European Council - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 11th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 3:08 pm, 11th April 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. This is the 15th opportunity we have had to discuss the Government’s withdrawal agreement since it was reached at the back end of last year. During the last four months, and during all these debates, the Government have made absolutely no progress in getting the approval of the Commons for it. I am a great fan of “Groundhog Day”, the film. I am much less a fan of “Groundhog Day”, the lived experience. Yesterday, the Council reiterated that the withdrawal agreement cannot be reopened. The Government have accepted this. How, therefore, are they to get their withdrawal agreement accepted by the Commons? If they cannot, what happens next?

Regarding the first question, the Government are holding talks with the Labour Party. The Prime Minister says that any agreement with Labour will require compromise. That will undoubtedly also involve compromise by the Prime Minister. Could the noble Baroness the Leader of the House give us any indication of any material respect at all in which the Government have signalled a willingness to make any compromise, which they accept will be needed if an agreement with Labour is to be reached? If she cannot, how does she answer the question in many people’s minds: are these talks little more than a charade, a basis on which to get the Government and the Prime Minister through the European Council, which can now be discontinued, having served their purpose?

Of course, there is one way the Government could get the withdrawal agreement through the Commons quickly—by accepting that the agreement and the option to remain should be put to a ballot of the country as a whole. The Government would then have that agreement within a day. It seems they will not do so, despite knowing—because they can read—that an increasing majority of the population now believes that the politicians have failed so dismally in their duty to get a proper outcome that the decision must now go back to them. Is it too cynical to suggest that the only reason the Government will not contemplate such a course is that they know that, if such a vote were held, they would lose it and, arguably, lose it heavily? Or, as Laura Kuenssberg has been reporting over recent hours, is the Prime Minister’s intention to put her deal to the Commons for a fourth time knowing, as she does, that it will lose a fourth time? Having lost, she then intends to pivot towards a referendum, with her deal and remaining in the EU on the ballot paper. That seems an eminently sensible course for the Prime Minister to take. Presumably something has happened to make serious political commentators believe it is now in the Prime Minister’s mind. I am sure the noble Baroness, as a member of the Cabinet, knows what is in the Prime Minister’s mind. Perhaps she could tell us that.

If it is not in the Prime Minister’s mind, what is? What will happen next and when? The Statement contains the dread phrase “at pace”. We have had this before in Statements and it has usually been the preface to a process running into the sands and nothing happening. When the Prime Minister talks about trying to get to the end point at pace, including further votes, do the Government have any sense of what it means? Are we talking about indicative votes, or whatever they will be called, in the week the Commons comes back after Easter, the following week or before the European elections? Give us a clue. The whole country would like to know the sort of timetable the Government have in mind.

The Prime Minister is clearly terrified of the prospect of the European Parliament elections. The key aim of the Government now is to avoid them. We on these Benches are not; we will fight these elections if a referendum for a people’s vote on our place in Europe has not been agreed. We will fight on a platform of common European liberal values. We will take on the populists who threaten these values and would make Britain poorer, less secure and less tolerant. We look forward to taking those arguments to the people.