European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:55 pm on 5th September 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 1:55 pm, 5th September 2019

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, I had not intended to speak today, in particular because I spent so many hours yesterday voting on a variety of closure Motions and amendments that appeared, I thought, somewhat unnecessary. The whole procedure contributed to the sense that it was not Parliament’s finest hour—a strange position to be in when, surely, the whole purpose of the vote to leave the European Union was for the United Kingdom to take back control. We do not seem to be doing a very good job of that.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, I have at various points felt that we are in the heart of a great national humiliation. However, I suspect my reasons for thinking it is a national humiliation and those of the noble Baroness are a little different. I have spent a lot of time talking to colleagues in other European Union countries and every conversation includes: “We’re so sorry about Brexit”, “What on earth is happening in the United Kingdom?” and “How did you get to the point of capitulation?” The word “capitulation” came back in December when the then Prime Minister had negotiated her withdrawal agreement. The EU 27 spent months wanting to know what David Cameron wanted in his renegotiation, they spent months wanting to know what Theresa May wanted in her negotiation, and they are now spending time asking what the United Kingdom wants, if it wants to change something.

We were given a six-month extension and told not to waste it. What have we done? Most ordinary people in the United Kingdom have not had the opportunity to do anything at all on Brexit since 29 March. Unless one was a member of the Conservative Party, there was no opportunity to vote for a new leader of that party and no opportunity to vote for who the new Prime Minister would be. Everything has changed since the extension was announced, yet in some ways nothing has changed. The United Kingdom has been unable to agree on the withdrawal agreement. We have heard already today calls from some who oppose the Bill that the European Union needs to make an agreement. The EU 27 made clear before Article 50 was triggered what their position was. They have remained united ever since the United Kingdom triggered Article 50. The problem is that the United Kingdom is as divided today as it was on 23 June 2016, if not more divided.

We have had the general election that the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, called for. He said that we need a general election. We had a referendum in 2016, the date that some people seem to suggest democracy stopped—the date that we should always have frozen in aspic as the date when the people spoke. A year later, we had a general election. The composition of the House of Commons today is the result of that election in 2017—an election called by Theresa May to enhance her mandate for the sort of Brexit that she thought she wanted. That did not go very well.

We heard earlier from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, that there was a problem—that we need to deal with Brexit, that this peculiarity of a Bill coming from the Opposition seems quite wrong, and that we should listen to the Government. But the Government have no majority, even with the DUP’s confidence and supply agreement, which seems to be more absent than present. On the day after the Summer Recess, the departure of Phillip Lee ensured that the Prime Minister lost his majority, and taking the Whip away from 21 of his colleagues ensured that it has no hope of a majority.

This country has been ripped apart by the referendum. David Cameron said that he wanted to stop his party obsessing about Europe, but what we have seen is his own party ripped apart. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who I am sorry is not in his place, talked eloquently about those colleagues who have been lost to the Conservative Party. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, spoke similarly. Despite being a Liberal Democrat, I have friends on the Conservative Benches. I feel personally the loss of committed parliamentarians who feel that they can no longer sit in the House of Commons because of what has happened over Brexit.

This is a national humiliation and to allow the Prime Minister to take us out of the European Union on 31 October without a deal would be a travesty of democracy, because democracy did not stop on 23 June 2016. We have had a general election since then. We need another general election. Everyone can agree on that. But we cannot agree that a general election should be called before there is some guarantee that we will have an ongoing relationship with the European Union with some sort of withdrawal arrangement. That is what the proposed Bill offers.

The Bill does not say that the Prime Minister has to have a withdrawal agreement: it allows for the House of Commons by a Motion to say that we will leave without a deal. What it does not allow is for the Prime Minister to think that he is some sort of unelected dictator. We still live in a democracy. The Government do not have a majority in the House of Commons and if the House of Commons wishes to vote against the Government and say that we need a deal, so be it.

If and when we get agreement on ensuring that the United Kingdom does not crash out of the EU, that is the time for a general election. Perhaps the Ministers and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, when they come to respond, will consider the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. If we need to allow the people to have a say on how we leave the European Union, as the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, said, a general election is not the way to do it. How about a simultaneous referendum, so that the general election can do what a general election is meant to do and help us form a Government, and a referendum would allow the people to have a final say? I am no fan of referendums, but ultimately, what the people decided only the people can ratify.