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My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. There are very few in your Lordships’ House who have greater experience in these matters than the noble Lord. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, is one other, if I may say so. I say to my noble friends that I associate myself very strongly with what the noble Lord said. I say, too, that I hope the Government have heeded his advice. In anticipation, given that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is to follow after my few remarks, I will say that it is not insignificant that he and I, who have been in the Chamber on opposite sides for over 30 years, on this matter happen to agree. On this issue there is tremendous cross-party consensus.
The decision of last week’s European Council obliges Parliament and the country to make a decisive decision, and we must do so. We have three choices: to approve the Prime Minister’s deal; to leave without a deal; or to seek a lengthy extension, during which the country and Parliament can reconsider their options. Without hesitation, I support the latter option. I am not a Europhile and never have been, but believe strongly and on pragmatic grounds that staying in the European Union offers by far the best future for the United Kingdom, Europe and the wider world. I believe that Brexit defies both reason and all credible evidence.
Contrary to the view expressed by my noble friend Lord Bridges of Headley, with whom I almost always agree—he is a very old friend—I do not think the 2016 referendum is an authority for leaving the European Union, whatever the outcome of the negotiations. I believe it was an instruction to the Government to negotiate the best terms that could be achieved, leaving over the issue of who decides whether the terms are acceptable. In my view, that final decision is one to be made by Parliament, and perhaps by the country in a further referendum. I agree with the view oft expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and others that there can be no objection in principle to holding a further referendum, although personally I would prefer it to be held on the ultimate agreement rather than on Mrs May’s deal, which, by its nature, is interim and transitional.
As regards participating in the coming European elections, I acknowledge that there are practical difficulties to be confronted, but I do not believe that it is respectable to argue that participation in a democratic process is offensive in principle. Indeed, I can see great advantages in having a vigorous election debate and seeing the United Kingdom represented—I hope sensibly—in the European Parliament in what I also hope will be for an extended period. I support participation in those elections to secure a lengthy extension.
I turn directly to the choices that now have to be made. In my view, to crash out of the European Union without any deal would be a national calamity. I do not believe that there is or ever was a national desire for such an outcome. Last Saturday’s march and the petition now signed by over 5 million people speak to this. Moreover, no deal was decisively rejected in the House of Commons by 413 votes to 202. For government or parliamentarians to disregard such a vote would be to display a contempt for Parliament of the grossest kind. I hope I can gain some reassurance from today’s Statement, where I see that the Prime Minister said in the House of Commons:
“Unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen”.
The proper interpretation of that is that, unless there is an affirmative vote in the House of Commons, no deal will not happen. It means nothing else, and I very much hope that when my noble friend Lord Callanan winds up this debate, he will confirm that interpretation.
As to Mrs May’s deal, I would support it only if nothing else were on offer. However, I do not accept Mrs May’s oft-repeated statement that her deal is the only deal available. That is simply not true. It is clear that the European Council has given us an opportunity to think again—to discard the red lines which the Prime Minister so unwisely drew. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the House of Commons will support the Prime Minister’s deal. I therefore hope that the Commons will vote to secure a lengthy extension to the deadline. If—I hope, when—that occurs, Britain should reconsider whether it wishes to leave the European Union. It may be that, as a result of those discussions, modified terms of membership will become available. In any event, the red lines should be discarded. If they are discarded, a variety of alternatives will become available, and, if the Commons thinks it appropriate, a further referendum will become part of the deliberative process.
I doubt that Mrs May can or should preside over those discussions. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, implied and as the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said, whoever is the Prime Minister must be a person who commands respect in the House of Commons, across the political divide and in the country as a whole. He or she must also be credible in Europe and on the international stage. In the conduct of the talks, in the formulation of policy and in taking the consequential legislation through Parliament, the Prime Minister will have to seek support from all sides of the House.
Although such considerations might not definitively identify who should be the next Prime Minister, they most certainly will identify the unsuitable. Now is not the time and No. 10 is not the place for clowns or for those who indulge in fantasies. In the wake of their policies would come economic damage, international isolation and considerable humiliation. I hope that in the coming votes the House of Commons will take full advantage of the opportunity that has been afforded to it. Parliament and the country can and must think again.