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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:44 am on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 10:44 am, 31st January 2018

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Radice, as it is to act as warm-up man for the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.

I refer the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, to the excellent speech by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, in which he explained very clearly why many of us cannot follow her advice simply to get the Bill through as a technical Bill. The problem we have had right from the start—from the consultative referendum, to the Article 50 vote to this vote—is that as soon as the vote is over the Government put on the ratchet and say, “Well, you can’t go back now; we had a 500 majority for this”. Parliament must continue to keep its eye on what is happening and make decisions that are relevant.

Just over a week ago, Juliet Samuel wrote in the Daily Telegraph:

“This year, the Government has to conduct one of the most difficult negotiations in our history. It is not up to the job”.

Nothing that has happened in the last 10 days has weakened the strength of that criticism, and many of the speeches from the Conservative Benches yesterday reflected that unease. We have a deeply flawed Bill presented by a dysfunctional and leaderless Government. Any attempt at leadership by the Prime Minister, and there is a tug on the choke chain by the hard-line Brexiteers in her Cabinet and her party to drag her back from anything that does not fit with their ideological obsessions. Then, we have the absurd spectacle of those twin titans, Sir Bill Cash and Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, delivering their warnings from the Back Benches and the TV studios, while that amiable chancer, David Davis, busks his way through meeting after meeting with the laconic assurance that it will be all right on the night. Meanwhile the Cabinet plots, jostles and manoeuvres for position like players in a TV soap opera. It would be farcical if it were not the future of our country at stake while the Conservative Party plays out its own tragicomic version of “Game of Thrones”.

Such a situation puts a heavy responsibility on this House to amend the Bill before us. We must address its flaws and propose remedies, as the mantra of “Brexit means Brexit” becomes ever more trite and meaningless. The first responsibility of this House is to defend our constitutional settlement against what the late Viscount Hailsham described as an elective dictatorship.

As the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, reminded us yesterday, it is one of the deepest ironies that a Brexit campaign that promised a return of sovereignty to this Parliament ends in the biggest switch of power from the Legislature to the Executive that we have seen in modern times. I am in no doubt that the House of Lords has not only the right but the duty to resist such a power grab. To do otherwise would have long-term consequences for the powers and authority of this Parliament that go far beyond the immediate issue of Brexit. I ask noble Lords to read the magnificent speech just made by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. In passing, I note that when she describes our objective as to make the Bill “copper-bottomed, iron-clad and storm-proof”, that description also applies to the noble Baroness. I will get my ears boxed for that when we are outside.

On the economic consequences, I have never seen Brexit in Captain Oates terms: Britain leaving the European tent to inevitably perish as we try to go it alone. We will be poorer than we would otherwise be—even the Government’s own assessments tell us that—but we will get by. We will be able to earn a crust. However, I see no evidence at all that “global Britain” will find better deals free from the supposed encumbrances of our membership of a 500 million-plus single market. I wish the Prime Minister every success on her visit to China and in her desire to drive up our trade with that country. I shall give her a benchmark to aim for: let us try to reach the level of German trade with China, which is four times our own—and all from the security of that single market.

As we have heard time and again during this debate, the clock is ticking while every sector of the economy cries out for clarity and certainty. The Prime Minister and her Cabinet have to make clear the terms of our departure that they are seeking. When we know where we are going and how we intend to get there, it defies logic that a decision taken nearly two years ago without the facts should be the last word on a decision that will set the course for our country for decades to come. Both Parliament and the people must be consulted on this endgame. Without a vote on the reality of Brexit, we will be left with a raw and open wound, not least among the millions of young people who did not vote for Brexit yet will have to live with the consequences. To tell them that their ship has sailed is a cynical betrayal of the hopes and aspirations of a generation.

There is always an element of doubt about speaking in a debate with so many speakers. I do so for two reasons. The first is my three children, all in their 20s and all proud citizens of Europe. I want to be able to look them in the eye and say, “I did everything that I could to avoid this disaster”. The second is that I want to put on record my pride in a European project that has set an example to the world of how old enmities can be buried and a new era of peace and prosperity can be delivered and underpinned by civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law.

Yesterday I was much moved by the reminder from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, of the realities for his family at the end of the Second World War. I always recall the famous Zec cartoon of the battle-weary Tommy holding a victory wreath on Victory in Europe Day with the caption, “Here you are! Don’t lose it again!”. I believe profoundly that we are in the process of losing influence in creating a better Britain, a better Europe and a better world that was passed on to us by the generation who came back from the Second World War—the Heaths, the Whitelaws, the Healeys, the Callaghans. They came back saying, “Never again”. I think we are throwing away a great deal. Until that deal is finalised, I will fight it.