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Gold medal to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, once the fastest man in Europe, for securing a debate on the issue of the hour—and would that we had an hour each to explore it. For those who have but 20 minutes, I commend The Roadmap to a People’s Vote, published a month ago. In the short time I have, I will draw on it to make four quick points. First, why a people’s vote? Because the people want it. Polls in the late summer showed clear backing, 45% to 35%, for a public vote on the outcome. The majority rose to two to one, 50% to 25%, in the event of no deal. These majorities are still rising. The people want to have their say.
Point two: why do they want to have their say? Because nobody voted for the Brexit we seem to be going to get. Fewer than one in five now believe that the Government will get a good deal; over 60% believe they will be worse off; and a larger majority believe the negotiations are going worse than they were led to expect. The quotations from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, were very apposite. The policy was to have our cake and eat it. The people now know that is not possible—it is not working out as they were promised—so it seems right to ask them whether they nevertheless want to go ahead.
Point three: is that feasible? Is there enough time? The noble Lord, Lord Lamont, and I think on a previous occasion the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, have said that a referendum would take a year. I do not think so. The UCL Constitution Unit report the other day suggested 22 weeks; the Roadmap suggests it could be even faster. However, I acknowledge that it would be necessary to stop the Article 50 clock and obtain an extension of the two-year negotiating period. This would not be a problem. It is important to distinguish between two scenarios here, thinking about the position of the 27. The 27 might well cavil at the idea of an extension to permit the present UK negotiating team to carry on negotiating in the way they are. The EU has other priorities, and the Lithuanian lady got it right the other day when she said after the European Council that “this is a difficult negotiation; it is difficult to know what they want, because they don’t know what they want”. If it is merely to carry on the process, I am not sure the necessary unanimity for an extension would be available. But I am quite sure that 27 democracies would never prevent our putting the outcome to a democratic decision in May, June or September. For that scenario, an extension could be instantly obtained.
A stronger objection is my point four: that a referendum would be socially divisive. I agree. A second referendum would be. However, it would not be nearly as divisive as Brexit without one. The polls now show a decisive majority wanting a second vote and an admittedly much smaller majority not wanting Brexit. If that persists, to drag the country out while denying it a vote would be bitterly and lastingly divisive. The economic and societal consequences of that for jobs, growth, investment and living standards would hit home over time and hit the poorest the hardest, as Sir John Major pointed out the other day. That is a recipe for deep and lasting resentment. It would not then be the people’s Brexit; it would the politicians’ Brexit, the Government’s Brexit, Parliament’s Brexit. The most democratic course is also the least divisive: Parliament should seek the verdict of the people.