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My Lords, I declare, as always, my European interests as detailed in the register. This is the first opportunity I have had to speak in this Chamber since I resigned the Conservative Whip on
“unhappy at the timing and length of the prorogation and its motivation”,
“unpersuaded by the reasons given”.
A few days later, the Commons voted to allow the so-called Benn Bill—which requires the Prime Minister to request an extension in the absence of a deal—to be debated. I know I would have voted with the 21 Conservatives who supported the Motion and enabled it to pass. Those 21 had the Whip removed and were expelled from the parliamentary party. As a result, I felt that the only honourable course open to me was to resign the Whip in this House.
As we all know, the Prorogation was subsequently declared unlawful by 11 to zero by the Supreme Court. How unfortunate that it was a Conservative Prime Minister who should have acted in this way and broken a convention of this nature that had lasted for so long.
The ultras and certain newspapers regularly accuse those who do not wish to leave without a deal, or who try to prevent the country leaving without one, of not accepting the result of the referendum. This is simply not true, and I must repeat what I have said many times before. In the referendum I voted to remain. I much regret that by a small percentage the country voted to leave. In their 2017 general election manifestos both major parties committed to honour the result of the referendum. Since then, I have been of the opinion that, regrettably, we must now leave the European Union. However, it would not be in the national interest to leave without a deal, with all the serious consequences this would have for the economy, for small businesses, for farmers, for the supply of medicines, for security, for investment and for the union. The list goes on.
I sincerely hope that the Prime Minister will be able to negotiate a deal in the next two weeks and get it agreed by the European Council and by Parliament. Should he be unable to do so, he must by law and in the national interest seek a further delay, frustrating and disappointing as that might be. We cannot and must not leave without a deal.
Once a delay has been secured, if that is necessary, it would surely be expedient to have a general election. If the current House of Commons is unable to support Mrs May’s deal—which I would have voted for, and I would vote for any new deal brought to this House—and as the Government no longer have a majority in the Commons, we must have a general election. Then it will probably be desirable for the next Parliament, however it is made up, to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. For centuries it has been more than a convention that a Government who do not have the confidence of the House of Commons resign and call an election. I should add here that I am still not persuaded of the merits of a second referendum.
Even if the Prime Minister secures a deal at the next European Council, I fear that an extension might still be necessary to enable the parliamentary procedures here and the ratification by the European Parliament in Strasbourg to take place. I am glad that Parliament is sitting this week and that we are having this debate today.
We should all hope that the Prime Minister, with his clear determination, is indeed able to negotiate a new deal. But should he fail, there is no doubt that we must seek an extension. I wish him well in the negotiations and I hope, with limited conviction, that he can achieve a new deal.