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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 4th April 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Labour 8:45 pm, 4th April 2019

My Lords, the Brexit debate has increasingly reminded me of the film that shot James Dean to fame, “Rebel Without a Cause”. Noble Lords who are old enough will remember that the high spot of the film is James Dean and his arch rival driving their cars towards a cliff edge. The idea is to be the one with the most nerve, and to jump out of the car as near to the cliff edge as possible. For some time, I have been wondering who from the ERG we could cast in the James Dean role. It seems to me that that is what they have been doing over the past few months.

I want to make one simple point. Whatever may have happened previously on this issue, it has now become a matter of trust and confidence. The Government’s behaviour over a period of time means that it is extremely difficult to rely on their word or their assurances. We have been though many stages: “No deal is better than a bad deal”; “The Government’s deal is the only deal that can prevent no deal”. The Government’s deal and no deal have, however, been rejected pretty consistently by the House of Commons, and with substantial majorities. No clear picture has been presented to Parliament or the public about the sunny uplands that are supposed to appear after we have left the EU. No picture has been painted for the public or Parliament to understand. Very late in the day, a document was cobbled together, with no statutory responsibility attached to it.

The Prime Minister has been forced, very late in the day, to seek help from the leader of the Opposition—to many in her party the great Satan, to use the Iranian mullahs’ phrase about the United States. Her decision belatedly to reach across the aisle has been extremely badly received by a substantial proportion of her party and her Cabinet, so there is now huge uncertainty as to what will happen in the next week. That is the actual position we are confronted with at this time. Whatever arguments there may have been in the past about the merits or demerits of the case for the remainers or the leavers, that is where we are today, and we have to face up to it.

The date with destiny is approaching on 12 April, whether we like it or not. In this situation, the British people can place little confidence in what an uncertain Prime Minister will do next week. We cannot be sure what will happen; we have no certainty whatever. I suggest that the House of Commons is right to try to get some grip on this situation and to create, through the Bill, at least a possibility that the British people will have a chance to create some space to think further about the issue of Brexit. With some sensible use of the Bill, they would at least be presented with an opportunity not to experience the chaos of no deal, and not to experience a deal, not having given their approval to it, negotiated by the Prime Minister with the EU and with little clarity about the future.

This kind of legislation is necessary because there is plenty of evidence that the one thing all remainers and leavers now agree on is that the Government have made a great hash of the negotiations. Those groups may be in that position for different reasons, but they both agree that this has been an unsatisfactory use of two years. Both sides of this argument are not terribly thrilled with the way the Government have handled things in trying to give effect to the referendum result. There is also plenty of evidence, whether we like it or not, that many people—on both sides of the argument, but particularly among those who voted to leave in 2016—have changed their mind after they began to understand what was actually involved in leaving the EU. That uncertainty, and the lack of confidence in the Government which helped create it, is why I support a people’s vote. It is also why I support the Bill.

I would much prefer not to have needed the Bill, for all the constitutional reasons that people have adduced. But we are where we are, as they say: in the very uncomfortable position of the date arriving when, whether we like it or not, some pretty uncomfortable things will be done on behalf of the British people. Let us be absolutely clear: the reason we have got to this position is that the Executive have consistently failed to properly consult parliamentary opinion over the two years, or to convince those in Parliament of the merits of the deal. The Government have brought this serious problem on themselves, and the good guys and girls in all this are those in Parliament who, as we approach the end game, have really tried to create some time and space to produce a more reliable and better outcome to the Brexit issue. That is why I support the Bill, which will provide some possibility of helping this Prime Minister and the Executive rethink how they can proceed in a way that achieves more support for any exit, within Parliament and within the country.