My Lords, it is normally courteous to thank the Leader of the House for repeating Statements from the Prime Minister. However, on this occasion, I rather wish she had not. The Prime Minister articulated a view, reiterated by the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, that he hopes that the two halves of our country—the 52% and the 48%—can now speak with one voice. I made a similar comment in July 2016, straight after the referendum.
I am a democrat and was willing to respect the result of the referendum. It is a matter of record that I did not vote against triggering Article 50. During the referendum, like the Government, I was very clear and said time and again that a vote to leave meant that we would leave. However, the fact that I believe in democracy does not necessarily mean that I have changed my mind, any more than any of my fellow Liberal Democrats have done, about the importance and value of membership of the European Union. That the Prime Minister could stand in the House of Commons this morning and say, “I have not heard anybody over the last three and a half years make a case about Brexit other than in practical terms” is deeply disingenuous. The fact that people have been arguing on the basis of the situation we are in does not mean that we have changed our minds. I have not rehearsed the pre-referendum arguments over the course of the last three and a half years, because we had already had that debate. That does not mean that I do not think that membership of the European Union is by far the best thing that this country can aspire to.
I am a democrat and was willing to accept the outcome of the referendum. However, over the course of the last three and a half years, it has become clear that it is not possible for this Prime Minister or his predecessor to find a deal that is acceptable to the whole of the United Kingdom. We have heard exhortations today to support this new wonder-deal that our new Prime Minister Boris Johnson has found. It is an inferior deal to the one that Theresa May saw rejected three times. I spoke in a debate on that deal in December last year; I did not feel a need to speak subsequently, because we kept being asked about exactly the same deal.
It is common for members of other parties to criticise the Liberal Democrats for supporting or backing up the Conservatives and their worst excesses during the coalition. In practice, in many cases, the Liberal Democrats stopped the worst excesses. However, people did not see that, because when a decision is stopped, it is not seen in public. It never occurred to me that I would end up having to support in some way Arlene Foster. When Theresa May said she had a deal with the old withdrawal agreement, Mrs Foster stopped her at that stage and changes were made, so that the deal that came forward was one that at least the DUP felt was acceptable for Northern Ireland. As a Catholic of Irish heritage, it pains me somewhat to end up on the same page as the DUP.
Like so many Members of your Lordships’ House, I am deeply concerned that the deal that is now being put forward presages the break-up of the United Kingdom. The Sun newspaper has a headline today that says, “It’s time to do right by Britain”. That says it all. It does not say that it is time to do right by “the United Kingdom”, and that highlights one of the real divisions. This country is a United Kingdom of four constituent parts. The deal separates off one part of our United Kingdom. Time and again, Theresa May talked about the importance of “our precious union”. The deal that Boris Johnson has come back with drives a coach and horses through that and paves the way for the SNP to rightly suggest that if Northern Ireland can have a different deal, why not Scotland? As MPs prepare to vote, they must think about the national interest of the United Kingdom. This agreement is not in the national interest.