My Lords, it is a great pleasure to begin by congratulating the mover and seconder of the humble Address. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, made a typically thoughtful and polished speech. I worked closely and happily with the noble Baroness during the coalition, when she was Chief Whip and I was her deputy. She was renowned for always being in control of events, and for her even temper. I know of only one case when each of these very considerable attributes was found wanting.
The first state visit in which she participated in her role of Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms—that of the Emir of Qatar—began at Windsor. The noble Baroness, and my noble friend Lord Shutt, as Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard, were in full regalia for the welcome procession, which they viewed from under a grand porch in the castle’s courtyard. As the mounted cavalry disappeared through another archway, they realised that they were alone. They did not know how to get to the dining room, where they were due to have their lunch. Two staircases beckoned: they took the first. As they reached the landing at the top, to their consternation an elderly lady on the arm of a younger son hove into view. “Are you lost?”, asked the Queen, adding, “I am sure Andrew can show you where you need to go”.
There was only one occasion when the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and I had angry words. For reasons which some noble Lords will remember, the Liberal Democrats decided that they could not support—and would seek to scupper—proposals to change parliamentary constituency boundaries, even though that was the formal policy of the coalition Government. I had the task of informing the noble Baroness that this was what we planned. Her response was pithy and furious. It was, however, a mark of her professionalism and generous nature that the incident had no permanent impact on our relationship, and she continued to play a major part in ensuring that the Government were both strong and stable.
The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, gave a characteristically witty and erudite speech. However, I feel for him: he has made a career as a novelist by writing about somewhat improbable events in Parliament in an entertaining and compelling manner. But real events in recent months have made his plots seem pretty tame and I do not see how he will ever be able to write about Parliament again. No plot which he could devise would be more fantastical than current reality. He will, I hope, be able to survive on the royalties of his past triumphs.
We have just completed the longest parliamentary Session for more than 350 years. It is also one which has achieved the least. Domestic policy-making has increasingly ground to a halt as Brexit has dominated departmental activity and civil servants from departments such as the Department for Education have been drafted into others such as Defra to undertake Brexit-related work, leaving a void where policy-making should have been in their home department. On foreign policy, our influence in the Middle East and elsewhere has diminished as the Government have become increasingly dysfunctional. Our international reputation has plummeted. I have just returned from Australia, a country which the Government would have us believe will provide us with new trade and prosperity were we to leave the EU. Yet even the least sophisticated taxi driver in Sydney sees what is happening here, shakes his head in disbelief and thinks we have gone mad.
Today’s speech is unique in that it has been written by a minority Government who are desperate for an election. It is normally the other way around: you have the election first. It is not a programme which the Government have any possibility of implementing. It is a Tory general election manifesto. Leaving aside Brexit for a moment, as a programme for government it fails woefully to address, far less offer solutions to, the long-term challenges facing the country. It is a series of newspaper headlines rather than a basis for dealing with pressing problems. Knife crime is in the headlines, then let us have more police. There is nothing about the complex causes of knife crime, which need a government response across a range of programmes, not least the restoration of decimated youth services. Some people are worried about crime more generally, so let us lock up more foreigners and increase sentences. There is nothing about providing the resources needed to make the rehabilitation of offenders a reality rather than a pipe dream. The NHS is struggling, so let us have more hospitals—although probably not very many more. There is nothing about how to fill the pressing and growing problem of staff shortages across the NHS, particularly in rural areas, which Brexit is exacerbating.
Everybody knows, of course, that this speech cannot be implemented by this Government and that the urgent and overarching question is that of Brexit. It is still unclear whether the Government will secure a new withdrawal agreement which could be brought before Parliament this month. If they fail, their position, though not that of Parliament as a whole, is to leave the EU with no deal, with all the costs that that will bring. During our debates this week, I am sure that we will hear descriptions of these costs across a whole raft of policy areas. I simply remind the House that, according to the IFS and Citibank, no deal would double government borrowing. According to the outgoing Chief Medical Officer, no deal would lead to additional deaths. According to the former head of MI6, it would seriously jeopardise the fight against crime and terror.
Fortunately, last month Parliament passed the Benn Act, which means that we are unlikely to leave the EU at the end of the month. It seems that this position will be formalised in the parliamentary debates this coming Saturday.
Even if a deal were somehow reached, would that be in the country’s long-term interest? As we spent 150 hours debating the withdrawal Bill last year, it was noticeable that, in subject area after subject area, the best the Government could say was that if we succeeded in reaching agreement with the EU after we had left, our position would not be much worse than at present—not “better” than at present, just not much worse. In recent months, the Government have stopped even pretending that, outside the EU, we would be better off than now or that there would be any identifiable, tangible benefits whatever. Their sole purpose in pursuing a disastrous policy is that they must respect the will of the people. On these Benches, we agree, but it is will of the people today that should be respected and not that of a somewhat different cohort of people some three and a half years ago. The will of the people today was set out clearly in the massive poll of polls reported in the Evening Standard last week, which showed that there has been a majority in the country for the past two years to remain in the EU. “Ah,” say noble Lords opposite, “but you can’t trust the polls”. Again, we agree. That is why we do not have government by opinion poll; we have government by real polls, and so we now need such a poll.
Indeed, all parties now agree that we must go back to the people to seek their guidance. The only dispute is over what kind of poll we have. The preferred course of the Government and, I think, that of the Labour Party is that we should now move to a general election. From a purely Liberal Democrat perspective, a general election looks extremely attractive. We would increase our position in the Commons probably very substantially, but we all know that general elections are not fought on a single issue, however much individual parties might wish them to be. In any election, the character and attributes of the party leaders will weigh with many voters at least as much as Brexit, and recent polls show that so will familiar domestic issues such as health, education and crime.
Were an election to result in no single party being able to form a Government, as seems highly probable, all that we would have done would be to delay a decision on Brexit and arguably make taking one that much more difficult. It will come as no surprise to noble Lords that, from these Benches, we believe that, instead of having an election, we should now have a confirmatory referendum on whether the country wishes to leave the EU on the basis that will now be before us or whether we should remain. Once the referendum has taken place, we should then have a general election to determine the course which the country will follow for the years ahead.
That election, whenever it comes, will be a battle of values to a greater extent than any election in our recent history. On our side will be those who embrace the future, celebrate diversity and would put the country on a sustainable environmental and economic path. Against us will be those who hanker after the past, who see tolerance as a sign of weakness and who propose short-term fixes to long-term problems. The next few months will be pivotal to the country, our children and our grandchildren. We owe it to them to make the right choice.