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Referendums - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:11 pm on 13th June 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:11 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, suggested, in contrast to an election, where a political party stands on a manifesto and then has responsibility to implement it, with a referendum, there is no responsibility on those proposing change either to offer something viable—in the words of my noble friend Lord Adonis—or to take the reins afterwards and implement the decision. Yet the public expect a referendum to be implemented. But when proponents of change make unachievable promises, such as Boris Johnson’s,

“There will continue to be free trade”,

after we leave, or David DavisUK-German deal including,

“free access for their cars … in exchange for a deal on everything else”,

and then wash their hands of how to fulfil those promises, even when appointed to do so, we are in trouble.

Worse, Boris Johnson is now threatening not even to pay the money we owe—although he agreed to it when he was in Cabinet—and says that he would take us out on 31 October, deal or no deal, whatever the cost to our economy, to our citizens across the EU or, indeed, to peace in Northern Ireland. All this is on the excuse that the promises he made in 2016 were blessed by the public so must be honoured. That is a bad example of taking a decision by referendum. As the House has heard, these are highly complex, non-binary issues: not just whether to leave, but how to leave; whether to retain a competitive, non-protectionist economy based on environmental, worker and consumer protection or to move to an unrestrained, low-standard economy of the Trump variety. The referendum never discussed the “how” question, with the range of options, and the time needed to plan and adjust. That is partly the nature of the beast of a referendum, but it is partly due to the dishonesty—I have to use the word—of one side, which either misled the public and pretended it was easy or were too thoughtless or stupid to find out or care.

This particular referendum, on a complex economic, political, diplomatic and security issue, is testimony to the clash with our normal parliamentary democracy, where normally Governments are responsible for implementing the promises that they made in a general election. In this case, the costs to the economy are enormous. The uncertainty for business is costing billions. Reduced investment and preparations for no deal are costing hundreds of millions. Manufacturing representatives said today that a no-deal Brexit would be “commercial suicide”. The Cabinet has been warned that we are unprepared for a crash out. There is bewilderment among the CBI, BCC and Federation of Small Businesses at home and, as we have heard, Governments across the globe.

This referendum, and government incompetence, could lay waste to our economy. It is hardly a good advertisement for governing by referendum.