Motion to Take Note
That this House, in accordance with the provisions of section 13(6)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, takes note of the Written Statement titled “Statement under Section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018”, made on 15 March 2019.
My Lords, in repeating my right honourable friend the Prime Minister’s Statement, I have already given the Government’s position on next steps. Therefore, to avoid repetition and detaining the House further, I propose that we move straight on to the speakers’ list for the Motion standing in my name. I beg to move.
I thank the Leader for repeating the Statement. My guess is that it was through gritted teeth, given that we are not leaving this Friday. However, that Statement leaves us no wiser, no more confident and no less ashamed to be led by a Government and a Cabinet unable to lead, to unite, to listen or to put the national interest first.
But first, a confession: 10 days ago, when we were debating the Private Member’s Bill of my noble friend Lord Grocott to end by-elections for hereditary Peers, I noted that I was not here by virtue of the achievements or wisdom of my father. Perhaps I misled the House, because I learned from my much-loved father—and maybe it was his wisdom that, in one way or another, got me here—a tale he told me when I was eight or nine, which has stayed with me. It was about a passing-out parade—he was in the military—where one proud mother, viewing the march, sighed, “What a shame that my son is the only one in step, and all the others have got it wrong”. It does not take much imagination to hear the remaining supporters of our Prime Minister echoing the same: “What a shame that only she is right and all the others have got it wrong”.
Who are the others? They are the Church, business, the CBI, the TUC, the Government of Wales, the people of Northern Ireland, your Lordships’ House and, significantly, the EU, its Commission and 27 leaders of member states. That is quite a roll call to dismiss. The 27 Prime Ministers or Presidents from across the continent are experienced in governing, politics, negotiating and consensus-building. The Archbishop of Canterbury—whose task of uniting 85 million Christians worldwide the Prime Minister has made look like a walk in the park—has launched five days of prayer as we approach Brexit. Business—the people importing and exporting—knows the cold reality of tariffs, non-tariff barriers, checks, delays, transport and handling costs, and also the need for legal, banking and contract certainty. The TUC and the CBI, which we normally call two sides of industry, have quite exceptionally joined together in the light of the “national emergency”, in their words, to warn that a no-deal,
“shock to our economy would be felt by generations to come”.
The First Minister of Wales is imploring the Prime Minister to work on a cross-party basis to amend the political declaration, not the withdrawal agreement, and then to negotiate with the EU to adapt the framework. Gibraltar and UK citizens abroad will feel the reality of a no-deal exit in hours or weeks of departure. Your Lordships’ House is staunchly against no deal and repeatedly in favour of a customs union. The Opposition have spelled out our alternative approach and are open to continued EU trade via a customs union and single market alignment. The Commons—the elected Members steeped in their own communities, their businesses, people, trading and academia—are knowledgeable about the realities of a chaotic or ill-designed Brexit. The Prime Minister’s senior colleague Philip Hammond says that a no-deal Brexit,
“would cause catastrophic economic dislocation in the short term and in the longer term it would leave us with a smaller economy, poorer as a nation relative to our neighbours in the European Union”.
But the Prime Minister ignores all these. She continues to threaten no deal and, instead of talking to them, invites to Chequers Jacob Rees-Mogg, Steve Baker, Dominic Raab, David Davis and Iain Duncan Smith—the very people who have been writing her script for two years and now will not support her deal. Oh, and I forgot Boris Johnson, who seems to think we have an implementation period without a deal. No, ex-Foreign Secretary, no deal means no transition period. He does not even understand that—and these are the people who our Prime Minister heeds.
Now, to avoid no deal, we need the Prime Minister to listen to those she has ignored and to amend the future framework, even at this late stage. The FT’s Jim Pickard commented today:
“It’s March 25, 2019 and MPs are about to have multiple votes on what kind of Brexit we might have. If you’d told people this two years ago they’d have thought you were out of your mind”.
We do, however, have a breathing space, the Prime Minister having been thrown a lifeline—albeit just 14 days—by the European Council. It will be only a breathing space, and not a suffocating pause, if we open a fresh approach to our future relationships with the EU, an approach shorn of the Prime Minister’s disastrous red lines. We know that this is possible: Michel Barnier said that the political declaration that sets out the framework for our future relations could be made more ambitious in the coming days, if a majority in the House of Commons so wishes.
The Prime Minister, however, appears bent—we have heard it again just now—on trying to flog her very dead horse. For some of us her deal, which has been overwhelmingly rejected twice by MPs, is the Monty Python parrot. Here we are, however, in the last chance saloon, so our MPs must be heard and their preferences set out. This is in the national interest and is the democratic way forward. Despite the most extraordinary view of the ERG’s Steve Baker, who claimed that “national humiliation is imminent” through these indicative votes—his way of listening to elected politicians—
I am very grateful to the Front Bench, particularly as the noble Baroness forwent her speech in the earlier business. Does she not also very strongly commend the extremely important utterance, promise and suggestion by the Labour deputy leader, Tom Watson, at Saturday’s huge march, that no deal, or Mrs May’s deal, should be linked to a people’s vote later on, which would meet the wishes of the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, and other noble Lords who want that to happen?
The noble Lord used the words “later on”, so perhaps he could wait until I am later on in what I am going to say.
It is extraordinary that a former Minister could use the words “national humiliation” about listening to elected politicians, and Mr Fox said today that the Government could ignore MPs’ indicative votes if Parliament’s stated choice went against the Conservative manifesto. So there we have it: the Conservative manifesto—that of a Government who failed to win an outright majority—is more important than anything else. Furthermore, the Statement that has just been repeated uses the excuse that, “Well, perhaps the EU will not accept it”, to fail to promise to heed the decisions and the views of MPs. Of course, the Prime Minister may not be able to deliver on what is asked, but surely she should have committed to making that her new objective—either her negotiating aim, or, if it was something else, to do that. It is shameful that the Government refuse to heed the elected House.
We know the dangers of no deal, and so do the Government: that is why that nuclear bunker under the MoD has been reopened, so that the Armed Forces are prepared, while the Cabinet Office is readying itself by working with local authorities, airports and businesses for what will be a calamity, and briefing privy counsellors accordingly. The Government know the risk of that.
I had been about to say that today’s political chaos is completely unprecedented. However, as I see that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy—our national treasure of a historian—is here and about to speak, I will leave it to him to judge whether this is really the worst political mess that this country has found itself in.
We hear about this best from the people—up to 1 million of them on Saturday’s magnificent march. When I last looked, there were 5.5 million signatures to a petition to revoke, and dissatisfaction with the Government is at an all-time high: just 11% “satisfied”, and 86% “dissatisfied”, a net minus 75% dissatisfaction with this rudderless Government, headed by a Prime Minister with no authority.
We have to find a way forward. There are probably five ways out of this. The Prime Minister could try to get her own party behind the deal—I wish her well with that, because it does not look as if she has succeeded so far. She could get the deal changed in the way that I have outlined. It could be that Parliament takes over. It could be that the people take over with a new referendum—or perhaps the people could take over with a general election. However, the Prime Minister’s Statement gave me no confidence that she was willing to rise to this challenge, that she is in charge, that she is willing at all costs to avoid no deal or that she is willing to move to encompass the national interest. We have to wish our colleagues in the other place strength and determination, because it is they who must now grasp the situation and act accordingly.
My Lords, this is now the 13th opportunity that we have had to debate the Government’s withdrawal agreement. I am sure that all Members of your Lordships’ House hope, like me, that it will be the last.
Since we had our previous debate on the subject, some things at least have changed. The first is that the EU has agreed to an extension of Article 50, which will be widely supported across the House. The way in which this happened, though, is a telling foretaste of how life would be were we to leave the EU. The Prime Minister was allowed into the Council to petition other member states and was subject to lengthy and sceptical questioning. Then, like a prisoner in the dock, she was led from the room to a windowless cell, where she was kept until the verdict on her proposals had been reached. A modest meal was brought in. After a number of hours, the verdict was read out to her and she was allowed to leave. This is the reality of “taking back control”; this is what it would be like, week in, week out, were we ever to leave the EU.
Before leaving for Brussels, the Prime Minister had made her petulant and ill-judged address to the nation. Many in the Commons were angered by her attack on them. What really rankled with me was the statement:
“I am on your side”—
by which she meant the side of the people. But this weekend has demonstrated that she is not on the side of the people.
Noble Lords on the Government Front Bench will no doubt argue that a million people from across the UK on the streets of London, and 5.5 million people signing a petition, are only a fraction of the people. They are technically right. But how many people could the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, summon on to streets in support of the Government’s deal? How many people could the extreme Brexiteers summon up in support of crashing out? We know that Nigel Farage can summon up 200 in a pub car park—hardly the will of the people. We also know that every poll shows a large majority in favour of a people’s vote, and a large majority of them now want to remain rather than supporting either the Government’s deal or leaving without a deal. So when the Prime Minister says that she is on the people’s side, she is, as with so many other things, completely at odds with reality.
Until today, however improbable this may seem, the Prime Minister seemed to be a disciple of Samuel Beckett. When it came to her deal, she was following his injunction:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.
Today’s Statement signals the end of that strategy, and the end of any attempt by the Government to stay in charge of the Brexit process.
The Prime Minister says that she is no longer willing to fail better, and will not bring forward her deal again until it succeeds. If—as she tacitly accepts—this is unlikely ever to happen, she has said that she will provide government time for other options to be considered. But what is unclear is when she will conclude that her deal is dead. Will it be this week? Will it be next week? Will it perhaps be 11 April? Perhaps the Minister will tell us.
It is therefore hardly surprising that Members of another place will vote on an amendment later today that would give them early votes on other options. The Government say that if this amendment succeeds it will upset the balance between the Government and the Commons. But surely her proposal does the same. The Prime Minister accepts that it is for the House of Commons, not the Government, to put forward options for consideration and to determine the procedure by which it wishes to do so. The only difference between the Government’s position and that of Sir Oliver Letwin is one of timing, not substance. The truth is that the Government have thrown up their hands in despair and effectively said to the Commons, “Over to you”. It is the most humiliating abrogation of leadership and government in our lifetimes—but it is long overdue.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, referred to the phrase in the Prime Minister’s Statement that,
“I cannot commit the Government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this House”.
In response to a question from the right honourable gentleman the leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister—if I heard her correctly—said that the Government would not feel obliged to follow any decision of the House of Commons that would cut across the commitments made in the Conservative Party manifesto. This seemed to me an extraordinary, dangerous and wholly unacceptable statement, and it is quite possible that I misheard it.
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Perhaps he also heard the phrase in the Statement:
“Unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen”.
Does he share my view that that means the Prime Minister is saying that, in the absence of an affirmative decision by the Commons, no deal is now impossible?
That appears to be what the Prime Minister is saying, but it is quite difficult to be certain on that because she does not always—as in this case—speak with absolute clarity, assurance and consistency.
To revert to my previous point, could the Minister in his winding-up statement commit the Government to aim in good faith to implement any decision taken by the Commons? I accept that the Government cannot guarantee the success of every proposal, because some at least would involve negotiations with the EU—but the House would be very grateful to get that assurance.
Your Lordships’ House knows that we on these Benches believe that the only way forward is for a referendum to give the people the chance to decide their future. This is not the cry of a metropolitan elite. It is now the cry of the country. The teenager who got up at 2 am on Saturday morning to travel to London by car and bus from Berwick on the Scottish Borders was marching next to me to protect his life chances from the consequences of a squabble in the Tory party. He spoke for his generation and we must not let him down.
My Lords, I have tried in previous debates to introduce some element of light-heartedness at this stage of proceedings, but it has not been easy, and I am afraid I have rather given up on Aylesbury. I feel rather like the unfortunate passengers who, on a flight today from London Heathrow to Dusseldorf, found themselves in Edinburgh instead. The lack of direction and uncertainty with which we are proceeding makes it extremely difficult for me to feel light-hearted—or, indeed, to say anything useful in this speech.
I am at least in the happy position of speaking in this debate only for myself. I represent no party; I do not speak on behalf of the members of the Cross-Bench group; and to preserve my independence, I do not discuss my views with any of them, and do not try to form any alliances. I am of course aware from previous debates that the views I shall express are not shared across the group. That will certainly become clear as others, much more qualified than I am to speak on this subject, follow me from these Benches. But I know that I am not entirely alone in the view that I have expressed several times in this prolonged series of debates. That is, that the least unsatisfactory way out of the predicament in which we find ourselves is—however hopeless it may seem now—to approve the deal. I believe that the benefits that it offers, in security and so many other fields, far outweigh the disadvantages of that agreement, which are mainly the inevitable consequences of leaving the EU. The political declaration is a different matter. But, unlike the withdrawal agreement, it is a declaration only. It is not intended to be binding, as an agreement is. It is there for discussion, and—with some change of mind, some greater flexibility—perhaps for manipulation, as we move forward.
As of this moment, awaiting what happens in the other place, the position, as I see it, is—looking at the alternatives—quite simple. With the greatest respect to all those many people to whom the noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred, who came to London and marched through the city last Saturday—some of them came from as far away as the Western Isles, I believe—I really do not want us to have to undergo another referendum, whatever the question might be, thinking of the delay and the ill feeling that would inevitably be generated. Any meaningful renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement could not be achieved without a long delay. The EU has made it quite clear that it is not open for quick negotiation any more. The alternative would be to have what I think the Prime Minister referred to today as a slow Brexit, which would result in our having to hold elections for the European Parliament. I think the public would find that very difficult to accept, in view of the result of the referendum.
There is also the option of a no-deal Brexit. I agree entirely with all the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, about that. It is simply not acceptable, as has been made clear by the other place, and by us too, in a series of votes. Everything must be done to avoid that. The risk is still there. However, the EU, which to our eternal shame has been ahead of us at every stage through this misguided process, has injected some discipline into the shambles at our end. It has thrown us a lifeline. We have been given extra time—but there are conditions attached. Surely everything must be done to ensure that we meet the deadlines that have, in one way or another, been left for us. We must not miss the new deadline, or we will indeed have a no-deal Brexit.
As one looks back, it is remarkable how, every so often in moments of crisis, somebody on the world stage says something that captures our imagination. We can all remember Donald Rumsfeld, shortly before the start of the second Gulf War, and the puzzling images he conjured up with his reference to “unknown unknowns”—things that we do not know that we do not know. Noble Lords may remember Saddam Hussein’s absurdly comical Minister of Information, always in military uniform, who, as the Americans were on the point of entering Baghdad, assured us that it was they who were running away, and that the Iraqi forces had won a famous victory.
Now, surely the prize must go to Donald Tusk. There was his clever reply when asked by an enterprising Irish journalist at the end of last Thursday’s press conference whether that special place should be enlarged to accommodate Members of the other place. Your Lordships will recall his words:
“According to our Pope, hell is still empty—
that must have surprised some people—
“it means that there is a lot of space”.
He ended by saying that, as we know, hope is the last to die. Those words reveal what he is really thinking. Your Lordships may remember that that is a chilling reminder of how people fought off despair during the Holocaust. He might perhaps have chosen another phrase, which your Lordships can find on Google:
“Hope is a dangerous thing”.
Those are the opening words of a lyric by an American songwriter Lana Del Rey. She said,
“Hope is a dangerous thing for … me”,
but let us leave that aside. It is a dangerous thing for us too.
Donald Tusk was right, of course. It seems that all we can do now is hope for the best, as the Prime Minister seems to be doing, but the danger is that if that is all we do as we thrash about searching for something that will command a majority, we will fail to meet the next deadline. His words should act as a warning that this really is our last chance.
My hope is that the other place will back the only deal that is on offer in sufficient time, so that we can leave in an orderly manner on 22 May. If that is not possible, one has to look for the next best alternative, and I am driven to the conclusion that it would have to be to ask for a long extension—with all the consequences. Sadly, that would, in the end, be my position.
My Lords, following the Prime Minister’s Statement in the other place this afternoon, it is clear that we remain in a place of deep uncertainty. We are still asked to note the two dates of 12 April and 22 May, signifying that there are at least two, probably more, very different directions we might still take as a country.
I shall not focus on the choices before us, but I note that, whether by intention or default, we will make a choice—a choice will be made—and, beyond that choice, we have to live together. We are experiencing a time of extraordinary turbulence and toxicity in our political life, and it is how we navigate and respond to that turbulence and toxicity now and in future that I shall address in the remainder of the time available to me this afternoon.
Since taking up the office of the Bishop of Newcastle, I have had many conversations with MPs from the diocese, who range right across the political spectrum. Without exception, I have been encouraged and moved by their sense of public service and their compassion for those whom they serve. They work extraordinarily hard, and they care.
It is deeply disturbing, then, to see that a routine part of the daily working life of an MP is that they and their staff endure verbal assaults, attacks and threats. It cannot be right that carrying a panic alarm is now a necessity for some MPs and that constituency offices and homes are considered as places of risk for them.
It is just under three years since June 2016, when Jo Cox was murdered. As a nation, we were horrified and united in believing that this must never happen again. Yet over the past few months, intimidation and death threats against Members of Parliament, including MPs from my diocese, have become so commonplace that they struggle to secure space in newspapers and on news websites. MPs on both sides of the conversation have been labelled as traitors, as being engaged in acts of betrayal. Anyone coming in or out of this building will have seen the placards and heard the shouting, and often it is women parliamentarians who receive the worst of it.
Whatever the outcome of this week’s events, and whatever choice we make about our future relationship with the European Union, the even more important question is: what kind of democracy and society will we be left with? The former Archbishop of Canterbury —my right reverend friend Lord Williams of Oystermouth —reflected on this with characteristic thoughtfulness in a recent article in the New Statesman. He wrote that,
“two salient aspects of a consistent democracy are that we go on arguing, and that our freedom to do so is protected. The law defends us from coercion and forcible silencing. Without these, we have naked populism, a reversion to the situation where the powerful (in numbers, wealth or status) determine what is ‘right’. Genuine politics gives way to suppressed or threatened violence”.
This is the chasm into which we are staring. Whatever happens next, approximately half of us will be unhappy and angry. We will need the kind of democracy that protects our freedoms and the values we hold dear. For democracy to be exercised, the space where it is practised—whether in the real world or online—must be kept safe, and those who are called to serve must be protected. This is not someone else’s job: it falls to all of us to call out hatred, abuse, intimidation and threat wherever we see it happening.
The Church is in all communities and has learned how important it is to work across divides with others, of all faiths and none. We understand that reconciliation must be placed at the centre of our life together. Across the diocese of Newcastle we will gather to share our hopes and fears for the coming months, and to pray together. I am encouraging people to light three candles: “One for me, one for my neighbour, and one for our shared future together”.
My friend the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has challenged the Church to ponder how our actions will look a century from now. Will we have stoked tension and hostility, or worked to defuse it? Will we have demonised others with whom we deeply disagree, or called for civility and respect in how we speak about and treat each other? The challenge is to the Church, but all of us could do worse than to ponder these words. Three years ago, it was our privilege, at the request of our local MPs, to open Newcastle Cathedral for a time of prayer for Jo Cox immediately following her death. The huge response from members of the general public was deeply moving, but let that be both the first and the last such occasion.
My Lords, here we go again, debating the same arguments for the umpteenth time—I think the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said the thirteenth—for some very simple reasons, which we may be able to all agree on. But they may be worth repeating, simply because they may shed some light on where we go from here.
Brexit, as we now know all too well, is the biggest political and social challenge that this country has faced since the Second World War. The complexity of the issues and the enormity of what leaving the EU entails means that Brexit is a process that will take much longer than many envisaged and some promised. It has divided our nation from top to toe: the Cabinet, the two main political parties, communities, families. To leave the EU smoothly, we needed to be honest about the scale of that challenge from day one and build a consensus as to the way ahead. The Government needed to negotiate knowing they had the support of Parliament and that they could deliver on what is agreed in the negotiations. Obviously, since the referendum none of this has happened. In part, that is because the UK’s relationship with the European Union has been poisoning the well of Conservative Party politics for decades, and it has fallen to this Prime Minister to make that fateful choice: what matters more to the United Kingdom—trade and access to EU markets, or control and parliamentary sovereignty? Fear of splitting the Conservative Party totally asunder has meant that, years after the referendum, we still do not know the answer to that basic question.
On Brexit, the biggest issue of the day, we do not have a Government to speak of. Instead, we have a collection of individuals grouped into factions; there is no collective responsibility. To say that we have a Prime Minister would, sadly, bestow on Mrs May a level of authority she clearly does not have. I have been saying for months that the Prime Minister is in office, not in power—the last week has proven that beyond doubt—so once again I wearily ask: where do we go from here? Sadly, the options are exactly the same as those we faced 1,006 days ago: we leave with a deal, we leave without a deal or we do not leave. The final option, revoking Article 50, is what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—I am sorry he is not in his place—is calling for in his Motion. Although I totally disagree with him on this point, I respect and pay tribute to his tenacity and principled stand. Parliament voted to hold the referendum; the public voted to leave; Parliament voted to trigger Article 50; the public voted for Labour and Conservative MPs who promised to honour the result of the referendum. We need to fulfil that pledge.
Putting that to one side, I cannot see how a Conservative Government could possibly revoke Article 50. To do that we would need a general election; or it would require a referendum, which, as things stand, is also impossible to deliver without a general election. The next option is leaving without a deal, which the Prime Minister said continues to be the default outcome. Ever since the last general election, it has been obvious that Parliament opposes no deal. The Government may try to ignore Parliament, but if they do Parliament would surely vote “no confidence” in the Government on an issue such as this. Therefore, no deal likewise requires a general election. The final option is leaving with a deal. The only deal on offer is the withdrawal agreement. That agreement will not now change. The EU’s position is clear: take it or leave it.
In the days ahead, Parliament might agree, via indicative votes, that it wishes to join a customs union or the EEA. But even if Parliament reaches a consensus, I sense the very best that might happen is for this to be reflected in the political declaration, which, unlike the withdrawal agreement, is not legally binding. Parliament will still have to vote for the withdrawal agreement and put it into law. Furthermore, if the other place votes in favour of a Motion that the United Kingdom should join a customs union, and possibly the single market as well, to implement it would break Conservative manifesto commitments and would appear to require the support of Labour MPs. Is the Prime Minister willing to do that? Are she and her Cabinet willing, as I have urged before, to bridge the party divide to deliver Brexit?
Such a prospect may seem fanciful, until one remembers the point I began with: Brexit poses the biggest political and social challenge this country has faced since it fought a world war. Put like that, is it so peculiar to consider that we should come together, put party interests to one side and work together to leave the EU? At what point does the need to end the uncertainty and to leave the EU with a common approach trump party allegiance and manifesto commitments? To me, it is clear that, after 1,006 days, if we are to leave the European Union, we cannot and must not go on as we are.
If this withdrawal agreement is rejected again, and if, like me, you believe we should leave the EU—as 17.4 million people voted to do—then the Government and Parliament must build a consensus regarding what we want to achieve. If we cannot do that, we need a new Parliament. We cannot continue to debate these issues with extension after extension to the negotiations.
Let me end by saying this. Even if the withdrawal agreement is passed this week, we will still need to build that consensus as to our future relationship; otherwise, we will spend the foreseeable future trapped in the agony of this interminable debate, which is corroding trust in Parliament and undermining confidence in the economy. On an issue of such enormity as our leaving the European Union—an issue which will shape our nation’s future for generations to come—a House divided cannot stand.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, whose views I have known for some time; I agree with very many of them, and he gives this matter great thought. I agree with him absolutely that this is a real political and economic crisis for the United Kingdom.
I ask Members to bear in mind that those of us on the European Union Select Committees meet representatives of European countries on this issue. A few weeks ago, I was in Bucharest, Romania, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, to talk about Europol and the future of the security relationship; that includes, of course, the relationship between the EU and the UK. The general feeling there is one of wanting the British to stay but recognising that it has gone beyond that, for many of the reasons set out by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. What they want now is for us to make a decision and move on, and to start building a relationship between the EU and the UK, which we all know will be necessary.
This Sunday, I am going again to Bucharest, together with my noble friend Lord Whitty, where we will be speaking about the future of the European Union. Interestingly, we will be there not just as observers but as participants. But I ask Members to bear in mind that, when I go to such meetings, for the first time in my political career it is very difficult for me to answer questions about what is happening in the British political system—a system they have always assumed was among the best and most stable in the world. I can only reply, as I do at times, that we have not quite cracked it yet; I then like to tell them that that is a classic example of British understatement. It is terribly difficult to talk to Europeans about where we are in this country.
The reality is that the country is divided, the political parties are divided and organisations are divided, but we have to follow the referendum—a referendum which should never have been held, frankly. Britain works best when it has representative democracy; it has worked really well for this country for several hundred years and we forgo it at our peril. Tragically, what one never does is hold a referendum without knowing what you will do if you do not get the result you want. That is why we are in the mess we are in today.
It is with some sadness I say that the other issue to be addressed is this: as a number of noble Lords have said, we are debating this partly because of the state of the Tory party. I do not normally go around calling on Ministers or Prime Ministers to resign for the hell of it—there is not much future in that. But the present Prime Minister has lost control. I was brought up politically on the idea of Cabinet responsibility and unity. There is no Cabinet unity—arguably, there is no Cabinet. That is a terrible state for Parliament and Britain to be in. We have to crack that problem.
Over time, I have come to the conclusion that we need to accept this withdrawal agreement and to do so fairly soon. But there are caveats to that. It has always been my view—not just in recent years but for a long time—that the British public were supportive of a European common market but never very supportive of the European state. In other words, the British public tended to see it as a supermarket, not a superstate. That has been the problem that runs through the core of British thinking. It explains the power of the Brexiteers’ strapline, “Take back control”. It was about not just immigration but a variety of things: making our own laws, being able to sack the Government and so on. That difference has never been resolved among the British public in the way it was in Europe, which had a far greater need for political unity because of the horror of two world wars, defeat, occupation and having borders changed by force.
Where do we go from here? I urge—as far as I am able to these days, which is not so much in the other place—that the withdrawal agreement must go through. Probably the best way of doing it is that put forward by Tom Watson MP, my colleague in the House of Commons. We have the withdrawal agreement and we must get it through soon, and then—I say this very reluctantly and regretfully—we probably have to have some sort of referendum at the end of it. I do not want that—as I have said, I do not like referendums—but I am not sure how you avoid the trap otherwise.
We need to face the fact that the British public are so deeply divided. The divisions are not just between parties and organisations, or business and trade unions; there is division within families. Young people in particular are arguing to stay in, and the older generation is arguing to get out. This is of such importance and we cannot go on like this much longer.
I suggest there is a case for the Prime Minister to step aside so that we can have a more conciliatory approach from a new Prime Minister. I would love to see a Government of national unity for a time, to get us out of the hole we are in. Believe me, if you talk to people abroad about this, they cannot understand what has happened to Britain. It is tragic.
I end with a plug for the report we have just produced in the European Union Select Committee, called Beyond Brexit; noble Lords might find its subtitle slightly facetious: How to Win Friends and Influence People. We will certainly need to do that. We had so many friends and supporters throughout the European Union until this business happened. Now, we have very few. They want us to go but they want a good relationship, and they wish we had not decided to go in the first place.
In both Houses, we have a duty to try to get this moving. We must accept the withdrawal agreement and then start working on the political declaration. Had we started on that two years ago, it would have formed the basis of a realistic and proper relationship between the UK and the EU. That is still a possibility but we are coming to it very late. However, we need to do it and we need to do it fast.
My Lords, the part of the United Kingdom that I come from is still geographically peripheral, but it is not politically peripheral at the moment, because of the backstop and border questions.
When we were living through difficult and much more dangerous times, we looked for places where we could find encouragement and inspiration. The European project was one of those places. We could see that those who had been at war, twice in a generation, had been able to find a new way of engaging with each other—a way of moving forward with different arrangements, with creativity and flexibility, to make something new and different and rather unprecedented. For me, that was tremendously encouraging. The ideas in many of the practical arrangements of the European project were incorporated into our negotiations and our way of thinking about things.
I was also encouraged and inspired by your Lordships’ House. I came here in 1996 and found a preparedness to engage reflectively, thoughtfully and creatively with difficult problems. Subsequent to 1998, as Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I found myself coming backwards and forwards to your Lordships’ House and finding it a restorative experience. I could return to the Northern Ireland Assembly with ways of working and engaging that were thoughtful, creative and reflective, and brought people together to find new ways of resolving problems.
So for me it is a personally painful business to see what has happened to the European Union and both Houses of Parliament here. A deep division has opened up in the European Union itself, not just between people in this country but between Governments and people and different sections of the community in almost every country in Europe. Some come out on to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with government and Europe. Europe has for some people remained a model, but for others it has become the cause of division rather than a healing project.
Even in your Lordships’ House, my sense of the past couple of years has been that people have held to positions and tried to defend and promote them rather than understand that the deep divisions that have opened up in our country and our continent are extremely dangerous and that we must find a way of resolving them. That is why I identify strongly with a number of the comments that have been made but perhaps most particularly with the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle.
I remember when John Hume was trying to engage with the IRA and he asked it what it wanted. The IRA said, “A united Ireland”. He said, “Look at the map. It is one island”. It said, “There’s a border”. He said, “That’s because the people of Ireland are divided about how to share the island”. I well remember Dr Ian Paisley, known to us in latter days as Lord Bannside before he passed away. He would speak about the fact that he represented the people of Northern Ireland, because he clearly had the largest vote in repeated elections. But nationalists and republicans said that they represented the majority of the people of the island of Ireland.
I hear the same kind of thing going on. People speak about how they represent the majority and the views of the people, but the people are deeply divided. Neither side seems prepared to recognise that the job of political leaders is to find a way for our people can live together, not agreeing on everything all the time—of course not. There are different perspectives and that is not only legitimate but healthy. Whatever happens, we will all have to continue to live together in Britain and Ireland, within Britain itself, and in Europe. We have to find a way of living together. One difficulty is that if one is so convinced of the rectitude of one’s own position and policy, one spends all the time attacking the other and promoting one’s own approach. We would not have been able to deliver the Good Friday agreement if there had not been serious efforts by all those negotiating, in advance of reaching an agreement, to indicate to people that there would have to be compromise, a coming together and a giving up of some cherished aspects so that we could find not an agreement but a way of living together.
The time for us to do this is short. No vote, referendum or election will bring our people together to find a way of agreeing a compromise. That requires political leadership. The truth is that all our parties have contributed to the division, either by themselves being divided or by taking one side or the other of the argument. That is the road to no town and a disaster. I appeal to Members of your Lordships’ House to return to what has been our tradition, our strength and our contribution to the country. By not having to be elected, we can afford to be more thoughtful, creative and reflective and engage with each other across party boundaries to find an accommodation that our people can live with so that we can not only live together on this island and in relation to the other island but in this continent of Europe. Without that, the future is gloomy for all of us, whichever side wins the argument in a referendum or an election. We have to find a way of living together.
I warmly applaud what was just said by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice.
I shall shock the Government Front Bench by saying that I rather like the Prime Minister’s Statement. I found three things in it that seem to be the beginning of wisdom. The Prime Minister says that,
“as things stand, there is still not sufficient support … for a third meaningful vote”.
She said that the House has “expressed its opposition” to no deal and,
“may very well do so again”,
and she said that,
“the bottom line remains, if the House does not approve the withdrawal agreement this week, and is not prepared to countenance leaving without a deal we will have to seek a longer extension”.
Those three propositions are all true and one should welcome this dose of reality.
If I were going to be pompous, I would say that what has gone wrong in the past three years—I hope everybody has rejected the idea of my being pompous—is that we have forgotten that the Executive are responsible to Parliament. It has been the rule down the years that a Government who cannot sell their principal policies to Parliament change the policies or make way for another Government. Since Walpole’s time, the principle of Cabinet solidarity has been that if you do not agree with the policy of the majority in the Cabinet, you leave the Cabinet and you shut up. The third principle is that at times of national crisis, the national interest overrides the party interest. A Narvik brings out a Churchill, a Churchill brings in an Attlee and a national consensus is sought. We come together. None of those three principles has been applied in full in the past three years. Indeed, they seem to have been flouted.
It is a pity that there was no national debate, or at least a debate with Parliament or within the Cabinet, about what Brexit meant—and what form of Brexit one should be aiming for and how. To set out those red lines at a party conference with no prior discussion in this House or the other place was a mistake. Keeping Parliament in the dark during the negotiations was a mistake. The Minister had to tell us again and again that he was not allowed to give us a running commentary. I am sure he found that painful; I found it painful to hear it. It would have been better to have a discussion about the process; the product might not then have come as such a surprise. It was then a mistake to pull the product out of the House of Commons for two months, not allowing the meaningful vote, and it was probably a mistake to go on pressing it after the massive failure of the first meaningful vote.
On Cabinet solidarity, it was a mistake to make the deal the Prime Minister’s deal and not the Cabinet’s deal or the Government’s deal. That was not wise. Letting the principle of collective responsibility lapse has proved self-defeating. Threatening hard leavers with no Brexit and soft leavers or remainers with no deal has produced the effect of isolating the Prime Minister in a very worrying way.
What about country before party and reaching out? I was on the march. We marched past Downing Street and we called on the Prime Minister to think again. How did she react? As has been said, she summoned the ERG to Chequers. I do not know why she always moves right at a moment of decision. This morning, we see what I suppose must be the ERG manifesto, in Mr Johnson’s column in the Telegraph, which has some rather odd aspects to it, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said. Mr Johnson says two things. First, we must,
“come out of the EU now—without the backstop”.
So it is no deal: a customs frontier across Ireland, forget about the Belfast agreement and forget about the peace process. I think that is irresponsible.
Secondly, he says:
“Extend the implementation period to the end of 2021 if necessary; use it to negotiate a free-trade deal”.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, no agreement —no deal—means no implementation period. It means also that our trade with our biggest market is instantly no longer free, and rollovers of existing EU trade deals with third countries become hugely more difficult and rather unlikely. This is instant economic disruption. This is what the Chancellor calls catastrophic. Avoiding this is now paramount, as the CBI and the TUC rightly said, last week. They believe that an Article 50 extension and a new approach are required. No more “my way or the highway”. Some 85% of CBI member companies apparently think that an Article 50 extension is better than no deal. I am not surprised, given the Government’s own economic analysis of no deal.
Those views of the CBI and the TUC were pretty well represented at the European Council by President Tusk and Chancellor Merkel. They do not want no deal; they know how damaging no deal would be to them and how much more damaging such an outcome would be to us. It seems that our Prime Minister was still arguing then—though today’s Statement is a little different—that there was only a binary choice for the United Kingdom: her deal or no deal. It seems that she was evasive when pressed on the chances of her deal being approved. She seems to me to be honest today in her Statement. She refused to countenance any plan B, and I think the European Council concluded that she did not have one. It was her counterparts in the European Council who ensured that the conclusions mean that, as President Tusk said afterwards,
“anything is possible: a deal, a long extension if the United Kingdom decided to rethink its strategy, or revoking Article 50, which is a prerogative of the UK government”.
The ball is now in our court and we have, at last, to rise to the level of events. What we need is time to stop and think. I do not believe that the European Council would have difficulty agreeing to a substantial Article 50 extension, provided we satisfy the Council’s only condition, which was that we should be able to “indicate a way forward”. I do not believe that that way forward need be very detailed or specific—indeed, it would not be. After 1,000 days of no national debate, it would be crazy suddenly to try to produce a new answer in a fortnight. What we need to indicate—I think this would be sufficient—is that, at long last, a process to decide the future is being set in train. Here, I echo the noble Lord, Lord Bridges: if Brexit is to go ahead, we need a process to decide the best balance of autarkic sovereignty and common purpose, and of independent action and identifying mutual interest. I think the noble Lord put it better than I have, but that is the dilemma: finding that balance, and a process to determine whether, after at long last a genuine, and genuinely informed, national debate, Brexit should go ahead or whether our Article 50 notification should be withdrawn—in either case, with full democratic authorisation. The broken, blindfold Brexit that we have blundered into results from a flawed process, which broke with our basic constitutional principles—but it is not too late to put that right.
The spectacle of the European Council last week was shaming. We saw a Prime Minister lurking in an empty room while 27 colleagues tried to help her find a way out of the corner she had painted herself into; we saw a haggard Prime Minister, unable to stay on to participate in the Council’s debate on probably the most significant issue of our time: western democracy’s relationship with China. For Britain to be silent—for Britain to be absent from such a debate—is shocking. A good test, at moments of difficult decisions, is to ask oneself what Peter Carrington would have thought and done, supposing he were in the Cabinet today. When, on the last day of January, we remembered him in the Abbey— with the help of the noble Lords, Lord Luce and Lord Carrington; with the Grenadiers’ “Slow March” and “Nimrod”; with memories of Nijmegen; with memories of Carrington alongside Kissinger and Schmidt; and memories of Carrington as Secretary-General of NATO—we remembered someone who deeply believed in the European Union, for precisely the reasons so brilliantly explained in Parliament Square on Saturday by the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine. He believed deeply that this country mattered, that we had a vocation and that we should make sure our voice was heard. He was someone whose voice certainly was heard, who understood parliamentary democracy and the need to put country before party and honour before ambition, and who knew what to do when something went wrong.
Our friends in 27 countries have thrown us a lifeline, provided that we can “indicate a way forward”—the phrase in the Commission’s text—which could, and I hope will, mean ourselves by 12 April to a process to seek a national consensus on a negotiable outcome. I hope we will: better late than never.
My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. There are very few in your Lordships’ House who have greater experience in these matters than the noble Lord. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, is one other, if I may say so. I say to my noble friends that I associate myself very strongly with what the noble Lord said. I say, too, that I hope the Government have heeded his advice. In anticipation, given that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is to follow after my few remarks, I will say that it is not insignificant that he and I, who have been in the Chamber on opposite sides for over 30 years, on this matter happen to agree. On this issue there is tremendous cross-party consensus.
The decision of last week’s European Council obliges Parliament and the country to make a decisive decision, and we must do so. We have three choices: to approve the Prime Minister’s deal; to leave without a deal; or to seek a lengthy extension, during which the country and Parliament can reconsider their options. Without hesitation, I support the latter option. I am not a Europhile and never have been, but believe strongly and on pragmatic grounds that staying in the European Union offers by far the best future for the United Kingdom, Europe and the wider world. I believe that Brexit defies both reason and all credible evidence.
Contrary to the view expressed by my noble friend Lord Bridges of Headley, with whom I almost always agree—he is a very old friend—I do not think the 2016 referendum is an authority for leaving the European Union, whatever the outcome of the negotiations. I believe it was an instruction to the Government to negotiate the best terms that could be achieved, leaving over the issue of who decides whether the terms are acceptable. In my view, that final decision is one to be made by Parliament, and perhaps by the country in a further referendum. I agree with the view oft expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and others that there can be no objection in principle to holding a further referendum, although personally I would prefer it to be held on the ultimate agreement rather than on Mrs May’s deal, which, by its nature, is interim and transitional.
As regards participating in the coming European elections, I acknowledge that there are practical difficulties to be confronted, but I do not believe that it is respectable to argue that participation in a democratic process is offensive in principle. Indeed, I can see great advantages in having a vigorous election debate and seeing the United Kingdom represented—I hope sensibly—in the European Parliament in what I also hope will be for an extended period. I support participation in those elections to secure a lengthy extension.
I turn directly to the choices that now have to be made. In my view, to crash out of the European Union without any deal would be a national calamity. I do not believe that there is or ever was a national desire for such an outcome. Last Saturday’s march and the petition now signed by over 5 million people speak to this. Moreover, no deal was decisively rejected in the House of Commons by 413 votes to 202. For government or parliamentarians to disregard such a vote would be to display a contempt for Parliament of the grossest kind. I hope I can gain some reassurance from today’s Statement, where I see that the Prime Minister said in the House of Commons:
“Unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen”.
The proper interpretation of that is that, unless there is an affirmative vote in the House of Commons, no deal will not happen. It means nothing else, and I very much hope that when my noble friend Lord Callanan winds up this debate, he will confirm that interpretation.
As to Mrs May’s deal, I would support it only if nothing else were on offer. However, I do not accept Mrs May’s oft-repeated statement that her deal is the only deal available. That is simply not true. It is clear that the European Council has given us an opportunity to think again—to discard the red lines which the Prime Minister so unwisely drew. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the House of Commons will support the Prime Minister’s deal. I therefore hope that the Commons will vote to secure a lengthy extension to the deadline. If—I hope, when—that occurs, Britain should reconsider whether it wishes to leave the European Union. It may be that, as a result of those discussions, modified terms of membership will become available. In any event, the red lines should be discarded. If they are discarded, a variety of alternatives will become available, and, if the Commons thinks it appropriate, a further referendum will become part of the deliberative process.
I doubt that Mrs May can or should preside over those discussions. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, implied and as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said, whoever is the Prime Minister must be a person who commands respect in the House of Commons, across the political divide and in the country as a whole. He or she must also be credible in Europe and on the international stage. In the conduct of the talks, in the formulation of policy and in taking the consequential legislation through Parliament, the Prime Minister will have to seek support from all sides of the House.
Although such considerations might not definitively identify who should be the next Prime Minister, they most certainly will identify the unsuitable. Now is not the time and No. 10 is not the place for clowns or for those who indulge in fantasies. In the wake of their policies would come economic damage, international isolation and considerable humiliation. I hope that in the coming votes the House of Commons will take full advantage of the opportunity that has been afforded to it. Parliament and the country can and must think again.
My Lords, it is indeed a great pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham—an old adversary of mine in the other place. As noble Lords have heard, he is a very powerful advocate, and it is much better to be on the same side as him. I agree with almost everything that he has said today but I want to make it clear that I totally support the Motion to revoke Article 50 in the name of my noble friend Lord Adonis.
I need to explain why I have adjusted my view since the last time I spoke, which was some time ago. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Newby, I have not spoken in all 13 of the debates—mind you, he gets better as he goes along. When I last spoke, I said that, although revoking was my preferred option, I reluctantly agreed that we needed a referendum to finish the job because it started with a referendum. However, that brings me back to June 2016, when I was against having a referendum. I have always been against that. Indeed, the nicest thing that Gisela Stuart ever said about me was that I was against a referendum. In fact, that is the only nice thing she has ever said about me.
One reason I was against it was that in referenda people vote for reasons other than the question on the ballot paper. I remember that in 1979 we did not get a Scottish Assembly because the Callaghan Government were unpopular after the winter of discontent, and there has been no less popular Government than the Cameron Government when we went into the referendum in 2016. My view is that that is why a lot of people voted in the way that they did.
This referendum was corrupted and there was cheating in it. There was overspending, as the Electoral Commission has said. Indeed, as I understand it, the High Court has said that, if it had been a mandatory referendum, it would have been illegal. However, it was only an advisory referendum, so it did not matter that all those mistakes were made. However, that reminds us that it was an advisory referendum, so it should not be taken by the Government as an instruction.
One might challenge me that the same applied the last time I spoke about the referendum, and indeed I said much the same about it then. What has changed? What has tipped the balance? Above all, as the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, rightly said, there has been a sea change in public opinion since then. Now, all the implications of Brexit are known—people are made aware of the reality. It may be okay for Farage with his wealth, or for Rees-Mogg with his trust in Ireland, but ordinary people are beginning to realise that it is a disaster. This is being shown, first, in opinion polls. An analysis of 200 opinion polls showed that a majority of between 6% and 12% are now in favour of remain, whereas in June 2016 it was a majority of about 3% or 4% for leave. A second indication is the march on Saturday of over a million people from every part of the United Kingdom—not the metropolitan elite, as some say. They came from every corner of the United Kingdom and tramped through London to express their view. That shows strength; coming to London to express that view takes a lot more than just going to the ballot box.
Thirdly, the petition is astonishing, the biggest there has ever been: to date, over five and a half million people and rising at the rate of a few hundred thousand every hour. The petition is not for a referendum: it is to revoke and stay. I am glad to say that it was started by a 77 year-old lady, as my noble friend Lady Bakewell and I—I declare an interest as chair of Age Scotland—do a lot to promote the advantages of older people taking initiative. The fact that Margaret Anne Georgiadou took this initiative is very encouraging and the fact that five and a half million people have already followed her is even more so.
It is still possible to argue that we should nevertheless have a people’s vote—a second referendum—to prove the case. Leavers are not keen on a second referendum; does this indicate that they are not confident they would win again? Perhaps it does. However, one of the strong arguments against having a second referendum now, and for asking Parliament—urging the other place, in particular—to agree to revoke Article 50, is that the period of time needed for a referendum would continue the uncertainty; we might also end up with more lies and cheating unless we tightened up the rules. For a variety of reasons, I am not in favour, as I have said. There would be more jobs lost, just as we are losing jobs in every part of the United Kingdom at the moment, because of the threat and uncertainty.
Parliament now needs to step in, take up responsibility and accept that no Brexit is good for Britain. The best option is for us to remain part of the European Union—but remain and reform. Not just in Britain but in other countries of Europe, people think that the European Union needs reform. Every institution needs reform, including even—some people think—the institution that we are in now. Britain could be leading in Europe, not leaving Europe; that should be our slogan. So I hope we can send a message to the other place to revoke withdrawal.
Finally, having followed my old adversary, the noble Viscount, it is a great pleasure for me to hand the baton over to the person described by my noble friend on the Front Bench—
I hand the baton to the person described by my noble friend Lady Hayter as a national treasure: that is, the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy.
My Lords, I am rendered almost speechless, but I shall try. I have no desire to add to the reservoir of recrimination into which so many words have been poured because of Brexit. But, despite the kind words of my noble friend Lord Foulkes and my cherished former research student, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, I must confess that I am still struggling to absorb quite how a formidably resourceful country with a deeply mature parliamentary system, and which nurtures a real pride in its gift for international statecraft, could have come to such a pass as a destabiliser among the constellation of nations in Europe and the wider world—a nation that other countries can no longer read. What have we done to ourselves? What will become of us?
In that context, it dawned on me earlier this month that the number one target for British intelligence surely now is us. Since, nearly three years ago, we moved temporarily into a strange new country—let us call it “Brexitland”—we have become a mystery even unto ourselves; so much so that in a column in last Friday’s Tablet, I respectfully suggested to the chairman of the Cabinet Office’s Joint Intelligence Committee that he commission a special assessment under the heading, “Brexitland: Questions Facing the UK”.
Such an assessment might touch on a range of themes that are in play: future relationships with the EU, obviously; Britain’s wider place in the world after withdrawal; the sustainability of the very union of the UK and the prospects for a Scottish separation in the early 2020s; the social, economic and regional inequalities within the UK; the stress testing of UK institutions, including Parliament, the party-political structure and the Civil Service; the durability of the UK’s international alliances, including the special nuclear and intelligence relationships with the United States; prospects for the UK economy, research, innovation and technical education; and the enhancement of UK soft power, the transmission of values abroad and the restoration of a relatively rancour-free national political conversation at home. Perhaps the Minister, when he gets back to the department, could get on the phone to the Cabinet Office’s joint intelligence people and tell them what I have just said.
When it comes to my own future assessment—as a remainer but not a second referendum man—I carry an optimism about the longer-term prospects for the UK, provided that the cumulative effects of living in Brexitland do not leave us wallowing in a resentful torpor blighted by mutual scapegoating. Every generation needs a flag to which it can rally, a banner upon which it embroiders its shared aspirations. The banner under which my own, early post-war generation lived, for example, was particularly lustrous, very much woven by the great collective experience of the Second World War. What went into its embroidery? The answer is: the Beveridge report on welfare of 1942; the Education Act 1944; the full employment White Paper of 1944; the formation of the National Health Service in 1948; the placing of a collective security roof over all of this with the creation of NATO in 1949; and, from the late 1940s onwards, the transition from Empire to Commonwealth.
What we need now, especially in these highly polarised times, is another shared banner. We would all have our individual aspirations, but there are three I would embroider as a priority, for which I think there might—just might—be a new consensus once we are through Brexit. These would be: to do for social care what 1948 did for health; a very substantial building programme of social housing based on a public/private mix; and to get technical education right for the first time—after all, we have been trying to do this since the late 19th century.
If we can rally to a new banner, we might take not only ourselves pleasantly by surprise but our European neighbours and the rest of the world, in our ability to bounce back and cohere once more. In the meantime, I hope that the Prime Minister gets her deal through the House of Commons and that Friday 12 April does not go down as one of the bleakest days in our history. We have most definitely not been living through a finest hour, but a finest hour just might be there for the living if only we can get across the Brexit barrier and plant that shining flag on the other side. My Lords, I live in hope.
My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, suggested that now is not the time for clowns. But one thing I was musing about over the weekend was how both David Cameron and the current Prime Minister, Theresa May, seem to have had problems with timings. David Cameron thought that he had worked out the perfect timing for his referendum—May 2017—to give himself two years to negotiate the reforms that he wanted in order to have his 60:40 vote to remain in the European Union. But then he decided to bring the referendum forward, boxed himself into a corner, got a damp little squib of a deal, and the referendum, as we all know, went the wrong way for him.
Theresa May has spent the last two years telling us that exit day is 29 March 2019. I thought I would check the lyrics of the song that includes the words:
“Isn’t it rich?
Isn’t it queer?
Losing my timing this late in my career”.
It goes on to say:
“But where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns
Well, maybe next year”.
We are in very difficult times. The Prime Minister has led us to a point where we now do not even know whether we will leave the European Union, with or without a deal, on 12 April. We spent 15 to 20 minutes earlier trying to work out whether international law trumps domestic law on the date of possibly leaving the European Union. Many of us believe that, unless we change our domestic law, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 still means we are due to leave on 29 March—this Friday. We are in a position that nobody sought to be in and to which I do not believe the Prime Minister intended to lead us.
Unlike my noble friend Lord Newby, I have not spoken in all 13 debates. This is the first time I have spoken in a Brexit debate since 5 December, on the very first day of the very first debate ahead of the first meaningful vote, which was pulled and did not happen. I have not felt the need to speak on the grounds that absolutely nothing changed between the Prime Minister proposing her withdrawal agreement in the autumn and last week. Even with the negotiations in Brussels last week, I might not have felt the need to speak this afternoon. I might have felt that the deal the Prime Minister had agreed in November was not adequate then and remains inadequate. It is a sign of how far the Prime Minister has managed to divide her own party, Parliament and the country that, whereas sh thinks that her deal is the will of the people, Parliament has defeated it comprehensively on every possible occasion.
I did not need to stand up and say that, but I wanted to stand up and speak after listening to the Prime Minister’s speech to the United Kingdom last Wednesday evening. It was a disgrace that she felt she should say to the people, “I’ve understood you. Take no notice of Parliament, I know what you all want. I am speaking for you, but those other politicians aren’t”. There is nobody in your Lordships’ House or the other place who is not trying to do their best for this country, whether we agree or disagree with her deal, and whether we are remainers, leavers, remoaners or born-again leavers. We are all trying to do our best and most of us are trying to work in the national interest. The idea that the Prime Minister should try to pit herself and the people against Parliament is not helpful to our democracy. It will not help us come together as a country. It will not lead to the sort of United Kingdom that we should all be seeking, whether or not we leave the European Union on Friday.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, pointed out earlier that a referendum is, in many ways, an alien device, which is not the norm in this country. Certainly, when we entered the Common Market, Edward Heath, the then Prime Minister, was very clear that a referendum was not appropriate. Both Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher used the idea that referendums were the devices of dictators and demagogues. That language of referendums as dangerous devices is often used in the literature. However, I am speaking from the Liberal Democrat Benches. My former leader, Mr Clegg, came out in favour of a referendum ahead of the Lisbon treaty, so my party has form in supporting referendums.
In the 1970s, Edward Heath was very clear that the people’s view should be listened to, and that it would be, through a parliamentary vote. That was how we entered the Common Market. However, times have changed. The 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the Common Market set a precedent, which caused opinion to change fundamentally. I should perhaps declare an interest in that I am editing a handbook on European referendums—possibly as some sort of sadomasochistic activity—in my spare time. At a workshop for the book which I hosted in Cambridge last year, John Curtice pointed out that referendums are now in the British DNA. The 1975 referendum was the first, but the referendum in 2016 will almost certainly not be the last.
I was very clear that I did not support a referendum but, speaking from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench at the time of the European Union Referendum Act 2015, it was pointed out to me that I had jolly well better get behind my party’s position to support it. We did; we all campaigned in the referendum. However, I was very clear throughout, on every platform that I spoke on, that if the vote was to leave, that was not an opportunity to simply keep rerunning referendums. I said that before 23 June 2016 and I have said it from these Benches since.
Referendums are dangerous devices, but there is one thing that is potentially more dangerous than having another referendum, and that is Parliament saying it will revoke Article 50 without any further reference to the citizens of the United Kingdom. More than 5 million people may have signed a petition and 1 million people may have demonstrated on Saturday, and I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, that there is a sense that the 2016 mandate is becoming dated. There may well be a case for asking the people, “Theresa May is sure her deal represents your will. Does it really?”. If the Prime Minister is so sure that she understands the will of the people then surely there is no difficulty in asking them again.
I did not march on Saturday because I had a pre-existing commitment to speak in a debate in Cambridge, which your Lordships might expect to be the metropolitan heart of remain. However, the debate was in fact full of leavers, who were saying, “Democracy is about us. We made our views very clear”. That even included former remainers who said they respected the result of the referendum. In a democracy, people have the right to change their mind. I fundamentally believe, as I always have, that Britain is better in the European Union. I ought to declare an interest that, in my capacity as reader in European Politics at Cambridge, I receive European funding. That might not come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of my writing. However, I am also a democrat and I fundamentally believe that if we change the outcome of the referendum and end up in a different place, it has to be because the citizens of the United Kingdom say that that is what they want.
We need this country to come together. At the moment, Parliament is deeply divided, which is a perfect reflection of the country. A general election will not get around that. Maybe, just maybe, another referendum would. However, the idea of taking part in European Parliament elections should not be used as a weapon to try to stifle debate. Whatever people think about the European Parliament, it is directly elected and a form of democracy, and it should not be used as a way to try to silence opposition to the Prime Minister.
I feel in a very lonely position this evening. I have tried hard to be persuaded by the arguments of the remainers, but my head and my heart will not go that way.
What has been the role of this House in the Brexit process for the past two years? I think the history books will not look upon us favourably. It is true that we have played our traditional constructive part in amending legislation, but our collective wisdom should have offered more inclusive solutions than has been the case. Instead, the great majority of our members have tried to belittle the sentiments of those who voted leave. Repeatedly, we have been told that people did not vote to make themselves poorer. That sentiment reveals nothing about the leavers, but it does show that remainers see the issues through an economic perspective only, and that retaining and protecting one’s investments are the only possible values. This should not be so.
It is not only in this country that voters have seen the profound failings of the EU, and are trying to stem the flow of those failures into their own lives. Right across Europe the populist and nationalist movements are on the rise. Southern states are left to stagnate, with recession and youth unemployment. The former Communist states are rejecting the orders from Brussels about borders, environment and migrants. Minorities are in fear for their lives. Germany alone benefits economically, although even that is stalling.
The wealthier EU states do not help the poorer: they leave them to flounder. There are no shared values anymore. On the contrary, human rights are being devalued as never before since the end of the Second World War. The central Government in Brussels grow ever more distant from those they purport to govern. France is in the grip of riots. The German AfD has representatives in the Reichstag. Hungary, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, the Netherlands and Poland now have the far right well represented in government. No wonder the EU is fearful for the elections in May, which are likely to increase the representation of extremists.
Leavers have rejected, in a once-in-a-generation opportunity, the failings of past empires, whether Austro-Hungarian, British, Roman, the Soviet Union’s, Yugoslavian, American, French or Ottoman. Starting with the best of intentions of bringing security and peace to disparate peoples, they inevitably brought repression and diktats as soon as local preferences were expressed. The EU is simply a return to Europe’s imperial past, and it is not even able to defend itself but is reliant on NATO and in thrall to Russia.
This top-down governance lacks the elements of loyalty and shared burdens that characterise national states. Over the decades since 1945, these states have spent more and more of their budgets on helping their own citizens in times of hardship, and yet somehow those who benefit from the EU have managed to create a mindset that sees the union of European states as the only legitimate liberal opinion that one may hold. Voting leave was described as an unforgivable act of dissent. It had to be described as a protest vote, a vote by the uneducated and aged and a vote that has to be repressed.
What is going on now to stop leave is another manifestation of the intolerance that faces political and religious speech regarded as deviating from the acceptable view. This is where the hatred and bigotry arise again, against those who do not accept the universalist ideologies, or as a reaction to legitimate national expression being put down. Individual freedom throughout history has been better protected in independent states than in conglomerations. In short, as the EU undermines national loyalty, it creates a fertile soil for extremism and hatred. Democracy cannot flourish eventually in a superstate, as history has shown. It is therefore legitimate and far sighted to seek to retain our independent democracy and not risk further exposure to the forces that may yet bring an end to the latest dream of empire.
What advice can we give our colleagues in the other place? Certainly not to take control themselves. Not only is that a constitutional outrage and a very dangerous precedent for future majority governments, but there is no clear majority in the Commons for any particular path. It is not possible for the EU 27 to deal with the Commons—or will they be represented by Speaker Bercow? One begins to see why there is sense in the royal prerogative in dealing with foreign affairs, as was almost universally understood until the Supreme Court judgment in Miller concerning Article 50. Moreover, one can be sure that were MPs to come up with one solution commanding a majority and present it to Brussels, it would be turned down, for the clear aim of the EU has been from the outset to prevent our leaving, or make it so unpleasant that no other state will ever dare to rebel against the centralised powers. We did not vote to be humiliated, but that is what has happened, and we should never again entrust our sovereignty to other states. That is the lesson.
We are left with three outcomes: revoking Article 50 and/or a second referendum, no deal and the May deal. Revocation would have no democratic basis. On the contrary, it would be a betrayal of the universal franchise and especially the democratic rights of the public. It would be a disfranchisement by those who consider themselves best able to govern of those for whom they are expressing contempt, an attitude that should have ended more than 100 years ago. A second referendum would quite likely, in my view, be won by leave again, on the basis of not wanting to be bullied. Moreover, given the accusations of ignorance last time, are we certain that all the electorate are on top of the backstop and all the other provisions of the agreement? If leave won again, we would have the same practical problems. If remain won, that result would be rejected with the same strength as leave is rejected now.
What about no deal? Despite the Prime Minister’s statement, I maintain that legally it is still on the table. Unless Parliament changes primary legislation, it is still there. None the less, despite the allegations of chaos, I believe we are more prepared for the logic of no deal than is generally put about. No deal—that is, trading under WTO terms—is what we may well get on 29 March. It has advantages, it has disadvantages. It is not popular, but it is feasible and logical. It would jump-start the EU 27 into proper negotiation.
What, then, of the Prime Minister’s deal? The withdrawal agreement is not a treaty for all time. The weight of legal opinion, which is at least sufficient to defend a legal challenge, is that Articles 60 and 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties allow termination of a treaty for a material breach by one side of its obligations or a fundamental change of circumstances. For once, I have my pupil, more brilliant than I, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, on my side. Should the UK come to the conclusion that the EU was keeping it locked in a backstop unreasonably, it could claim a material breach of the withdrawal agreement. Both parties will be obliged to work towards a specific result— namely, to conclude an agreement that supersedes the protocol by the end of 2020. Unreasonable delays by the EU, or negotiating in a manner that does not take account of the objectives of the UK would be a breach of the principle of good faith.
A permanent backstop would undermine the Good Friday agreement. If the EU threatened that, it would be inconsistent with its best endeavours and good-faith duties. If the backstop became permanent by default, without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, this would amount to a fundamental change of circumstances under Article 62. Article 1(4) of the protocol expressly states that the withdrawal agreement is meant to be temporary. If it became permanent, this would be a fundamental change, and the longer it continues, and the worse the consequences for Northern Ireland, the stronger the legal argument that Article 62 would apply. The UK has withdrawn unilaterally from 52 treaties since 1988. All these were multilateral treaties. We cannot, therefore, be bound permanently in international law by an agreement if one of its terms is that it does not establish a permanent relationship and is meant to be temporary. The fears surrounding this are ill founded.
Bad though the May agreement is, if I were an MP I would probably hold my nose and vote for it. I urge the other House to pass this deal. If it does not, the plans of the venal and the apparatchiks in Brussels are to delay Brexit for year after year until it vanishes, and there will be no escape from the downward spiral of the EU. Brexit is within our grasp—just a few more votes, and we have it. Otherwise, it is gone for ever, with our sovereignty and our respect for individual freedoms.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who speaks with such clarity and authority. Although I do not agree with everything she said, I agree with much of it.
These occasions have begun to acquire a sort of ritualistic quality. Time after time, there is always the noble Lord, Lord Newby, pronouncing the obituary of the withdrawal treaty, although somehow it goes on. Its death is somewhat exaggerated. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, tries to cheer us all up with his attempt at light-heartedness. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, puts it all in a wonderful historical perspective. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, tells us that everything on offer is unacceptable, although in this case I think her lovely story about everyone being out of step did not quite add up, because all the people she mentioned, or most of them, want to be in step with the Prime Minister in agreeing the withdrawal treaty. It seemed she drew the wrong conclusion from her story, but never mind. We have to say these things and no doubt they will all be said again by all parties.
Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Newby, I have considerable sympathy for the Prime Minister and her frustration about the membership of the House of Commons. Of course, there are many hard-working MPs of great integrity. Some of us spent decades in the House of Commons and we did our best, but of course there are also some—and there always were—who really do try anybody’s patience, like Disraeli’s flies in amber. One wonders how the devil some of them got there.
I have been astonished at the cavalier disregard of some MPs for the facts or the truth, especially in commenting on the so-called Prime Minister’s deal. Actually, of course, it is a carefully worked out 585-page treaty, drawn up painstakingly between EU and British representatives over a long period. Thus from certain MPs, journalists, academics and lawyers who should know better come statements that, “The withdrawal agreement binds us permanently into subjugation”. That is nonsense. Another one says that we “remain for ever under ECJ rules”. That is not true. Another says that we pay billions “for nothing”, which is nonsense again, or that we remain trapped, et cetera. Others have talked idiotically about penal servitude, the EU torture chamber, putting us at the mercy of our competitors, or being plunged by the Treasury into a spiral downwards into oblivion. These views have come from both sides, from the hard-line Brexiteers and the hard-line Europhiles.
Others keep insisting that the referendum is being undermined, when in obvious fact the treaty reflects the referendum result. What it undermines is the totally antidemocratic view that the majority takes all and the minority can be ignored. That is the deadly straight road not to democracy, but to majoritarianism and demagoguery. It is the point—I am afraid we are getting quite near it—where populism hijacks democracy.
As to the backstop mentioned by so many, the doom-mongers and our dear lawyers again keep saying—here is their latest—that there is,
“a long-term risk to … the integrity of the United Kingdom”.
This is nonsense. All sides insist that it should be only temporary. There it is again in the Prime Minister’s latest letter, as in her Statement, that,
“the backstop is unlikely ever to be used, and would only be temporary if it is”.
That cannot be reconciled with the statements that some prominent MPs and columnists consistently make, ignoring the facts, referring to bondage and eternal entrapment. Such statements are utterly twisted and distorted. The withdrawal agreement does none of these things. It is a transition document—a necessary first step on a long journey. It is an exit, as ordained by the referendum, but an orderly one. It takes us decisively out of the European Union and opens the way decisively to new trade relations in a changed world and to catching up with Asia, which is rapidly moving ahead of the western world in almost every respect. After transition we are free of the EU’s worst overcentralising and outdated features, but we remain good and close neighbours—possibly even closer neighbours than we have been—and not all that far, ironically, from what the rest of Europe is increasingly arguing for and what the prospective next German Chancellor is arguing for herself. Portraying the treaty otherwise is malign and mischievous, or the product of narrow legalistic contortions by the lawyers. I should not say this, but I sometimes agree with what Shakespeare had to say about lawyers.
As for all the talk about Mrs May going, this really is a mad time to be suggesting such a thing. The chairman of the 1922 committee has apparently been to see her about resigning. The late Lord Whitelaw, with whom I worked very closely, had a wise adage about parliamentary life at Westminster: never take any notice at all of the 1922 committee’s view. It was always wrong. That is what he said, more than once.
I have urged the Prime Minister, and I urge her again, to make the next meaningful vote on the withdrawal treaty a matter of confidence in Her Majesty’s Government. I am convinced that that is possible under the 2011 Act. Of course, it is a gamble and a risk, but no greater than the risk she is taking at present. It would have a powerful effect on all but the most myopic hardliners, as well as on a good many sensible social democrats in the Labour Party—not, of course, the leadership, but that is a different story. If she won we could move on to the task of working out modern commercial arrangements with the EU and the rest the world. If she lost—and that is the gamble—under the 2011 Act there would be a fortnight of limbo and then a general election, for which the European Union would certainly grant any further time necessary. In fact, it has indicated as much. It would take about seven weeks to get a general election under way and organised. It could therefore take place in mid-May. It is certainly not what I want and it would be really messy, with the vote split in every direction in various constituencies between official party candidates and breakaways, between Conservatives and independent Tories, between Corbynite Labourites and more sensible social democrats. But a new Parliament would have a good chance—a better chance than the present one—of being less paralysed. It could well have an ad-hoc majority for the withdrawal treaty and for meeting the overwhelming wish of the British people for settling withdrawal and moving on.
But, of course, none of this needs to happen. Why? Because a confidence vote would be a smack of firm government and would bring over further sensible ERG doubters, and there are quite a few of those. Of course, the deepest diehards in my party will remain outside because, sadly, they are now beyond reason, beyond conservatism and, when one examines their pronouncements, beyond truth. Calling a linked confidence vote—the bold, high-risk course—could now deliver the majority needed and the great issues of our times would be decided in Parliament, in line with our model of democracy, and not in the streets, where democracy does not belong and never did.
My Lords, “I’m 16 … Your Vote, My Future”. That was a placard photographed on the front of the Evening Standard and published on Friday. One headline said that 1 million people “marched to stop” the Brexit “madness”; another one said that over 5.5 million people had signed the petition to revoke Article 50. I do not imagine that Mrs May even noticed these headlines, or looked out of the window. So caught up is she in saving her position and her deal for her party that she ignores any other opinion.
The noble Lord, Lord Callanan, joked at the start of the last debate about the need to find something fresh to say—but he is only partially correct. Most of what noble Lords have suggested in these debates has been ignored or rejected in the Prime Minister’s single-minded pursuit of her deal—a deal unacceptable to right or left, remain or leave; a deal that leaves us in chaos; and a deal compromised by premature, unachievable red lines and a determination not to yield to any other point of view. Even now, days before our scheduled exit, it appears that she would prefer to plunge the country over the cliff in a no deal, if and when her plan is rejected.
The fate of the Prime Minister is irrelevant to most of the public. They crave a statesman, which the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, alluded to; a leader to take control and acknowledge that most voters in the referendum, whether they voted leave or remain, did not know the cost or the implications of leaving. They certainly did not vote to become poorer. I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Deech—the economy is most important to them. Nor did they vote to make this country a laughing stock—which it is rapidly becoming in the foreign press—to devalue the pound, to see the Treasury spend millions on stockpiling essentials or to turn Kent into a huge lorry park.
The Prime Minister has not done much to bring the country together, but has instead alienated Members of Parliament in an attempt to blame them, rather than herself, for this chaos. We need a statesman to put country before party, to explain to voters why the Brexit promises of 2016 are not on offer or available, and to show that it is impossible to leave without damaging the UK economically and culturally. I refer again to the wonderful Erasmus programme, which has provided so many of our young university students with invaluable experience of studying abroad.
It is, above all, our young people who are going to be most damaged by a hard Brexit—hence the placard that the young boy was carrying, to which I alluded at the beginning of my remarks. They are the ones, mostly disenfranchised in 2016, who see their prospects and horizons narrowed by this insane desire to stop our citizens moving around and working throughout Europe. Indeed, the inward migration pressure from eastern European countries is diminishing, as wages rise rapidly in those countries and their people see the “Not Welcome Here” signs illuminated at Dover and Heathrow.
We have rehearsed endlessly the threat to our businesses and industries, and the incipient dearth of labour to service our agriculture, our hospitality and health industries, to name a few—but to no avail. It is that mantra again: the will of the people. Somehow it is democratic to ask the House of Commons to vote three times on the same Motion, but undemocratic to ask the nation to reconfirm its opinion of three years ago. However the next vote goes this week—if it happens at all—we have generously been given some extra time by the EU to make up our minds, to stand on the edge of the cliff, to come to our senses and to realise that this agony, this disruption, this cost and this division are not worth it.
One of the main failures of Mrs May’s deal is the lack of detail over our future trading arrangements with the bloc in the political declaration paper. This is a vital part on which our prosperity will depend. It leaves our economy at the mercy of negotiations over the next few years. I agree with the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. Let us revoke Article 50 and admit that we were wrong, perhaps confirming it by a people’s vote. Too much to hope for, perhaps, but then history will judge those who get it wrong.
My Lords, the most precious commodity in political life is trust, and trust depends on keeping your promises. We saw what happened to what was once a major party in our country when it broke its solemn pledge on tuition fees: it was reduced to a rump, and even now, nine years later, with both major parties in disarray, it is unable to regain its position. Both major parties were elected in 2017 on a pledge to implement the referendum decision, and the Conservative Party was specific: that meant leaving the customs union and the single market. If we do not keep those pledges, we do not just put our party fortunes at risk. We undermine trust in our whole political system.
When, on 7 March last year and again on 4 October, President Tusk offered the United Kingdom a Canada-style free trade deal, he correctly stated that it was the only type of trading arrangement between the United Kingdom and the EU compatible with our promises to leave the customs union and the single market. That is why I greatly regret that the Government did not take up that offer. If I were in the other House, I might, with extreme reluctance, vote for the withdrawal agreement, since the alternatives being offered are even worse. However, if it is defeated, I hope the Government, Parliament and our political system will look again at President Tusk’s offer. Most certainly, in the time available, we will not be able to secure it before we leave, in which case we must be prepared to leave on WTO terms.
A year ago, it was quite reasonable to be worried about what leaving on WTO terms, with no withdrawal agreement, would mean. People had specific and concrete concerns. The planes were not going to fly. There were not enough licences for drivers and hauliers to operate on the continent. Trains would not be able to find a platform in Paris, apparently. Problems with the electricity supply in Ireland were threatened. Derivatives would cease to be valid, which would lead to the collapse of the whole banking system. I could go on. There were worries, too, about shortages and congestion at Dover. Now nearly all those concrete and specific concerns have been resolved by a series of mini-deals, reciprocal arrangements and pragmatic measures taken by us, by the European Union and by individual countries such as France, Belgium and Holland.
The opposition spokesperson began her speech in December by raising that concrete threat that planes would not fly. Planes will fly, however, because—although news of it did not reach this House—on 13 November last year, the EU said that it would introduce legislation to allow our planes to fly over, land in and return from the EU, if the UK reciprocated. We have: deal done.
There were concerns that if we became a third country to the EU and it to us, there would be only 1,638 licences available for all our lorries. The EU has said that it will create licences for our lorries to operate over the next year. It has also backed British membership of the common transit convention, to which we now belong, and has promised to work with us in the European Transport Ministers’ committee, which covers 48 states and will provide licences for our lorries to operate throughout all 48 states in and around Europe. Trains will run. Electricity will operate in Ireland, because of the measures and changes the Irish Government have made. Derivatives have been sorted. Visas will be available to our citizens to travel on the continent, as long as we make reciprocal arrangements for continentals to come here, which we will: another deal done. All these mini-deals have been done, and it is to the Government’s credit that they have made them, although they are rather coy about it, because they are still trying to frighten my colleagues in my former House into voting for their deal.
Most of the concerns about shortages, of everything from food and medicines to Mars bars and water, were due to fear of congestion at Dover and Calais, because additional checks might be needed. But Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has said it will not need to carry out any additional checks at Dover in the event of no deal or a free trade agreement because, even if there are tariffs, they will not be collected at the border. As the chairman of HMRC said, they are paid computer to computer, not by someone handing over a cheque through the window of a lorry as they pass through Dover. That is true of duties at present. The checks made are based on intelligence, where there is reason to believe that there is tobacco or alcohol—dutiable goods—or drugs or illegal immigrants, and officers therefore have to stop vehicles to look for those things. But they are few and most are carried out away from the port. Their frequency is not expected to change, because those risks will not change after Brexit, so traffic will flow freely through Dover.
Concerns were then raised and focused on what would happen in Calais. Most of the problems that caused us to operate Operation Stack for 211 days over the last 20 years—10 days a year on average—arose from problems in Calais, when there were strikes, immigrants blocked access to ports or trains, and so on. People feared that, if the French were not ready, it would create congestion at Calais, backing up across the channel and leading to congestion in Dover. But the French have moved with commendable speed and efficiency. I recommend that colleagues and noble Lords who have not already done so look at the website of Douane Française. They will see the smart border arrangements that will be put in place in Calais, which it is believed will ensure that trade flows freely through that port. The French are worried, and make it explicit, that if they do not enable trade to continue uninterrupted through Calais, they will lose that trade to Zeebrugge, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, which are well-prepared and eager to take the trade from them. So there will be no congestion at Calais either.
All these scares about shortages of food and so on are absurd. One that really worries people is the idea that there will be a shortage of medicines. I hear it repeated all the time, even though, on 25 February, the Government put out a Statement listing everything they have done to ensure that medicines get through. Even if there are hold-ups somewhere, there are stockpiles in this country and the Government said that,
“the supply of medicines and medical products should be uninterrupted in the event of exiting the EU without a deal”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/2/19; col. 3WS.]
They urge people not to stockpile, because the one thing that could create a shortage is panic buying, as it could of any commodity at any time.
The result of all this has shown up in the debate today, where noble Lord after noble Lord has threatened us with calamity, catastrophe and disaster if there is no deal, but none has mentioned any specific calamities, catastrophes and disasters, because they know, in their heart of hearts, that they have been resolved and prepared for. Problems you prepare for do not happen, as we discovered with the millennium bug. If you have additional capacity for ferries as back-up in the event that something goes wrong, it means you have resolved the risk and we should recognise that.
It is essential, however, for those who want us to prolong the whole process to demonise the possibility of our leaving without a withdrawal agreement, hence the resort to this lexicon of lurid adjectives about calamity, catastrophe and disaster, previously used by the same people in reference only to the calamity that faced us if we did not go into the ERM, the catastrophe that faced us if we left the ERM, the disaster that faced us if we did not join the euro and the appalling situation that would result, according to 365 economists, if Geoffrey Howe’s Budget went ahead in 1981. That was followed by eight years’ growth, just as our departure from the ERM was followed by eight years’ continuing growth. We should not believe these abstract concerns that people have now that the concrete worries have largely been resolved.
The remaining fears are much more concrete and concern the certain application of tariffs if we leave and there is no free trade deal. Then, our exporters would face EU tariffs. They average 3% or 4% on our goods. Our exporters have gained 15% in competitiveness through the movement of the pound since 2016, so most are better placed now than they would have been, even with those tariffs. Some will face higher tariffs, but we will be in a position to help them. The total bill for this tariff of 3% or 4% on our exports will be £5 billion to £6 billion, but we will be saving £10 billion to £12 billion every year in our net annual contribution to the EU. So we will be well placed to help farmers and the car industry—those facing the highest tariffs—to cope with those tariffs and adjust to them.
We should not just look at the negatives. There are positives, too, if we leave without a withdrawal agreement. First, we will not have conceded £39 billion with nothing in return, which we would under the withdrawal agreement. We should be prepared to go to international arbitration confident in the advice that this House gave, concluding:
“Article 50 allows the UK to leave the EU without being liable for outstanding financial obligations”.
The second advantage is that it will truncate uncertainty, which, under the withdrawal agreement or a prolonged extension of Article 50, will continue for between 21 and 45 months. We will put that to bed, not necessarily to everybody’s liking, but it is better to end uncertainty and enable business to plan and get on with life.
Finally, it will force a resolution of the Irish border issue. As recently as last month, Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, said that, in the event of no deal:
“There is an obligation on the Irish and British governments, and the EU to try and work together to find a way of avoiding physical border infrastructure on this island”.
It can be done. It will be done if we leave with no withdrawal agreement, and that will open the way for us to have a free trade arrangement between Britain and Europe, covering the whole UK, which I hope will enable us to trade profitably and amicably in the future.
My Lords, if there is one thing I agree with the noble Lord about, in his interesting speech, it is the importance of trust in our political system. We are in a major crisis. Historically, that will be true for many years to come. What worries me is that the public have lost confidence in our political institutions and the way they work in the context of the Brexit debate, and that confidence will take a very long time to rebuild, because it goes beyond the Brexit debate itself.
The paradox of our situation is that just as the young—look at the schoolchildren who are showing us how they see their priorities—are discovering that the world is totally interdependent, and that we have to stand together in the interest of humanity, so many people in Britain want to march in the opposite direction. I find that—not to overuse the word—a tragedy. If political leadership, at a juncture like this, is about anything, it is about enabling people and helping them to understand the realities of the world in which we live, to meet the challenges inherent in that and to rise to the values that are essential if we are to meet those challenges.
When we talk of values, one other thing that has come out clearly from the Brexit story is that we talk about British values but it is not at all clear what British values are. There are people in Britain—as was demonstrated by the million people marching on Saturday, and the petition with five and a half million names—who want to belong to the world and want us to be an embracing, inclusive society. But there is also a political trend in our society—we are not alone in Europe in this respect—that positively rejects that concept and sees a xenophobic, exclusive future for our nation. If I am allowed to use a word not often used in our debates, love is absent and hate prevails.
We have a tremendous challenge to leadership here—I was very struck by how well that was spelled out by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle earlier in our debate. But there are other issues. For example, in the age of globalisation there is a distinct sense of insecurity among many ordinary people; they yearn for a sense of identity in society. What may come out of the Brexit saga, therefore, is a realisation that we have to re-examine our political institutions pretty fundamentally if we are to face the future.
This comes in the context of devolution and related issues. It is a shame that we have not had the political vision to go for a federal, or at least confederal, United Kingdom, in which the Scots could feel Scottish, the Irish could feel Irish, the Welsh could feel Welsh—and even the English could come to feel that it is good to be English. People would also see, however, that to meet the world’s challenges it is essential—not just an option—to co-operate. If that is true of the United Kingdom, it is true of worldwide society as a whole.
Having said all that, I have just one other fundamental point to make. There is a deep anxiety—we all encounter it in our relationships and so on—about the adequacy of the body politic. How capable are we of facing up to, grasping and beginning to handle the fundamental challenges? That makes it absolutely unthinkable that, in whatever way we decide to move forward on Brexit, we do it without seeking the approval and endorsement of the people as a whole. Otherwise, we will be making the decisions on behalf of people who have no confidence in us. That is not a sound basis for the future.
We have an unwritten constitutional tradition in which consensus is very important; we may not talk about consensus but there is an underlying sense that you have to carry the nation as a whole with you in whatever you are doing. From that standpoint, it may well be that we have to face further changes in our own constitutional arrangements, not just in those with Europe. We cannot, however, arrogantly assume that, having almost set out to bewilder and disturb the population about our own capabilities, we can then make the strategic decision on our own. Whatever is recommended—whatever comes out of this—must be put to the British people.
I also believe that—to be true to what I have been talking about—leadership, in its best sense, becomes indispensable. It is not a matter of fixing, or concocting, arrangements and deals; it is a matter of vision, of standing up for what you really believe in and having the vision to portray the challenges, what is necessary to meet them, and the destiny we seek for our country. We do not have that anywhere in our political system at the moment. We must all take that to heart—and until we get that right, our democracy will be in deep trouble. We must rediscover leadership, vision, purpose and principle. We must know what is good and what is wrong.
Compromise of course will be involved. That is not a bad thing: I often reflect that compromise is the moral centre of politics. But we must distinguish the good compromise from the bad compromise—the good one that enables the nation to move forward and the bad one that will set you further back, on the slippery slope to some kind of hellish, nationalistic, myopic, hateful society. We seem to be in danger of making the wrong choice in that context. It is time for leadership, and I hope that we rediscover that leadership before it is too late.
My Lords, Brexit debates in this House have become a bit like buses—the buses in London at least—if you miss one, there is no great concern because another will be along shortly. I think, however, that in today’s debate we are finally reaching a critical point: there is literally no more road to kick the can down.
When I last spoke on Brexit in this House—on 9 January, just before the first meaningful vote—four things were clear to me. First, the Government’s deal would be defeated heavily in the Commons and deserved to be. Particularly with this deal, it is not the end of Brexit; it does not bring closure on Brexit; it would continue for years to come. It is like the film “Groundhog Day”, but without the laughs. Secondly, despite the preparations that have been referred to, we were not adequately prepared for a no-deal Brexit. The risks if it happened were simply too great to be contemplated. Thirdly, the only way out of the parliamentary impasse was to hold a second referendum. Fourthly, extension of Article 50 beyond 29 March was inevitable. Those were my views on 9 January. On the first three, nothing has happened to change them. On the final one, we have, belatedly, an extension, albeit too short.
Like others in this House, I listened carefully to the Prime Minister’s speech this afternoon. Even with the extension, we are in the extraordinary position of potentially being just weeks away from leaving the EU without having an agreed basis on which to leave. This week, we face the possibility, not the certainty, of a third meaningful vote if the Prime Minister thinks she can win it, and then a series of indicative votes by the Commons on the options were she not to succeed. I laud the intention of those promoting a vote on the options, but I have some doubts that it will secure a clear path ahead in the time available. In these exceptional circumstances, I think that the Civil Service has a duty to the Crown and the country as well as to the Government. It must be allowed to give us its full and unvarnished assessment of the impact of leaving on 12 April without a deal. From what I understand, it would not make pretty reading.
The Government were wrong to seek a short extension and the EU has not given us the time necessary to do justice to the debate on the fundamental options that we need. We need a proper pause to the process to allow the country to reflect on its future choices. This means either securing a long extension or, as I would now favour, revoking Article 50, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, in his Motion. Having to hold elections to the European Parliament would be an inconvenient but small price to pay given the scale of the choices that we are now faced with.
Three words have characterised the recent Brexit debate: humiliation, betrayal and patriotism. There is no doubt in my mind—and, indeed, among the vast majority of the British public—that the Brexit process has been an utter humiliation. The EU has been as united and clear-minded as we have been divided and muddled. When and if the dust settles on all this, we will certainly need a full public inquiry to learn the lessons from this most unhappy period.
Those favouring Brexit have spoken long and loud recently about its betrayal—by the establishment, by Parliament and by the Civil Service. If you started out with the belief, as many Brexiteers appeared to do, that Brexit was going to be an easy and painless process, it is just possible to see how you might come to this view. But it was never going to be easy and hard choices were always going to have to be made—choices that have been consistently ducked rather than debated and decided. It is worth remembering that Ministers strongly supporting Brexit held the key positions in the Government during the period. The Brexit process has their name on it. If the Brexiteers want to find out who is responsible for the current state of affairs, they need only look in the mirror.
For the rest of us, we have lost nearly three years: 1,000 days of our lives that we will never get back. In the circumstances, the public are entitled to have the final say on the way out of this mess. That is why I was glad to go on the march on Saturday.
Finally, I will say a word on patriotism. It is just over 75 years since my father’s Avro Lancaster was shot down over Germany. He was just 18 at the time and spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp. He suffered a back injury that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He was, though, one of the lucky ones. Four of his crew, of similar ages, failed to get out of that plane and were burned alive as it came down. After the war, my father came to understand the damage done to German cities by the Bomber Command raids and dedicated a good part of his life to building links with Germany through town twinning. This is the kind of patriotism that I understand—not the blustering nonsense of some of the ERG—Britain and Europe together, national and international.
Europe is becoming a dangerous place with the rise of militant nationalism. Britain can be part of challenging this or it can contribute to it through its actions. When the debate about borders and backstops has gone, the key test of whether we have got this right is whether those four crew members did not give up their lives too early, for no good reason.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. It is also a matter of deep regret that we are here yet again debating the same issue, but we are where we are.
We have heard a lot this evening about democracy. Democracy, however, is not fixed in stone. When people vote, they rely on what they are led to believe at the time by politicians making promises and giving reassurances. Election manifestos are never normally sacrosanct. Indeed, much of past manifestos has never materialised.
We have respected and honoured the result of the referendum. Some suggest that we have not; I find that difficult to comprehend. To quote George Orwell,
“all political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome”.
The facts are that the red lines set in the beginning, dictated by the ERG, were and are impossible. The promises of the leave campaign are undeliverable. One million people marched on Saturday for a chance to vote now—now that they know more about what Brexit means—and 5.5 million people have in a matter of days signed a petition asking to cancel Brexit. Our democracy must be able to adapt to these changes.
The Prime Minister, cajoled by the ERG, refuses to consider that the course that we are pursuing may not be the will of the majority now. How can we possibly know that? How can it be anti-democratic to ask people’s view? If the Prime Minister’s deal is what people want, why not prove it? If 17.4 million people wanted a hard Brexit, let us prove it. I find it difficult to understand how the Government can insist that the British people cannot change their mind after two or three years but Parliament can be asked to change its mind in two or three weeks, as the Prime Minister puts her deal to MPs again and again. It is time to face reality. Government and Parliament have not been able to find a way forward to implement the referendum result, and no deal must not be allowed to happen by default. However, sadly, I struggle to see that this threat has actually gone, notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s welcome words at the Dispatch Box earlier today.
On 12 April the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement and political declaration will most likely not have passed. She will have a choice: she can stick to her sacred duty to deliver Brexit and be consistent with her statements that “no deal is better than a bad deal”; she can ask for a further extension, and thus have to fight EU elections; or she can revoke Article 50. I cannot be confident she will choose the latter course. Parliament may not even be sitting, so what would stop us leaving with no deal?
I cannot share the sentiments of my noble friend Lord Lilley, whose reassurances are of no more comfort to me than those about the easiest trade deal in history we were going to enjoy; about the rolling over of the 40 deals we already have with other countries, ready to go by 28 March—or about the ability to have our cake and eat it. All the reassurances so far given by the Brexiteers have proven false. It is simply not safe to ignore the TUC, the CBI and businesses large and small across the country—or indeed our obligations under the Good Friday agreement—and suggest that leaving without a deal is somehow okay.
We need to find another way forward, and, as my noble friend Lord Bridges of Headley has said, this is not the time for party politics. To quote John F Kennedy:
“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past—let us accept our own responsibility for the future”.
We do not want a Tory or Labour answer. We want a better answer than we have had so far. That, as my noble friend Lord Hailsham and other noble Lords have wisely said, would suggest to us that we need some kind of Government of national unity to see us through this Brexit situation.
The Prime Minister has even said that she has tried to work across the House to find an alternative way forward. That has simply not happened. There have been no free tests of the opinion of the country’s elected representatives. The assertions that other options have been rejected are not right. Whipped votes are not an indication of parliamentary views.
Time is short, but Back-Benchers across Parliament ideally need to work together in the national interest to unscramble the Brexit mess. Indeed, Brexit is rather like trying to get an egg out of an omelette: you may get some egg back, but it will be broken. We must rise to the challenge that the current crisis is causing. I respect the fact that many noble Lords are extremely reticent about the idea of going back to the people—I am myself—but this started with the people. Maybe we need to let it end with the people.
My Lords, I agree with everything the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, has said.
While I sympathise with the Prime Minister, like others I was angry at her broadcast from Downing Street on Thursday evening. From the outset she has faced Parliament with a choice between two irreconcilable courses: freedom to make our own trade deals and set our own tariffs on the one hand, and the absence of border controls between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic on the other. At the end of his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, dismissed this problem by saying it would have to be solved and would be. But it has not been solved; hence the need for the backstop, which has been the principal obstacle in the way of the House of Commons agreeing the departure agreement.
Your Lordships’ House has now offered the other place a way of resolving that dilemma through our amendment to the Trade Bill calling for a customs union in a free trade agreement with the European Union. I will not rehearse here the advantages of that course, but I hope that there may be an indicative vote pointing in that direction in the House of Commons this week. In any case, it is a matter for the negotiations on our future relationship. The issue for today is how we escape from the impasse the country is in.
The European Union has now given us a clear choice. One option is for the other place to accept the departure deal, and we are told it must be agreed this week. In that case, the way ahead is straightforward. We have until 22 May to pass the necessary legislation to bring the deal into force. But the Prime Minister has said that she is not in a position to put the deal to the other place this week with any hope of success. She clearly hopes that that position might change, but given the shortage of time ahead of us that prospect must be remote. The alternative, if we are not to leave without a deal on 12 April, is to ask for more time. We could revoke Article 50. That is in our power. However, like the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, I think that unlikely and also wrong in the absence of a further decision by the people.
If the departure agreement is not passed and the UK is granted more time, possibly at the cost of running candidates in the EU parliamentary elections, what would that extra time be for? The EU has ruled out renegotiation of the legal aspects of the departure agreement, and I believe it. It is willing to change the political declaration but will not get down to negotiating the new relationship until the departure agreement is in force. A further delay could not be used for renegotiating the legal aspects of the departure agreement or for starting the negotiations on the new relationship. It could be used for more attempts to win Parliament round to the departure deal, but if that is to be achieved it would be better to do it now than to prolong the uncertainty.
Another purpose for a longer delay would be a further referendum. I have argued the case many times in this House that democracy, properly understood, would give the people the final say on the terms of our departure from the European Union. I do not resile from those arguments today, when that outcome may just possibly be coming into sight.
I have come to think, like others, that the least worst course is for the House of Commons to pass the Prime Minister’s deal this week, for Parliament to pass the necessary legislation by 22 May and for the Government to turn their attention to negotiating the future relationship with the EU under a leadership with fewer red lines than the present one. So, to my surprise, I found myself in a position similar to that of the noble Lords, Lord Lilley and Lord Howard of Lympne—although I reached that conclusion by a very different route.
However, if that is not to be achieved and a longer period is to be obtained, I agree that it should be used for the purposes so eloquently described by my noble friend Lord Kerr, the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. We should recognise, however, that the outcome of further discussions between the parties can be validated only by a further vote of the people—and it must be clear that if that is the course on which we are to embark, that will be the outcome.
My Lords, it is always somewhat daunting to follow a Cabinet Secretary in this House. May I begin by reminding noble Lords of my interests as chairman of the voluntary pension fund of the European Parliament and a number of other jobs in Brussels? The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, has disappeared, but I assure him that I do not subscribe to the calamity and catastrophe scenario. I think that we should stay in the European Union because it is the right thing to do. If we left we would, of course, survive. We are the seventh biggest—or eighth biggest, depending on how you count—economy in the world. There would certainly be difficulties, but they could certainly be overcome. The argument for Europe is not an argument about whether we can get bananas through ports; it is an argument about what is the right place for Britain in the European world.
The right place for Britain is at the heart of Europe, and in the European Union—something, incidentally, that we have never been. I have lived through 25 years in the European Parliament and a subsequent 15 years doing jobs in Brussels. This is my 40th year in Brussels in one capacity or another, and I have never known a full-hearted endorsement of the European Union, save by two people. One was Edward Heath and the second was John Smith. They were the only two party leaders whom I met who were really committed to building the sort of Europe that I want to see. Sadly, John Smith never got the opportunity to do it. I think he would have turned into one of our great Prime Ministers—but let me move on.
I am appalled by the people on the Brexit side who talk about us renouncing our bills. These are debts that we incurred sitting around a table and voting for them. We incurred them by sending some of our brightest and best civil servants to international organisations. Are we seriously suggesting that we are going to say to the British staff in the UN, the WHO, NATO and all the other international institutions that a British Government can turn round and abandon them? Is the Government going to renege on all the promises they made and leave them without a pension? Is this the modern face of Conservatism?
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, is not here to hear that, because he needs to hear it. I read in Hansard that Dominic Grieve said:
“I have never felt more ashamed to be a Member of the Conservative party”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/3/19; col. 1123.]
When I hear the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, I feel that way. This is not the party I joined. The party I joined is one that behaves honourably—as, in fairness, does the Labour Party. The Labour Party also behaves honourably: we honour the commitments that we make.
The European Council has not changed its position very much. Its statement says that it,
“agrees to an extension until 22 May 2019, provided the Withdrawal Agreement is approved by the House of Commons next week”—
in other words, by departure day, 29 March. The Council says that, as long as we approve the agreement by the date we set to leave, it will give us an extension—which it has little option but to do—to tidy up the legislative framework. Otherwise, if that does not happen, the European Council,
“expects the United Kingdom to indicate a way forward before”,
Not voting on the deal is not going to end the matter. The European Council expects us to indicate a way forward. It does not say, “The House of Commons can have indicative votes and people can say that they do not really count”. We—our Government—have to come to a conclusion and put it forward to Brussels. I suggest to this House that the only logical proposal would be an indefinite extension of Article 50. I do not think that there is a mood to revoke it, but it is no good extending it for a matter of weeks; Europe is about to go into its five-yearly cycle of reconstitution.
There will be no European Parliament after 15 April, until 2 July. Immediately after the European elections in May, the European Council will select a new president to replace Donald Tusk—or perhaps his term will be extended. There will be a new foreign affairs supremo to replace Federica Mogherini—or perhaps she will continue in office. Then every country will be asked to put forward a candidate for commissionership, and all through the autumn the European Parliament will hold hearings on the candidates, asking them what their policies are—probably confirming most of them but, as it likes to do, rejecting a couple of them, because it will want to demonstrate that it has the power to do that.
So do not imagine that we in the United Kingdom can come up with a plan and people will then say, “Oh, that’s good, we’ll drop everything and do that”. Nothing worthwhile will happen in the European Union between roughly 12 April and 31 December. The new Commission will take office on 1 January, so there will be a long interregnum. I suggest that the only way of dealing with that is to have a long extension of Article 50—and the only long extension worth having is, as some of my European colleagues in Brussels have suggested, an indefinite extension, which would take all the pressure off the different dates.
We in the United Kingdom have been very self-indulgent. Our European colleagues are fed up to the back teeth with the Brits. At the last Council meeting, Mrs May did not, shall we say, distinguish herself. There was a feeling at the end of it that people still did not know what exactly Britain wanted. That is why they have offered this little package, which adds up to virtually nothing. So we need a period of reflection, and we probably need a good period to work out exactly what we want. At the end of that period, Article 50 may well be revoked. Many people would like it to be—although, incidentally, some people in Europe would not.
Do not think that the French Government are necessarily unhappy at the prospect of being the only one of the P5 in New York. Do not think that the French diplomatic service is necessarily unhappy at the thought of being able to lead political co-operation, as it did before we joined. There is not unalloyed joy at the idea of keeping Britain in. But our traditional friends—in Scandinavia and the rest of northern Europe, the Dutch and the Danes—badly want us to stay, because we provide a balance. This is all too often forgotten.
Decisions in Europe are made by qualified majority voting, and if Britain and the northern European countries take a position, we can normally form a blocking minority. If we are absent, that can be done only with the assistance of Germany. A German Cabinet Minister once said to me: “When you object to something, you are just a nuisance. When we object to something, our Chancellor’s picture is on the front of every paper with a moustache drawn on her face—so we need Britain there because you are the common-sense country that helps to drive this project forward and keep it on an even and sensible keel”.
For all those reasons, I hope that the other place will come to the conclusion that it wishes an indefinite extension to Article 50. I think that is probably the most sensible option for this country and the best way forward, and I commend it to the House.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the persuasive speech of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who of course was a very experienced Member of the European Parliament.
We need to hold our hands up after almost three years and say that we are not ready to leave the EU at the moment, and will not be ready to leave in April or May either. The negotiations have been a shambles and a national humiliation, as many noble Lords have said today.
I said back in December that we needed time as a Parliament and a country to sort ourselves out, to extend or revoke Article 50 and to scrap the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration in their entirety. As the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said, the EU says that it will not renegotiate the deal. Fair enough—let us look at an entirely different model.
I have been one of the millions of people who have signed the parliamentary petition calling for the revocation of Article 50. We need the time that that will buy us to look at Brexit again and, as a country, work out what we seek before starting negotiations, rather than the other way around.
The May premiership is in its death throes. Colleagues say that she is now irrational and unstable. She should, in my view, resign.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow what the noble Lord said about Article 50. He and many others have used the word “humiliation”, and I think there is a lot of truth in that. I think we are seen around the continent as a country that has lost its way in a bizarre fashion: a once great nation now caught up in an endless psychodrama. I have sensed that the mood in Europe has hardened against Britain over the past few weeks and months. For much of the negotiation that the Prime Minister conducted, they were prepared to give us the benefit of the doubt. It would be like any other European negotiation: it would be tough, there would be moments of drama but in the end there would be a deal. The Prime Minister would go back and get agreement for it in her Parliament and it would be done.
As the meaningful votes have come one by one and she failed to get agreement, I think the mood has darkened. I think it changed first to incomprehension and now to exasperation—and even to humour. Noble Lords may have seen that the French Europe Minister, Mme Nathalie Loiseau, said that she had renamed her cat Brexit because every time she got up in the morning, the cat mewed furiously to leave the house, but when she opened the front door, it did not want to go out. It then transpired that she may not have a cat at all, but the point is right.
Of course, this is not a laughing matter. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, is not here, but I shall trample on his place to say that an argument can be made that last week was perhaps the greatest international humiliation for a British Prime Minister since the Suez crisis. Then, noble Lords know well, the Americans put their foot down and declared that we would stop our invasion of Egypt, running a UN Security Council resolution against us and threatening to pull the plug on sterling.
That was a brutal end to British pretensions to great power status but a salutary lesson, which put British foreign policy on to a different basis for the future. Perhaps there will be something salutary about last week, but you have to look quite carefully to find it. We saw the Prime Minister open proceedings with a petulant letter as if, somehow, the Europeans were to blame for the decision she had had to take to delay the date of 29 March. She then went to Brussels, failing entirely to convince her colleagues that she could win a third vote or that she had any kind of plan for what to do if she lost it.
I think that at that point, her colleagues thought: we have to take this over and find a way that the British are unable to find themselves. When can a British Prime Minister have cut such a lamentable figure at an international meeting?
If I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, there was more to their deal than he suggests. It was a very clever way to do two things: first, to open up some space in British politics for new thinking to begin to take hold; secondly, to avoid the blame for their having pushed Britain out on 29 March or not allowing it to come up with other options. They avoided the sense that they were dictating to Britain by encouraging us to come up with our own options and have created space.
The contrast between a divided British Government, unable to get beyond the next vote in the House of Commons and a group of very busy and distracted European leaders finding the time to roll up their shirtsleeves and come up with an astute political move to change the dynamics in British politics was remarkable. That is what may be salutary from this. Let us hope that it may be a source of inspiration. We must be under no illusion that this is our last chance to avoid an acrimonious breakdown in our relations with our nearest neighbours, who also happen to be the largest economic bloc in the world and vital partners in our security.
Many noble Lords have drawn attention to the Prime Minister’s words in the other House this afternoon:
“Unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen”.
That is very encouraging. Is it really true that there is now zero risk of a crash-out under any circumstances? What if the House of Commons spends the next two weeks in more factional manoeuvring, votes down the Prime Minister’s Bill again and fails to find a majority for anything else? Are we then not still confronted with the cliff edge on 12 April rather than 29 March? If so, there will certainly be no extra time available from the EU. There will be no managed no-deal: the EU will look after its interests and have scant sympathy for the catastrophe that will overtake Britain—not just Britain as a country but the hundreds of thousands of British citizens who have made their life choices to live in the European Union and are still desperately anxious about what the future holds.
I really hope that that will be avoided, for the reasons that most noble Lords have referred to in this debate, and I think that there are signs that the alchemy that the EU began to work at the European summit is having its effect. It is obviously very welcome that MPs will now be holding indicative votes in the other place.
As the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, said, it is pretty extraordinary that within a few days of the point where, up to now, we had been due to leave the European Union, finally, MPs turn their attention for the first time to trying to work out where there may be a majority beyond the Prime Minister’s deal. These are votes that should have happened before Article 50 was ever triggered. I hope that they will come up with a new way forward that will meet what is a very modest test set for us by the European Union,
“to indicate a way forward … for consideration by the European Council”.
I think it means by that not just a process but, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, some sense of direction as to where we want to go, where we might be coming down on the fundamental choice referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, of what future relationship we want with the EU.
I think it may have also expected that that would trigger off a rather wider cross-party consultation than the event at Chequers yesterday. Perhaps that wider cross-party view will begin to emerge if the Letwin amendment passes in the other place this evening.
In any case, I agree with others who have said that we are in such a mess that, rather than trying to ram through the Prime Minister’s unloved deal by just a few votes in a country that is deeply divided, we should have a pause and a rethink. I cannot prove it, but I think something shifted last week. The 1 million people march and the five and a half million people who signed the petition in just the law few days calling for a revocation of Article 50 suggests that something is shifting. Therefore, it is essential to test public opinion again.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is right when he says that we will not resolve this in the next two weeks. These are fundamental issues about our future relationship with the EU, which we have not got near to settling in the last two years; but, it is right that we should embark on that journey and that, when there is a way forward, it should be put to the people in another referendum. I hope the way forward will involve revoking Article 50 to give us time to think this through again. I am persuaded that the very best course for the UK is to stay in the EU, and that there is no other relationship that will bring us anything like the same benefits. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said that he does not think the country is in any mood to revoke Article 50. I think the petition gives a different impression of where the country may be moving. In any case, it is an entirely legitimate, democratic way of proceeding now that everyone in Britain has discovered something of the true costs of separating ourselves from the EU. If the House of Commons prefers a different sort of Brexit based on maintaining the customs union, or the single market, or both, then that too is sufficiently different to require putting it back to the country in a referendum.
I do not believe the EU would be willing to give us an indefinite extension of Article 50, because that just continues the uncertainty for much longer. All other EU countries have issues of their own. If you open a French newspaper, “Crise” is the headline, but it is not referring to Brexit; it is the affront to French sovereignty from the violence around the gilets jaunes demonstrations. Every other European country has its issue.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake: the EU is more than an economic group: it is a community of values, and it is the group of countries with which we share our deepest and most important relationships. I favour revoking Article 50.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to listen to the noble Lord who just spoke, not least because he gave us an insight into Europe, which I do not possess. For nearly 25 years of my life I sat in a marginal seat, and managed to win it for most of those 25 years. When you sit in a marginal seat, you have to listen to the public and to the floating vote, not just the hard core of your constituents.
I want particularly to thank the two Front-Benchers: the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter—she has disappeared, but I gather she will be back in a matter of minutes—and the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, who is temporarily absent. It is not just they who have borne the burden; the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition have, too. They were in from day one after the extraordinary referendum result—seats in the north and the south of England voted to leave the EU—so they have had an important role in communicating what your Lordships’ House feels to their Members of Parliament in the other place. They have been given quite a burden, and I thank them for bearing it.
After the referendum, we had the general election. In that election, both parties’ manifestos were quite clear: the referendum result should be implemented. The issue before us this evening is the Prime Minister’s deal, not what is in the political declaration—we know there is some flexibility there—so any talk about a Canada deal or a Norway deal is pretty irrelevant this evening. It does not matter that I voted to remain. That is totally irrelevant. It is irrelevant to every Conservative Member of Parliament, every Labour Member of Parliament, and all the other Members of Parliament in the other place. It is no good people who were elected to represent the people then deciding to abstain. Not a single Member of Parliament will get much thanks from their constituents for abstaining—they are sent there to make a decision one way or another. It is no good a couple of Members of Parliament, in particular, Mr Letwin and Ms Cooper, trying to take the high ground from the Government of the day—what arrogance. I do not think that is acceptable.
I remind myself that all the MPs in the two big parties signed up to the referendum and their manifestos. Maybe the EU is very difficult to work with. My noble friend who spoke earlier is right to point out that we have never really been totally committed to it, other than during the period of just two Prime Ministers. Maybe Mrs May’s agreement on offer is not perfect—I do not think any of us believes it is perfect—but it is all that is on offer today. It is there, it is available and—this is the key point—it creates Brexit. We go back to that referendum and what the people of this country wanted.
I spent this morning in Northampton, where it happened to be press day for photographs of the cricket first 11. They will succeed only if they work as a team. For me, the most important part of this morning’s visit, apart from encouraging the troops, was to listen to our sponsors, large and small. I will now tell your Lordships what three of them said to me, while almost pinning me against the wall: “Michael, speak up for us, please. We need a decision—a deal or no deal. No more indecision. No more putting it off for another day”. I interpret that as no more kicking the can down the road, and no extension of Article 50. “But”, they said, and to me this is the key point, “Unless we get a decision, there will be no further investment”. I come from industry and commerce, and I know that this is absolutely crucial to the future of our country.
I finish on a quote, deliberately from a Labour Prime Minister. A number of my colleagues in the House will know I have a deep interest and involvement with the Indian subcontinent. Over the weekend, I looked up what Clement Attlee said at a difficult time, to create independence for India. A good number of MPs said that it could not be done then, because it was all too difficult and would cause absolute chaos; they said they would not support him. And he said, in winding up his long speech:
“The British Commonwealth of Nations survives today, and has survived through the strain of two great wars, precisely because it is not static, but is constantly developing, and because it has throughout the years steadily changed … My hope is that we may forget past differences and remember only how often and in how many fields of human endeavour Britons … have worked together in harmony.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/7/1947; col. 2462.]
It was a great speech. Churchill was ill at the time, so Macmillan had to respond. He agreed with what Clement had said.
There is a lesson here for all of us. We are not really leaving Europe and our millions of friends there—my second name is Wolfgang, and I feel I am part of the EU. We are Europeans in that sense and will remain so, but we are also an energetic and creative nation, particularly in trade, commerce and industry. We want some freedom to develop that.
I ask every Conservative Member now to support the May agreement—perhaps some will have to bite their tongue. I suggest to those on the Front Bench opposite that every Labour MP should think hard about their constituencies and the people they represent. They should bite their tongues as well. We must remember that, during Harold Wilson’s referendum—while I sat in that marginal seat with a majority of 179—I stood shoulder to shoulder with my next door neighbour, a Labour Member of Parliament, because we both believed in the future of our country. We put that ahead of anything else.
I return to those on both Front Benches—and I am delighted to see the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, now in her place. I suggest they need to liaise and work more closely together than it appears has been happening on the surface. After tonight’s debate, I hope that those on both Front Benches will communicate to those in the other place and their followers that, although it is not a perfect withdrawal agreement, it opens the crucial gate of Brexit. If we achieve that and allow it to happen, confidence, that very tender plant, will return to our people, our commerce and our industry.
My Lords, in February 2003, the march in London was the biggest in history, with 2 million people trying to stop the Iraq war. The Government did not listen and Prime Minister Tony Blair did not listen; what a disastrous decision that was. On Saturday 23 March, I was proud to be among the 1 million people who marched—more than the 700,000 who marched a few months ago. It was peaceful, with families and people of all ages taking part, from all around the country.
The placards were terrific: “Even Arsenal are still in Europe”; “Less Farage, more fromage”; and, “I’m incandescent with rage—but I’m British, so I’m just holding up a sign”. In Parliament Square, we had speeches about the people’s vote. Tom Watson, Labour deputy leader, said we should, “Let the people vote”; and Anna Soubry said,
“put your country first, get into the lobbies and vote for a people’s vote”.
Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, said:
“It’s time to give us, the British people, a final say on Brexit”.
Michael Heseltine lambasted Mrs May for blaming Parliament for what has happened with Brexit. He invoked Winston Churchill, saying:
“I was appalled by Theresa May’s speech on Wednesday evening. It will rank among the biggest affronts on parliamentary democracy in our history”.
Calypso Latham, a 19 year-old science student, said:
“I was too young to vote in the last referendum. It’s going to affect my career with research grants so I definitely wanted to come and protest”.
Aurore Mead, aged 14, said:
“I really wanted to come because it’s a big part of my future and my life”.
In another part of the country, on Saturday morning, Nigel Farage rejoined the march to leave near Nottingham, and there were 200 people present.
Side by side in all this, we have had two petitions. Noble Lords have spoken about one of them: to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU. At the last count, it had more than 5.5 million signatures and counting; 96% of the signatories are from the UK. But there is also another petition: leave the EU without a deal in March 2019. Guess how many have signed that? Just 550,000 people. Where is 5.5 million and where is 550,000? Will the Government listen? No.
The Prime Minister’s Statement today stated,
“it is with great regret that I have had to conclude that as things stand, there is still not sufficient support in the House to bring back the deal for a third meaningful vote”.
Then she said:
“If we cannot, the Government made a commitment that we would work across the House to find a majority on a way forward”.
That all sounds good. Then she said that,
“the Member for West Dorset seeks to provide for this process by taking control of the Order Paper … an unwelcome precedent to set, which would overturn the balance between our democratic institutions”.
So the Government will oppose that amendment this evening. On the one hand they are saying they will work with the House and on the other saying they will oppose it. Then she said:
“So I cannot commit the Government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this House”.
Then she stated that:
“The default outcome continues to be to leave with no deal. But this House has previously expressed its opposition to that path, and may very well do so again this week”.
She finally said that:
“The alternative is to pursue a different form of Brexit or a second referendum”.
I cannot go on without quoting Boris Johnson in his article today. He said that Mrs May and the Government had “chickened out” of delivering Brexit. I do not know which world he lives in. He lives in a utopian world where he says you should drop the deal, go back to Brussels and set out the terms—just like that. What have the Government been trying to do for two years? He said:
“Extend the implementation period … if necessary; use it to negotiate a free trade deal; pay the fee; but come out of the EU now—without the backstop. It is time for the PM to channel the spirit of Moses in Exodus, and say to Pharoah in Brussels—let my people go”.
What a load of nonsense.
At the crux of all this is not just a constitutional crisis. We are not just watching a train crash in slow motion. It is not just business, with the CBI and the TUC coming together, terrified of a no-deal Brexit. It is not just the collapse of collective Cabinet responsibility. Just yesterday Minister Mark Field said that he would vote to revoke Article 50 and Chancellor Philip Hammond said that a second Brexit referendum deserved to be considered. That is not just a Cabinet divided or a Conservative Party divided but the Labour Party is divided and Parliament is divided. Families are divided. The UK is divided.
Yet what is really at stake is the democracy of this country. We are told repeatedly that 17.4 million people voted to leave. But they voted to leave by a very narrow 52:48 victory. People forget that in the first nationwide referendum in 1975 on whether to stay in the European Community, the result was—wait for it—17.4 million people voted to remain. The difference was that that 17.4 million was not a narrow victory but a two-thirds majority—not 52:48. At the time of the referendum exactly three years ago, 75% of the people in the other place and over 75% of this House thought that the best thing for the UK was to remain in the European Union, yet now we are being held to ransom by this democratic vote in the referendum three years ago.
At that time, the EU was not an issue. It was not something that people knew much about. I knew a fraction of what I know now. At the top of people’s minds were health, taxes, education and crime, and now, three years later, we know how complicated leaving is. We know the benefits of being in the largest trading bloc in the world. We know how difficult it is to replicate the EU’s 50-plus free trade agreements. We have only six ready to roll over. We know that it has taken two years to negotiate three things—£39 billion, in the context of a £2 trillion economy? I would pay the £8 billion a year that we pay to the EU just for the peace that it has helped bring to Europe.
What about people’s rights, our rights and EU citizens’ rights over here? We cannot use people as bargaining chips. That is a given. Then there is the backstop protecting the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland border. That was hardly mentioned during the referendum. Now we are told, “These three things have been agreed, it has taken two years, now capitulate and agree to go forward out of the European Union and into a transition period”. But then we will have left the European Union. The backstop will continue. We will still be subject to ECJ rules and we are going into a blindfold Brexit. We still have to negotiate trade, security, a frictionless border, nuclear and so forth, and we know now that in every analysis it is far better for businesses, the economy and citizens, on balance—the EU is not perfect—to remain. Why in the name of democracy are we all being forced to honour the will of the people—the instruction of the people three years ago? It is out of date. It is irrelevant.
The electorate have changed. There are now 2.4 million more youths of voting age who were not old enough to vote three years ago, and 80% want to remain, including two of my children, one who turned 18 in October 2016 and another who turned 18 last week on 21 March. There are 2 million more people of voting age now who can vote. Sadly, on the other side, with a death rate of 600,000, there are probably more than 1 million people who voted to leave who are no longer with us. That means 3 million more. The victory was 17.4 million versus 16.1 million and the youth did not turn out three years ago. They regret it and now they will turn out in force.
Where, then, is the gumption of our MPs? Where has our representative democracy gone? Where are the MPs who are not meant to be delegates? They are not meant to be lemmings. They are meant to vote with their conscience, to do the right thing for what, in their opinion, is in the best interests of Britain and their constituency—not for what is in the best interests of their party, which, sadly, is what the Conservative Party is doing.
The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, spoke about dynamic democracy. When people change their minds, when the facts change, and when people are far more informed, Parliament should do the right thing. The Prime Minister keeps ruling out another Brexit referendum, saying that it would deepen divisions and undermine support for democracy. Brexit supporters say that a second referendum would trigger a major constitutional crisis. What have we got, if not a divided country and a constitutional crisis, right now? Stephen Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, said that if we have indicative votes, which are now being voted on, that could bring about a constitutional collision and increase the risk of a general election.
The polls show that the people have changed their minds: there is an 8%-10% lead for remain. The Prime Minister can go back to Parliament and say, “Please change your mind”—she wants to go back a third time and say, “Change your mind”—and yet the people do not get even one chance to change their mind. That is wrong. If we impose any of this Brexit on people and the people have not had a say, if it is a bad Brexit, for generations from now people will not thank this Parliament. When Parliament and the Government fail, the only sensible thing seems to be to go to the people. We are damaging our constitution. We are damaging our relationship with our biggest trading partner, which makes up two-thirds of our trade. We are damaging our economy. Parliament must now vote for a long extension to Article 50, to which Europe will agree. Then we must put it back to the people, and they must decide whether they want to leave or to remain. That is, today’s people; not yesterday’s people, not an out-of-date electorate.
To conclude, it saddens me that the whole world is looking at this great country with disbelief, saying, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this to yourselves? You don’t have to do this!”. Let us put the “great” back in Great Britain and the “united” back in the United Kingdom, by giving the great British public the final say.
My Lords, I may be alone but I always feel that there is an air of unreality about this present situation—especially given that we in this House are spectators, watching a potential disaster unfold before our eyes. Apart from a few Brexiteer zealots who still believe their own propaganda, we all know that we are participating in a process that will lead to the United Kingdom being politically and economically worse off, as well as in terms of world influence. Sadly, there have been few references to the need for European unity and the part that we could and should play in that. It is even more extraordinary that a Government whose primary task must be to safeguard the nation in the widest possible sense are acting as they are.
However, we are in extraordinary times, and we need extraordinary measures. I hope that, somehow, we will find the political leadership that will honestly address the nation and tell it the problems that we face. Yes, you voted to leave the European Union. Yes, we have done our best to negotiate that in a way that leaves you as well off—or, as the leavers would have you believe, better off—as you were as members of the European Union. But that has not proved possible. There are two reasons for this. First and foremost, there is not a better deal than membership of the European Union. Secondly, in an attempt to meet your wishes, we trapped ourselves in a set of red lines, which rendered our aspirations, which are now set out in the political declaration, impossible to achieve, as those aspirations are largely incompatible with the red lines.
An honest assessment would tell the people that revocation of Article 50 or, at the very least, a long delay, is necessary while we belatedly decide what we want from our relationship with our closest and most important partners. Sadly, I feel that I shall wish on, because there is no evidence of any political leadership prepared to take such steps. The May deal does at least give us a transition period but, if the Government throw away that time in the same way as they have thrown away the time since the referendum, we will be in no better state to decide what we want in December 2020 than we are in March 2019. Such incompetence cannot go on.
Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box in this House and told us that we cannot be kept informed of progress in the negotiations for fear of prejudicing those negotiations. However, this time and for the future, we must decide what we want before we go into those negotiations. This dysfunctional Cabinet and Government have no idea of where we are seeking to end up. Whether it is the May deal, another deal or no deal, we shall still have to have a close relationship with the European Union. What that is has to be established as a matter of urgency, and it will take leadership and not constant capitulation to the ultra-Brexiteer party within the Conservative Party. Until this is resolved, we are only delaying the ultimate disaster to a later date. It cannot go on, and I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that to the House at the conclusion of this debate.
On a previous occasion I asked the Minister a question which he did not answer. If this deal does not go through, what is plan B? I hope that this time it is plain enough to him that the House and the people need to know.
My Lords, I agree with every word that the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, has just said, and my speech continues from where he left off. It seems to me that plan B is to revoke Article 50 and to put this nightmare behind us, because there is no other credible way to resolve this crisis on terms that are acceptable to the country.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said that his mentor was Lord Carrington, whom I also held in very high esteem. However, my mentor, and indeed friend, was Roy Jenkins, who always said that in politics the key to success was constantly to argue to solutions, not to conclusions—to get on with it. We now seriously need to get on with it because after two and a half years of this fiasco the country is not prepared to wait much longer. However, whatever we do must be towards a solution, and that solution must actually work rather than being a form of words or a ruse that simply kicks the can down the road.
Although the Prime Minister has exhibited a combination of incompetence and intransigence unmatched in recent times—one can debate whether it goes back to Anthony Eden, Lord North or Charles I, but among our rulers it is almost unmatched—she makes a good point when she says that the only way of stopping no deal, which people do not want and the House of Commons has now voted against twice with big majorities, is to have either a deal or no Brexit. That is correct. She keeps stating it because she thinks that if she forces the House of Commons to vote again and again, ultimately it will vote for her deal. However, there is no sign of that at all, and indeed she is the standing refutation of it, because today, in the extremity of our situation, she could not even come to the House of Commons to propose a third meaningful vote. I say “meaningful”, but the Prime Minister treats the votes as meaningless and hopes that ultimately she will win one and it will become meaningful.
Anyone who was in the Gallery of the House of Commons, as I was earlier, knows that there is no chance whatever of the House of Commons agreeing her deal at a third vote. You just needed to listen to the parliamentary leader of the DUP and a whole group of representatives of the ERG—which I have come to dub the “Economic Ruin Group”—to know that there is no prospect of her deal going through on a third vote, and we are right up against the wire. The House of Commons has, by decisive majorities, twice voted against no deal. Therefore, either there has to be some new deal or there has to be no Brexit. Those are the only options and, if we are to argue to a solution, those are the only potential solutions.
We have heard the mantra from many noble Lords on the other side of the House today that it is unconscionable that we should have no Brexit, but I do not think it is unconscionable at all. Parliament is here to exert its wisdom. As we are a democracy, it would of course then need to submit its judgment to the judgment of the people. That would happen either in a general election or—more likely in the circumstances in which we find ourselves—a referendum. It looks to me, in arguing to solutions, that we will end up with revocation followed by referendum, or a referendum followed by revocation. Those are the only credible solutions. If we get the long extension that may be necessary, we could spend many months getting to that conclusion, but it has been clear for a year that the basic Brexit proposition is imploding. We are a democracy, so there has to be a democratic role beyond simply a parliamentary vote in this process. That is where I believe we will get to.
The problem with the Prime Minister’s deal—the reason that it has gone down twice and will go down a third time—is that it does not remotely deliver the objective that was set out at the beginning: a deep and meaningful partnership with the European Union while leaving it. That was the constant mantra and objective that we heard from the Government Front Bench day after day. It does not remotely do this. It is not even a partnership that lasts beyond 21 months; there is no deal beyond then.
When the Prime Minister made the speech in Lancaster House that set the whole process off, she said:
“We will provide certainty … it is in no one’s interest for there to be a cliff-edge for business or a threat to stability”.
These were the key words on which this whole process was launched and she invoked Article 50:
“Instead I want us to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article 50 process has concluded”.
That was the basis on which this whole process started, whereas where we are now is with a withdrawal agreement that simply gets us legally out of the European Union—ostensibly this Friday, but that will be delayed—with no long-term agreement whatever. Indeed, the reason that we need the backstop and all these much-touted alternative arrangements is precisely that we do not have agreement about a future partnership by the time the two-year Article 50 process has concluded.
That is why, in an unprecedented statement, the TUC and the CBI joined forces last week and said:
“Our country is facing a national emergency. Decisions of recent days have caused the risk of no deal to soar … we ask you”—
I remind noble Lords that it is the TUC and the CBI saying this to us,
“to take three steps to protect the jobs, rights and livelihoods of ordinary working people. First, avoiding no deal is paramount … Second, securing an extension has become essential … Third, ‘the current deal or no deal’ must not be the only choice”.
This is the situation we face now.
The reason that it will not be possible to get a majority in the House of Commons for this deal or anything remotely close to it, is that it does not even begin to safeguard the long-term economic or security future of the country. The political declaration is one load of waffle. It is what the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, described when he resigned as a “gangplank into thin air”. It is still a gangplank into thin air. We are being asked to leave all the benefits of the European Union for a mess of pottage. Walter Bagehot once said:
“The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it”.
That was deeply unfair; it is a wonderful assembly, and the closer you look at it the more impressive it becomes. But the cure for admiring the political declaration and the withdrawal agreement is indeed to read them.
The political declaration is one of the most threadbare documents ever presented to Parliament on a major policy issue. On these huge issues affecting the whole future of the country, it says, at paragraph 22 that,
“the Parties envisage comprehensive arrangements that will create a free trade area”—
I repeat, “envisage”, with no provisions made whatever. Paragraph 25 says:
“In this context, the United Kingdom will consider aligning”,
with the European Union, “in relevant areas”. “Consider” and “relevant” are totally undefined and there are no follow-up provisions. Paragraph 55 says that,
“the Parties will explore the possibility to facilitate the crossing of their respective borders for legitimate travel”.
That is an astonishing statement. We are just about to leave the European Union on the basis of exploring whether we will agree with the European Union the facilitation of the crossing of our borders for legitimate travel. If we had not become inured to this Brexit catastrophe, anyone reading these documents would think we had taken leave of our senses.
I like paragraph 107 best of all. It says:
“The Parties should consider appropriate arrangements for cooperation on space”.
Where that will lead the negotiations over the few weeks before the Prime Minister brings back the next iteration of her political declaration, I do not know. Who honestly believes that that will lead to a solution?
There will now almost inevitably be a long extension of the Article 50 process. It is vital that we do not exchange the pursuit of one unicorn for the pursuit of another. The idea which is in danger of gaining ground is that the reason why this deal did not work was that the Prime Minister was a singularly inept negotiator and her red lines were singularly intransigent. Well, she was an inept negotiator and her red lines were intransigent but, in my view, there is no other deal that will maintain a deep and special partnership with the European Union that could conceivably be negotiated. The quest for it will simply set us off on another two or two-and-a-half-year search for the Holy Grail that will almost certainly end in further catastrophe, and, of course, completely preoccupy Parliament, the Government, the Civil Service and our national life while it goes on, while we pay virtually no attention to any other public policy issues of great concern to the country.
The loss of trust and faith in politics if we engage in that process will be profound. It might simply lead to Brexit fizzling out without any further democratic process, because of ultimate exhaustion. However, rather than doing that, it would be much better to use the opportunity of the extension to resolve this issue by revoking and having a referendum, or having a referendum and then revoking, rather than searching for the Holy Grail.
I do not want to detain the House longer, so I will simply stress that what is now loosely referred to as “Norway”, and which may be part of the indicative votes in the House of Commons, is something that will disintegrate in the hands of those who seek to negotiate it, as soon as they try to unpack it and turn it into a proposition. There is no common understanding at all of what is in this box marked “Norway” and there is profound misunderstanding about what it contains. In particular, it does not contain a customs union, so it will not be a solution to the problems of Northern Ireland. The things it does contain are things that there will not ultimately be a majority for in the House of Commons, if there is a desire for Brexit at all. It contains no change whatever in freedom of movement and those rules. You just need to read the speeches and comments made by the Norwegian Prime Minister and those who actually know what goes on in Norway to see why it will not be viable.
My strong plea to Members of the House of Commons, who will take these key decisions in coming weeks, is to not exchange one unicorn for another. As the Norwegian Prime Minister put it:
“We do agree with the EU that you cannot be cherry-picking … Norway is outside [the EU], but we are inside the single market ... We do accept that decisions on the four freedoms are done in Brussels”.
The Norwegian MP Heidi Nordby Lunde warned us that,
“the Norwegian option is not an option … The three countries in Efta have to agree on all the regulations coming from the EU, so if one country vetoes something we all have to veto, which means that if the UK enters the Efta platform and starts to veto regulations that we want, this will affect not just the UK but also us as well”.
She went on to warn:
“If, as I understand, UK politicians do not want to be ruled by regulations coming from other countries, why would they accept a country with 38,000 citizens like Liechtenstein being able to veto regulations that the UK wants. That would be the reality”.
As soon as you get into the Norwegian option, you realise that it will crumble in your hands. The right thing is not to proceed in pursuit of unicorns, but instead call a halt to the whole grisly process that we have been going through, and to do it democratically by revoking and then holding a referendum.
When the Prime Minister asked the House of Commons to invoke Article 50, she said:
“At moments such as these—great turning points in our national story—the choices that we make define the character of our nation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/3/17; col. 251.]
The choices we make on behalf of the people in the coming weeks will define the character of our nation. I want it to be defined by putting the people and the national interest first, not pursuing unicorns, and respecting the right of the British people to have good government that looks after their long-term interests.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, always enlivens our debates. I am challenged, and I hope I am not chasing unicorns at this moment. I will proceed as I was, but he has really made me think again.
We are finally close to the brink, and this is a good moment to pause. The cliff edge is in sight, and I am reminded of the old Hoffnung bricklayer’s story, in which our hero meets the barrel of bricks going up and down, and he ultimately receives all the bricks on his head when he hits the bottom. That is the Prime Minister. The bricks of Brexit are still falling, and the damage is still being done. This is no comedy, but it is a joke in a funny way, and a joke it may be for all the 27 EU states, which seem to be at the limit of endurance and good humour. They have shown a remarkable ability to respond, as my noble friends Lord Kerslake and Lord Ricketts have said, to an unprecedented display of political unwisdom. They need us, we need them, and I share their exasperation.
What about this phrase, “Mother of Parliaments”? Do we dare use it any more? I have never rated it highly on overseas visits. Europe has never taken much notice of it, and if you go to Commonwealth Parliaments you will find a semi-circular Chamber. This is one lesson that has been learned. Do not build confrontational Chambers which merely reinforce the two-party system. As we have seen, they can lead the Chamber into stultification or worse.
I am always interested in how others see us. Back in 1972 I persuaded Macmillan Journals to publish a review of the European press so that, as we entered Europe, we would understand more of what the Europeans were saying. However, it was difficult. If it was foggy in the Channel, in those pre-digital days the European press would sometimes never arrive at all. Last Thursday, while the EU was cogitating on the Prime Minister’s latest version of her deal, I quickly scanned the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Le Monde for Brexit. The front-page headline said, “Franz Kafka” in large letters. I thought, “What an appropriate image for Brexit”—until I realised it was about the Leipzig Book Fair. Eventually I found news stories and a disgruntled Bavarian who complained of English arrogance in assuming they were still in charge of a united kingdom.
In Le Monde I found nothing until I got to a full-page spread on China’s overtures to Italy and other EU members. The author seemed genuinely sorry that Brexit was inevitably going to encourage China and everyone else to develop stronger diplomatic and trade relations with the EU.
This leads on to my main point, which is that the powerful centrifugal force of Brexit damages the economic and political health of the separate nations. Brexiteers complain of a growing European unity that I do not see. I see the loss of so many vital ties in security, in health care, in almost every sector of life—ties that are dismissed so often as mere regulations. I see a threat to our own United Kingdom.
Europe is not uniting. Well before the referendum, there were countries expressing discordant voices, not least on the eurozone and on border controls. We were difficult customers. We were given certain privileges and opt-outs—observer status in Schengen and so on—but we were not the only ones. Immigration was always going to be different in different countries because its effects were different, but at least we could all sit down and argue the case. Now we cannot.
I am proud to own an EU passport and to feel that I am an EU citizen, at least for a few more days. I am therefore emotionally encouraged by any further slippage in the timetable that postpones the inevitable and possibly ends up with another referendum. Having said that, I would not vote for a referendum or an Article 50 extension now. We must give Parliament a chance first. I would still prefer that the Government persuade their more eccentric Brexiteers to join them in the lobby and that a deal of some kind go through, because no deal has already been rejected. It is the only amendment that has had such a large majority.
The House of Commons is losing its old discipline, in spite of the Speaker’s valiant efforts. This is, I believe, a genuine reflection of the close voting on Brexit. It has never faced divisions on this scale in our lifetime and it has not experienced such a national confrontation. This is not unique: other European Parliaments have gone into battle, with fisticuffs and even tear gas. We do not see that happening here quite yet. Long before that—even this afternoon—MPs had an opportunity to restore order. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, was so good on this: they need to find a proper consensus, a coalition of the willing who are respected individuals from all parties who can put forward reasonable, so-called indicative amendments that can command a majority. To achieve that—it is no mean task, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—there has to be a compromise that satisfies moderate leavers and remainers alike. It will have to be a customs union or Norway-plus, as described by my noble friend Lord Butler, or at any rate a close association with the EU that also provides the opportunity for free trade agreements. We simply cannot throw away all the advantages offered by EU membership over 40 years. Details have already been worked out in the political declaration, for which we are waiting.
This must be a serious exercise. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, spoke about this. He even mentioned a Government of national unity. Why not? It cannot be designed as a scheme to support the Prime Minister; it has to be a genuine effort by senior parliamentarians to lead where the Prime Minister cannot, and, of course, ultimately to persuade the Government that this is the only way through the mess of successive meaningful votes.
I also believe in the power of prayer. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and I happened to be in Lincoln Cathedral yesterday morning; I think that he believes in it too. I hope that the right reverend Prelate continues to support the power of prayer.
Perhaps I am being optimistic, because policy formed through indicative voting is not yet policy, but this is a time when the whole country will want to will Parliament forward, and forward it must go. The Prime Minister should support this exploratory process because it could yield new elements to support a deal—not her deal, but one that comes from a majority in Parliament.
My Lords, I was indeed delighted to see the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and his wife in Lincoln Cathedral yesterday. We attended matins together in one of the most glorious of all European buildings. Whenever we talk about Europe, I always think that though my identity might be English and my nationality British, my culture and civilisation are European. We owe so much to the intermingling of those who practised the arts and the crafts through the ages on our wonderful continent.
I do not propose to expand on that, but there is just one thing that I have been asked to say by my noble friend the Duke of Wellington, who unfortunately has had to withdraw from the debate. He wanted to convey his apologies, which I gladly do, and also to say that, imperfect as it might be, he is foursquare behind the deal on offer.
I have been a member of the Conservative Party for 63 years. I joined in a momentous year: 1956. Within a year I held office as a young Conservative chairman and have had some kind of office or position in the party ever since. Politically, I have never felt more depressed. I have never felt more concerned, and, like a right honourable friend of mine in another place, I have at times over the last three years felt ashamed. I am deeply concerned that a group of Conservatives have almost held the country to ransom. I refer to the ERG. They are coming close not just to splitting the party—which of course is less important than the country—but to wreaking real havoc in our nation. I hope that they will draw back now and realise that if they want any sort of Brexit, the one sort currently on offer and on the table is the one that the Prime Minister has put there.
The Prime Minister is a good Christian woman, whom I admire very much. However, I wish that she had been a little more flexible and a little less obdurate, and that when she talked to the nation last week, she had done so not from a lectern but at a table—rather as the Queen does when she gives her Christmas message—and talked to the people. That is what we need. I also thought it a pity that, while I understand why she wanted to talk to certain Members whose transfer of allegiance could be of enormous help to her, the news yesterday and the newspapers this morning were dominated by a certain group of people going to Chequers—as if they mattered more than any others. That was a great pity.
In spite of all that, I hope she gets her deal, but I was in the Gallery of the other place when the Prime Minister made her Statement today, and it does look as though she may not put it to the Commons before, or even on, 29 March. As I understand it, we would then have a period of a fortnight, until 12 April. The sands really are running out. It is the last chance saloon. I very much hope that the time will be used profitably. In a remarkable speech earlier today, my noble friend Lord Bridges made some extremely telling points, but in two weeks we have to be able to convince our friends and neighbours—I use those words deliberately and repeatedly—in the European Union that Parliament is working towards a solution. If her deal has not been accepted, we will have to show that there is a basis for agreement. I sincerely hope that we will.
I have talked in your Lordships’ House before about the creation of a committee of both Houses. There would not be time to create one in the remaining fortnight, but there would be an opportunity, which I commend to my noble friend Lord Callanan. He will be winding up this debate and has exercised enormous patience and good humour over the last two years or more. I put it to him that there would be some merit in putting together the Exiting the European Union Committee, chaired by Mr Hilary Benn, in another place, and your Lordships’ European Union Committee. There is an enormous amount of cross-party experience and ability in those two bodies. It could do no harm for them to have a dialogue and consider the various options that, by then, might have been or could become the subjects of indicative votes. We have to find something around which we can coalesce or, in spite of the Prime Minister’s protestations—which I was glad to hear—there will be a real danger that we crash out.
The only person who has talked with insouciance about that in this debate has been my noble friend Lord Lilley, but most of us, looking at the TUC and the CBI in that remarkable partnership last week, listening to industrialists, farmers and others in the country, know there is enormous concern about the potential damage that could be inflicted in the short term. There is also a degree of national humiliation in this country. People have looked to this country, over the years, as the embodiment of good sense, effective diplomacy and real leadership, and they say, “Where are those now?”. We had a group of French schoolchildren and their teachers in Lincoln Cathedral last Thursday, and I fell to talking to some of them. They were desperately sad that we appear to be moving out, but desperately anxious to maintain the friendships that have, over the last century or more, united our countries since the great entente cordiale of 1904.
It is crucial that we do everything possible to ensure that, by 12 April, we have done enough to convince our European friends and colleagues that we should have more time to arrive at a mutually agreed solution. Some of your Lordships have talked in this debate about a very long extension. I understand the worries about the European parliamentary elections and do not think that, if we were making real progress in our discussions, it would be impossible to ask for an extension of the sort the Prime Minister went to Brussels to ask for last week—until the end of June. It would be possible, I hope, to iron out the heads of agreement that would enable us to proceed, without having to go through all the trouble of participating in European elections. I understand why some people think that that would be breaking faith and would cause more turmoil and upset. Our people are too bitterly divided, at the moment, to do anything that will divide them more.
I was at a function in Lincoln on Friday night and talked to a lot of people, many of whom said, “We are confused. We are frustrated. We are getting angry. You’ve got to deal with this in Parliament and you’ve got to deal with it soon”. There is not much time left but, if the deal goes down or is not brought forward to be voted on, the responsibility bears upon us all in both Houses, but particularly those in the other place, to find a way forward that will not cause undue delay. I believe that your Lordships’ House has so much wisdom within it that the putting-together of those two committees could play a significant part in working towards the conclusion that surely we all want.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and before him the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. I found myself agreeing with much—not everything, but much—of what they said. I also hope that their prayers prove to be efficacious, because they might be our best bet now.
One of the hazards of speaking late in what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, I think, told us was the 13th debate on this topic is that all one’s good points, if any, have been made by other speakers, and most of the less good, and even the bad, points that I was thinking of making have also been made. So I shall take up one or two of the issues raised, and draw out some out of the threads.
In his powerful speech, with which I disagreed fundamentally, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who may be moving a Motion later on revocation, said that it should be done “democratically” and then we should revoke and then call a referendum. I have great respect for the energy and resolve of the noble Lord, and the high degree of candour with which he has expressed his objectives over the past two or three years. But when he puts to the House the prospect of revoking first and calling a referendum later, he has not, with great respect, paid sufficient attention to the meaning and effect of revocation of the Article 50 notification in the light of the Court of Justice’s decision in Wightman—and, to some extent, the Supreme Court decision in Miller.
First, revoke and then have a referendum is never going to happen, so I will not take up too much of your Lordships’ time with that possibility. It will not happen because, almost certainly, primary legislation would be required before the existing Article 50 notification could be revoked. It is far too late to go into the legal analysis; anyone who is interested will find an excellent paper by Professor Young and Professor Phillipson, which sets out the reasoning in a very erudite way, on the Constitutional Law Association website. I do not think, from conversations I have had outside the Chamber, that any of the very distinguished noble and learned Lords who sit around me would disagree with my proposition.
So primary legislation would be required, and, realistically, there seems no prospect whatever that the House of Commons would think it expedient to try to enact primary legislation that said, in 2019—after the referendum Act, the notification Act of 2017 and the withdrawal Act of 2018—“Do you know what? We did not really mean it at all—we are taking it all back: we are revoking, without consulting the people”. The House of Commons will not do that, because it is the elected House, and it has one eye—possibly both eyes—on the response of the electors to that procedure. I agree entirely with the very powerful points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, who perhaps looks at these issues in a slightly different way from me but who very convincingly explained why it could not possibly be right to decide this issue in Parliament before it was returned to the people—if it has to be returned to the people.
So the revoke first, referendum next solution will not happen in practice. It would in any event—and it may be important for other reasons to appreciate this—be completely inappropriate because of the legal effect of the Court of Justice decision in the Wightman case. As the House knows, the Court of Justice held, in Wightman, that it is possible to unilaterally revoke an Article 50 notification. That came as no surprise at all to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who had predicted that outcome throughout; if I had had a bet with him I would have lost. It did not wholly come as a surprise to me but, nevertheless, there was a very powerful point against the Court of Justice’s conclusion, which, in short, was that Article 50 imposes a stringent two-year time limit—as we all know by now, being in its vice at the moment. It does so in the interests of the member states that continue to be part of the Union, and one can well understand why that is so. If a departing state can unilaterally revoke a notification, it is not easy to see what would stop it tactically revoking a notification towards the end of the two-year period—because the talks had not gone so well and it wanted to buy some more time—and then re-notifying a week, a month or a few months later, thereby converting the two-year limit to a four-year limit, and conceivably doing the same thing at the end of the four-year period. That would make a nonsense of Article 50 and the Court of Justice had to deal with that.
The text of the judgment and the prior opinion of the Advocate-General, read together, do not convey an entirely clear picture of the answer to that point, but, read sensibly, it is reasonably clear what the court is saying. I shall not go into the text, but it is saying, “No, a tactical revocation of an Article 50 notification is inappropriate and unlawful. We the CJEU will not permit that”. It has to be done in accordance with the constitutional requirements of the departing state, pursuant to a democratic process and, according to the Advocate-General, in good faith. What one probably gets from that is that a revocation followed by a later notification would be treated by the Court of Justice as ineffective so far as the later notification was concerned. In short, a revocation will be final and determinative, on the state of EU law at the moment. Accordingly, “revoke first, referendum second” would not be conducive to the maintenance of trust in democracy in this country, because the post-revocation referendum would not be advisory or mandatory; it would be a rubber-stamp referendum, and the people would not like that at all. I mention those points because I have been looking at the European case law.
I shall close my observations in this way. Like, I should think, other Members of the House, I spent quite a lot of the weekend watching elected politicians on television ducking, diving, weaving and dissembling to answer good questions put to them by Mr Marr and others. It was a very depressing sight. We the country, and within the country Parliament, are in big trouble now; I think that everyone who has spoken in this debate recognises that. The crisis will get worse fast unless elected politicians in particular start talking straight about the options and how they are to be dealt with.
Let me not be partisan. The ultra-Brexiteers in the Commons should stop engaging in covert manoeuvres in the hope that they will lead to an inadvertent no-deal Brexit. I say respectfully that the Prime Minister should stop saying, “To be completely clear” and then saying something that is as clear as mud. That is not convincing. She should try to be a little clearer about what she is seeking to do. The remainers—just to be even-handed about this—should stop using language in a way that is reminiscent of the Ministry of Truth in 1984.
I shall not go back into the terminology of the “people’s vote”—we have all enjoyed analysing that concept; I want to talk about a different concept that has been gaining currency during the past couple of weeks and was discussed on television yesterday. It is a so-called “confirmatory referendum”, referred to obliquely by various representatives of the Opposition. I listened carefully and I think that the proposal is that the Prime Minister’s deal, which is so widely derided, would be voted through, but only on condition that it is subject to a “confirmatory referendum”. Such a referendum, it is suggested, would consist of a—rather displeasing to some—binary choice: vote for the Prime Minister’s deal, which has been voted down twice by the House of Commons by enormous majorities and suffers from many defects which have been discussed today and on other occasions, or vote for remain. That is, to borrow from an observation made by one speaker on the other side of this Chamber today, a choice between a dead parrot which has ceased to be—the Prime Minister’s deal, which no one wants—and remain. That structuring of the referendal question simply will not do, because it disenfranchises a large number of voters in this country. Something else must be structured if there is to be a referendum. I have not yet heard the question satisfactorily defined, and we are running out of time.
The people may not have known what they were voting for, but they will know if they are being lied to. We and all elected representatives need to start talking straightforwardly to them.
My Lords, the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, scratched this evening has slightly shot my fox since he is a very easy person to follow. The noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, is not such an easy person to follow, because he expressed a great deal of good sense. I agree with him about the sequencing of revoke and having a referendum—you cannot do it that way round. My view is that a referendum is desirable and necessary, and I would also like to see it made mandatory so that we do not get into an argument about a neverendum.
The seemingly unending series of debates in this House on Brexit is often criticised by quite a few of the speakers, including some this evening. It is said that the options before us do not change much. I believe this is a worthwhile debate, because the context in which those options are being examined and the urgency of reaching general conclusions both change. Never could one say that more forcefully than this evening—following last week’s European Council meeting, we really are up against it now. I am not criticising this debate at all.
It needs to be recognised that the risk of a no deal exit has not disappeared. The cliff edge has been postponed from 29 March to either 12 April or 22 May, and the agreement being sought for the statutory instrument which I am glad to hear is coming forward will bring that into our domestic law as well as international law. Both Houses have said extremely forcefully that no deal must be taken off the table—it must not be an option—and I find it pretty regrettable that the Government keep referring to it as the default option instead of saying how and by what policy course they will prevent it happening. There are any number of ways they can do that, but you will never hear the Prime Minister saying how she will prevent it happening, except by telling people to vote for her deal.
How is it best done? There is of course the option the Prime Minister continually produces—approving the deal she concluded last November—and she seems absolutely determined to pursue that to the exclusion of all else, unpromising though the prospects of getting an agreement from the other place may be. The legal clarifications which have now been formalised by the European Council are welcome, but do not seem to me—as a non-lawyer, at any rate—to alter the realities of the Irish backstop. They also do not alter the fact that this is actually quite a poor deal which promises years of uncertainty, arduous negotiation and, let us face it, divisions within the Government’s camp as to what they want to negotiate for our future relationship. The idea that the civil war now raging will suddenly be calmed by leaving and then opening the negotiations for the future relationship defies all belief.
It would surely be better to look seriously at all alternatives now, having got rid of those disastrous red lines on the customs union and the single market, and to ask the EU for a longer extension than 30 June—not indefinite, of course—in which we could hope to lay the foundations for what is to follow. Such an extension would have the added benefit of providing enough time and space to consult the electorate—which, as I said at the outset, I believe is the right thing to do. So I hope that that is where we will end up in the course of the next two weeks. I hope that the Prime Minister will carry out the will of the other place if it is so expressed, go back and ask for that reasonably lengthy extension, and make it clear that its purpose is to set out on a new course, not the old one.
How should we deal with the complication of the European Parliament elections in May? I have to say that I am a bit distressed that the EU 27 have made our participation in those elections such a central element in their determination of the duration of any Article 50 extension. There are a number of ways of getting round this problem that could be used without treaty change, using the inherent powers in Article 50 to organise an orderly and stable exit. It is a pity that that has not been given more space. It has certainly been lurking in the drawers of the Council, the Commission and the Parliament, but they have opted for a more forceful approach.
However, someone like myself, who believes that Britain’s place—indeed, Britain’s interest—is to remain a full member of the European Union, cannot possibly recoil from the possibility of having European elections in May, if only because if we have a referendum and vote to remain, that is what we will have to have done. We will need Members of the European Parliament. I hope that a way will be found of dealing with this issue without too much drama, and that if necessary we will have those elections.
I very much welcome the fact that we now know, as a result of an Answer given on 19 March to a Written Question of mine, that what the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, said on 27 February was misleading the House. They said that the legislation to hold European Parliament elections no longer existed— well, it does exist, as that nice little Written Answer says. I would be grateful if the Minister would now tell the House that that is the position.
These are some of the messages that I would like the other place to take very seriously when it returns, with added urgency, to this whole issue later this week, and considers the options facing the country. For far too long there has been absolute stasis in the handling of this matter. It is now time to break out of the rut that the Government have got into, to abandon attempts to run down the clock—which can only now end in disruption and lasting damage to the economy—and to set out on a new and more promising course, mandated by Parliament.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Hannay, who was an extremely distinguished UK representative in Brussels.
As tail-end Charlie, I can be pretty brief. I was struck by a remark made by my noble friend Lord Hennessy. He asked: what have we done to ourselves to find ourselves in this present position? I suggest that part of the answer is that we have lost touch with ordinary working people. Part of that is that we have ignored their real concerns, including those about the scale of immigration to our country, but also many other things, including housing and education. Worse than that, they feel that we have condescended to them: that we know best and they should know better.
Immigration is only one issue, but it was undoubtedly a major factor in the referendum, and it will be a critical factor when the public come to judge the outcome. It is also an important element in two of the future courses proposed, an element that is often distorted. The first concerns Norway. There, my fox has also been shot by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. The Norway model provides no useful benefit in terms of immigration. Any measures are limited in scope and duration. They must be reviewed by a Joint Committee with a view to abolition and there is a risk of retaliatory measures, so they have never been used, never will be used and are no use to us.
The second aspect concerns Article 50. Some people have made the extraordinary claim that we could control EU migration if we only adopted Belgian-type measures. These turn out to be measures designed to deal with benefit tourism. Belgium has issued eviction notices to a couple of thousand people a year, but no one knows whether they left or whether they have come back. For the UK, that is completely irrelevant. We have 2 million EU citizens here and they arrive in their tens of thousands every year. It is absolutely unfeasible and in any case irrelevant to bring that argument.
The only honest conclusion—I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was avoiding it—is that reverting to EU membership means continuing with immigration that we cannot ourselves control. Noble Lords may not think that that matters, but that is the fact of the matter and we should accept it. We should not try to deceive the public on this matter, which is of greater concern to them than to many Members of this House.
This brings me to the Government’s deal. It is a deal that should give us some control over immigration. Unfortunately, the subsequent White Paper has produced proposals for post-Brexit immigration which are dreadful. In the medium term, as I have mentioned before, they are much more likely to add to net migration than reduce it. Beyond that, more generally, we would be tied into the EU with no voice, no vote and no sure means of escape. We would face years of trade negotiations with virtually no cards in our hand, as I think my noble friend Lord Hannay was implying.
What an astonishing outcome for a country with our history of influence and achievement. However, I think we may find that the EU has overplayed its hand, and I rather hope that, as a result, this deal will not go through.
Lastly, where can we go from here? The referendum indeed gave a clear instruction, as the Government had requested. If a different path is now chosen, there will have to be another referendum and, as the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, pointed out, the question has to include whether we wish to leave entirely. That would mean that, at the end of a second referendum, there would no longer be an argument about people not understanding what was involved, et cetera—they have been hearing about it for two years, they are fed up with it—but they will have reached a view and we should not condescend to them. If we find that the vote goes the same way, as I believe it might, so be it. I think almost anyone would accept that second referendum result. Equally, I would accept a second referendum result that went in the opposite direction.
Let us be frank. The reputation of Parliament is at rock bottom. To seek to override purely by legislation a referendum that Parliament itself called would be a body blow to the institutions of our government and it must not happen.
My Lords, I intend to be relatively brief. I hope I will be, not just because it is getting late, or because I have nothing new to say—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, teased me for saying that in our last debate—but because a lot has changed. It would take me a very long time to get out of my system what I really feel about the incompetent and partisan way that this Government have behaved in the last three years—with their red lines, their appeal only to leave voters, and their prioritising of unity within the Tory party, which does not seem to have been a great success. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, who said that all of this has brought us to a state of national humiliation. We are in big trouble, as the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, said.
One reason that I do not want to go on at too much length is because I agree with so many who spoke earlier in this debate, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Kerr, Lord Lord Hannay, Lord Kerslake and Lord Ricketts, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. I was struck particularly by the mention of patriotism and of the colleagues of the father of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. It reminded me of the 97 year-old veteran who was at the march on Saturday. If I recall correctly, one of his tasks in the war was digging people out of the bomb-hit city of Coventry, but his conclusion from his wartime experience and the medals that he was awarded was to say “never again”. We must have the European Union to build peace, security and prosperity.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, that fear of splitting the Conservative Party has been the guiding force over the last three years. Obviously, not being in the Tory party, I can only empathise, rather than share the pain that must be felt by relatively reasonable people within that party. The complete loss of Cabinet collective responsibility has been the most dismaying. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, rightly highlighted the existence of a party within a party—the ERG. Obviously, if we had a decent electoral system, those people would have to stand under their own banner and not that of the Conservative Party.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, highlighted, Saturday was a great day. It was good-humoured and well behaved; there was not a single incident that required the attention of the police, just like in October. Those commentators who said the mood was slightly different from that in October were probably right. It was very serious and determined, as well as enjoyable.
I was interested to hear Mark Field MP, who is a Minister, say that he could envisage supporting the revocation of Article 50. Perhaps that has to do with the high level of support in his constituency for the petition. Cleverer people than I have analysed those figures for all the constituencies; no doubt, there will be some very thoughtful MPs looking at those figures. In many cases, the number of those who signed the petition is greater than the majority that MPs enjoy.
The Prime Minister is showing contempt for both people and Parliament. She keeps invoking the will of the people but refuses to check whether, nearly three years on, with 1 million people marching, 5.5 million people petitioning to revoke Article 50, and polls showing a majority support for remain, their views have evolved. She allows herself so many bites at the cherry but she will not allow voters a single reassessment, which is quite arrogant. She also said she will take no notice of indicative votes, which continues her high-handed attitude towards the House of Commons. The noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and as my noble friend Lady Smith of Newnham both stressed that the 2016 referendum result is not a mandate for what is happening now on Brexit. No one could possibly have wanted to arrive in this situation. It should not be a problem to ask voters whether this still represents their views. Surely the people’s vote has to be between whatever deal MPs agree and remain. To those who say that no deal would need to be on the ballot paper, I ask this: what is no deal? What does it consist of? How do you describe it? I really do not think that that is a runner.
If Brexiters are so sure that leave would still win—and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, that if it did, that would be the end of it, perhaps for a generation—they should have no problem holding another referendum. What are they afraid of? We need a long enough extension of Article 50—for four or five months, say—to allow a people’s vote.
I believe that a lot of leave voters were protesting against the system in 2016, and most of that protest had nothing whatever to do with the EU. I do not deny that immigration was a factor, although three years on it has become less of a factor. But I say to the noble Lord, Lord Green, that any consideration of continuing free movement must be looked at in the round, along with the fact that British citizens are being denied free movement and the opportunities they expected to have, particularly young people and those who wanted to retire to, for example, France or Spain. It is a two-way street and we need to look at it entirely in the round, as well as reflecting the huge contribution that EU citizens make to this country, not just economically but socially and culturally.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, that we need to focus on post Brexit, but we might define that term differently. I mean that, even if it is only clinging on to nurse for fear of something worse, we should remain in the EU; I think he means we should exit and then deal with all the other problems. There are so many crucial needs in this country. One of the tragedies of the past three years is how all our energy, capacity and thinking have been taken up by Brexit. I feel that myself. When I left the European Parliament, I was really hoping to do things other than EU affairs—I do have other interests, as it happens—but this has been a straitjacket from which it has been difficult to escape. But of course we will have less money to pursue those other things, whether it is social care, decent housing, better skills training or youth services. Talk to anybody in the area of knife crime and you will learn that it is not just the police but the lack of money for schools and youth services which is totally undermining the ability to deal with that terrible problem. By post Brexit, therefore, I mean once the country has liberated itself from this disastrous exercise.
I apologise that I have not been as brief as I thought I would be. I am grateful that the Prime Minister confirmed that the extension knocks out the 29 March date. She may be right that there would be legal confusion about the UK’s ability to implement EU law, but we would still be in the EU because of the European Council decision on the extension. Can the Minister confirm that in fact the repeal of the European Communities Act under Section 1 of the EU withdrawal Act has not been brought into force yet, the same as the repeal of the European Parliamentary Elections Act? An SI is needed for that, and that SI has not gone through, and so the European Communities Act is still in force.
I am also pleased that the Prime Minister’s announcement today, on 25 March, marks the anniversary of the treaty of Rome. There seems to be something significant about this coincidence. Can the Minister clarify the categorisation of the European Council decision as “international law”? Surely it is EU law, unless I have missed something.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has not in fact ruled out no deal. I am afraid that that is an illustration of her tendency to be not entirely straight and somewhat manipulative. On one side, she said that no deal had been ruled out but on the other that it had not. She said, “Let me be clear”, then was nothing of the sort. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, that the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, needs to clarify whether she really meant that no deal could be chosen only by an affirmative process.
The noble Lords, Lord Kerslake and Lord Cormack, reminded us that no deal would have a catastrophic effect. One thinks particularly of people with serious medical conditions such as epilepsy or cancer or who are having dialysis, who are terrified. You see this all the time on social media. Some of them are unable to get their supplies now. What will happen is frightening. It is unbelievable that any Government would impose this fear and anxiety on their citizens.
Did the noble Baroness not hear me read out the assurance from the Department of Health that there would be no interruption of supplies? Why is she indulging in this disgraceful scaremongering of vulnerable people?
I follow people who report their own experience of going to the pharmacist and finding already that they cannot get their supplies. I am sorry, but whatever assurances the Government give, I am personally at the point where I believe the individual patients rather than the Government.
We need a longer extension to be able to hold a people’s vote. If we have to participate in European elections, that is fine with these Benches. I would not be entirely surprised if some legal political fix will eventually be found because everyone is ignoring the opinion from the European Parliament legal service that says that we must hold European Parliament elections but if we do not it will not invalidate the legality of the new European Parliament. That seems a straw in the wind that might point to a different solution. I look forward to the Minister’s answers.
My Lords, nothing makes me prouder of being a Member of your Lordships’ House than sitting through a debate like this. Although we are, as the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said, spectators at the moment, the wisdom, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, strength of opinion and experience shown in a debate like this is extraordinary and something to be proud of. We also learned one or two things. I am not sure that I will get used to thinking of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, as a national treasure. I still think of Dame Vera Lynn as the original national treasure. I can think hard about that, and I did not know that the middle name of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, was Wolfgang, so one learns a lot in these debates.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, knows how much I admire him, even though I do not agree with the conclusion of his speech. I was particularly struck by the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle. She reminded us of the risks to which Members of Parliament, particularly female Members, have been exposed—and not just by this issue but by another that is taking place at the moment, about which nobody can be the slightest bit proud. I wish her well with her three candles project, which sounds a tremendous way of trying to heal some of these divisions, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury told us would be necessary on a previous occasion.
I will come to what I take from the debate so far, but I first want to deal with the legal issues that have arisen. Noble Lords know that I turn up at these debates for that reason. We have not had many but I want to refer to a couple. We have had no change, which we had all been expecting, in the legal issues relating to the backstop. We have had no further opinion from the Attorney-General. We have had no change, as we know, to the withdrawal agreement. It is clear that there will be no change to the part of the withdrawal agreement that says that the backstop will continue unless and until there is a new agreement. That has not changed at all. Maybe we will come back to that at a later stage.
There has been a suggestion—I think the only person who mentioned it in this debate was the noble Baroness, Lady Deech—that Article 62 of the Vienna convention on the interpretation of treaties is a way out of the problem. I fundamentally, seriously and critically disagree with that. From a letter in the Times, I know—rather to my surprise, because I admire him very much—that it has the support of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. I am sorry that he is not in his place, because he could jump up and tell me why I am wrong. He will have to do that on a later occasion. However, I have been back to the treaty and I do think he is wrong. The treaty says clearly that a fundamental change in the circumstances existing at the time of a treaty’s conclusion, and which was not foreseen by the parties, can lead to its termination. I do not see how one can possibly say that a failure to agree a deal is something that is not foreseen; obviously, that is what we have been debating for some time. That does not seem to be an answer to the conundrum that has been put forward.
One question that was raised, and which might be relevant, was whether international law trumps national law. Several noble Lords raised it, and it is referred to in the Prime Minister’s Statement. I notice that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, in his place, so he can at least whisper the correct answer to the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, who is winding up this debate. My understanding is this. It is rather as though one is a member of a club. If the club’s rules say that you are no longer a member, or it decides that you are no longer a member, you can say as much as you like that you continue to be a member, but you are not. I think that that is what is going on. Whether it is right to describe that as international law trumping national law, I am not sure, but I am clear in my own mind that because the European Union has now said that the leaving date has changed, it has changed. Until that date we will continue to be a member and after that date, we will not be. The fact that there is little legal discussion in this debate probably indicates how peripheral these issues have been, compared with what your Lordships have really been considering today, with the wisdom, insight and perception that your Lordships show on these occasions.
If the noble Lord’s club analogy is correct, why do we have to pass a statutory instrument at all?
It is to change the club’s rules. In this case, Parliament is the club. I was just trying to explain how I see the situation. I see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, rising to his feet and gladly give way to him.
My Lords, I think that there has been some discussion about this. The situation is that the EU is in charge of the treaty. Therefore, if we are not out of the treaty, we remain members as a result of the treaty of the European Union. However, the treaty by itself was not the whole story, because we had to pass an Act of Parliament to make the treaty work in the United Kingdom. If, as has happened, the EU has extended the date so far as the treaty is concerned, in order to make our law conform with the way the treaty works, the statutory instrument is required. Otherwise, there would be a discontinuity between the treaty on the one hand and the initial law on the other.
I entirely agree with what the noble and learned Lord has said. I see that the noble and learned Lord, the Advocate-General, has come to sit next to the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, to put him straight on all of this.
Let us move on quickly to the things that matter more than that. The issue is what the country is now faced with. In that debate we are now really a spectator, as has been said. At this stage, we are watching as the House of Commons considers what to do. We may well find that, through the mechanism of indicative votes—personally, it is what I hope we will see—it will now consider all the possible alternative routes for this country. As has been said by a number of your Lordships, we are reaching that point at a very late stage and, as has also been said, that is as a result of the obduracy of the Prime Minister. One has to respect her stamina and perseverance but, as already raised in this debate, the fact remains that there are people whose voices have not been heard by the Prime Minister. It was remarkable to watch on the television yesterday who was turning up at Chequers. I admire their motorcars, and there were two exceptional ones that I envied, but it was surprising for the people of this country to see that this is how their future is being decided—by private discussions with just a small group of people.
Now, I hope that that will not happen and that the House of Commons will take charge of the situation. I have no doubt that it will take into account many of the points that your Lordships have discussed today. I am glad that there was a reference during our debate to the position of young people. I have seen the benefits of Erasmus in my own family, and I saw the young people during the march protesting about their lack of voice.
I think that only the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, referred to the contribution that the European Union has made to peace and security in Europe. I was struck by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, at Saturday’s march and I am sorry that he is not in his place. This was powerful stuff. He has said it before in this House, although perhaps not in those words. As I recall, he said that being alone was not Churchill’s wish or hope; it was his fear. Peace and security is a very important matter which no doubt the House of Commons will take into account when it considers where we go from here.
Inevitably, your Lordships have talked about the legitimacy of a referendum. Again, it is for the House of Commons to consider in its indicative votes whether that is a way forward. I myself have never understood the objections to a further referendum on democratic grounds. I appreciate that people who thought they had achieved a particular result the first time round do not want to see it rerun. However, regarding legitimacy, in an earlier debate in this House—I do not which one it was; it might have been the first debate but perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Newby, can tell me—the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, used the colourful if slightly whimsical example of his maiden aunts being invited to make a choice on the basis of inadequate information. I therefore agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, who asked why this would be undemocratic.
As a result of what the European Council said, there has also been much discussion about the need to hold further European elections. If that is the case, it will be, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, said, inconvenient—one could perhaps put it more strongly than that—but I find it difficult to describe it as undemocratic to ask people to vote in an election. That is perhaps why the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, referred to the need to give people the final say. However, that is not for us to decide today. Looking at the annunciator, I see that there is a Division in the Commons. Maybe I should sit down before we find out what is going to happen over the next few days. Arguments were powerfully put by my noble friend Lord Adonis. I am not sure that I agree with the sequencing that he has in mind but that was not the fullness of his observation.
In an earlier debate, I drew an analogy with the play “Waiting for Godot”. At that stage, we thought that there would be a further opinion or a further amendment to the legal position that would cause us to reconsider what we had been saying about that. I quoted the Irish critic who had referred to “Waiting for Godot” as,
“a play in which nothing happens, twice”.
I hope that we are not going to see nothing happening three or four times.
We have to move on for the sake of the country, and it is now to the other place that we must look to get the guidance and establish the direction in which the country will be going. That is what I look forward to seeing at the end of this evening when the House of Commons decides about the procedure, and during the rest of this week, when it makes its decisions on the votes.
My Lords, today’s debate has allowed us the opportunity to explore the recent developments in relation to our exit from the EU. I am yet again grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken for their insight and contributions, even if one may say we did not hear much that was new or original. Indeed, noble Lords will not hear much that is new or original from me, but I will seek to address as many of the key points arising from the debate as I can while conscious of the late hour.
It is worth saying again that the experience and expertise demonstrated by noble Lords today is consistent with the valuable contributions this House has made to the process of the UK leaving the EU. I thought the debate started off very well and I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle spoke some wise words in calling for a calm, civilised debate. I am pleased to say that everybody in this House certainly abided by her instructions. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, spoke extremely well on the subject of reconciliation and compromise from his personal experience and provided sound advice to both Houses as we go forward in this discussion. I pay tribute to many other contributions, from all sides of the House, including about the work of our Select Committees. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, gave some powerful examples of the excellent work of those committees.
Over the past couple of weeks, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, has shared his excellent analogy of feeling as though in a holding pattern somewhere above Aylesbury. I know that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who actually represents Aylesbury, will tell you that there are no finer patches in the country. Indeed, I noticed at the weekend that he took to the airwaves to make it clear that he has no plans to move from that lovely patch of England to a more well-known address in London. I hope the noble and learned Lord will not mind if I take his analogy a little further and say that the pilot has now identified a runway and that now is the moment of decision for the other place as to where we land.
The legally binding assurances secured by the Prime Minister mean that, in the unlikely event that the backstop is ever used, it will only be temporary, and that the UK and the EU will begin work immediately to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by the end of December 2020. As my noble friend the Leader of the House set out earlier today, the European Council also agreed that if there is a successful vote on the withdrawal agreement this week, the date of our departure could be extended to 22 May to allow time for our Parliament to agree and ratify the deal.
However, should Parliament not agree a deal this week, the European Council has agreed to extend Article 50 until 12 April, which would then become the point at which we either leave with no deal or present an alternative plan. The Government’s position is clear that the best way in which to leave the European Union is in a smooth and orderly manner, by supporting the negotiated withdrawal agreement. The point was powerfully made by my noble friends Lord Bridges, Lord Howell and Lord Cormack, as well as, somewhat surprisingly, by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and perhaps slightly reluctantly by my noble friend Lord Lilley and the noble Lord, Lord Butler.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and others talked about extending Article 50. Our agreement with the EU provides for two possible durations, which I have just outlined. Either of these scenarios would require a change in our domestic legislation to reflect the new date.
I can confirm that the Government have today laid a draft statutory instrument under the EU withdrawal Act that provides for both of these possible agreed extensions. This will be subject to the draft affirmative procedure, so it will be debated in each House and must come into force by 11 pm on Friday 29 March. As my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal confirmed earlier, in this House, that debate will take place on Wednesday, so we have it all to look forward to again.
In response to the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, this is to make sure that our domestic statute book reflects the extension of Article 50, which is already legally binding in international law. Not having this instrument in place would cause serious problems and uncertainty regarding the domestic statute book from 11 pm on 29 March. A large volume of EU exit legislation preparing the statute book for the moment that EU law ceases to apply has been extensively debated in this House and is due to enter into force on exit day, which is currently defined in the withdrawal Act as 29 March at 11 pm.
These regulations are necessary to bring domestic law in line with the agreement at the international level. Without this instrument, there would be a clash in domestic law, because contradictory provisions would apply to both EU rules and new domestic rules simultaneously. It is therefore vital that the instrument is approved by Parliament so that we can ensure that the statute book accurately reflects that the UK will remain a member state until at least 11 pm on 12 April.
The Minister has made a very important statement. Are we to understand that, if the third meaningful vote does not take place tomorrow, the statutory instrument changing the exit date to 12 April will be laid on Wednesday? In what circumstances will we debate a 22 May extension rather than a 12 April extension?
The statutory instrument has already been laid. It reflects the decision of the European Council, so both potential dates are included as options, depending on whether the meaningful vote is approved—not necessarily tomorrow but this week. That was the decision laid down by the Council and agreed to by the Prime Minister.
In response to the questions asked by my noble friend Lord Hailsham and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, no deal remains the legal default at 11 pm on 12 April, if that is where we end up. The Prime Minister was simply stating that Parliament is likely to intervene to prevent no deal, if a deal has not been agreed by then. This is in line with her comments on 26 February, when she told the House of Commons:
“So the United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on 29 March if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/2/19; col. 166.]
Is my noble friend saying that, in order to secure a no-deal Brexit, the House of Commons has to approve that affirmatively?
I do not want to go further than the comments of the Prime Minister which I have just quoted. This is in line with her comments on 26 February, when she said:
“So the United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on 29 March if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/2/19; col. 166.]
I will reply to my noble friend Lord Balfe, who called for an indefinite extension to Article 50. I am afraid to tell him that that is not possible. Any extension has to have an end date. As he will know from European law, Article 50 is a mechanism for leaving the EU, and an indefinite extension is, of course, not leaving.
Many noble Lords spoke about revoking Article 50 and mentioned the online petition and the march that we saw at the weekend. I noticed that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, spoke approvingly of both, but carefully avoided committing her party and saying whether Labour is actually in favour of either of those options. Indeed, if she carries on sitting on the fence, she might end up with spelks in her posterior. There is no doubt that there are clear and strongly held views on both sides of the debate. That has been clear since the referendum, when the largest democratic exercise in our history took place, with 17.4 million people voting to leave—as noble Lords are no doubt tired of me saying.
My old sparring partner, the House’s resident heckler, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, talked about the impressive march and petition. They were indeed impressive. Let me say, however, that we govern this country by the ballot box and by this Parliament and not by numbers on demonstrations, or indeed by internet polls. I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, was very careful not to mention either—because, of course, he was a member of the Blair Government when we had a similar, and even bigger, demonstration against the Iraq war and by the Countryside Alliance—and we all know what happened as a result of those demonstrations.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, slightly bizarrely called on us to revoke Article 50 and then to hold a referendum. I agree with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, made on this. It seems slightly strange. If we do that, what are we going to hold a referendum on? Is he seriously saying that we could revoke—in other words, tell the EU unconditionally that we are going to stay as members and then maybe, possibly, decide that we are going to leave again? I think that that was possibly one of the more ridiculous of his strange ideas.
The Government have long been clear that failing to deliver on that vote would, in our view, be a failure of our democracy. On this point I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. In response to my noble friend Lord Hailsham, it remains a matter of firm policy that this Government will not be revoking Article 50 because to do so would contradict the result of the first people’s vote, which we are committed to respecting. This Government are committed to delivering on the result of that referendum and leaving in a smooth and orderly way.
I was particularly struck by the interesting and insightful speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham. She referred, for noble Lords who did not hear her, to her sadomasochistic tendencies. Now, before noble Lords get too excited, she was referring to a forthcoming book, which we will all read with great interest, on the history of European referenda, and how she thought referenda were a device for demagogues and dictators and were always a bad idea, but maybe we should have just one more of them, so bad are they. Of course, ignoring referendum results is a common feature of the European politics that she studies so closely.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, spoke about the European Parliament elections, a subject very familiar to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and of course myself. The Prime Minister has been clear that, should there be a further extension to Article 50 beyond 22 May, that would mean participation in the European elections. As she has said before, it is our firm belief that it would be wrong to ask the people of the United Kingdom, three years after voting to leave the EU, to then vote in the European elections.
Why do the Government think it is a particular burden to undertake European elections? Is it not a positive exercise in democracy that the Minister should welcome for a number of reasons? Will he confirm that it would in fact be possible for Peers to participate in those elections?
I think I answered the first point in my statement, but I think it is possible for Peers to participate. A number of Peers have been Members of the European Parliament, but of course they need to suspend their membership of this House while they are in the European Parliament. As we do not want it to happen, we do not need to speculate further about that.
In response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, about amendments in the Commons, I think he spoke approvingly of some of the amendments in tonight’s House of Commons vote. I assume that he was not so approving of the one last week in which they voted decisively against a further people’s vote.
Since the Minister has just commented on the European Parliament, could he please answer the question I asked about the way that he misled the House previously and said that there was no way on the statute book by which we could carry out the European elections, which turns out to be untrue, and which has been corrected by him in a written reply of 19 March? There is no impediment other than the unwillingness of the Government to use the laws that remain in force.
As the noble Lord has correctly observed, I have answered that question in a written response to him. Anybody who is interested can read that response.
In response to the second question from the noble Lord, Lord Newby, we cannot commit the Government to delivering the outcome of any vote held in the House of Commons, but the Prime Minister has been clear that we are committed to engaging constructively in the process and aiding the House. In the other place this evening, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has confirmed that the Government will find time later in the week to facilitate the process if the amendment in the name of my right honourable friend the Member for West Dorset is in fact not approved.
I am grateful as always for the many contributions made in the debate. The Government are focused on finding a way for the other place to support the deal so that we can leave the EU in a smooth and orderly manner. As the Prime Minister set out, the negotiated deal before the other place seeks to deliver on the referendum, retain trust in our democracy and respect the concerns of those who voted to remain. If the other place supports that deal, we can end the uncertainty and the divisive debate, and move forward to a new future outside the EU. That is what the Government are committed to doing. I beg to move.