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My Lords, like all politicians, I am used to my words becoming out of date extremely quickly, but I do not think that I have ever been in a situation quite as awkward as this. I gather that, if I can announce it to the House, the Letwin amendment has been carried, so I am not sure where we stand. I am sure that the Minister or the Leader of the House, when the throngs return from the theatre where it is really happening to this B-list theatre, will be able to understand the way forward. I will cut my remarks short because they are obviously less relevant.
The last time we spoke about Europe, noble Lords opposite, with some support from the Cross Benches, were absolutely convinced that the Prime Minister did not want a deal—the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, was of that opinion. They said, “This is all a pretence: they do not want a deal. What they are trying to do is provoke the EU in order to reject the deal”. Well, that at least is one conspiracy theory that has been proved totally wrong. The Prime Minister got a deal, proved everybody wrong and delivered what people regarded as undeliverable.
I personally would have voted for Theresa May’s deal, but in many ways this one is an improvement. The UK will be completely free in terms of an independent trade policy. The direction of travel towards a free trade agreement is much more explicit than in the previous deal.
I recognise that it is not a perfect deal, and I sympathise with and understand some of the disquiet that the DUP feels. However, my noble friend Lord Howell made a very important point early in the debate when he said that the protocol referring to Northern Ireland will not come into effect until the end of 2020—and, indeed, as the Prime Minister indicated, it is possible that it might never come into existence because it might be folded into the free trade agreement. There is also the point that Northern Ireland could stand to gain very much from being in the customs union of both the EU and the UK.
Given that the Letwin amendment has been carried, I am sure that we will have much more extensive debates. One of the themes that has been very persistent from the Opposition, and I am sure will be made more of today, is their worry about deregulation, which my noble friend Lord Lilley touched on. I confess that I am little puzzled that the Opposition and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, are quite so anxious about this and talk all the time about Singapore-on-Thames. The Government have repeatedly said that they want to maintain the highest standards of employment rights and environmental regulation. Any Government wanting to get elected feels the weight of public opinion. I am not a supporter of Singapore-on-Thames as a concept, but it beggars belief that anyone should believe that the whole corpus of millions of words in the acquis communautaire in Europe is incapable of alteration or improvement or that it is somehow not outdated or unnecessary. Having the freedom to choose whether to diverge or not to diverge is a logical consequence of Brexit. There is no logic to leaving the EU and being bound by laws that one does not have the freedom to alter.
One thing seems certain from the carrying of the Letwin amendment, which is that we will get more pressure on the issue of the second referendum, which has already been extensively canvassed in the debate today. Regardless of whether one favours leave or remain, I believe that a second referendum would be a profound mistake. We have been told again and again that we should not use the word “betrayal”, so I shall not, but it is difficult to know precisely what word one should use otherwise to describe the 17.4 million people who constituted the majority in a democratic vote in which they were told repeatedly that the decision would be made by them, not by Parliament and not by the Government. We all know that the second referendum device has been the tried-and-tested practice used by the EU to reverse the result of any referendum that went against integrationist treaties. We saw that in Ireland, Holland and Denmark. Mr Barroso famously remarked in 2005 that the people,
“must go on voting until they get it right”.
I am afraid that the word “confirmatory” does not alter the reality. It would be a terrible—the word I must not use—of the 17.4 million people.
One of the oddities of this debate has been how the remain side has concentrated entirely on economics. It has never mentioned the political direction in which Europe has been going. It was never mentioned in the referendum and has not been mentioned today. I wonder whether that side really believes that remainers knew what they might be voting for in the referendum. We have entered a new period of uncertainty with the Letwin amendment being carried. No doubt all sorts of amendments will be attempted. I hope that we will persist with this deal. I hope that we will see it through to the end. We need to end this uncertainty. It is time to settle what we thought we had settled three and a half years ago.