European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:17 pm on 4th April 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 8:17 pm, 4th April 2019

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Anderson. He is absolutely right to highlight the issue about the procedure following a counterproposal. My understanding is that discussions that include the Government are under way on this. Perhaps the Minister might be able to indicate to us at the end of the debate whether the Government themselves will be tabling an amendment on Monday. The Minister is shaking his head and saying they will not, so I think the House will take careful note of that in terms of where it might go next.

In his brilliant speech introducing the Bill, my noble friend Lord Rooker said that the Prime Minister had the reputation of being the most law-abiding person in the country who, even when she was late for an engagement, travelled at precisely 29 miles per hour in her official car. As a former Secretary of State for Transport, I am delighted that she observes the speed limit in that way. However, the big problem that we in this country face at the moment is that she is accelerating the country at about 100 miles per hour towards the cliff edge. We are seeking to decelerate the car very rapidly to see that we do not go off the edge of a cliff but stop, take stock as a country and do something far more sane and sensible than that.

If we had complete trust, there would not be a need for the Bill, but I am afraid a pattern of behaviour has grown up over the past year. There was the first meaningful vote, which became meaningless when the Prime Minister lost it, and then the second meaningful vote, which then became meaningless. There was the clock that was not supposed to be run down but is now practically at zero. That pattern of behaviour has led Parliament and responsible parliamentarians to believe quite rightly that without a legal backstop, which is effectively what we are legislating for, there is a real danger that things could go seriously wrong next week.

The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, is right to say that the procedure in the Bill does not make it absolutely impossible for no deal to take place but makes it much less likely because it imposes a process of parliamentary accountability and debate, both beforehand and afterwards, which makes it extremely unlikely that no deal would happen. The reason it makes it extremely unlikely is that the considered and firmly declared will of Parliament is that we should not have no deal. That has repeatedly been the vote of the House of Commons, by 400 to 200 votes when a view on that specific proposal was last expressed. The majority of one on this Bill is very misleading, because it is due to concerns about whether it is correct to limit the royal prerogative in the way that is being done at the moment. I take careful note of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on that.

It is very important to address the underlying issue, which is the crisis facing the country: does Parliament want no deal? The House of Commons could not have been more emphatic on that. It does not want no deal. However, because it does not have sufficient trust in the Prime Minister to ensure that no deal is removed from the equation, we have this legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, in unjustly derogatory remarks about Sir Oliver Letwin earlier, missed the point that Sir Oliver has been performing a very valuable public service. He has effectively made himself the leader of a massive parliamentary majority encompassing all sides of the House of Commons and the overwhelming majority of Members of your Lordships’ House, who do not want to see the country trashed next week by an inadvertent move towards no deal. Introducing his Bill yesterday, at the beginning of the debate in the House of Commons, Sir Oliver said,

“there should be a transparent and orderly statutory process or framework within which the House has an opportunity to consider the length of the extension that is asked for and to provide the Prime Minister with backing for her request to the EU in an unequivocal and transparent way”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/4/19; col. 1060.]

That is a laudable and very necessary objective for Parliament to secure, which is why we are attending to these matters so late on a Thursday evening and will not rest until we have enacted the Bill.

The big question which then faces us as a country is: what do we do once we have this long extension? We are in the middle of a very deep political and constitutional crisis, because of our inability to light on a policy which is sustainable for the nation. The noble Lord, Lord Howard, who is no longer in his place, gave a very simplistic answer to the question. I am afraid that, to my mind, that simplicity is born of a fundamentalism I find extremely unattractive. He said the House of Commons voted three years ago to delegate the decision on what we will do as a country to the people. This goes to the fundamental issue facing Parliament and the country at the moment. Three years ago, all that the country was asked to vote on—the only option people were given—was four words: leave the European Union. That was the option on the ballot paper. There was no detail.

As has now become clear, the people behind the leave campaign all had inconsistent and often contradictory objectives about what they wanted. Some said we would stay in the customs union and keep freedom of movement; some said we would not. As the negotiations have proceeded—I give the Prime Minister credit for doing her best in the negotiations—it has become clear that we cannot achieve the objectives set out three years ago. Not only that, but the Prime Minister’s own objectives, set out in her Lancaster House speech of January 2017, cannot be achieved either.

When faced with a situation in which promises made cannot be kept, the country faces a very deep crisis and circumstances have changed radically, what do you do? Do you continue to accelerate at 100 miles an hour towards the edge of a cliff? Or do you decelerate, stop, take stock, be reasonable and—this is highly appropriate—give the country the opportunity to make a judgment on whether it wants to proceed with Brexit on the terms negotiated by the Prime Minister or stay in the European Union?

The situation we face reminds me very much of a Sherlock Holmes novel. I was reminded of it because I have been speaking up and down the country on Brexit recently. Two weeks ago, I was in Crowborough, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived. Indeed, I had my photograph taken next to his statue. I had to get a special angle for the photo, because it is next to a Wetherspoon’s. For reasons noble Lords may understand, I was very keen to have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the picture, but I was not so delighted to have a Wetherspoon’s in it. I managed to get the right angle, however, and those who follow me on Twitter can see the picture.

In The Sign of the Four, Sherlock says:

“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

That is the situation the country now faces. The impossible have been eliminated: no deal; the Prime Minister’s deal; different variations of the Prime Minister’s deal; and supposed alternatives to the backstop, which simply have to be called alternative arrangements because they do not exist and cannot be defined. In a wonderful Orwellian twist, not having any alternative arrangements, what have the Government done? They have set up an alternative arrangements working group. You could not make it up. But there are no alternative arrangements. We will not have a frictionless border in Northern Ireland in the cloud and so on—it does not exist.

In this situation, the only sensible policy for the state that now exists is to take the best deal that can be negotiated, which is the Prime Minister’s existing one—at least that is technically possible to implement, because it has been negotiated—and put that to the people, with the alternative being to remain in the EU. In the conversations taking place between the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition, I believe it would be possible to forge a compromise on that basis.