Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:16 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 6:16 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, it is indeed a great pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham—an old adversary of mine in the other place. As noble Lords have heard, he is a very powerful advocate, and it is much better to be on the same side as him. I agree with almost everything that he has said today but I want to make it clear that I totally support the Motion to revoke Article 50 in the name of my noble friend Lord Adonis.

I need to explain why I have adjusted my view since the last time I spoke, which was some time ago. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Newby, I have not spoken in all 13 of the debates—mind you, he gets better as he goes along. When I last spoke, I said that, although revoking was my preferred option, I reluctantly agreed that we needed a referendum to finish the job because it started with a referendum. However, that brings me back to June 2016, when I was against having a referendum. I have always been against that. Indeed, the nicest thing that Gisela Stuart ever said about me was that I was against a referendum. In fact, that is the only nice thing she has ever said about me.

One reason I was against it was that in referenda people vote for reasons other than the question on the ballot paper. I remember that in 1979 we did not get a Scottish Assembly because the Callaghan Government were unpopular after the winter of discontent, and there has been no less popular Government than the Cameron Government when we went into the referendum in 2016. My view is that that is why a lot of people voted in the way that they did.

This referendum was corrupted and there was cheating in it. There was overspending, as the Electoral Commission has said. Indeed, as I understand it, the High Court has said that, if it had been a mandatory referendum, it would have been illegal. However, it was only an advisory referendum, so it did not matter that all those mistakes were made. However, that reminds us that it was an advisory referendum, so it should not be taken by the Government as an instruction.

One might challenge me that the same applied the last time I spoke about the referendum, and indeed I said much the same about it then. What has changed? What has tipped the balance? Above all, as the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, rightly said, there has been a sea change in public opinion since then. Now, all the implications of Brexit are known—people are made aware of the reality. It may be okay for Farage with his wealth, or for Rees-Mogg with his trust in Ireland, but ordinary people are beginning to realise that it is a disaster. This is being shown, first, in opinion polls. An analysis of 200 opinion polls showed that a majority of between 6% and 12% are now in favour of remain, whereas in June 2016 it was a majority of about 3% or 4% for leave. A second indication is the march on Saturday of over a million people from every part of the United Kingdom—not the metropolitan elite, as some say. They came from every corner of the United Kingdom and tramped through London to express their view. That shows strength; coming to London to express that view takes a lot more than just going to the ballot box.

Thirdly, the petition is astonishing, the biggest there has ever been: to date, over five and a half million people and rising at the rate of a few hundred thousand every hour. The petition is not for a referendum: it is to revoke and stay. I am glad to say that it was started by a 77 year-old lady, as my noble friend Lady Bakewell and I—I declare an interest as chair of Age Scotland—do a lot to promote the advantages of older people taking initiative. The fact that Margaret Anne Georgiadou took this initiative is very encouraging and the fact that five and a half million people have already followed her is even more so.

It is still possible to argue that we should nevertheless have a people’s vote—a second referendum—to prove the case. Leavers are not keen on a second referendum; does this indicate that they are not confident they would win again? Perhaps it does. However, one of the strong arguments against having a second referendum now, and for asking Parliament—urging the other place, in particular—to agree to revoke Article 50, is that the period of time needed for a referendum would continue the uncertainty; we might also end up with more lies and cheating unless we tightened up the rules. For a variety of reasons, I am not in favour, as I have said. There would be more jobs lost, just as we are losing jobs in every part of the United Kingdom at the moment, because of the threat and uncertainty.

Parliament now needs to step in, take up responsibility and accept that no Brexit is good for Britain. The best option is for us to remain part of the European Union—but remain and reform. Not just in Britain but in other countries of Europe, people think that the European Union needs reform. Every institution needs reform, including even—some people think—the institution that we are in now. Britain could be leading in Europe, not leaving Europe; that should be our slogan. So I hope we can send a message to the other place to revoke withdrawal.

Finally, having followed my old adversary, the noble Viscount, it is a great pleasure for me to hand the baton over to the person described by my noble friend on the Front Bench