My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. He and I have worked closely together in the past and I hugely respect his views, even if I disagree with his final comments. We have listened to some highly intelligent, wise and thoughtful contributions, and it is an honour to be a part of this important debate at this point in our history.
Before I comment on the options facing the other House tomorrow, I will endorse what others have already stated: the mood of the public is growing increasingly impatient with the endless, repetitive debate on this topic and the media’s constant, often unhelpful, analysis, particularly that of the BBC. It is dominating every conversation. It is a complete distraction. It is delaying progress, not just on Bills in this House, as we have heard, but in every sphere of life, including investment by the business community. In my view, any further procrastination could lead to significant unrest. Most people I speak to are bored with the topic. They just want a decision; they want to move on. We and Members of the other House need to pay attention to the current mood of the people.
I have been considering the options if the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected tomorrow: Parliament takes control; we have another referendum; we crash out without a deal; or there is a vote of no confidence, which might result in a general election. I am not even going to consider the last option. It would be a complete humiliation and a disaster.
Let us suppose that the PM loses tomorrow and Parliament takes control to decide on the terms of the deal. I have the utmost respect for my good friend the right honourable Hilary Benn, but do we really believe, with the shambolic state the parties are in, that Parliament is capable of negotiating a better deal? As we have heard, the Conservatives are engaged in open warfare, Labour in covert warfare; the SNP is navel-gazing; and the DUP is discredited. I have not thought about the Lib Dems. Besides, this would result in having to delay Article 50 and would add significantly to the current uncertainty. What would be achieved? The only possible alternative would be a customs union arrangement, a variation on Norway or Canada. That would involve permanently accepting EU rules and trading terms over which we had little or no influence—the very issues of concern about the backstop.
So why not have a second referendum? That is the last thing we need, in my view. The country is divided, fractured and tense. As others have stated, we have had two years of uncertainty. This is of particular concern to the business community. To perpetuate this state of affairs would be irresponsible and achieve nothing.
How often have we heard the statement that the people did not know what they were voting for the first time round? They knew exactly what they were voting for. They were fed up with the loss of sovereignty, being controlled by the ECJ and the impact of migration. They may not have fully understood the consequences of leaving but they made a decision. We need to honour it. The second statement I often hear—we have heard it today—is that it was not a conclusive vote: 52 to 48. Most of us expected it to be much closer and were shocked when we woke up on
We do not need another referendum, even on the terms of the deal. The same political arguments would be made and voters would be even more confused. In any case, what would it achieve? Would we reverse the decision and cancel Article 50? The reality is that we have been half-hearted about our EU membership for a long time, playing hokey-cokey. Most of us were very comfortable with our membership of the Common Market but the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties, with their desire to integrate fully, were a step too far for most of the British people. If another referendum were to take place, it would have to be on the basis that a vote to stay would involve embracing fully the European Union and its centralisation policies on economic and monetary union, the single currency and the authority of the ECJ and the Commission, surrendering our sovereignty in the process. We are not going to do that. We cannot have a second referendum to stay in on our current terms now. Dissatisfaction with the current arrangement led to this mess. We sent David Cameron off on his bike and he failed. The people have spoken and we need to move on. Another referendum would create even more confusion, division and delay.
So why not just crash out? For my constituency base, the farming community, it would be turmoil, particularly for the livestock sector. Those responsible for managing the pasture lands of our country, who produce milk, beef and lamb, are dependent on EU markets. Some 40% of our sheepmeat, the highest of any commodity, and 36% of our beef crosses the channel. That is an essential counterbalance to the power of supermarkets here in our home market. I was at a farmers’ meeting near my home last week. They are concerned about three things: the loss of direct support, which we will debate when the Agriculture Bill eventually comes to this House; the rise in the popularity of veganism, which they see as a real threat; and the risk of a collapse in markets as a result of no deal. Many businesses might not survive that triple whammy without serious government intervention and support. I am delighted that Michael Gove, the Defra Secretary, feels the same way. There is nothing appealing about another decade of austerity, which I believe would follow.
I too voted to remain but if noble Lords accept my premise that a second vote would just prolong the agony and create further confusion, that leaving with no deal would lead to financial turmoil and that reversing the decision would not resolve our deep-seated suspicions about the EU, the only question that remains is whether the deal is good enough. It was never going to be possible to negotiate a perfect deal. The only possible solution to the thankless task the Prime Minister inherited is that both sides of the opinion—those who want to remain and those who want to crash out—are equally disappointed. Remarkably, I think that the Prime Minister has achieved that objective. I hope and pray that the Commons will have the common sense to endorse the deal tomorrow. To reject it will perpetuate the current uncertainty and achieve nothing, in my view. As other noble Lords have said, we need to move on, look forward and negotiate with pace to avoid the backstop.