Further Developments in Discussions with the European Union under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:29 pm on 11th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 3:29 pm, 11th March 2019

My Lords, the reason given for having the debate today—the 12th on the Government’s withdrawal agreement with the EU and the political declaration—was so that we could debate the proposal that the Government were putting to a meaningful vote in the Commons tomorrow and express a view on it. We are all too well aware that the views of this House are now not pivotal to the Brexit process. But, under the terms of the withdrawal Act, we are given a minor role: that of debating what is proposed—and that is what we were hoping to do today.

The plan was that the Prime Minister would make a Statement at the start of business in the Commons this afternoon, setting out the basis on which she was asking the House to reverse its decision to reject the Government’s agreement and, if successful, to proceed to exit the EU on 29 March. For this to happen, the Government were to secure changes to the Irish backstop that would make it palatable to the DUP and a large number of otherwise dissident Tory Back-Benchers. Having failed to make any progress whatever in achieving a breakthrough on this, and facing another overwhelming defeat tomorrow, the Prime Minister is allegedly travelling to Strasbourg this evening to try to make more progress in an evening than a bevy of officials and Ministers—with or without a codpiece—has achieved in recent weeks.

Whatever the Prime Minister’s chance of success this evening, this sequence of events renders today’s debate almost totally pointless, as we have absolutely nothing new from the Government on which we can express a view. Indeed, were it not for the fact that some 40 of your Lordships have spent part of the weekend labouring over their speeches, I would be arguing that this debate should be scrapped—if only to spare Ministers the hideous ordeal of trying to explain what is going on and hearing 17 speeches from their own Back-Benchers, no doubt expressing 17 versions of what the future should look like.

However, as we are going on with the debate, I wonder whether the Minister could answer a couple of questions. First, is it true that the Prime Minister is going to Strasbourg this evening? Secondly, if she is, what is she taking with her that is new? Thirdly, if she is going and taking with her something new, on what basis does she believe she will have more success this time than on all the previous visits to Strasbourg and Brussels by officials over recent weeks?

Fourthly, by what mechanism do the Government believe the EU could express a definitive opinion on any new proposals before the planned debate in the Commons tomorrow? Fifthly, if the Prime Minister means there to be a meaningful vote tomorrow, how can it be achieved given that, presumably, no government Motion can be tabled tonight in advance of any talks taking place in Strasbourg on which a meaningful vote can be taken? Sixthly, if, by some procedural sleight of hand there were to be a meaningful vote tomorrow, this could be done on a Motion that had been before the Commons for only a few hours at most. Given that this is the most important decision MPs will be asked to make in their lifetime, how can this be seen as anything other than an extraordinary abuse of process by the Government?

Seventhly, we believe that the Government may have the meaningful vote tomorrow. However, if the EU states that it wants to take a decision tomorrow or later in the week in response to this unknown proposal that the Prime Minister might be taking forward, when might we then have a vote?

Over recent months, we have seen the Prime Minister repeatedly rebuffed by both Parliament and the EU. We have marvelled at her resilience. But this failure to make progress, coupled with her complete unwillingness to confront the facts, means that the Prime Minister really has now run out of road. Imagine if she were a chief executive due to make a major presentation to the board, and she said on the eve of the board meeting, “I’m sorry, there are no papers for this board meeting because my original business plan has failed. I’m hoping to amend it. I’m talking to my major customers overnight. I’m not sure whether I will be able to amend it, but, given that my sales directors failed to get them to agree to anything different, the likelihood is that I will fail to amend it. I hope you will still come to the board meeting tomorrow in the vague hope that you might have a proposal in front of you”. What would people say of such a chief executive? They would not still be there the day after tomorrow. But that is the position we find ourselves in with the Prime Minister.

As for the rest of the Cabinet, they are like sheep without a sheep-dog. We are told now that only two of them actually support the Prime Minister, and one of them is Mr Grayling. That is not wholly reassuring. It has to stop. The Commons must take control of this process and the affairs of the country, because the Government have lost control of them. There must be a meaningful vote tomorrow and then, on the reasonable assumption that the Government will not prevail, on Wednesday as planned there should be a vote to reject leaving the EU without a deal, followed by a vote to extend the Article 50 period, as the Prime Minister promised.

However, this is not enough. If the Prime Minister is forced to go back to the EU and ask for an extension, it will understandably ask, “For what purpose?”. There can be only one sensible purpose, which is to give the people the opportunity to stop this whole self-damaging spectacle in a referendum.