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My Lords, last Saturday, my younger son and I attended the first demonstration that I have ever taken part in. Its most memorable features were its sheer scale, the sunshine, the placards reading, “Conservatives against Brexit” and “Labour against Brexit”, the patience and good nature of a crowd that was calm, quietly determined if clearly very worried, and the fact that for the vast majority, this demonstration was manifestly not party political. My favourite poster was, I assume, done for the benefit of our ex-Foreign Secretary; it read: “Testiculi ad Brexitam”.
Our dilemma began more than 60 years ago, as the issue of our relationship with our continental European neighbours began to gnaw at our political consciousness and to fragment our changing sense of national identity. It has been a running sore within the Conservative Party and has now manifested itself around the leadership of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. The political paralysis, the manifest lack of leadership and the growing sense of concern that we are going about this in the worst way possible as the clock relentlessly keeps ticking are some of the elements which impelled me to march on Saturday.
Franz Kafka would recognise the dilemma we have gotten ourselves into and he has wise words to guide us forward:
“Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable”.
What I accept, and what I also think is the right interpretation of the 2016 referendum, is that it was argued and voted on predominantly not on party-political grounds. UKIP was a single-issue vanishing meteor; Conservative and Labour were, and remain, deeply split. I suspect that all of us in this House know a great many intelligent, thoughtful and deeply worried MPs from all parties, none of whom is standing on digital soap-boxes and playing to the gallery.
The reason that the last 28 months have been so chaotic, frustrating and unfocused is that Her Majesty’s Government, and in particular our Prime Minister, have decided to try to manage the complex and highly delicate process of extrication from the EU on rigidly party-political lines, a direct and deeply unfortunate repudiation of the non-party-political referendum result. What is politically acceptable and expedient for the ERG is not right; it is manifestly wrong. How dare any narrow political grouping have the intellectual arrogance and narrowmindedness to claim that it alone knows how to interpret and enact the will of the British people.
How do we get out of jail? I think we have to return to what is right. We have to remember and recognise that the will of the British people on the subject of the EU is expressed neither clearly nor helpfully by interpreting it on party-political lines. Since our two largest parties lack the will and the courage to manage their own affairs competently, we should recognise that the non-party-political will of the crowd takes priority. I think we have to go back to them—back to ourselves—and frame the dilemma we face with brutal frankness, minimal spin and maximal content. Many may find this intolerable and unacceptable. In my view, it is the right thing to do.