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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:21 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench 8:21 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, in February 2003, the march in London was the biggest in history, with 2 million people trying to stop the Iraq war. The Government did not listen and Prime Minister Tony Blair did not listen; what a disastrous decision that was. On Saturday 23 March, I was proud to be among the 1 million people who marched—more than the 700,000 who marched a few months ago. It was peaceful, with families and people of all ages taking part, from all around the country.

The placards were terrific: “Even Arsenal are still in Europe”; “Less Farage, more fromage”; and, “I’m incandescent with rage—but I’m British, so I’m just holding up a sign”. In Parliament Square, we had speeches about the people’s vote. Tom Watson, Labour deputy leader, said we should, “Let the people vote”; and Anna Soubry said,

“put your country first, get into the lobbies and vote for a people’s vote”.

Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, said:

“It’s time to give us, the British people, a final say on Brexit”.

Michael Heseltine lambasted Mrs May for blaming Parliament for what has happened with Brexit. He invoked Winston Churchill, saying:

“I was appalled by Theresa May’s speech on Wednesday evening. It will rank among the biggest affronts on parliamentary democracy in our history”.

Calypso Latham, a 19 year-old science student, said:

“I was too young to vote in the last referendum. It’s going to affect my career with research grants so I definitely wanted to come and protest”.

Aurore Mead, aged 14, said:

“I really wanted to come because it’s a big part of my future and my life”.

In another part of the country, on Saturday morning, Nigel Farage rejoined the march to leave near Nottingham, and there were 200 people present.

Side by side in all this, we have had two petitions. Noble Lords have spoken about one of them: to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU. At the last count, it had more than 5.5 million signatures and counting; 96% of the signatories are from the UK. But there is also another petition: leave the EU without a deal in March 2019. Guess how many have signed that? Just 550,000 people. Where is 5.5 million and where is 550,000? Will the Government listen? No.

The Prime Minister’s Statement today stated,

“it is with great regret that I have had to conclude that as things stand, there is still not sufficient support in the House to bring back the deal for a third meaningful vote”.

Then she said:

“If we cannot, the Government made a commitment that we would work across the House to find a majority on a way forward”.

That all sounds good. Then she said that,

“the Member for West Dorset seeks to provide for this process by taking control of the Order Paper … an unwelcome precedent to set, which would overturn the balance between our democratic institutions”.

So the Government will oppose that amendment this evening. On the one hand they are saying they will work with the House and on the other saying they will oppose it. Then she said:

“So I cannot commit the Government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this House”.

Then she stated that:

“The default outcome continues to be to leave with no deal. But this House has previously expressed its opposition to that path, and may very well do so again this week”.

She finally said that:

“The alternative is to pursue a different form of Brexit or a second referendum”.

I cannot go on without quoting Boris Johnson in his article today. He said that Mrs May and the Government had “chickened out” of delivering Brexit. I do not know which world he lives in. He lives in a utopian world where he says you should drop the deal, go back to Brussels and set out the terms—just like that. What have the Government been trying to do for two years? He said:

“Extend the implementation period … if necessary; use it to negotiate a free trade deal; pay the fee; but come out of the EU now—without the backstop. It is time for the PM to channel the spirit of Moses in Exodus, and say to Pharoah in Brussels—let my people go”.

What a load of nonsense.

At the crux of all this is not just a constitutional crisis. We are not just watching a train crash in slow motion. It is not just business, with the CBI and the TUC coming together, terrified of a no-deal Brexit. It is not just the collapse of collective Cabinet responsibility. Just yesterday Minister Mark Field said that he would vote to revoke Article 50 and Chancellor Philip Hammond said that a second Brexit referendum deserved to be considered. That is not just a Cabinet divided or a Conservative Party divided but the Labour Party is divided and Parliament is divided. Families are divided. The UK is divided.

Yet what is really at stake is the democracy of this country. We are told repeatedly that 17.4 million people voted to leave. But they voted to leave by a very narrow 52:48 victory. People forget that in the first nationwide referendum in 1975 on whether to stay in the European Community, the result was—wait for it—17.4 million people voted to remain. The difference was that that 17.4 million was not a narrow victory but a two-thirds majority—not 52:48. At the time of the referendum exactly three years ago, 75% of the people in the other place and over 75% of this House thought that the best thing for the UK was to remain in the European Union, yet now we are being held to ransom by this democratic vote in the referendum three years ago.

At that time, the EU was not an issue. It was not something that people knew much about. I knew a fraction of what I know now. At the top of people’s minds were health, taxes, education and crime, and now, three years later, we know how complicated leaving is. We know the benefits of being in the largest trading bloc in the world. We know how difficult it is to replicate the EU’s 50-plus free trade agreements. We have only six ready to roll over. We know that it has taken two years to negotiate three things—£39 billion, in the context of a £2 trillion economy? I would pay the £8 billion a year that we pay to the EU just for the peace that it has helped bring to Europe.

What about people’s rights, our rights and EU citizens’ rights over here? We cannot use people as bargaining chips. That is a given. Then there is the backstop protecting the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland border. That was hardly mentioned during the referendum. Now we are told, “These three things have been agreed, it has taken two years, now capitulate and agree to go forward out of the European Union and into a transition period”. But then we will have left the European Union. The backstop will continue. We will still be subject to ECJ rules and we are going into a blindfold Brexit. We still have to negotiate trade, security, a frictionless border, nuclear and so forth, and we know now that in every analysis it is far better for businesses, the economy and citizens, on balance—the EU is not perfect—to remain. Why in the name of democracy are we all being forced to honour the will of the people—the instruction of the people three years ago? It is out of date. It is irrelevant.

The electorate have changed. There are now 2.4 million more youths of voting age who were not old enough to vote three years ago, and 80% want to remain, including two of my children, one who turned 18 in October 2016 and another who turned 18 last week on 21 March. There are 2 million more people of voting age now who can vote. Sadly, on the other side, with a death rate of 600,000, there are probably more than 1 million people who voted to leave who are no longer with us. That means 3 million more. The victory was 17.4 million versus 16.1 million and the youth did not turn out three years ago. They regret it and now they will turn out in force.

Where, then, is the gumption of our MPs? Where has our representative democracy gone? Where are the MPs who are not meant to be delegates? They are not meant to be lemmings. They are meant to vote with their conscience, to do the right thing for what, in their opinion, is in the best interests of Britain and their constituency—not for what is in the best interests of their party, which, sadly, is what the Conservative Party is doing.

The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, spoke about dynamic democracy. When people change their minds, when the facts change, and when people are far more informed, Parliament should do the right thing. The Prime Minister keeps ruling out another Brexit referendum, saying that it would deepen divisions and undermine support for democracy. Brexit supporters say that a second referendum would trigger a major constitutional crisis. What have we got, if not a divided country and a constitutional crisis, right now? Stephen Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, said that if we have indicative votes, which are now being voted on, that could bring about a constitutional collision and increase the risk of a general election.

The polls show that the people have changed their minds: there is an 8%-10% lead for remain. The Prime Minister can go back to Parliament and say, “Please change your mind”—she wants to go back a third time and say, “Change your mind”—and yet the people do not get even one chance to change their mind. That is wrong. If we impose any of this Brexit on people and the people have not had a say, if it is a bad Brexit, for generations from now people will not thank this Parliament. When Parliament and the Government fail, the only sensible thing seems to be to go to the people. We are damaging our constitution. We are damaging our relationship with our biggest trading partner, which makes up two-thirds of our trade. We are damaging our economy. Parliament must now vote for a long extension to Article 50, to which Europe will agree. Then we must put it back to the people, and they must decide whether they want to leave or to remain. That is, today’s people; not yesterday’s people, not an out-of-date electorate.

To conclude, it saddens me that the whole world is looking at this great country with disbelief, saying, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this to yourselves? You don’t have to do this!”. Let us put the “great” back in Great Britain and the “united” back in the United Kingdom, by giving the great British public the final say.