Motion A

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Bill - Commons Amendment – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 22nd July 2019.

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Photo of Viscount Hailsham Viscount Hailsham Conservative 3:15 pm, 22nd July 2019

I rise briefly to support the amendment passed in the House of Commons last Thursday by a majority of 41 and thus express my strong opposition to the Motion of disagreement moved by my noble friend Lord Duncan. In doing so, I say to your Lordships that I make no personal criticism of my noble friend; he always conducts himself with considerable dignity in this place and I know he is always listened to with great respect.

Last Monday, and on previous occasions, I expressed my strong opposition to Brexit. It is my belief that this is a matter that should be decided by the House of Commons through a meaningful vote and not by Ministers alone. I do not intend to repeat the detail of those arguments today and will confine myself to three points.

First, in the debates last week, some of your Lordships suggested that it was constitutionally improper for this House, an unelected Chamber, to pass the amendment then under consideration and subsequently accepted by the Commons. We were told by one of my noble friends that, by acting in such a way, we were putting the very future of this House in jeopardy; doubtless some of those who held such views will troop through the Government Lobby today. Keeping that in mind, it is truly bizarre that the opponents of the Commons amendment, the Government themselves, are now asking us—the unelected House—to frustrate a decision made by the elected House with a very substantial majority. The positions adopted by the Government last week and this are inconsistent and cannot sensibly be reconciled. To those who are about to do it, I say that to stand on one’s head in such circumstances is not credible, comfortable or dignified.

Secondly, I have said that I believe Brexit was an extraordinary act of national self-harm that was not supported by plausible assumptions or credible evidence. On Thursday last week, the country received the expert opinion of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Its conclusion is that, on any of the credible assumptions, a no-deal Brexit will cause Britain very serious economic damage. This is not Project Fear; it is a professional assessment of the likely outcome of a no-deal Brexit. It must surely be the subject of serious parliamentary consideration before any decision is taken to leave the European Union, whether on 31 October or some other date. Prorogation to prevent that consideration would be unpardonable.

Thirdly and lastly, the amendment in the Commons that we are now discussing is prompted largely by the well-founded anxiety that Mr Johnson—the likely next Prime Minister—might seek to suspend the sitting of Parliament to prevent the Commons challenging and perhaps overriding the decisions of Ministers. Last Thursday, in the debate in the House of Commons, Mr Johnson could have provided the appropriate reassurance. He was in the House. I am sure that the Speaker would have called him. Mr Johnson could have said that upon his honour he would do no such thing. He could have written to my noble friend the Minister, copied to all of us, giving such an assurance. He could indeed have used his well-remunerated pen to craft an article in those terms, though had he done so I would have liked to have inspected his computer to see whether another and quite different version was to be seen on the screen. But he has done none of those things. Quite the contrary: Mr Johnson voted against the cross-party amendment passed and now being discussed, and in his article in today’s Daily Telegraph he ignored the position completely.

Your Lordships are entitled to assume that such a constitutional outrage is indeed within the contemplation of Mr Johnson. Given that, this House—indeed, all of those who respect parliamentary government—must take every proper step to prevent such a disgraceful act happening. The Commons amendment now before the House is one such measure. Your Lordships should affirm it and reject the Motion moved by my noble friend.