European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 30th January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Patten of Barnes Lord Patten of Barnes Conservative 6:30 pm, 30th January 2018

My Lords, if the Foreign Secretary were able to be with us today—we should be so lucky—he would doubtless remind us of the story in Sophocles’s “Oedipus” about the great Sphinx that devoured young Thebans if they could not answer its riddles. I think that the great Sphinx in British politics for the last two or three decades has been our membership of the European Union: it is making a pretty good job of devouring the Conservative Party and a good deal else in politics. How has it happened? I follow my right honourable friend Kenneth Clarke in making this point. I joined the Conservative Research Department in 1966, partly because the Conservative Party was intent on getting this country into what was then called the European Common Market. Throughout my time in politics, the Conservative Party has been in favour of us playing a leading role in the European Union. I was a Minister in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet and a Minister in John Major’s Cabinet. So what happened?

As noble Lords know, we joined the European Union when we were being called the sick man of Europe. We pretty well got the European Union on our own terms. There have been a couple of important, significant changes along the way. First was the single market, with the Single European Act sustaining us. If they were here today we could say, “Take a bow, Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Cockfield”. The other big change over the last few years was the enlargement of the European Union, again very largely the result of the leadership of this country and of Conservative Governments. Those have been changes, I concede that, but I do not think that they are the sort of changes that should deprive us of our senses. There has been, of course, another change, which is the referendum and its result. Referendums, my noble friends will recall, were described by Margaret Thatcher as,

“a device of dictators and demagogues”.

No demagogues here, of course. There was a bit of alliterative ranting by one of our noble Viscounts earlier, but no demagoguery in this place. So why did we have this referendum?

The whole House knows that for many years it has been recognised that loyalty is the secret weapon of the Conservative Party. Sometimes, as John Major would remind us, it is so secret that it can be barely discerned by the human eye. The whole House knows that we had this referendum in order to try to manage the Conservative Party and it blew up in the Government’s face. So now we face not just the consequences for our international affairs but the consequences for the way in which we do politics in this country, as my noble friend Lord Higgins indicated so eloquently in his speech. I hate referendums. If we vote at some stage to have another referendum on membership of the European Union, I will oppose that legislation. I think that referendums are appalling and a sin against parliamentary democracy.

I have talked about secrets. There is another secret that concerns me. During the referendum campaign, the Secretary of State for the Environment said that, once the negotiations began, we would be in the driving seat. The secret is: where are we going? What are we driving? Is it a bandwagon or a hearse? What genuinely surprises me is that so many of my honourable and right honourable friends spent all those years moving from safe house to safe house under cover of dark to arrange what has now happened, plotting and scheming away to get it, and when we get there they do not know what to do. They have forgotten the rest of the trick. I have to say to my noble friend who spoke earlier that his approach to what we should be now doing seemed to me a tad broad brush, rather like his espousal of civil disobedience.

I just hope that at some stage we can find out what the Government want to do, particularly in relation to the Northern Ireland border with the Republic. I listened to my noble friend Lord Empey, but I also listened to two former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and to a former Cabinet Secretary. This is a serious issue. If A equals B and B equals C, then C equals A. If Northern Ireland is to have a frictionless border with the Republic and Northern Ireland is, as it will remain, part of the United Kingdom, then the United Kingdom as a whole will have a frictionless border with the European Union, unless we are going to redefine the borders of Northern Ireland. We are in a position where what suits Belfast suits the United Kingdom: it has to. I do not take what my noble friend Lord Empey said about Sinn Fein seriously when this Government are being sustained by the DUP. I hope to have the opportunity when we get to Committee of moving one or two amendments about the relationship between the border and the Good Friday agreement.

In the meantime, I look with horror at what is happening. There is a great line in Shakespeare’s “King John”:

“So foul a sky clears not without a storm”.

Exactly.