My Lords, in 2016, 17.4 million people voted to leave the European Union. This was the highest number of votes cast for anything in UK electoral history, and the biggest democratic mandate for a course of action ever directed at any UK Government. This Government believe it is our duty to implement this will of the electorate and deliver on the referendum result.
My Lords, the largest ever opinion poll—25,000 people participated over the holiday period—showed a remain lead range of between 16% and 26%, including former leave voters as well. The game is up. Surely Parliament must now move to save the people from the Government’s continuing folly.
I am sorry to disagree with the noble Lord. There have been a lot of opinion polls since the referendum result, so while researching this topic this morning, I looked to see whether any analysis of these has been done. Indeed, there has. Let me read what Professor John Curtice, who I think we would all agree is a respected polling analyst, said after analysing all the polls:
“In short, neither side in the Brexit debate has secured any ‘momentum’ so far as the balance of public opinion is concerned—and any claims to the contrary made by protagonists on either side of the debate should be regarded with considerable scepticism”.
My Lords, 17 million people may have voted in the referendum but in this House, a majority of 159 voted against the deal, as did a majority of 230 in the other House. Is it not time that the Government stopped being so dismissive of Parliament and of the votes and views here, and began to listen? Ruling out talking to the Opposition is irresponsible. Is it not time for listening and some serious talks?
Maybe the noble Baroness should stop being so dismissive of the referendum result in the first place. The Government have said that we take the opinion of Parliament extremely seriously. The Prime Minister will conduct discussions with party leaders and others to see what is acceptable in Parliament.
The Labour Party does not exactly give the impression that it is open to discussions. I recommend that the noble Baroness look at the interview on Channel 4 with her Front-Bench spokesman, Richard Burgon, who was talking with a very reasonable—for a change—Liberal Democrat, Jo Swinson. He said the Conservatives were the “real enemy”. I hope the Labour Party is up for some constructive discussions, but it really needs to decide what it is in favour of, rather than just what it is against.
My Lords, we know that the Conservatives believe that there can be a rethink after a first referendum as they did so regarding the Welsh devolution referendum, when Conservatives, including Theresa May, voted against implementation and then, in a later manifesto, said they were going to overturn it. Is it not entirely hypocritical of the Government to refuse a democratic vote of the people to assess whether Brexit has turned out as they thought it might? In fact, a recent YouGov poll showed a 63% majority for remain compared with May’s deal. Is it not the reality that the Government are afraid of the people?
Not at all; we are implementing the will of the people. I say to the Liberal Democrats that not only have they failed to convince the majority in this Parliament of the case for a second people’s vote, but they have not even convinced Mr Guy Verhofstadt, their leader in the European Parliament and someone the noble Baroness knows well, as I do. This morning he tweeted that,
“it is unthinkable that article 50 is prolonged beyond the European Elections”,
which, for those who do not know, are on 23 May. The previous referendum Bill took seven months to go through Parliament—from a Government with a majority and a manifesto commitment to implement it. The Liberal Democrats need to get real about this.
My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that many who voted in the referendum—on both sides, leave and remain—want us to be in a common market with our European neighbours but not in the European Union? The mechanism that they think might achieve that is to be in a customs union with our European neighbours while exiting the European Union. Will he recognise that that should now be part of these productive discussions, including with the political parties represented here?
I thank my noble friend for his constructive contribution, as always. We have to accept yesterday’s vote in Parliament. We have to talk to all sides of Parliament because there needs to be a majority for something. I am sure that the Prime Minister is up for constructive discussions with all sides.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that in the situation we are now in, there is no realistic possibility of settling this matter before 29 March other than by a default departure, which this House categorically rejected by a majority of 169? Could he not take a slightly softer tone about the need for a prolongation, which is now quite obvious to everyone?
I thank the noble Lord for his comments but it is not a question of taking a softer or harder tone. I was merely quoting what the law passed by this Parliament, and the Article 50 process, says: that we will leave on 29 March. If that were to change, it would need to change by statute.
Does my noble friend agree that it is very important to keep one’s word? Does he recall the then Prime Minister saying at the beginning of the referendum campaign:
“When the British people speak, their voice will be respected—not ignored. If we vote to leave, then we will leave. There will not be another renegotiation and another referendum”?
That was endorsed by all sides of the campaign.