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Early Parliamentary General Election Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:03 pm on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 5:03 pm, 30th October 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. With her experience and expertise, she has been a pleasure to work with on a cross-party basis in the last three years, although I cannot fully agree with all her remarks just now. I endorse her warm comments on the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and thank him publicly for a kind note he recently sent me.

This general election will decide the future of our country for generations. It is an opportunity to build a fair, inclusive, liberal and internationalist Britain that will flourish inside the European Union, compared to an obsession with delivering a Brexit that will impose a huge hit on our economy and therefore jobs, and will affect the country in so many other ways. That this Conservative Government want to deliberately deliver a knock-out blow to our prosperity is dismaying, to put it mildly. As my party leader Jo Swinson said yesterday in the other place, people’s identities of remain or leave run deep, because this is about not only whether we remain in or leave the EU but who we are as a country. It is about our values and whether we are open, inclusive and internationalist in our outlook, facing the future, or closed and insular, wanting to pull up the drawbridge and look to the past. That is the key question that we as a country need to resolve.

The UK is in a mess and needs to be rescued. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, failed to meet his 31 October do or die, die in a ditch deadline to wrench the UK out of the EU. There was no early prospect of a referendum. The Prime Minister paused the withdrawal agreement Bill and there was still a risk that he would try cunningly to effect a crash out no deal, given his form since July and, indeed, for much longer.

The Liberal Democrats, with SNP support, decided that we had to take the initiative. I am proud of our role in unlocking this gridlock, in Parliament and over the Article 50 extension. Several commentators have confirmed that the Lib Dem/SNP initiative for an early election unblocked the hesitation in Brussels, and specifically in Paris, about an extension to 31 January. We would not have chosen to start from the 2016 referendum result, nor to arrive where we have, but there was an absence of full support from other parties for a people’s vote with the option to remain in the EU. The numbers for that in the Commons are simply not there.

I realise that some of our friends were taken aback. I was a bit myself, but the more I saw what was happening, or not happening, in the other place and with Brussels watching and waiting, the more I realised that our leader, Jo Swinson, had done exactly the right thing.

I could never get bored of listening to my leader, my noble friend Lord Newby, or to other colleagues, but it is true that he has made many speeches on Brexit, all of which contained a call for a people’s vote. That bears repeating often. Liberal Democrats want to stop Brexit, to get Brexit gone, so if we form a majority Government—anything could happen—we will have a mandate to revoke Article 50. If not, we will continue to campaign and press for a people’s vote, working across party, as we have since 2016, and with even greater intensity in recent months.

Many MPs, especially women, have been subject to hate speech, bullying, intimidation and worse. We all remember Jo Cox. The parties, of course, have to ensure that their own houses are in order. Ours is talking to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and to the Jo Cox Foundation about how best to do that, but could the Minister tell us what the Government and the police will do to give protective security to MPs and candidates?

Lastly, I thank the outgoing European Council President, Donald Tusk, for his friendship and support for the UK, and Michel Barnier for fairly and honourably conducting the Article 50 negotiations. It is not the fault of the European Commission or the EU 27 that we are in a gridlocked mess, but they, as well as we, will be glad to get out of it.