Outcome of the European Union Referendum - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:26 pm on 5th July 2016.

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Photo of Lord Radice Lord Radice Labour 12:26 pm, 5th July 2016

I will not follow the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, in what I thought was a less than generous and in some areas ill-judged speech. Of course, it is true that the referendum and the consequences following it have been a shock to many Members of Parliament, not only to those who supported remain but also to those on the leave side as well. You had only to see the faces of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove on the day of their victory to understand that. I confess that the last fortnight has delivered hammer blows to the two great passions of my political life: the relationship between the UK and its continental partners, and the idea of a Labour Party capable of winning general elections. However, all of us—do not laugh on the other side—have a duty to work our way through the linked crises that face us and try to produce long-term policies in the national interest.

I do not want to dwell on the referendum and the campaign itself. We will leave that to the historians—there are some around here. I will just make one or two remarks about it. It is astonishing that David Cameron, who started by advising his party not to bang on about Europe, should have got himself embroiled in an in/out referendum that not only split his party but brought about his own political downfall. During the campaign, the remain side rightly explained the consequences of leaving the EU but it did so in an exaggerated way—I do not believe it was Project Fear but certainly there were some exaggerations—and without making a positive case for staying in. It is a long-standing criticism of British politicians of all persuasions that they failed to make the case for British membership while they had the chance. Even Tony Blair, who was very strongly pro-European, made his best speeches on Europe in Warsaw and Strasbourg rather than in the UK. We are reaping what we have sown.

As for the victorious leave campaign, to its shame it went well beyond exaggeration, especially over the cost of British membership, immigration and the prospects for Turkish membership. We have just heard a wonderful speech from the most reverent Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. We need to draw important lessons from what happened in that campaign. We all need to act with a certain amount of humility. This is an emotion not always associated with the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, but I think he might have shown it on this occasion.

Where are we today? I suppose that we are where we are. Despite the deep divisions in the UK—with London, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the young, above all, voting the other way—there was a narrow majority for Brexit.

What should we do now? First, whatever the long-term consequences, we must avoid short-term economic damage if at all possible. I welcome the Chancellor’s decision to abandon his fiscal squeeze. I also welcome the Governor of the Bank of England’s announcement that the Bank will take whatever action is needed to support growth. One of the most disgraceful features of the leave campaign was its attack on the Governor of the Bank of England. My goodness, they need him now.

I believe it is right to delay invoking Article 50 for leaving the EU because we need time to work out a post-Brexit plan. Indeed, it was quite astonishing that the leavers had no plan themselves. Only Boris Johnson would have had the chutzpah, in yesterday’s Telegraph, to call on the Government to come forward with a post-Brexit plan. He was meant to be the leader of the leave campaign and, until a few days ago, a candidate for the Tory leadership and a putative Prime Minister. The truth is—as we know and knew all along—that there was not and is not a plan. We need one badly.

The noble Lord, Lord Lawson, referred to the basic conflict of objectives. First, we need access to the EU which is by far our biggest market. Secondly, this almost certainly requires acceptance of free movement of labour. Unless there is some change in the EU position—for example, an emergency break—we are at an impasse which we will need to work through. I do not think we can do it by abandoning our role in the single market. That is a typical Lawson throwaway. I do not believe it will work and it will be extremely damaging to British industry.

If we are honest, we ought to mention the very unpromising political background that has occurred as a result of the referendum vote. I noticed the headline in last week’s Economist—“Anarchy in the UK”. I think that was going a bit far but the reality is that, since the resignation of the Prime Minister, there is no real Government with authority. We have an unseemly scramble for office—more like “Game of Thrones” than “House of Cards”.

The Labour Opposition, with the exception of course of the Labour group in the House of Lords, is also in a mess. Its Members of Parliament have lost confidence in their leader. This leaves us in quite a difficult situation. I will leave the Tory party to its own devices, but there is no doubt that the Labour Party has to sort out its own problems as quickly as possible at this time of national crisis.

My last point is that, in this linked series of crises, we need the help of Parliament. We need Joint Committees of both Houses to oversee any post-Brexit plan that emerges, the invoking of Article 50 and any subsequent negotiations. We have a role to play. In times of national crisis, when governments and parties have been found wanting, we need to turn to our national Parliament for advice and help.