My Lords, the Bill seeks to make provision in connection with the withdrawal from the EU of the three nations, England, Wales and Scotland, and part of the island of Ireland, if that can somehow be done without having a hard border across that island between the UK and the EU. The Bill is a stab in the dark. None of the terms of withdrawal is yet known. All we can sensibly do at this stage is to make provision for how decisions will be made and by whom, and when the terms are known their acceptability or otherwise must be judged. Will it be by Ministers, without accountability? Will it be by Parliament, by way of a No. 2 Bill? Will it be by a referendum? Or will it be some combination of the foregoing?
The fact is that the whole Brexit process is a mess. It needs straightening out. There is no case for a second referendum, if by that is meant a return to the referendum we have already had. There is every case, if one is ever going to have referendum at all, for another referendum, at the appropriate time, in the circumstances then prevailing, on an altogether different question: namely, what to do once the terms are known. The past referendum is spent. Voters have died, and others have come of age.
There were four options the day after the previous referendum. The Government adopted none of them. Total confusion reigned, it has reigned since and it reigns today. One option was to accept that it was not a binding referendum, that between the constituent parts of the UK the result was a tie, that overall the result was close, and that Parliament should decide, doing no less and no more than taking due account of the referendum outcome.
The second option was to interpret the outcome of the referendum and the closeness of the result as meaning not, at one end of the spectrum, remain, nor, at the other end of the spectrum, a hard Brexit, but down the middle a soft Brexit, behind which there might develop some degree of accommodation, rather than heightening the polarisation. But neither the referendum itself nor the Government’s reaction to it provided any clarity as to what Brexit was supposed to mean.
Thirdly, Brexit could have meant Brexit. That, presumably, is what Brexiteers thought that they were voting for. However, they have been betrayed ever since the morning after the referendum. By “Brexit” they no doubt meant taking back control, informing the EU, as of then, that we were out of the EU. Of course, there would be matters, financial and otherwise, to be sorted out after departure, but there would be no delay at all in departure itself and taking back so-called control forthwith.
The fourth option was a watered-down version of the third. On the day after the referendum, or, if you prefer, the following Monday, two years’ notice of withdrawal would be given. However, even that was not done. First one Prime Minister, then another, dithered, and then there was talk about whether even two years from a delayed starting point would produce finality.
So confusion piled upon confusion from the word go, and it continues. The Government cannot be entrusted with the process either of determining whether Brexit should go ahead on the final terms or, if it is ultimately to be implemented in one way or another, of how that is to be done. There must be democratic accountability, above all at the crucial stage yet to come. The present Bill is only half a Bill. It professes to repeal the 1972 Act but seeks to do so before knowing more than half the picture.