My Lords, I want to make three points. First, the reality is that the Prime Minister’s deal is dead. The majority of MPs and probably the majority of your Lordships’ House, from all sides, simply do not support it. In the country, both leavers and remainers are quixotically united in rejecting it. The PM’s deal is definitely dead.
Secondly, there is no real mandate for leaving the European Union: 17 million people voted to leave, 16 million people voted to remain and 13 million people did not vote at all. So the “expressed will of the people”, as the Brexiteers like to call the outcome of the referendum, was the expressed will of only 37% of the electorate, and the polls tell us that these figures are shifting further in the direction of remain, particularly among young people eligible to vote for the first time—the very people who will inherit this mess.
It is not just a numbers game. All the political parties, with the exception of the Liberal Democrats, are radically split on the issue. Today in the House, even the Bishops have confessed—if that is what Bishops are allowed to do—that they are split. The normal machinery of politics simply does not work where Brexit is concerned. In any other walk of life, no sensible leader would attempt something as complex, heroic and contentious as unravelling 50 years of close partnership with no real mandate, no overwhelming support in the country and with their party split and unable to offer support. It simply would not happen.
Thirdly, if the PM’s deal has no support, no deal is even more catastrophic and must be absolutely ruled out. It would be equivalent to the closing moments of the road movie “Thelma & Louise”—one of my favourite films—when the two main characters, cornered by events and the law, drive spectacularly and with huge élan off a cliff. Driving off a cliff never has a good outcome, and let me give your Lordships just one example of the risks of a no-deal Brexit which has not been highlighted completely so far.
Brexit is a pivotal challenge for the environment. Some 80% of our current environment law stems from the EU and a no-deal Brexit would sweep away the current effective systems of enforcement of environmental law, and the existing rights of the public to environmental information, to public participation and to access to justice. With a no-deal Brexit there is a real risk that, as part of a desperate scramble to sign trade deals, the UK would be pressurised into a post-Brexit bonfire of environmental standards. As my noble friend Lord Whitty outlined, the Government have promised a whole framework of primary and secondary legislation for the environment, but none of it can come into place quickly, if at all, under a no-deal Brexit. This is simply one area that I have knowledge of where black holes will open up under no deal. We must avoid a no-deal Brexit at all costs.
I believe that your Lordships’ House must be the voice of sanity. We should vote vigorously against the Prime Minister’s deal and stop a no-deal Brexit. We must not be like Thelma and Louise, heading off a cliff, intoning, “It’s the will of the people”. I would go further than our Front Bench and ask the other place to revoke the Article 50 notification. Some say that resiling from a Brexit that looks highly unpalatable under closer examination, and which has in reality proven politically unachievable, would destroy faith in the political system. But there is no faith in the political system. Many of those who voted to leave did so because they felt politics had not delivered social and economic results for them, and because they had already lost faith in the political system. The time has come for men and women of good will across the parties to abandon this Brexit, which will impact particularly on those who are poorer and less able to cope, and focus on forging a national engagement and agreement to address the real issues of the day: future prosperity, economic and social inequalities, and the safeguarding of peace.