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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:09 pm on 5th September 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley Conservative 2:09 pm, 5th September 2019

My Lords, I will speak very briefly. I will not talk about European history, nor start psychoanalysing the Conservative Party. I will leave that to others. I will talk briefly about the Bill, because that is what is before us.

As many noble Lords may know, I voted to remain. Our side lost but I have always believed that we need to honour the result of the referendum and leave the European Union. There are clearly only two ways in which we can do that: with a deal or without one. We here and in the other place have spent the best part of a year trying to reach a parliamentary consensus around a deal. Compromise has been tried. I have argued for compromise many times, and some have attacked me for doing so. It has failed conclusively.

As the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, and others have said, there is no parliamentary majority, as we all know, for the withdrawal agreement, for the UK to remain in the customs union or the European Economic Area, or to hold a second referendum. The only approach that might command the support of the majority is to renegotiate the Irish backstop, which we have had a considerable ding-dong about today and which I do not want to get into. However—here I entirely concur with the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson—there seems absolutely no chance that the European Union will start changing its position on that right now, and it will certainly not succumb to the demand to take that out of the withdrawal agreement entirely. If you believe that there is a democratic imperative to leave, and there is no parliamentary majority to leave with a deal, that clearly leaves only one option: leaving without a deal.

That brings us to this Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and others have made clear, and as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said when introducing the Bill, its purpose is clear enough: to extend the negotiations and avoid our crashing out without a deal. However, this leads to a whole series of questions, which, to be honest, although we have had an interesting debate about the future of Europe, we have not got to the bottom of, and some of which my noble friend Lord Howard, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, have touched on.

The core question is this: if this Bill were passed—and it seems clear that it will be—and Brexit were to be delayed yet again and the negotiations go on beyond 31 October, what precisely will the UK be negotiating for? What is the negotiating mandate? We know that there is no majority in the other place for any other approach. I have just said this; the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, said it. We have spent years trying to reach this consensus, so what is this negotiating mandate? I have yet to hear the answer. I know that it is not necessarily for the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, to say, but perhaps someone can tell me. I do not know what it is, and even with the amendment in the name of Mr Stephen Kinnock it seems completely unclear.

This brings me on to a second point. Again, I may be a bear of very little brain and someone may be able to answer this, but who will be doing the negotiating? We can debate all we like what it says in the Bill, but Mr Johnson has said that he will not go to Brussels. So who will be leading the negotiating team there? Will it be Mr Jeremy Corbyn? The Speaker? Someone else? Who will create this? It is just not clear. The reason it is not clear is that none of us knows.

Noble Lords may say that they have heard me say this before, and I do not like succumbing to the problem mentioned by my noble friend Lord Patten of repeating speeches I have already given, but sadly this is a speech I gave two and a half years ago standing at that Dispatch Box when an amendment passed—I admire your Lordships for your consistency on this—which was going to give the other place the right to block no deal. I made these points and opposed this amendment then, and I oppose this Bill now for that precise reason.

Parliament exists to make decisions, not to dither, which is why, when this Bill becomes law, it will show beyond doubt that it cannot fulfil that primary purpose —to decide on our nation’s future. So, as I have been saying for months, the brutal reality is that the current Parliament is broken and it is time for a new one. We need a general election and we need it now. Now that it has been agreed that this Bill, flawed though it is, will become law, I humbly argue to those in the Opposition, some of whom I consider friends, that they should stop blocking giving people the chance to express their views in the ballot box and agree to a general election on 15 October, so that on that day—three years, three months and 23 days since 17.4 million people voted to leave the European Union—people can decide on their nation’s future.