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Early Parliamentary General Election Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:21 pm on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 4:21 pm, 30th October 2019

My Lords, I have probably made more speeches than any other Peer arguing in favour of a referendum rather than a general election to reach a resolution on Brexit, so I am sure that many noble Lords find it rather perverse that I and my colleagues are supporting the Bill today. I last spoke in favour of a referendum, as opposed to a general election, as recently as 19 October, as the noble Baroness helpfully reminded the House. I did so in the belief that securing a referendum before the passage of the withdrawal Bill was possible. I was being assured by Members in the Commons from across the parties that that was so and that, by being patient, a pro-referendum majority would emerge.

However, to secure such a Commons majority, at least two out of three things would have to happen and, by the end of last week, it was crystal clear that none of them would. First, the DUP could have supported a referendum. It made it clear that it did not. All experience shows that when the DUP has adopted a firm position, it does not easily shift from it. Secondly, the bulk of the 21 Conservative rebels, who had at that stage had had the whip withdrawn, could have supported a referendum. Instead, with barely a handful of exceptions, they swung firmly behind the Bill. Many of them have now had their reward by getting the whip back. Thirdly, Labour could have united behind a referendum. It did not. From my conversations with Labour Back-Benchers, it became clear that people were so dug into their positions that they could not find a way to justify changing tack, even if they were minded to, which they were not.

By the weekend, it was clear to me that my long-held hopes and expectation that, at the last minute, there would be a majority in the Commons for a referendum, had been dashed. This view was shared by my colleagues in the Commons and by all serious commentators, and it was time to face that reality. If a referendum was off the table, only two courses of events were then possible. First, the Government could have secured an amended timetable Motion for the Bill and sought to get it through the Commons and the Lords in coming weeks. I believe that, had the Government pursued this course, they would have prevailed and a substantially unamended Bill would have passed. We would have been out of the EU by Christmas.

Secondly, we could indeed have an election that, imperfect as it might be, at least gives the people the chance to express a view on Brexit, as well who is best fitted to lead the country. To me and my colleagues in the Commons and your Lordships’ House, this is by far the better of these two evils. It is why we gave the Bill our support at Second Reading in the Commons yesterday. There are undoubtedly ways in which it might be improved, whether relating to the exact date of the election, the franchise or detailed election rules. There are also broader issues about the future of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, to which I am sure Parliament will wish to return after the election. However, I believe it would be a mistake to seek to delay the Bill today. The Commons has given it overwhelming support as it stands. Now that a decision in principle to have the election has been made, we should simply get on with it. I suspect the rest of the country shares that view.