Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:01 pm on 23rd July 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat 6:01 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, there has been one change since we last debated Brexit: Boris Johnson has gone. What will be his legacy? On this I differ profoundly from what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, with whom I normally agree. He thought what a wise decision Mrs May had made in putting Johnson in charge of the negotiations. I believe the verdict of history will be that Mrs May’s choice of Johnson as Foreign Secretary was the most bizarre public appointment since the Roman Emperor Caligula appointed his horse as consul.

The Government will have to do without Johnson’s counsel when they come to face the very real possibility of no deal. In several speeches over the last year and more, I have argued that, given the Government’s red lines, we were heading for no deal. This is now taken very seriously by the European Union, as well as by business. No deal may result for three reasons: because the Cabinet cannot agree what it wants; because, even if the Cabinet agrees, the Conservative Party may not; and because, even if both agree, it will not be accepted by the 27. The first signs are not very favourable: the White Paper was received with well-concealed enthusiasm in Brussels.

What is generally agreed—the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, pointed this out and his committee’s report agrees—is that no deal would be a disaster. It would be falling off the proverbial cliff. This is of course disputed by the extra-terrestrials who run the European Research Group. I believe that it would be a disaster, unless it is avoided by a series of events which are far from inconceivable. First, I believe that Parliament will reject no deal and insist on a meaningful alternative. Might this be a general election? Would a Conservative Government, responsible for a failed negotiation leading to a state of chaos, fancy their chances of victory? It is not likely. Should Parliament tell the Government to go back to the negotiating table and come back with a better deal? That is mission impossible. The only meaningful alternative will be to let the people have the final say, especially if Parliament cannot reach a clear conclusion.

At first, the idea of a second referendum was contemptuously dismissed and had little support. Now, the idea of giving the people the final say is steadily gaining ground. Of course we will be told that the people have spoken and to question their verdict is to treat them with contempt; this is the leavers’ mantra. Leavers had many different reasons for voting leave, but ending up with the catastrophe of no deal was certainly not one of them. It was to be all sunny uplands. This time, voters cannot be gulled by promises of £350 million a week for the NHS because we will be paying a divorce bill of some £40 billion, nor by scares about millions of Turks about to invade Britain. This time, they will know what Brexit actually means. In the early days after the referendum, Donald Tusk forecast that the final choice would be between a very hard Brexit, such as no deal, and remain. I have always thought he was right. In the end, that is likely to be the only real choice, as the halfway-house compromise of the Chequers paper is a dead option.

As a final point, I have always opposed a referendum. During debate on the then European Union Bill in 2011, I argued in favour of the tradition of Locke—in favour of parliamentary democracy based on the rule of law and the rights of the individual, not the pernicious Rousseau doctrine that the will of the people must always prevail. That is a doctrine invoked, ever since the days of the Committee of Public Safety, by dictators past and present. I also argued for the principle expounded by Burke: that for Parliament to work effectively, MPs must be representatives not delegates. So why do I support another people’s vote? Because a vote to leave by plebiscite cannot be reversed without another vote by plebiscite. But then we should follow the example of the Germans, who wisely adopted a post-war democratic constitution, which, in the light of their experience of Hitler, forbids the federal Government from calling referendums except on very limited local issues. Then we go back to Locke and Burke, and down with Rousseau.