Leaving the European Union - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:58 pm on 21st January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 6:58 pm, 21st January 2019

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement and echo the comments in it about Northern Ireland. This is a truly remarkable Statement, following the largest ever defeat of a Government on a major policy issue. If one loses a vote by 230, common sense dictates that there is something very flawed with the proposal that suffered the defeat, and that to get support for a replacement proposition some considerable changes will be needed. What magnitude of change does the Prime Minister think is required to turn things round?

The Prime Minister was very clear. “My sense”, she said, is that three changes are needed—just three. Here they are: first, being more flexible in involving Parliament in negotiating the future relationship with the EU; secondly, embedding the strongest possible protections on workers’ rights and the environment; and, thirdly, finding an alternative way to deliver no hard border in Northern Ireland. That is it; problem solved. But involving Parliament to a greater extent has been forced on the Prime Minister and will happen whatever she says or does. Workers’ rights and the environment are very important, but so are myriad other issues. The Government have never said that they would dilute protections in those areas anyway, so why is that a change? If there is a more universally acceptable alternative to the backstop for Northern Ireland, it would surely have been found ages ago. The Government’s proposal for a bilateral treaty with Ireland—today’s latest wheeze—was killed off the moment it saw the light of day.

Of the more substantive changes that the Prime Minister could have advocated but has ruled out, three stand out. First, there is ruling out no deal. The Prime Minister summarily rules this out, despite knowing that a large majority in the Commons, and probably in her Cabinet and Government, is strongly opposed to it. This just seems foolhardy.

Secondly, there is suspending Article 50. I suspect that if there is any proposition that would gain overwhelming support in Parliament, it is that Article 50 has to be extended, come what may. Even in the unlikely event of the Government gaining support for the deal, the idea that they could pass all the legislation required before 29 March without invoking emergency powers is completely fanciful.

Thirdly, there is a referendum. The Prime Minister has at least stopped repeating the nonsense that it would take a year to organise such a poll, but has said that it would be difficult to do so before the European Parliament elections. As my colleague and noble friend Lord Tyler has shown with his draft Bills, it would not be difficult in the slightest to have a people’s vote in May. As for the Prime Minister’s assertion that such a vote would threaten social cohesion, it is surely much less of a threat than trying to force through a deal which has neither the support of the Commons nor, more importantly, of the people as a whole.

It must be clear to everyone except the Prime Minister herself that her sense of what will secure a Commons majority is simply wrong. It is unsurprising therefore that Back-Benchers are seeking methods to take the initiative. There has been much criticism of plans by Nick Boles, Dominic Grieve, Yvette Cooper and others to allow the Commons to decide its own business, as this would require a change to Standing Orders. It is obviously up to the Commons to decide how it runs its affairs, but it is worth recalling that the Standing Order which gives government business priority was introduced by Gladstone in the 1880s to stop filibustering by Irish MPs and allow decisions to be taken. It was a straightforward political fix. It has, however, like many things in Parliament—such as the Barnett formula, possibly—metamorphosed over time from a fix to a sacred constitutional principle. It is no such thing. As a political heir to Gladstone, I am pretty sure that the grand old man would now be arguing for the rules to be changed, and I hope that they are.

As for your Lordships’ House, we will have a debate next Monday—presumably on a take-note Motion. As was the case last week, however, this hardly seems adequate, and I suspect that we will need to reconsider a Motion which again firmly opposes no deal and possibly covers other issues.

I know that Jean-Claude Juncker is not everyone’s favourite, but they surely got it right today when they said: “Don’t look for answers to Brussels. This is the moment for London to speak, not for us”. Today’s Statement shows that, if he awaits the Prime Minister for a viable way forward, he will be waiting for a very long time. We simply do not have that time.