I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, on his skilful speech but, speaking as the last opposition Back-Bencher in this marathon debate, I hope the House will forgive me for a brief personal view of what has happened and where we are now.
For me, the referendum result was a great blow. I had been a committed European since I was 18, but what made the remain defeat even harder to bear was the reaction of one of my 10 grandchildren. With tears in his eyes, and in words I shall never forget, he cried out, “You do realise, grandpa, that your generation has just ruined my life”. Perhaps that was a bit over the top, but it made me determined to devote what was left of my political career to doing what I could to ensure that the lives of my children’s and grandchildren’s generations were not blighted by the referendum result. My speech this evening is for them.
Speaking in the first Lords debate after the referendum, I accepted the result, but I argued that it was essential that leavers and remainers should get together to work out strategies that were in the national interest and, above all, to retain access to the markets of the EU. I also said that we should not trigger Article 50 until we had worked out a proper plan, and I stressed the crucial role of Parliament in bringing the country together, which I believe was and is essential,
The new Prime Minister said that she saw her task as being to take the UK out of the EU, but the unanswered question was how she was going to do it. Would Mrs May come down on the side of the hard-line Brexiteers and go for a hugely risky hard Brexit, or would she decide to be a pragmatic national leader and reach out across party boundaries to pursue the best possible deal for the country? Let us not forget that the UK’s recent prosperity has been based on our trade with other member states and on highly successful inward investment from outside the EU. We should also not forget that being a member of the EU has benefited the UK in a number of other crucial ways: in improved environmental and social protection; in research and education; in security and defence; and in our influence, power and prestige in the world.
The obvious Brexit strategy should therefore have been to mitigate the loss of these great advantages by remaining as close as possible to the EU. Instead, in her January 2017 Lancaster House speech Mrs May took a disastrous wrong turning. She laid down red lines which could have been lifted straight from a Brexiteer pamphlet: no single market; no customs union; no deal is better than a bad deal. By short-sightedly trying to please the Brexiteers she made it almost impossible to arrive at a deal which was in the overall national interest.
Over the two and half years since the referendum, Mrs May has twisted and turned as she has vainly attempted to reach a settlement with the EU which was acceptable not just to business but to the nation as a whole. First, we had the Chequers White Paper; then, after that was rejected by the Brexit hard-liners, we were presented with the withdrawal agreement and the political statement which Parliament is now debating. It seems likely that, despite Mrs May’s undoubted persistence, the latest example of which we saw this afternoon, her deal will be defeated in the Commons, partly because of the unacceptability of the Irish border backstop to the DUP and the Brexiteers, and also partly because the agenda set out in the political declaration is too vague and would take years to negotiate.
If the withdrawal agreement is defeated tomorrow, it is anybody’s guess what happens next. It would be an unmitigated disaster if the no deal that Brexiteers are so enamoured of—we have heard some of them this evening—was not also decisively voted down. The leavers never told us that our motorways would be gridlocked and that there would be shortages of critical medicines and other essentials. The leavers never told us that a no-deal Brexit would lead to the violent dislocation of virtually every legal arrangement between the UK and the EU. So instead of a so-called smooth glide path into a new relationship with the continent, Britain would be in freefall.
Mrs May could, of course, try to seek other options, including further tweaks to her withdrawal deal or, as a last gasp, going for something which she ought to have considered much earlier—Norway-plus, for example—but these options suffer from disadvantages, above all the lack of time and the uncertainty of a parliamentary majority for them. There is, of course, the possibility of a general election, but it is far more likely that because there are no other real alternatives we will be forced into a second referendum.
I am aware of the possible dangers of a second referendum. We have heard some eloquent ones from the most reverend Primate. However, if there is no parliamentary majority for any proposal, it could be necessary to consult the voters again on the options, including remaining in the EU. In order to make sufficient time for such a referendum, we should also have to ask for a delay in the implementation of Article 50.
None of us can predict the future, not even some of the clever people we have heard from today. However, I am convinced that as time goes by, the difficulties of leaving the EU and the advantages of membership will become ever clearer. Above all, I am convinced that generations of my children and grandchildren will not stand for a disastrous no deal or a half-baked arrangement which will not only leave our country poorer but separate us from our close continental neighbours who should be our natural partners. They will decide to remain a member of the Union which has provided Europe with peace, stability and prosperity for the last 60 years. I support the Motion.