European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:48 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Conservative 4:48 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, it has been an extraordinary afternoon as Peers have greeted each other in the Corridor, saying, “What number are you?”. I am number 129. While it is tempting to say that I agree with numbers one, five, eight, 16 and 30, that would not be in the fine traditions of the House.

This House is usually thought of as an august, deliberative body. It can indeed impress with its breadth and depth of knowledge and grasp of legislative detail, and, in certain circumstances, it can much improve Bills put before it. But I doubt whether this is one such Bill that will allow us to showcase the best of your Lordships’ skills. Indeed, I fear just the opposite—that we could make ourselves conspicuous by our lack of democratic mandate and overstep the constitutional boundaries which we are all responsible for upholding.

The Bill, as many have said by way of criticism, is short on detail. Indeed it is: that is because its purpose is simple and exclusive—to grant a parliamentary mandate to the Government to trigger Article 50. The other place understood this and voted it through with a significant majority, despite some confusion in the party opposite and disquiet from many in all parties who did not want to be in this position. I ask noble Lords who are still thinking of tacking on amendments to ignore their own personal views on Brexit at this time. We all had our say, along with the rest of Britain, at the ballot box. I ask them not to rerun the argument as to whether they believe it will harm Britain or not. I ask them to focus on whether Brexit, the referendum, the Bill and Article 50 are the will of the people. As democrats, that will requires us to do our duty and carry it out.

We have heard many esteemed figures, not least a former Prime Minister, say that people did not know what they were voting for and, as such, should be given a chance to reconsider, to vote again on an eventual deal, or even to have the referendum question put again, only this time with more detail, such as questions on the single market, on the free movement of people and so on. I fear that this simply will not wash with the British people. It is similar to when we saw EU countries vote down the EU constitution, only to be asked, shamefully, to vote again until they got it right. Put simply, Britons knew what they were voting for and the Bill, unadulterated, is a key enabler to carrying out that popular will.

The 2015 Conservative Party manifesto promised an in/out referendum. The Conservative Party was elected on that manifesto and duly held that referendum and the people voted to leave. The manifesto, it is worth saying, went on to state that after the referendum, the Government would “respect the outcome”. I hope that noble Lords will keep that sentiment at the top of their minds today and respect the tradition of this House of honouring the elected party’s manifesto. It is now said that, having voted to leave, people did not know what they were voting for. This is patently nonsense. We can be certain that leaving the single market was accounted for in the vote, not least because Michael Gove said so specifically during the campaign—many of us heard him say so on the Andrew Marr programme—as did others. Crucially, staying in the single market would mean not having sovereign control of who can come and go. Who can deny this? Sovereignty was an aspiration of the majority of voters.

Having canvassed in a dozen or so extremely marginal seats over a number of elections, most of which Labour subsequently won, it has been very clear to me that people have been very unhappy with the four pillars of freedom of movement and that successive Governments, including ones I supported, have just not listened. Can it be realistically posited that people expected Britain to continue paying into the EU budget after we left, or that our laws would continue to be written in Brussels? No, and that is why the Government’s current strategy—of setting out clearly that we will leave the EU, including the single market and of course the customs union, and seek a bespoke deal for Britain that is in the interests of Britain, of our allies in the EU and, I truly believe, of our other trading partners, particularly developing countries—is the right one. Anything else is simply a defiance of the democratic will.

I call on noble Lords from the Liberal Democrats to reflect on this. It was not so long ago that having a referendum on EU membership was their party’s policy. It is a shame that they have forgotten this. I appreciate that some in opposition parties see this as an opportunity to position their party for an election which they worry may come soon. It is entirely understandable that they should want to do this and draw attention to their views in this way, fuelled in some cases by an indifference as to whether this House remains appointed, or even in existence. However, I simply comment that the British people will see through this. They do not like opportunism and in my opinion the British public always call it right, to the point that I even grudgingly accept that this was the case in 2010, with the creation of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, exhorted us twice to listen to Gladstone and “trust the people”. We will do this by passing the Bill without amendment. This House should support the Bill and then use its undoubted talents, which I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, to shape and make a success of Brexit via the great repeal Bill, the right forum for determining what form Brexit might take. I hope that the Minister will confirm that there will be that opportunity and other junctures to debate the nature of Brexit and the protections which we as a House believe should be sought.