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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:21 pm on 5th September 2019.

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Photo of Lord O'Donnell Lord O'Donnell Crossbench 3:21 pm, 5th September 2019

My Lords, I would like to build on what many of the previous speakers have said, particularly my former boss, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who covered many of the areas that I want to speak on, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. I completely support what she said on the economic costs of no deal; other institutions have also looked at that, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Trade Knowledge Exchange—but I must refer to the register of interests, because I am all over both of those.

I should also warn the House to be careful of listening to me. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, referred to the No. 10 spokesman role, and the fact that the No. 10 spokesman occasionally has to prevaricate and possibly not answer questions as fully as one might like to, as I had to for four or five years. However, the number one rule is “never lie”. I really worry about the implications of the 15 August thing concerning Prorogation. Was that civil servant knowingly not telling the truth, for which the implications are fairly clear—the person should be sacked—or were they being told untruths? That is important. It builds on the question of trust and on the “good chaps” theory of government, which the noble Lord, Lord Howell, mentioned.

Alas, we do not have with us to talk about his own theory my very good friend the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, but it is worth remembering that, when talking about the decline of the “good chaps” theory, he said that it fell into fragments on 28 August at Balmoral. To my mind, there are wider implications. I was here throughout the events of last night, listening—I would not say “happily”. I was listening to my former colleague, the noble Lord, Lord True, who, when we were in No. 10 together, would speak passionately on policy and the importance of the rules under which this House operates. In the past, he was a bit more concise. I am not a fan of filibusters or guillotines. These are symptoms of the decline in trust.

It is crucial that we trust our Prime Ministers, and I worry that we are in a really dangerous world now. Let me give some evidence. When people are asked about trust, as has happened most recently, there is one profession whose trust rating has had the biggest rise of any over the last 35 years. I am very proud to say that it is the Civil Service. However, the latest survey reveals the biggest ever gap in the public’s mind between the extent to which they trust civil servants and trust Ministers. That is not a good place for our democracy to be. This whole process is causing great problems of that kind.

The other constitutional point that is really important to remember about this Bill is that we have the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition to thank for our being able even to consider this question. If it were not for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the Prime Minister could have just stopped it all, allowed us to leave with no deal and had an election after that date. I am the first person to admit that that Act could be a lot better, and I look forward to being part of amending it at some point to correct the things that are not quite right. It was too rushed—let me put it that way—but it is interesting to look back on it.

On the implications of this Bill, the Prime Minister has said that if we take out no deal, it makes it harder for him to get a deal. I believe the opposite is true and would be interested in noble Lords’ reactions to this, because I have said this publicly already. David Davis was absolutely clear that getting rid of the backstop was not enough for him to support any deal that came to the Commons. He implied that we also have to do something on the money and the jurisdiction of the European courts, and that there were lots of other MPs who took this view.

If this is true, I do not think it possible for such a deal to be negotiated with the EU. We have already heard that it is impossible to get all of the backstop done, so to get this and everything else, they are saying, “Prime Minister, go and negotiate a deal. By the way, when you come back, we are going to vote against it”. What does that do for the EU incentive to offer any concessions? Absolutely nothing. What does that do for our process of trying to come up with a deal? It makes it incredibly hard for that to go through. I do not really understand what we are doing here, because if you are an MP in the House of Commons whose preference is no deal, the obvious thing to do, whatever deal the Prime Minister comes back with, is to vote against it. If this Bill did not exist, the default in law is quite clear—that we would then leave without a deal. The incentive is to vote against it, irrespective of what it is.

I am completely puzzled by this but let us try to be constructive. What is the way forward? A number of people have said that Parliament has had plenty of time to come up with not just what it does not want but what it wants, and it has failed miserably. That is true. My solution to this is a new Parliament. We need a general election of some kind. My one plea is that all the manifestos be absolutely clear about what the parties are going to do. That is crucial, because if we are trying to get the people to make an informed choice and we give them fudge, we could end up in exactly the same place as we are now.

I have two final points. First, some people are saying that the EU is a terrible club, but it seems to have a lot of members keen to join it. Secondly, I have spent a lot of time dealing with special advisers, and my general principle is that good special advisers are extremely good for the smooth working of the Civil Service and its relationship with Ministers. Bad special advisers are toxic and, in the end, bring their Ministers down. That is a lesson the Prime Minister might want to consider.