Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:28 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Kerslake Lord Kerslake Crossbench 7:28 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, Brexit debates in this House have become a bit like buses—the buses in London at least—if you miss one, there is no great concern because another will be along shortly. I think, however, that in today’s debate we are finally reaching a critical point: there is literally no more road to kick the can down.

When I last spoke on Brexit in this House—on 9 January, just before the first meaningful vote—four things were clear to me. First, the Government’s deal would be defeated heavily in the Commons and deserved to be. Particularly with this deal, it is not the end of Brexit; it does not bring closure on Brexit; it would continue for years to come. It is like the film “Groundhog Day”, but without the laughs. Secondly, despite the preparations that have been referred to, we were not adequately prepared for a no-deal Brexit. The risks if it happened were simply too great to be contemplated. Thirdly, the only way out of the parliamentary impasse was to hold a second referendum. Fourthly, extension of Article 50 beyond 29 March was inevitable. Those were my views on 9 January. On the first three, nothing has happened to change them. On the final one, we have, belatedly, an extension, albeit too short.

Like others in this House, I listened carefully to the Prime Minister’s speech this afternoon. Even with the extension, we are in the extraordinary position of potentially being just weeks away from leaving the EU without having an agreed basis on which to leave. This week, we face the possibility, not the certainty, of a third meaningful vote if the Prime Minister thinks she can win it, and then a series of indicative votes by the Commons on the options were she not to succeed. I laud the intention of those promoting a vote on the options, but I have some doubts that it will secure a clear path ahead in the time available. In these exceptional circumstances, I think that the Civil Service has a duty to the Crown and the country as well as to the Government. It must be allowed to give us its full and unvarnished assessment of the impact of leaving on 12 April without a deal. From what I understand, it would not make pretty reading.

The Government were wrong to seek a short extension and the EU has not given us the time necessary to do justice to the debate on the fundamental options that we need. We need a proper pause to the process to allow the country to reflect on its future choices. This means either securing a long extension or, as I would now favour, revoking Article 50, as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, in his Motion. Having to hold elections to the European Parliament would be an inconvenient but small price to pay given the scale of the choices that we are now faced with.

Three words have characterised the recent Brexit debate: humiliation, betrayal and patriotism. There is no doubt in my mind—and, indeed, among the vast majority of the British public—that the Brexit process has been an utter humiliation. The EU has been as united and clear-minded as we have been divided and muddled. When and if the dust settles on all this, we will certainly need a full public inquiry to learn the lessons from this most unhappy period.

Those favouring Brexit have spoken long and loud recently about its betrayal—by the establishment, by Parliament and by the Civil Service. If you started out with the belief, as many Brexiteers appeared to do, that Brexit was going to be an easy and painless process, it is just possible to see how you might come to this view. But it was never going to be easy and hard choices were always going to have to be made—choices that have been consistently ducked rather than debated and decided. It is worth remembering that Ministers strongly supporting Brexit held the key positions in the Government during the period. The Brexit process has their name on it. If the Brexiteers want to find out who is responsible for the current state of affairs, they need only look in the mirror.

For the rest of us, we have lost nearly three years: 1,000 days of our lives that we will never get back. In the circumstances, the public are entitled to have the final say on the way out of this mess. That is why I was glad to go on the march on Saturday.

Finally, I will say a word on patriotism. It is just over 75 years since my father’s Avro Lancaster was shot down over Germany. He was just 18 at the time and spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp. He suffered a back injury that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He was, though, one of the lucky ones. Four of his crew, of similar ages, failed to get out of that plane and were burned alive as it came down. After the war, my father came to understand the damage done to German cities by the Bomber Command raids and dedicated a good part of his life to building links with Germany through town twinning. This is the kind of patriotism that I understand—not the blustering nonsense of some of the ERG—Britain and Europe together, national and international.

Europe is becoming a dangerous place with the rise of militant nationalism. Britain can be part of challenging this or it can contribute to it through its actions. When the debate about borders and backstops has gone, the key test of whether we have got this right is whether those four crew members did not give up their lives too early, for no good reason.