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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:10 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 5:10 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, this is now the 13th opportunity that we have had to debate the Government’s withdrawal agreement. I am sure that all Members of your Lordships’ House hope, like me, that it will be the last.

Since we had our previous debate on the subject, some things at least have changed. The first is that the EU has agreed to an extension of Article 50, which will be widely supported across the House. The way in which this happened, though, is a telling foretaste of how life would be were we to leave the EU. The Prime Minister was allowed into the Council to petition other member states and was subject to lengthy and sceptical questioning. Then, like a prisoner in the dock, she was led from the room to a windowless cell, where she was kept until the verdict on her proposals had been reached. A modest meal was brought in. After a number of hours, the verdict was read out to her and she was allowed to leave. This is the reality of “taking back control”; this is what it would be like, week in, week out, were we ever to leave the EU.

Before leaving for Brussels, the Prime Minister had made her petulant and ill-judged address to the nation. Many in the Commons were angered by her attack on them. What really rankled with me was the statement:

“I am on your side”— by which she meant the side of the people. But this weekend has demonstrated that she is not on the side of the people.

Noble Lords on the Government Front Bench will no doubt argue that a million people from across the UK on the streets of London, and 5.5 million people signing a petition, are only a fraction of the people. They are technically right. But how many people could the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, summon on to streets in support of the Government’s deal? How many people could the extreme Brexiteers summon up in support of crashing out? We know that Nigel Farage can summon up 200 in a pub car park—hardly the will of the people. We also know that every poll shows a large majority in favour of a people’s vote, and a large majority of them now want to remain rather than supporting either the Government’s deal or leaving without a deal. So when the Prime Minister says that she is on the people’s side, she is, as with so many other things, completely at odds with reality.

Until today, however improbable this may seem, the Prime Minister seemed to be a disciple of Samuel Beckett. When it came to her deal, she was following his injunction:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.

Today’s Statement signals the end of that strategy, and the end of any attempt by the Government to stay in charge of the Brexit process.

The Prime Minister says that she is no longer willing to fail better, and will not bring forward her deal again until it succeeds. If—as she tacitly accepts—this is unlikely ever to happen, she has said that she will provide government time for other options to be considered. But what is unclear is when she will conclude that her deal is dead. Will it be this week? Will it be next week? Will it perhaps be 11 April? Perhaps the Minister will tell us.

It is therefore hardly surprising that Members of another place will vote on an amendment later today that would give them early votes on other options. The Government say that if this amendment succeeds it will upset the balance between the Government and the Commons. But surely her proposal does the same. The Prime Minister accepts that it is for the House of Commons, not the Government, to put forward options for consideration and to determine the procedure by which it wishes to do so. The only difference between the Government’s position and that of Sir Oliver Letwin is one of timing, not substance. The truth is that the Government have thrown up their hands in despair and effectively said to the Commons, “Over to you”. It is the most humiliating abrogation of leadership and government in our lifetimes—but it is long overdue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, referred to the phrase in the Prime Minister’s Statement that,

“I cannot commit the Government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this House”.

In response to a question from the right honourable gentleman the leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister—if I heard her correctly—said that the Government would not feel obliged to follow any decision of the House of Commons that would cut across the commitments made in the Conservative Party manifesto. This seemed to me an extraordinary, dangerous and wholly unacceptable statement, and it is quite possible that I misheard it.