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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:04 pm on 4th April 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Conservative 9:04 pm, 4th April 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Stern, whose informed comments about the effects of no deal none of us should dismiss.

Earlier this evening the noble Lord, Lord Warner, reminded us of the film career of James Dean. I was reminded of another James Dean performance: “The Dark, Dark Hours”. We have been through the dark, dark hours—not least this afternoon. I feel that at last, with this Bill, we are beginning to see the light. When the country so desperately needs cross-party co-operation, as even my right honourable friend the Prime Minister now seems to accept, it is a huge relief that in the other place Sir Oliver Letwin has been able to work with colleagues from across that House to bring us this important piece of legislation. My noble friend Lord Cormack pointed out just what hostility some of these individuals in the Commons have had to face. They have been incredibly brave and I am full of admiration for them.

It is now clear that after three years of limping towards Brexit, the country needs significant time to plot a sensible course ahead. That is certainly not the Prime Minister’s deal, which has little to recommend it; nor is it to simply leave without a deal—we have already heard just how bad that would be. Business has been yelling from the rafters that no deal would be a disaster for this country. So we need time to come to a consensus on what the country could accept as its future relationship with the EU. The 27 have consistently said that they need the UK to say what it wants, not what it does not want. We have spent nearly three years establishing what we do not want; it is going to take us a bit of time to work out what we do want.

We have heard much today about the dangers of Parliament taking control. In normal times I would join that chorus urging caution, but if our unwritten constitution were working effectively, there would have been no need for such radical action. If the constitution were functioning, the Executive would have been listening to Parliament. Instead, they have consistently tried to ignore Parliament, from the start of this process until the recent attempts, over and over again, to bludgeon the Commons into accepting a flawed deal. This Bill gives Parliament the ammunition to require an extension to Article 50, which gives us time to plot an acceptable course. I always pay attention to what the noble and noble and learned Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Judge—and sometimes Lord Hope—have to say and I shall study their amendments, but in principle I support the Bill, which provides an insurance policy against our crashing out without a deal.

Earlier today, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, accused those of us who support the Bill of suggesting that we do not trust Mrs May. It is not about not trusting Mrs May; it is that Mrs May has to respond to changing events, and therefore what she says changes as events change. She may not even be there when D-day comes, so we need an insurance policy to avoid crashing out without a deal. I continue to believe that the best use of an extension would be to thrash out a deal that is acceptable to Parliament and then to put it to the people. Three years on from the 2016 referendum, such a major step as changing our relationship with Europe seems to me to require the informed consent of the public, and this is our opportunity to get it.