Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:40 pm on 20th February 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Finkelstein Lord Finkelstein Conservative 11:40 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, there’s a Jewish story of a man who goes over a precipice and as he tumbles into the ravine he grabs hold of one solitary branch. As he swings there, his fingers slowly losing their grip, he shouts, “Is there anyone up there? Lord, is there anyone up there? Lord, what shall I do?” And a voice comes out of the heavens. “Son, let go of the branch. Let go of the branch”. The man swings a moment more, staring into the unknown as he ponders the advice. Then he shouts, “Is there anyone else up there?”.

We have asked the question. We have had the answer. There isn’t anyone else up there. We will have to let go of the branch. Brexit means Brexit. Let us make sure we share an understanding of how we got there. It is a common complaint of the Liberal Democrats that David Cameron’s Conservative Party implemented Liberal Democrat ideas and appropriated the credit. I think we can all agree that it would be tragic were such a fate to befall them yet again and on such an important issue. In 2008, there was one isolated pioneer calling for an in/out referendum on membership of the EU. It was not Nigel Farage; it was years before UKIP started advocating a national vote. No, it was lonely but determined Nick Clegg.

The Liberal Democrat leader bravely launched a petition. “We, the undersigned, believe the Government should give the British people a real choice on Europe by holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union”. The party distributed leaflets with Mr Clegg’s picture on them. “It’s time for a real referendum on Europe,” it declared. “It is vital that you and the British people have a say in a real EU referendum.” The campaigning Lib Dems had had enough of the temporising of their rivals. “The Conservatives,” the party said dismissively, “only support a limited referendum on the Lisbon treaty. Why won’t they give the people a say in a real referendum?” In fact, the Liberal Democrats like in/out referendums so much they now want another one. So I can imagine how frustrating it must be for them that, after Mr Cameron finally buckled to Lib Dem pressure and held Mr Clegg’s referendum, all the credit for this democratic gesture has been taken by Mr Cameron. I am glad to be able in Parliament to right that injustice—one other injustice, too.

It is astonishingly modest of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party to insist with great diffidence that noble Lords overlook the fact that they voted in Parliament to hold this referendum and they united to do so. It is immensely good of them to insist that this be regarded as a Tory referendum, but really, we will not hear of it—they deserve their day in the sun, too. The whole of Parliament offered the British people a referendum and it was profoundly right that we did. I voted to remain in the European Union but the constitutional implications of remaining in the European Union are and were very serious and people deserved a choice. Nick Clegg offered a referendum because he knew people wanted one. Tony Blair offered a constitutional referendum because he knew people wanted one. When offered the chance, people voted to leave. I think this is a pretty strong answer to the idea that people did not really want a referendum at all. People knew what they were being asked, they knew what they thought and they understood what they were doing. Now it is our job to pass the Bill.

The counterpart to the false idea that this was just a Tory referendum is that what is being proposed now is just Tory Brexit: a harder, more chaotic, less caring Brexit than strictly necessary—we need a soft Brexit. Do even those who make this point really believe it? First, does anyone seriously suggest that we can allow our domestic regulations to be created by a body to which we do not belong? That is what being in the single market while leaving the EU means. During the referendum Nick Clegg called this “fax democracy” and it was correctly described as the worst of both worlds. Now he and others appear to be proposing that we opt for the worst of both worlds.

Secondly, does anyone seriously expect that the EU is going to allow us to remain in the single market if we leave the EU? It could not have been clearer that it will not. Thirdly, is anyone seriously suggesting that we can determine the outcome of Brexit ourselves and decide for ourselves if it is hard or chaotic? You cannot decide the outcome of multilateral negotiations unilaterally. So-called soft Brexit is not tenable—and, even if it were, it is not on offer. If we could really determine the shape of Brexit ourselves, and could be members of the single market without the other stuff, I do not know whether I would still have voted to remain. However, that was not on the table in June and it is not now.