My Lords, despite everything, our final Brexit destination remains a mystery—and, faced with a mystery, I am happy to take the suggestion made on Thursday to take the advice of that master of mystery, Sherlock Holmes:
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
So let us try it. In the House of Commons there is a significant majority against the Brexit deal on offer. It looks like an impossible objective. Since the EU refuses to substantially alter the deal, it will remain an impossibility. It is impossible, geographically and physically, to wish away the land border across Ireland between the UK and the EU. In Parliament, there is also a significant parliamentary majority against no deal—another impossibility. Canada-plus has died a death and it is impossible to see how the PM could accept a Norway-style deal, which would encompass the free movement which she has sworn to oppose, and would leave us with no voice, no vote and no veto over EU decisions that would crucially affect us. When we have dismissed or ruled out all the impossibles, the only sensible course of action is to put the issue back to the people. If, as the Government say, the deal before us really is the best and only Brexit deal possible, the people should be asked whether this Brexit deal is acceptable to them—or whether, given all that we now know, they wish to remain in the EU.
I say “all that we now know” because it will be obvious to all noble Lords that the consequences of the 2016 referendum were known to very few at the time of that decision. Over the past few months alone, a vast amount of legal, economic and constitutional information has been released to Parliament. Why? Because parliamentarians rightly insisted that they would not be capable of making a meaningful and informed decision in the absence of that information. Yet none of this information was made available to the public at the time when they were asked to make a decision. Of course, it may have made no difference—but the only way to find out is to ask them.
I have heard the arguments against having a reconsultation. It will be obvious to this House that I have never accepted them, any more than I would accept an argument against frequent general elections. One of these was of course announced by the now Prime Minister, and the period between that general election and the previous one was shorter than the period we have had since the referendum. I have been strengthened in my view by the Prime Minister, who in her speech today adduced the closely fought and closely decided Welsh referendum as evidence of the principle that you cannot oppose a referendum decision. She said that proved how a referendum had to be accepted by everyone in Parliament—except that it was not.
Following the Welsh referendum, the Conservative Party argued vehemently against the creation of the Assembly. Among the hundreds of MPs voting against the then Labour Government and the Government of Wales Bill in 1997 was the fresh-faced, newly elected MP for Maidenhead, Theresa May. Indeed, as late as 2005 the Conservative Party manifesto promised a second referendum on the Welsh Assembly—a people’s vote, if you will—which now seems to be wrong on principle. That was on whether to scrap the Assembly—which is all a bit awkward for those arguing on principle, as the noble Lord, Lord Lang, did today, that you can never have a reconsultation on a referendum.
I do not know what the final vote in a referendum might be—but whatever the result, it would not be sufficient without addressing the underlying perceptions which helped drive the result of the initial referendum. Austerity has been mentioned today, but I want to mention a word people are reticent about mentioning—immigration—and in particular the perception that, whatever the benefits of free movement, it contributes to a misuse of the benefits system by those arriving, and the deterioration of people’s access to public services. The tragedy is that both of these could be quite easily addressed by the Government.
First, it is perfectly possible, even under existing EU regulations, to ensure that those who come here have to take gainful employment within a reasonable time, or leave. In short: no job, no stay. Secondly, we need a more proportionate distribution of public funds directed towards areas of high immigrant populations, to offset the increased demand for public services that comes in the wake of high immigration.
Whatever the result of a people’s vote, it should be made clear that both these measures will be implemented. If MPs cannot agree, let the people decide. A people’s vote, with policies to address people’s concerns, offers the only potential way out of the terrible mess in which the country finds itself.