The House of Lords debates the case for a second Brexit referendum

Members of the Lords debated the case for and against a People's Vote once the outcome of the negotiations between the UK and EU is known.  The verbatim report from Thursday’s debate in the House of Lords, Hansard, has just been released and extracts have been used to inform this article.

This was a ‘general debate’ when members use their collective experience to bring issues of the moment to government's attention.  The debate was proposed by Lord Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats: “that this House takes note of the case for a People’s Vote on the outcome of the negotiations between the UK and the EU on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU”.

Background: Lords Library Notes (LLN-2018-0107 - extract)

The UK Government has said that it will put the withdrawal agreement, and an accompanying political declaration on the future UK-EU relationship, before the UK Parliament for approval. If the UK Parliament agrees to the withdrawal agreement and political declaration, the Government would then introduce a bill to give the withdrawal agreement domestic legal effect in the UK.

The European Parliament would also be required to vote on approving the withdrawal agreement.

Some, such as the campaign group People’s Vote, have argued that the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU should be subject to a further decision by UK voters because the terms of withdrawal were not known at the time of the 2016 referendum.

The Prime Minister has said a second referendum is not government policy, having argued that the 2016 referendum represented a ‘people’s vote’ on the UK’s membership of the EU.

Extracts from the official Parliamentary record - Hansard

Lord Campbell opened the debate by referring to the march in London of an estimated 700,000 people requesting a second vote.  He reminded the House of some of the earlier promised made:

‘The day after we leave we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want’ (April 2016, Michael Gove)

‘There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside’ (October 2016, David Davis)

 ‘The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history’ (20 July 2017, Liam Fox).

Campbell’s view is that: “Those statements display a facile misunderstanding of the nature of the European Union, its origins and its core values.  They proceed on a simplistic assumption: ‘They need us more than we need them’.

He went on to look at the reasons that the EU was formed: “to rebuild the nations of the mainland not as rivals but as partners” – starting with the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 through to the single market and customs union and its four freedoms - goods, capital, services and labour.

The creation of the four freedoms was and is: “as much about security as about economics.  Countries that embrace these freedoms do not go to war with each other—they have too much to lose.”  It is because of these foundations that: “Barnier and Brussels cannot, and will not, make any concession that undermines these freedoms. To do so would at the same time undermine the very stability that the European Union has been created to continue.”

A Labour peer, Baroness McDonagh talked about the principle of ‘just in case’.  “It is enshrined in our culture, our legal system and our character.  In home ownership, we put in an offer before we have a survey done…in pay negotiations, we instruct trade union officials and then get a vote on the final deal… in consumer rights we buy - and then we have a cooling-off period.”

She feels that there is nothing to fear from a decision between whether to remain or accepting the final deal on offer: “just in case.”

There were contributions in favour of continuing the path to Brexit - whatever the deal - on the basis of the 51.9% to 48.1% majority and a turnout of 72.2% of eligible voters.

There were doubts raised about the constitutional status of holding a second referendum – there being no precedent.  Others pointed out the sheer impracticality of completing the due process needed to hold a second referendum in the time remaining between now and 29 March 2019 - recalling the months of preparations and consultations needed simply to agree the wording of the first referendum.

There were concerns raised that the present Prime Minister is on the brink of “kicking the can down the road” – as had former Prime Minister, David Cameron.   A temporary deal with the UK remaining in the customs union for three to four years would: “allow Conservative leavers to believe that they can get fully out, will allow Conservative remainers to believe that they can get further in, and everyone goes home for Christmas in the mistaken belief that it will all go away—but hostilities will commence again in January.”  Note that we highlighted the importance of 19 January 2019 in the Brexit timetable – it is the latest date when MPs will have the opportunity for the statutory ‘meaningful vote’.  []

Temporary deals bring uncertainty.  Peers referred to impact of uncertainty citing: the “slump in investment: apprenticeships halved; violent crime escalating; universal credit in chaos; social house building halved; elderly people…in hospitals [rather than] care in homes; and record numbers of homeless people living on our streets.”

The Motion was agreed and in his wrapping up, Lord Campbell said: “My Lords, I am grateful to all who have spoken in this debate and, naturally, I include the Minister.  I hope he will forgive me if I say that in the course of the debate, he has reminded me of the first line of a Victorian poem:

“The boy stood on the burning deck,

Whence all but he had fled”.


The debate was taking pace as the European Commission updated and hardened it’s Impact assessments on the 2 scenarios that it thinks most likely:  a no-deal ‘cliff-edge’ exit on 29 March 2019; and one where a Withdrawal Agreement is ratified before that date in order to come into force on that date – meaning EU law will cease to apply to and in the United Kingdom after a transition period on 1 January 2021.  More of this in tomorrow’s briefing.

Last word:

Goes to my Grandson, Robert, during a discussion on Brexit – what else - over a meal out.  “If we stay, would that be like Brex-sticks?”. Yup - and thanks for bringing us down to earth!

John ShuttleworthComment