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My Lords, however much all of us are suffering from Brexit fatigue, we should welcome the fact that we are able to hold this debate today. The Prime Minister would like to have announced the submission of a novel “first and final” offer to the EU solely to the party faithful in Manchester, without the risk of any parliamentary interrogation at all. While it is deeply regrettable that he did not instead make a Statement to the House of Commons, we can in this House try to provide a warm-up to what I hope will be tomorrow’s main event in the other place.
I should like to address two principal points in the short time available: first, on the damage that the Prime Minister continues to do to our constitution and parliamentary democracy, which in turn makes a non-damaging resolution of the Brexit problem even harder to achieve and, secondly, giving an initial reaction to the proposals published by the Government this afternoon and what they may imply.
“There is one part of the British system that seems to be on the blink … if Parliament were a school, Ofsted would be shutting it down”— the Prime Minister said this in his speech in Manchester earlier today, having been unsuccessful in trying to play the role of Ofsted. It is just the latest comment in the relentless stream of denigration to which he has subjected Parliament, let alone the arrogant contempt he has shown for the Supreme Court. Neither the Prime Minister nor any other individual has the authority to interpret the decision of the 2016 referendum and determine its implementation. That authority lies with Parliament.
In reasserting that the 2016 referendum was advisory, or, in the terminology of the 2015 House of Commons Briefing Paper, “pre-legislative” and “consultative”, I do not think its result can or should be lightly dismissed; but Parliament is mandated to implement it. Indeed, on
“The legislation is about holding a vote; it makes no provision for what follows. The referendum is advisory, as was the case for both the 1975 referendum … and the Scottish independence vote”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/6/15; col. 231.]
“falls to be interpreted in light of the basic constitutional principles of Parliamentary sovereignty and representative parliamentary democracy … a vote in the referendum in favour of leaving the European Union would inevitably leave for future decision many important questions relating to the legal implementation of withdrawal from the European Union”.
Does the Minister believe that Parliament has been fulfilling its proper, legitimate role and that the impasse of the past nine months reflects the intractability of reconciling the Government’s multiple objectives and the range of public opinion, rather than, as the Prime Minister said, it refusing to deliver Brexit and refusing to do anything constructive? Could this Parliament have delivered Brexit? If the last Conservative Government had behaved constructively and consensually, yes, I believe it already could have done. Could this Parliament still deliver Brexit? The past failures have polarised positions, and the language and behaviour of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues, notably the Attorney-General, have made it even harder.
Will this Parliament approve a Brexit deal based on the proposals contained in the Prime Minister’s letter today to the President of the European Commission? First, the EU would have to agree to them and, I have to say, the rudeness and hypocrisy of the letter’s opening paragraph set a deeply unhelpful tone, even if there is greater willingness on the Government’s part to negotiate than they have signalled. I do not believe that the EU would have been any more likely to agree a deal based on these proposals had the Benn Act not been passed; or that the Prime Minister’s attempts to signal an ability to ignore or get around it enhances his negotiating position.
In the, frankly, unlikely event of the deal as tabled being agreed with the EU, will, and should, Parliament approve it? It is, as the leader of the Opposition has said,
“worse than Theresa May’s deal”.
Reading between the lines of the proposed “two borders, four years” approach to the Irish border, it appears certainly to threaten the delicate and complex balance that underpins the peace process, even if, by some miracle of science fiction, no new physical infrastructure is introduced at or near the border. The direction of travel towards a free trade agreement for the UK as a whole is the opposite of the one that could deliver a future relationship with the EU with minimal negative economic impact.
I look forward, without holding my breath, to hearing the Minister answer the questions of my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith as to what the Government’s intentions are in relation to the obligations under the Benn Act. In any event, as with other noble Lords, it seems to me that we are heading very soon to a general election. While I fear that the tone set for it by the Conservative Party will be deeply negative, I believe that the British people and electorate will see through that.