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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:28 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 6:28 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, suggested that now is not the time for clowns. But one thing I was musing about over the weekend was how both David Cameron and the current Prime Minister, Theresa May, seem to have had problems with timings. David Cameron thought that he had worked out the perfect timing for his referendum—May 2017—to give himself two years to negotiate the reforms that he wanted in order to have his 60:40 vote to remain in the European Union. But then he decided to bring the referendum forward, boxed himself into a corner, got a damp little squib of a deal, and the referendum, as we all know, went the wrong way for him.

Theresa May has spent the last two years telling us that exit day is 29 March 2019. I thought I would check the lyrics of the song that includes the words:

“Isn’t it rich?

Isn’t it queer?

Losing my timing this late in my career”.

It goes on to say:

“But where are the clowns?

There ought to be clowns

Well, maybe next year”.

We are in very difficult times. The Prime Minister has led us to a point where we now do not even know whether we will leave the European Union, with or without a deal, on 12 April. We spent 15 to 20 minutes earlier trying to work out whether international law trumps domestic law on the date of possibly leaving the European Union. Many of us believe that, unless we change our domestic law, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 still means we are due to leave on 29 March—this Friday. We are in a position that nobody sought to be in and to which I do not believe the Prime Minister intended to lead us.

Unlike my noble friend Lord Newby, I have not spoken in all 13 debates. This is the first time I have spoken in a Brexit debate since 5 December, on the very first day of the very first debate ahead of the first meaningful vote, which was pulled and did not happen. I have not felt the need to speak on the grounds that absolutely nothing changed between the Prime Minister proposing her withdrawal agreement in the autumn and last week. Even with the negotiations in Brussels last week, I might not have felt the need to speak this afternoon. I might have felt that the deal the Prime Minister had agreed in November was not adequate then and remains inadequate. It is a sign of how far the Prime Minister has managed to divide her own party, Parliament and the country that, whereas sh thinks that her deal is the will of the people, Parliament has defeated it comprehensively on every possible occasion.

I did not need to stand up and say that, but I wanted to stand up and speak after listening to the Prime Minister’s speech to the United Kingdom last Wednesday evening. It was a disgrace that she felt she should say to the people, “I’ve understood you. Take no notice of Parliament, I know what you all want. I am speaking for you, but those other politicians aren’t”. There is nobody in your Lordships’ House or the other place who is not trying to do their best for this country, whether we agree or disagree with her deal, and whether we are remainers, leavers, remoaners or born-again leavers. We are all trying to do our best and most of us are trying to work in the national interest. The idea that the Prime Minister should try to pit herself and the people against Parliament is not helpful to our democracy. It will not help us come together as a country. It will not lead to the sort of United Kingdom that we should all be seeking, whether or not we leave the European Union on Friday.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, pointed out earlier that a referendum is, in many ways, an alien device, which is not the norm in this country. Certainly, when we entered the Common Market, Edward Heath, the then Prime Minister, was very clear that a referendum was not appropriate. Both Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher used the idea that referendums were the devices of dictators and demagogues. That language of referendums as dangerous devices is often used in the literature. However, I am speaking from the Liberal Democrat Benches. My former leader, Mr Clegg, came out in favour of a referendum ahead of the Lisbon treaty, so my party has form in supporting referendums.

In the 1970s, Edward Heath was very clear that the people’s view should be listened to, and that it would be, through a parliamentary vote. That was how we entered the Common Market. However, times have changed. The 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the Common Market set a precedent, which caused opinion to change fundamentally. I should perhaps declare an interest in that I am editing a handbook on European referendums—possibly as some sort of sadomasochistic activity—in my spare time. At a workshop for the book which I hosted in Cambridge last year, John Curtice pointed out that referendums are now in the British DNA. The 1975 referendum was the first, but the referendum in 2016 will almost certainly not be the last.

I was very clear that I did not support a referendum but, speaking from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench at the time of the European Union Referendum Act 2015, it was pointed out to me that I had jolly well better get behind my party’s position to support it. We did; we all campaigned in the referendum. However, I was very clear throughout, on every platform that I spoke on, that if the vote was to leave, that was not an opportunity to simply keep rerunning referendums. I said that before 23 June 2016 and I have said it from these Benches since.

Referendums are dangerous devices, but there is one thing that is potentially more dangerous than having another referendum, and that is Parliament saying it will revoke Article 50 without any further reference to the citizens of the United Kingdom. More than 5 million people may have signed a petition and 1 million people may have demonstrated on Saturday, and I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, that there is a sense that the 2016 mandate is becoming dated. There may well be a case for asking the people, “Theresa May is sure her deal represents your will. Does it really?”. If the Prime Minister is so sure that she understands the will of the people then surely there is no difficulty in asking them again.

I did not march on Saturday because I had a pre-existing commitment to speak in a debate in Cambridge, which your Lordships might expect to be the metropolitan heart of remain. However, the debate was in fact full of leavers, who were saying, “Democracy is about us. We made our views very clear”. That even included former remainers who said they respected the result of the referendum. In a democracy, people have the right to change their mind. I fundamentally believe, as I always have, that Britain is better in the European Union. I ought to declare an interest that, in my capacity as reader in European Politics at Cambridge, I receive European funding. That might not come as a surprise to anyone who has read any of my writing. However, I am also a democrat and I fundamentally believe that if we change the outcome of the referendum and end up in a different place, it has to be because the citizens of the United Kingdom say that that is what they want.

We need this country to come together. At the moment, Parliament is deeply divided, which is a perfect reflection of the country. A general election will not get around that. Maybe, just maybe, another referendum would. However, the idea of taking part in European Parliament elections should not be used as a weapon to try to stifle debate. Whatever people think about the European Parliament, it is directly elected and a form of democracy, and it should not be used as a way to try to silence opposition to the Prime Minister.