My Lords, I have from time to time this evening sensed that people are starting to feel sorry for the Prime Minister, but let us not get all sentimental: she played a large part in creating the biggest political shambles since Suez. The 2016 referendum result never gave the Government the mandate she claimed: only 38% of the electorate actually voted to leave the EU. She rushed into the withdrawal process without a clear negotiating strategy and with a shedload of misguided red lines. A year after the referendum she thought she could get a better mandate by calling an election, only for the British people to let her down substantially by reducing her parliamentary majority. She has totally changed her tune from saying,
“no deal is better than a bad deal”,
to saying that her current, unsatisfactory deal is better than no deal.
Throughout the negotiations the Brexiteers have been allowed to argue that the UK has a very strong hand; that the EU needs us more than we need them; and that the EU would split and do side deals. The reality has been that the EU stuck together, protected its own rules and stood by Ireland on its border concerns. It is the UK Government who have failed to grasp that you cannot have frictionless trade if you leave a single market and a customs union. So here we are today with a deal that satisfies very few people in the Prime Minister’s own party, is opposed by all the other parliamentary parties, threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom and looks unlikely to survive a meaningful vote in the House of Commons.
Although the Prime Minister says she finds it difficult to contemplate, she did last week reluctantly recognise for the first time that there is another option to her unsatisfactory deal or leaving with no deal. That is to stay in the EU, which in practice we will be doing for the length of the transition period, which could now stretch to 2022. Staying in the EU could probably be done only by another referendum that passed judgment on what the Government had achieved.
Until now a second referendum, which is now being called a people’s vote, was seen as a pipe dream of crazed remainers—no longer. Even recent Conservative Ministers use the term supportively and pollsters are starting to test the water. In a YouGov poll last Wednesday, after the Prime Minister launched her deal, six out of 10 voters said they wanted a second vote. Moreover, growing numbers of elected politicians now seem unable either to accept a bad deal or to reject it without some political cover from the electorate who have elected them. I think it is time for this House to help them out. We should provide some ideas to the House of Commons on how a second referendum might be carried out and how the EU might be encouraged to extend the Article 50 timetable to enable such a referendum to take place. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Kerr, somewhere in his cupboards, has some ideas. We are always being told our role is to ask the Commons to think again. A second referendum seems to me a good issue on which to exercise this role.