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My Lords, I have tried in previous debates to introduce some element of light-heartedness at this stage of proceedings, but it has not been easy, and I am afraid I have rather given up on Aylesbury. I feel rather like the unfortunate passengers who, on a flight today from London Heathrow to Dusseldorf, found themselves in Edinburgh instead. The lack of direction and uncertainty with which we are proceeding makes it extremely difficult for me to feel light-hearted—or, indeed, to say anything useful in this speech.
I am at least in the happy position of speaking in this debate only for myself. I represent no party; I do not speak on behalf of the members of the Cross-Bench group; and to preserve my independence, I do not discuss my views with any of them, and do not try to form any alliances. I am of course aware from previous debates that the views I shall express are not shared across the group. That will certainly become clear as others, much more qualified than I am to speak on this subject, follow me from these Benches. But I know that I am not entirely alone in the view that I have expressed several times in this prolonged series of debates. That is, that the least unsatisfactory way out of the predicament in which we find ourselves is—however hopeless it may seem now—to approve the deal. I believe that the benefits that it offers, in security and so many other fields, far outweigh the disadvantages of that agreement, which are mainly the inevitable consequences of leaving the EU. The political declaration is a different matter. But, unlike the withdrawal agreement, it is a declaration only. It is not intended to be binding, as an agreement is. It is there for discussion, and—with some change of mind, some greater flexibility—perhaps for manipulation, as we move forward.
As of this moment, awaiting what happens in the other place, the position, as I see it, is—looking at the alternatives—quite simple. With the greatest respect to all those many people to whom the noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred, who came to London and marched through the city last Saturday—some of them came from as far away as the Western Isles, I believe—I really do not want us to have to undergo another referendum, whatever the question might be, thinking of the delay and the ill feeling that would inevitably be generated. Any meaningful renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement could not be achieved without a long delay. The EU has made it quite clear that it is not open for quick negotiation any more. The alternative would be to have what I think the Prime Minister referred to today as a slow Brexit, which would result in our having to hold elections for the European Parliament. I think the public would find that very difficult to accept, in view of the result of the referendum.
There is also the option of a no-deal Brexit. I agree entirely with all the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, about that. It is simply not acceptable, as has been made clear by the other place, and by us too, in a series of votes. Everything must be done to avoid that. The risk is still there. However, the EU, which to our eternal shame has been ahead of us at every stage through this misguided process, has injected some discipline into the shambles at our end. It has thrown us a lifeline. We have been given extra time—but there are conditions attached. Surely everything must be done to ensure that we meet the deadlines that have, in one way or another, been left for us. We must not miss the new deadline, or we will indeed have a no-deal Brexit.
As one looks back, it is remarkable how, every so often in moments of crisis, somebody on the world stage says something that captures our imagination. We can all remember Donald Rumsfeld, shortly before the start of the second Gulf War, and the puzzling images he conjured up with his reference to “unknown unknowns”—things that we do not know that we do not know. Noble Lords may remember Saddam Hussein’s absurdly comical Minister of Information, always in military uniform, who, as the Americans were on the point of entering Baghdad, assured us that it was they who were running away, and that the Iraqi forces had won a famous victory.
Now, surely the prize must go to Donald Tusk. There was his clever reply when asked by an enterprising Irish journalist at the end of last Thursday’s press conference whether that special place should be enlarged to accommodate Members of the other place. Your Lordships will recall his words:
“According to our Pope, hell is still empty— that must have surprised some people—
“it means that there is a lot of space”.
He ended by saying that, as we know, hope is the last to die. Those words reveal what he is really thinking. Your Lordships may remember that that is a chilling reminder of how people fought off despair during the Holocaust. He might perhaps have chosen another phrase, which your Lordships can find on Google:
“Hope is a dangerous thing”.
Those are the opening words of a lyric by an American songwriter Lana Del Rey. She said,
“Hope is a dangerous thing for … me”,
but let us leave that aside. It is a dangerous thing for us too.
Donald Tusk was right, of course. It seems that all we can do now is hope for the best, as the Prime Minister seems to be doing, but the danger is that if that is all we do as we thrash about searching for something that will command a majority, we will fail to meet the next deadline. His words should act as a warning that this really is our last chance.
My hope is that the other place will back the only deal that is on offer in sufficient time, so that we can leave in an orderly manner on