My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for trailing my forthcoming Bill on referenda and how they should be organised. I hope it will appeal to noble Lords in all parts of the House when it comes before them.
I have a question for my noble friend who is to wind up. A rumour is circulating—I received a text about an hour ago—that if the Letwin amendment is carried, the Government will pull the main vote. I hope that will not happen because the passing of the amendment does not prevent the deal being done, and it would be deeply unfortunate if there were such an anti-climactic end to today’s proceedings. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, in his inimitable way, referred to the fact that 37 and half years ago he and I took part in that truly dramatic and truly emergency debate on the Falklands when the Commons and, I believe, this place were virtually united and the leader of the Opposition made a passionate speech that enabled the Prime Minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, to dispatch the great force to the Falklands on the Monday. Had there not been that degree of consensus in the House, that could never have happened. Our debt to Michael Foot is very considerable.
For the past four years, Brexit has dominated our discussions and for the past three—nearly three and a half—it has overwhelmed them. We have to recognise that in this long and sorry saga, precipitated by a referendum we should never have had, we have been complicit. This House gave the referendum Bill a pretty smooth passage, as did the other place. We have rehearsed this many times in your Lordships’ House and we now have to realise that the referendum having happened, and a small majority—not the qualified majority that we called for—having voted in favour, the time really has come to accept a deal.
I would have supported Mrs May’s deal, had this House had a chance to vote on it. Incidentally, I understand that a few minutes ago Mrs May made a powerful supportive speech of her successor, treating him with a degree of kindness that she did not always receive herself. We have to listen to what she says. As the noble Lord, Lord Birt, said in a very interesting and thoughtful speech, we could well be on the brink of this deal or no deal, and no deal would be the worst possible outcome. It would dramatically endanger the union. I believe in the union of the United Kingdom more than I believe in any other political entity, and to see it dismembered as part of the Cameron legacy would be deeply distressing.
I say to your Lordships: remember that when we vote in this place, we do not, as they do in the other place, vote with a strident “Aye” or “No”; we are more reflective and vote “Content” or “Not content”. I do not particularly like this deal. I would never have started from here. You can never retain the benefits of membership of an organisation by leaving it. However, the fact is that we are on a very dangerous cusp, and I say to your Lordships that we may well better serve the interests of our country—I believe that we would—by taking a deep breath and voting “Content”.