My Lords, now we move to the calmer waters of the Cross Benches. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, had his analogy, and I have mine. When I last attempted to speak in one of these debates I was in the air. I was in a holding pattern, metaphorically speaking, looking down time and again on Aylesbury, lamenting the fact that each time I looked down on Aylesbury, nothing had changed. Here we are a fortnight later, and I am still in this holding pattern and, again, nothing has changed in Aylesbury so far as I can tell. The feelings of frustration, boredom and irritation are still there, double what they were last time. The problem has been that last time I was expecting the pilot to announce that it was only 10 minutes to landing, but she seems to have failed to make contact with ground control and for one reason or another we are still there awaiting some clear signal from her that we are indeed about to land.
The signals we have received are conflicting. I heard last night that it was being suggested that the negotiations have stalled, but today the Minister has said that discussions are ongoing. The question that has been asked is whether the Prime Minister is really going to go to Strasbourg. We have yet to receive the answer, and whether these negotiations go ahead or not is very much in the air. I am still in the difficult position of not knowing exactly where we are going and I am still looking forward to an announcement that seems always to be delayed and still not coming.
I have been thinking of something that might be useful to say, and there is one aspect of the situation that I would like to say something about. If we look forward to what we have been told is likely to happen this week, tomorrow we have the meaningful vote. It is likely, from what we have been told, that the deal will be rejected. That means that the following day there will be a vote on whether there should be a no-deal Brexit, and we expect that the vote will overwhelmingly reject the idea of that kind of Brexit. That brings us to Thursday, with a vote on a Motion that Brexit day should be delayed.
I am very uneasy about that Motion, when and if we get to it, assuming that simply asking for a delay would mean that we would get it from the member states of the EU. So far as I can see, a further delay will do nothing to remove the cloud of uncertainty which has been hanging over this entire process for far too long. Surely we risk an explosion of real anger from those who believe that this delay was not what they voted for but, if there is to be a delay, we need to have a very clear idea of exactly what its purpose is. I made this point last time. A vote simply in favour of delay will not do that, and no doubt those who vote in favour of it will have quite different views from different parts of the spectrum about what they expect to get out of it. We cannot expect to get a second chance, so, if we are to ask for a delay, we have to be crystal clear about the purpose and how long it is needed.
It has been suggested that there might be a case for a very short delay to complete the legislation that we need to have in place before Brexit, particularly a no-deal Brexit, but I do not think that that is what this version, if we reach it, is really asking for. It is looking for more negotiating time, but I find it hard to see what that could be expected to achieve in the period that one can be realistic about, bearing in mind that the European Parliament will dissolve on
Another alternative has been suggested—that we should ask for a much longer delay. A year has been suggested—I think that Kenneth Clarke has even suggested 21 months—in order that the transition period becomes the period of delay, which we go through while remaining a member of the EU. Whether the member states would agree to such a fundamental change in our approach to the Article 50 process must be questionable, and I am very doubtful that it would be achievable. Even if it were, we run into even further difficulty over breach of trust with those who voted in the majority in the referendum.
A further alternative is a delay so that a second referendum can be held. I know that there are not a few people who have been calling for a people’s vote, and I, as one who voted against leaving, can understand the sentiments that give rise to it. However, I have always been, and remain, of the position that in principle a second referendum would be a huge mistake. I do no need to go over the reasons for that but I retain that view. A delay for that purpose seems to be wholly unacceptable. As I see it, we have to go with what we have. We must lie on the bed that we have created for ourselves for good or ill—mostly ill, as it now seems.
Those thoughts bring me back to the position that I adopted at the outset. I favour supporting the Prime Minister’s deal. I know that it has shortcomings but we must not overdo that criticism by building on to them the inevitable consequences of leaving, such as the fact that we have no control over what happens next. I, for one, am willing to give credit to the Prime Minister and the right honourable Attorney-General for having done the best they can. As I said, not being party to the negotiations, it is very hard for us to know whether anything more could be achieved. So far as I can tell from the noises coming from both sides, the matter has been taken as far as it can be. Therefore, for fear of anything worse, I would go along with the deal. Perhaps I am cautious by nature. However, there is too much at stake and too much to play for. It really is time to settle the matter so that we can move on to the next stage.
I am reminded of the advice in Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary poem about Jim. Noble Lords may remember that Jim was the boy who ran away from his nurse while at the zoo. He encountered a lion and was slowly eaten by it, bit by bit.
“Always keep a-hold of Nurse”,
we are told,
“For fear of finding something worse”.