronger economy, money for the NHS, the exact same benefits and sunny, sunny uplands. The Government getting it wrong in the Brexit negotiations is letting down Brexit voters even more than remainers, who never expected anything good from us leaving.
In addressing the Motion, I start with the possibility of no deal. I would like to think that we do not need to waste our time on this, but we must continue because some people still seem to threaten, or even welcome, it. If the Government fail to secure a deal, a democratic, ethical and constitutional responsibility falls to Parliament, particularly to the Commons. Knowing what we do, it would be unforgivable for Parliament to permit a no-deal exit on 29 March. Due to the Act that went through this House, if there is no deal by 21 January, the Commons has to vote on that absence of a deal—when, I assume, MPs would reject such a course of action. What then? Clearly the Government would be honour-bound to resign, having been overturned on perhaps the most significant post-war failure of any Administration. Then we would have a public vote, but in that case it would be a general election and there would be an extension of Article 50 to allow for it.
The more pertinent question today is, what if we get a deal? The first vote on a deal must lie with Parliament. From the start, your Lordships’ House called for this: making Parliament’s voice statutory rather than the simple, non-binding vote in both Houses originally suggested by the Prime Minister. We in this House helped to achieve this legal requirement of Commons endorsement for ratification of the deal to take place. Nothing in the call for a public vote on the deal should diminish that role for Parliament. If Parliament agrees the deal, we hear no demand for it then to go out for an affirmative plebiscite, although my noble friend Lord Judd suggested that it would take an election at that point.
What would happen should the deal be rejected by the Commons, which looks increasingly likely? The question is whether there should then be a public vote. Our view is that there must be a general election in that case, as my noble friend Lord McKenzie said, because the Prime Minister would have lost the confidence of Parliament on a highly significant national issue. However, should the Government insist on hanging on—I trust that they would not do that—and refuse an election, all options to break the impasse must be on the table. That includes the possibility of a public vote, although this time with 16 and 17 year-olds taking part; here I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.
I acknowledge the difficulties of arranging that. The UCL paper showed how challenging it would be in terms of needing a Bill, Electoral Commission approval of the question and a 10-week campaign. However, that could be overcome with cross-party consensus and political will, although it still leaves open what question should be on the ballot paper and whether there should be two or three options between deal, no deal and remain.
The Government have got themselves and the country into a serious mess. They adopted red lines before they understood the task. They failed to heed the advice of civil servants, industry or their allies, who also have skin in the game. They are in hock to the ERG and DUP and weakened by their foolish 2017 election. They failed to engage the Opposition to find a deal which we and the country could support.
I finish with some advice to the Minister. He should resist his normal dismissal of those whose views differ from his, acknowledge the size, legitimacy, validity and passion of Saturday’s marchers and heed advice more widely than from just his political friends. I suggest that he should listen to his noble friend Lord Finkelstein especially. He should dismiss Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s call for a “mass boycott” of any second referendum. Hannan told Al Jazeera—not a particularly democratic channel—that a second referendum would be “utterly illegitimate”, even if it was legislated for in Parliament. That does not respect this House at all. I hope that even at this late stage the Minister will also engage more constructively with this House, its committees and its experienced Members, who we have heard from today, to respond more positively than hitherto on the major questions facing UK plc.
My Lords, today’s debate has been a good one—although there was a hint of déjà vu about it. I seem to have heard many of the arguments a number of times before.
I thank and pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, for introducing the debate so ably. I greatly enjoyed his history lesson, although I think he was a bit unkind to David Cameron for fulfilling his manifesto promise to call the referendum in the first place. The noble Lord was conveniently forgetting about the crucial role played by the Liberal Democrats in this. After all, I think it was the Liberal Democrat party under Nick Clegg that first called for a “real referendum on Europe”. It was in one of their famous petitions and on one of their many focus leaflets distributed around the country—so they can definitely claim that they were ahead of the game on this one. However, building on the powerful contribution of my noble friend Lord Finkelstein, I note that the petition did not say, “It’s time for two real referenda on Europe”.
I also thank all other noble Lords who participated in the debate. I will refer to some of their contributions as I go. The Motion calls on this House to take note of the case for a so-called “people’s vote” on the outcome of the negotiations between the Government and the European Union on our withdrawal from the EU. I agree with my noble friend Lord Lamont that the term is somewhat Orwellian. I assume that the debate is timed to coincide with last week’s demonstration in London, which had an interesting range of speakers. One of them was the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vincent Cable. Apparently he seems to have forgotten that he once called the idea of a second referendum,
“seriously disrespectful and politically utterly counterproductive”—
as, indeed, the Liberal Democrats discovered at the last election. Then there was the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. After the original, authentic 2016 people’s vote, he said that the establishment needed to respect the result and that a second referendum would lead to cynicism among voters. They were both right the first time.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and to his son, to my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft, to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and to all the other marchers at the weekend that, however passionate it was—I recognise, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, that it was a passionate demonstration and that people believed strongly in what they were saying—it was, of course, only a small fraction of those who participated in the original 2016 people’s vote. That point was well made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott.
We have already had a people’s vote in June 2016 and the people voted to leave the European Union. The calls for a second referendum are being led by a small group of diehard remainers who, by definition, do not respect the result of referenda—so why should we believe that they would somehow respect the result of another referendum? If they did succeed in overturning the result, why should leavers respect that outcome? It is a recipe for years of political and constitutional chaos. On the issue of how long it would take to hold another referendum, which I thought was powerfully addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin, in his excellent contribution, my estimate that it could take up to a year might even have been an underestimate. That was a powerful contribution.
Calling the result into question, as the Motion seeks to do, exposes three issues of fundamental importance for our country: first, the Government’s mandate, given by the British people, to secure our withdrawal from the European Union; secondly, the long-held constitutional traditions that underpin our democracy; and, thirdly, the importance of ensuring the integrity of our negotiations. I will deal with each of them in turn.
First, the result of the referendum gave the Government a clear mandate from the British people to deliver our withdrawal from the EU. It is a mandate that the Government have been working to deliver since then. I remind noble Lords that it was this Parliament that overwhelmingly voted to put the question of the UK’s membership of the European Union to the British electorate in the first place. It is worth reminding ourselves of the simple question that was put to the people on 23 June 2016. It asked:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said in a somewhat puzzling intervention that it was not clear what the electorate said in that vote. I profoundly disagree. The result of the referendum was a clear answer to that question, giving a clear directive to the Government to withdraw from the European Union—which we respected through our notification under Article 50.
The result reflected not only extensive campaigning from both sides but considerable and prolonged debate at national and parliamentary level, underpinned by a commitment from spokesmen from all the major political parties to respect the outcome of the vote. Almost three-quarters of the electorate took part in that people’s vote, resulting in 17.4 million votes to leave the European Union. That was the highest number of votes cast for anything in UK electoral history. Parliament then overwhelmingly confirmed the result of the referendum by voting by clear and convincing majorities in both Houses for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill.
Further still, at the last general election, more than 80% of the British people voted for parties committed in their manifesto to respecting the leave result. I respect the position of the Liberal Democrats. They campaigned against the result at the last general election and they got 7% of the vote for their trouble.
A clear majority of the electorate voted to leave and the Government believe that we must respect both the will of the British people and the democratic process which delivered that result. As the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union noted earlier this month:
“It was close but it was clear. Britain voted to leave the EU. Respecting the result: that’s the essence of our democracy”.
Secondly, seeking to second-guess the results of the referendum would be a dangerous precedent to set for our democracy and the principles that underpin our constitutional order. The British people must be able to trust their Government both to effect their will and to deliver the best outcome for them. In the summer of 2016, millions of people came out to have their say. People trusted that their vote would count—that, after years of feeling ignored by politics, their voices would be now heard. As the Prime Minister pointed out, to ask the question all over again would be a gross betrayal of our democracy and a betrayal of that trust.
More than that, there is a danger of giving rise to the same forces that have brought to power in many other European countries extremist parties to the left and to the right. I agree with my noble friend Lord Shinkwin that if we overturn the result of the referendum we run the risk of the same thing happening here. By placing partisan interests above those of the British people, we will undermine the faith that they hold in our political establishment. That would be hugely damaging to the powerful democratic values of this country and this Government—a point powerfully made by my noble friend Lord Lamont and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in his excellent speech. It risks profound constitutional, legal and political difficulties that would be a distraction from the Government’s efforts to secure the best possible deal for the UK.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and my noble friend Lord Higgins that we have always said that we will give Parliament a say on the final deal once it is agreed. Of course, the EU withdrawal Act set out exactly how that meaningful vote would work.
I am not going to question the devices of the House of Commons. Clearly, the House of Commons will make its own decisions. The legal principles underpinning it and underpinning the meaningful vote are quite clearly set out in the EU withdrawal Act. It is of course open to the House of Commons to amend that Motion. However, an amendment for a referendum would not necessarily be legally binding on the Government; it would merely prevent us ratifying the treaty.
I do not know what contribution the noble Lord is referring to, but the process of the meaningful vote is set out in the EU withdrawal Act. He contributed to many of the debates we had in this House on that subject. When we have negotiated a deal it will be put to Parliament to approve or not, along with the accompanying economic framework.
Did the Minister say that if the House of Commons voted for a second referendum, that would not be legally binding on the Government? Could he repeat that and explain how the previous court decision that Parliament was supreme in these matters works with that opinion?
I am not an expert on procedures in the House of Commons. There are many other distinguished Members here who are, but my understanding is that Motions in the House of Commons are not legally binding. For a further referendum to take place would require legislation to be passed. If the House of Commons passes legislation to that effect, there will of course be a referendum in that circumstance.
The point I put to the noble Lord and that I wanted an answer to is what the meaningful vote would be in the event of no deal, not in the event that there was a deal. Would Parliament then be asked whether they wanted no deal or remain? To that we have never, ever had an answer.
I am afraid that the noble Lord again is mistaken. There is a very clear answer to that. Again, the EU withdrawal Act, which we debated extensively in this House, sets out what happens if there is no deal or Parliament rejects the deal the Government have negotiated. In such circumstances, within 21 days of that the Government must put forward a Motion in the House of Commons in neutral terms outlining how we propose to proceed. What happens in such circumstances is very clear. We debated it at length and that is now in the statute that we passed.
Thirdly, and finally, it is a well-established feature of our constitution that the Executive represent the country in international diplomacy, and this constitutional arrangement continues to apply to our withdrawal from the European Union.
There is a very real risk that the continuing campaign to overturn the referendum decision to leave is seriously undermining our negotiating position. If those on the other side believe that we may change our minds—
I am very grateful to the Minister. Is he not making, from his point of view, a pessimistic but rather revealing statement when he says that a further referendum would overturn the decision of the British people? It would not necessarily overturn it, but apparently he thinks it would.
Actually, he does not think it would. There is a very real chance, if there were another referendum, that we would get the same result in spades. Of course, we will never know, because we are not going to have another referendum. My point is that it would provide at least a year, possibly longer, of total political and economic chaos, were we to go down that route.
As I set out, undermining the negotiating position—as many people are trying to do—will do nothing but guarantee a bad deal for the UK, something I think we all wish to avoid.
I am most grateful; the Minister is being very generous giving way. Is he really saying that those who seek to exercise the democratic duty which they have in these matters are undermining the negotiation—in the light of the antics, if I may so put it, of the former Foreign Secretary?
I am merely making the obvious point that seeking to provide an avenue to overturn the result, to suggest that we may change our minds—and many on that side profoundly disagreed with the referendum result—provides an incentive for the EU to offer us a bad deal.
Continuing calls for a second referendum are irresponsible and will only serve to damage the negotiations—a point that we have just discussed. Let us be under no illusion: it is very clear that those advocating a second people’s vote wish to subvert the instruction given to us by the British people and to reverse the result. We have been very clear that this Government will never accept a second referendum. The British people voted to leave the EU, and we will be leaving on 29 March 2019. That is why, for over two years, we have worked to deliver a deal that sees the UK leave the EU. Our EU partners need to be clear that this Government will not overturn the result of the referendum. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, that, despite the reports, there is no war-gaming going on in our department. The second referendum is not going to happen, and nobody in Whitehall is making any preparations for the unlikely event.
At the heart of the vote to leave the European Union was a wider call for change, which should neither be ignored nor undermined. As this Government deliver on the democratic decision of the British people to leave the European Union, which we will do on 29 March next year, we will also build a stronger, more meritocratic Britain. There can be no second-guessing this Government’s mandate to do exactly that.
My Lords, I am grateful to all who have spoken in this debate and, naturally, I include the Minister. I hope he will forgive me if I say that in the course of the debate, he has reminded me of the first line of a Victorian poem:
“The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but he had fled”.