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My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, for initiating this debate. It gives me the opportunity to explain my own journey from being a sceptic about the case for a second referendum to joining the march in support of it last Saturday.
As a realistic remain voter—as I would call myself—I was naturally disappointed with the result, but felt that our focus should move on to limiting the damage from our departure. An immediate call for another referendum looked to me like a refusal to accept the outcome of the vote. Two and a half years on, my views have firmly changed, for three main reasons, including, first, the truly disastrous process of the negotiations. With the possible exception of Liam Fox, I do not think that anyone believed this would be easy, but no one could have conceived how badly it would go. The blame is variously laid at the door of the intransigence of the European Commission or—rather unfairly, indeed absurdly—on a secret remain agenda on the part of the Civil Service. Like the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, I pay tribute to Sir Jeremy Heywood. The true cause of the problem lies in a series of grievous misjudgments on the part of the Prime Minister and the Government: the triggering of Article 50 without a clear plan, thus handing the powerful lever of time over to the Commission; the setting of red lines around the single market and the customs union, building false expectations and rigidity into the negotiations from the start; and the calling of the general election in 2016, which wiped out the Government’s majority and left them hostage to the DUP and minority groups within their own party.
As a direct consequence of these misjudgments—this is my second reason for supporting another referendum—we are now faced with some very unenviable choices. Those who express strong concerns over the Chequers proposals, and say they are worse than the status quo, have a point. We will become a rule taker and risk being perpetually on the wrong end of future EU trade negotiations. Equally, the economic and social risks of a no-deal Brexit are so immense that they cannot, and should not, be countenanced.
I do not need to speak at length on this, as the CBI, the TUC and the NAO have all already done so. It strikes me that those who are relaxed about a no-deal Brexit are very often “people of means”, able to withstand the severe economic shock that would almost certainly follow. Our concern should be for the bulk of the population, for whom this is simply too big risk to take. It may be that, even at this late hour, the Prime Minister can still secure a good deal with the EU and persuade Parliament to support it, in which case today’s debate will have been redundant. But if she cannot—this seems the most likely outcome—a no-deal Brexit must not be the answer.
My third reason for changing my view is the progressive loss of Britain’s standing and influence since the referendum in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world. Contrary to all the assurances given at the time, the reality of a diminished Britain is there for all of us to see. I expected leaving the EU to result in our having a smaller economy, but not in our becoming a smaller country.
I am very much aware of the challenges that holding a second referendum will bring. But in the circumstances that we now find ourselves, it seems the only viable option. Sherlock Holmes, in The Sign of Four, says to Watson that,
“when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
The need for a second referendum is now the improbable truth that we should recognise.