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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:36 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative 7:36 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. It is also a matter of deep regret that we are here yet again debating the same issue, but we are where we are.

We have heard a lot this evening about democracy. Democracy, however, is not fixed in stone. When people vote, they rely on what they are led to believe at the time by politicians making promises and giving reassurances. Election manifestos are never normally sacrosanct. Indeed, much of past manifestos has never materialised.

We have respected and honoured the result of the referendum. Some suggest that we have not; I find that difficult to comprehend. To quote George Orwell,

“all political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome”.

The facts are that the red lines set in the beginning, dictated by the ERG, were and are impossible. The promises of the leave campaign are undeliverable. One million people marched on Saturday for a chance to vote now—now that they know more about what Brexit means—and 5.5 million people have in a matter of days signed a petition asking to cancel Brexit. Our democracy must be able to adapt to these changes.

The Prime Minister, cajoled by the ERG, refuses to consider that the course that we are pursuing may not be the will of the majority now. How can we possibly know that? How can it be anti-democratic to ask people’s view? If the Prime Minister’s deal is what people want, why not prove it? If 17.4 million people wanted a hard Brexit, let us prove it. I find it difficult to understand how the Government can insist that the British people cannot change their mind after two or three years but Parliament can be asked to change its mind in two or three weeks, as the Prime Minister puts her deal to MPs again and again. It is time to face reality. Government and Parliament have not been able to find a way forward to implement the referendum result, and no deal must not be allowed to happen by default. However, sadly, I struggle to see that this threat has actually gone, notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s welcome words at the Dispatch Box earlier today.

On 12 April the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement and political declaration will most likely not have passed. She will have a choice: she can stick to her sacred duty to deliver Brexit and be consistent with her statements that “no deal is better than a bad deal”; she can ask for a further extension, and thus have to fight EU elections; or she can revoke Article 50. I cannot be confident she will choose the latter course. Parliament may not even be sitting, so what would stop us leaving with no deal?

I cannot share the sentiments of my noble friend Lord Lilley, whose reassurances are of no more comfort to me than those about the easiest trade deal in history we were going to enjoy; about the rolling over of the 40 deals we already have with other countries, ready to go by 28 March—or about the ability to have our cake and eat it. All the reassurances so far given by the Brexiteers have proven false. It is simply not safe to ignore the TUC, the CBI and businesses large and small across the country—or indeed our obligations under the Good Friday agreement—and suggest that leaving without a deal is somehow okay.

We need to find another way forward, and, as my noble friend Lord Bridges of Headley has said, this is not the time for party politics. To quote John F Kennedy:

“Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past—let us accept our own responsibility for the future”.

We do not want a Tory or Labour answer. We want a better answer than we have had so far. That, as my noble friend Lord Hailsham and other noble Lords have wisely said, would suggest to us that we need some kind of Government of national unity to see us through this Brexit situation.

The Prime Minister has even said that she has tried to work across the House to find an alternative way forward. That has simply not happened. There have been no free tests of the opinion of the country’s elected representatives. The assertions that other options have been rejected are not right. Whipped votes are not an indication of parliamentary views.

Time is short, but Back-Benchers across Parliament ideally need to work together in the national interest to unscramble the Brexit mess. Indeed, Brexit is rather like trying to get an egg out of an omelette: you may get some egg back, but it will be broken. We must rise to the challenge that the current crisis is causing. I respect the fact that many noble Lords are extremely reticent about the idea of going back to the people—I am myself—but this started with the people. Maybe we need to let it end with the people.