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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:20 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 9:20 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, scratched this evening has slightly shot my fox since he is a very easy person to follow. The noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, is not such an easy person to follow, because he expressed a great deal of good sense. I agree with him about the sequencing of revoke and having a referendum—you cannot do it that way round. My view is that a referendum is desirable and necessary, and I would also like to see it made mandatory so that we do not get into an argument about a neverendum.

The seemingly unending series of debates in this House on Brexit is often criticised by quite a few of the speakers, including some this evening. It is said that the options before us do not change much. I believe this is a worthwhile debate, because the context in which those options are being examined and the urgency of reaching general conclusions both change. Never could one say that more forcefully than this evening—following last week’s European Council meeting, we really are up against it now. I am not criticising this debate at all.

It needs to be recognised that the risk of a no deal exit has not disappeared. The cliff edge has been postponed from 29 March to either 12 April or 22 May, and the agreement being sought for the statutory instrument which I am glad to hear is coming forward will bring that into our domestic law as well as international law. Both Houses have said extremely forcefully that no deal must be taken off the table—it must not be an option—and I find it pretty regrettable that the Government keep referring to it as the default option instead of saying how and by what policy course they will prevent it happening. There are any number of ways they can do that, but you will never hear the Prime Minister saying how she will prevent it happening, except by telling people to vote for her deal.

How is it best done? There is of course the option the Prime Minister continually produces—approving the deal she concluded last November—and she seems absolutely determined to pursue that to the exclusion of all else, unpromising though the prospects of getting an agreement from the other place may be. The legal clarifications which have now been formalised by the European Council are welcome, but do not seem to me—as a non-lawyer, at any rate—to alter the realities of the Irish backstop. They also do not alter the fact that this is actually quite a poor deal which promises years of uncertainty, arduous negotiation and, let us face it, divisions within the Government’s camp as to what they want to negotiate for our future relationship. The idea that the civil war now raging will suddenly be calmed by leaving and then opening the negotiations for the future relationship defies all belief.

It would surely be better to look seriously at all alternatives now, having got rid of those disastrous red lines on the customs union and the single market, and to ask the EU for a longer extension than 30 June—not indefinite, of course—in which we could hope to lay the foundations for what is to follow. Such an extension would have the added benefit of providing enough time and space to consult the electorate—which, as I said at the outset, I believe is the right thing to do. So I hope that that is where we will end up in the course of the next two weeks. I hope that the Prime Minister will carry out the will of the other place if it is so expressed, go back and ask for that reasonably lengthy extension, and make it clear that its purpose is to set out on a new course, not the old one.

How should we deal with the complication of the European Parliament elections in May? I have to say that I am a bit distressed that the EU 27 have made our participation in those elections such a central element in their determination of the duration of any Article 50 extension. There are a number of ways of getting round this problem that could be used without treaty change, using the inherent powers in Article 50 to organise an orderly and stable exit. It is a pity that that has not been given more space. It has certainly been lurking in the drawers of the Council, the Commission and the Parliament, but they have opted for a more forceful approach.

However, someone like myself, who believes that Britain’s place—indeed, Britain’s interest—is to remain a full member of the European Union, cannot possibly recoil from the possibility of having European elections in May, if only because if we have a referendum and vote to remain, that is what we will have to have done. We will need Members of the European Parliament. I hope that a way will be found of dealing with this issue without too much drama, and that if necessary we will have those elections.

I very much welcome the fact that we now know, as a result of an Answer given on 19 March to a Written Question of mine, that what the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, said on 27 February was misleading the House. They said that the legislation to hold European Parliament elections no longer existed— well, it does exist, as that nice little Written Answer says. I would be grateful if the Minister would now tell the House that that is the position.

These are some of the messages that I would like the other place to take very seriously when it returns, with added urgency, to this whole issue later this week, and considers the options facing the country. For far too long there has been absolute stasis in the handling of this matter. It is now time to break out of the rut that the Government have got into, to abandon attempts to run down the clock—which can only now end in disruption and lasting damage to the economy—and to set out on a new and more promising course, mandated by Parliament.