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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 4th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 8:30 pm, 4th April 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, always gives a compelling and fascinating speech, but there are not many shades of grey in it. I am sure that he, along with most of us, breathed a sigh of relief when the Chief Whip announced the agreement with the usual channels tonight, because this afternoon was one of the most unpleasant afternoons that I can remember in your Lordships’ House. My noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford referred to this. There was an almost palpable anger in the air for much of the time. Why? Because some of those in my own party who have been most militantly for Brexit, most of whom belong to the strangely named ERG, are not prepared—to use a word that has come up many times this evening—to compromise.

I cannot speak for everyone, but I can certainly quote my noble friend the Duke of Wellington, who is here. Most of us were fervent remainers who were disappointed at the decision that was taken in June 2016. We thought it was a mistake but, nevertheless, we accepted it. We saw it as our manifest duty to work together to produce a Brexit that did indeed preserve many of the advantages of the European Union—which, I may say, had been promised by the leave campaign—but would, at the same time, turn this country in a slightly different direction, while always preserving, cultivating and deeply valuing our friendships in Europe, because the 27 other nations remain our friends and neighbours, and sharers of a common civilisation.

I make those few remarks as a preface, because what I want to do is briefly to say how much I admire those whose names are on the face of this Bill. They are men and women of four parties in the other place, led by notable members of the Labour and Conservative parties, who, realising that compromise was absolutely essential, came together. For many months now, in spite of vilification, some of which was repeated this afternoon, Sir Oliver Letwin, Dominic Grieve and Dame Caroline Spelman—who I must admit is a cousin of mine—of my party have worked tirelessly along with people such as Hilary Benn and Jack Dromey from the Labour Party, trying to come together.

I always felt, from the word go, that it was necessary to try to come together. I proposed in June 2016 a Grand Committee of both Houses and all parties. That was turned down—I have made similar suggestions since—but this is the nearest to an enactment, as it were, of that suggestion. They were able to come together and stand firm, and we must remember that this Bill predates, in its conception and indeed in its drawing up, the recent welcome developments to reach across the parties that we have seen in the last few days.

I can well understand why my honourable friend Sir Oliver Letwin, and Yvette Cooper, a woman of great courage and stature, persisted with the Bill. It is now before your Lordships’ House. It was created in a vacuum, and the vacuum was created by a lack of leadership. What we have to recognise is that this is, as has been said, a public Bill. It is not a private Bill. It is a public Bill that has commanded a majority—albeit the smallest of majorities—in the other place and, because it has commanded that majority, it comes before us. Our constitutional duty is to give the Bill an unopposed Second Reading and then to look at it with care and diligence on Monday. I am glad that we will be doing that after a little refreshment over the weekend, rather than when we are tired, exhausted and tetchy in the middle of the night. We would all have been all of those things, and we would have got progressively worse as the night had gone on. Now we can come to it fresh on Monday.

Of course there are amendments that we should look at. I was much taken by the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and glad to hear of the amendment that he and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, are intending to place before us on Monday. It may well be an amendment that will be accepted without Division. I hope that it will, because I hope we will be able on Monday to bring people together. I hope that we will be able to send this Bill back to the other place with constructive and improving amendments that it can accept. Then it does no harm because, although this is a constitutional innovation—my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth was right to indicate some of the problems and potential pitfalls—we must all nevertheless always remember that it is the Executive who are answerable to Parliament, and not Parliament that is answerable to the Executive. We live in a parliamentary democracy, where we have parliamentary sovereignty.

We also have to heed the wise words of my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford—he has disappeared now—who talked about the difference between democracy and majorities. There is a definition of democracy that I always like: a proper democracy is one that has regard for all minorities. A proper democracy therefore has to have abundant regard for the largest recorded minority in British history. People are always talking about the 17.4 million, but the 16-plus million were the largest recorded minority in British history. We have to come out of the difficult slough of despond in which we have wallowed for far too long with something that recognises that, particularly as the majority of those who voted remain were not of our generation. There are exceptions in the Chamber tonight, I know, but for the most part they were of the younger generation. Those of the generation that is most represented in this House this evening were on the leave side.

If we are to create a new relationship with Europe—I look at it in that way: not as the severing of a relationship but the creation of a new one—it has to be one that fires the imagination of the young and gives them the opportunity to partake in many of the benefits that we have enjoyed. We debated one such benefit on Monday night of this week when we talked about the Erasmus and Horizon 2020 projects.

It is good that there is a quieter, more sober atmosphere in the House this evening. It is good that we are not going in for too many recriminations. We are not all of one mind and one view, but we have to respect each other’s views. In parenthesis I will say how delighted I have been this week to see my noble friend Lord Spicer back in his place. He has suffered from grievous illness and shown enormous courage and bravery. I never agree with a word he says on Europe, but we have been firm friends since he first entered the other place a year or two after I did. We must remember that, only two or three years ago, although we very often had differences of opinion on Europe, most of us who were members of the same party—and indeed of the same Chamber—respected and liked each other. I have seen an erosion of respect and a diminishing of liking. It is our duty to reverse that unfortunate trend. I hope we can begin that tonight and continue it on Monday.