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Brexit: People’s Vote - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:27 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Minister of State (Department for Exiting the European Union) 2:27 pm, 25th October 2018

My Lords, today’s debate has been a good one—although there was a hint of déjà vu about it. I seem to have heard many of the arguments a number of times before.

I thank and pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, for introducing the debate so ably. I greatly enjoyed his history lesson, although I think he was a bit unkind to David Cameron for fulfilling his manifesto promise to call the referendum in the first place. The noble Lord was conveniently forgetting about the crucial role played by the Liberal Democrats in this. After all, I think it was the Liberal Democrat party under Nick Clegg that first called for a “real referendum on Europe”. It was in one of their famous petitions and on one of their many focus leaflets distributed around the country—so they can definitely claim that they were ahead of the game on this one. However, building on the powerful contribution of my noble friend Lord Finkelstein, I note that the petition did not say, “It’s time for two real referenda on Europe”.

I also thank all other noble Lords who participated in the debate. I will refer to some of their contributions as I go. The Motion calls on this House to take note of the case for a so-called “people’s vote” on the outcome of the negotiations between the Government and the European Union on our withdrawal from the EU. I agree with my noble friend Lord Lamont that the term is somewhat Orwellian. I assume that the debate is timed to coincide with last week’s demonstration in London, which had an interesting range of speakers. One of them was the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vincent Cable. Apparently he seems to have forgotten that he once called the idea of a second referendum,

“seriously disrespectful and politically utterly counterproductive”— as, indeed, the Liberal Democrats discovered at the last election. Then there was the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. After the original, authentic 2016 people’s vote, he said that the establishment needed to respect the result and that a second referendum would lead to cynicism among voters. They were both right the first time.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and to his son, to my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft, to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and to all the other marchers at the weekend that, however passionate it was—I recognise, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, that it was a passionate demonstration and that people believed strongly in what they were saying—it was, of course, only a small fraction of those who participated in the original 2016 people’s vote. That point was well made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott.

We have already had a people’s vote in June 2016 and the people voted to leave the European Union. The calls for a second referendum are being led by a small group of diehard remainers who, by definition, do not respect the result of referenda—so why should we believe that they would somehow respect the result of another referendum? If they did succeed in overturning the result, why should leavers respect that outcome? It is a recipe for years of political and constitutional chaos. On the issue of how long it would take to hold another referendum, which I thought was powerfully addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin, in his excellent contribution, my estimate that it could take up to a year might even have been an underestimate. That was a powerful contribution.

Calling the result into question, as the Motion seeks to do, exposes three issues of fundamental importance for our country: first, the Government’s mandate, given by the British people, to secure our withdrawal from the European Union; secondly, the long-held constitutional traditions that underpin our democracy; and, thirdly, the importance of ensuring the integrity of our negotiations. I will deal with each of them in turn.

First, the result of the referendum gave the Government a clear mandate from the British people to deliver our withdrawal from the EU. It is a mandate that the Government have been working to deliver since then. I remind noble Lords that it was this Parliament that overwhelmingly voted to put the question of the UK’s membership of the European Union to the British electorate in the first place. It is worth reminding ourselves of the simple question that was put to the people on 23 June 2016. It asked:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said in a somewhat puzzling intervention that it was not clear what the electorate said in that vote. I profoundly disagree. The result of the referendum was a clear answer to that question, giving a clear directive to the Government to withdraw from the European Union—which we respected through our notification under Article 50.

The result reflected not only extensive campaigning from both sides but considerable and prolonged debate at national and parliamentary level, underpinned by a commitment from spokesmen from all the major political parties to respect the outcome of the vote. Almost three-quarters of the electorate took part in that people’s vote, resulting in 17.4 million votes to leave the European Union. That was the highest number of votes cast for anything in UK electoral history. Parliament then overwhelmingly confirmed the result of the referendum by voting by clear and convincing majorities in both Houses for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill.

Further still, at the last general election, more than 80% of the British people voted for parties committed in their manifesto to respecting the leave result. I respect the position of the Liberal Democrats. They campaigned against the result at the last general election and they got 7% of the vote for their trouble.

A clear majority of the electorate voted to leave and the Government believe that we must respect both the will of the British people and the democratic process which delivered that result. As the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union noted earlier this month:

“It was close but it was clear. Britain voted to leave the EU. Respecting the result: that’s the essence of our democracy”.

Secondly, seeking to second-guess the results of the referendum would be a dangerous precedent to set for our democracy and the principles that underpin our constitutional order. The British people must be able to trust their Government both to effect their will and to deliver the best outcome for them. In the summer of 2016, millions of people came out to have their say. People trusted that their vote would count—that, after years of feeling ignored by politics, their voices would be now heard. As the Prime Minister pointed out, to ask the question all over again would be a gross betrayal of our democracy and a betrayal of that trust.

More than that, there is a danger of giving rise to the same forces that have brought to power in many other European countries extremist parties to the left and to the right. I agree with my noble friend Lord Shinkwin that if we overturn the result of the referendum we run the risk of the same thing happening here. By placing partisan interests above those of the British people, we will undermine the faith that they hold in our political establishment. That would be hugely damaging to the powerful democratic values of this country and this Government—a point powerfully made by my noble friend Lord Lamont and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in his excellent speech. It risks profound constitutional, legal and political difficulties that would be a distraction from the Government’s efforts to secure the best possible deal for the UK.

I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and my noble friend Lord Higgins that we have always said that we will give Parliament a say on the final deal once it is agreed. Of course, the EU withdrawal Act set out exactly how that meaningful vote would work.