ICYMI: Nick Clegg’s brilliant speech on Article 50 Bill

I am so proud of Nick Clegg who made one of the speeches of his life, and one of the best I have ever heard in Parliament, in the Article 50 Bill yesterday. You would hope that such a momentous decision would bring out the best in our MPs.  It certainly did for Nick whose oratory was mature, passionate, honest and searingly critical of a Government acting in its party’s, not the national interest, Watch it here.

The full text, including the interventions, is below:

As this is the formal beginning of a process that will most likely lead to the end of Britain’s leading role in the heart of Europe and the European Union—a cause I have espoused and defended all my political life both in opposition and in government—I have to confess that of course I feel sad that we have come to this point, much as I was surprised and saddened, as many people were, by the outcome of the referendum last summer.

That sadness is increasingly mixed with a growing sense of anger at what I consider to be the Government’s deliberate distortion of the mandate they received from the British people in a way that I think is divisive, damaging and self-serving.

Let us be clear: the British people gave the Government a mandate to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union. The British people did not give this Government a mandate to threaten to turn our country into some tawdry, low-regulation, low-tax, cowboy economy. The British people did not vote to make themselves poorer by pulling out of the greatest free-trading single market the world has ever seen—incidentally, that is one of the many reasons why the Liberal Democrats believe that the British people should be given a say at the end of the process, much as they were given a say at the beginning. And the British people most certainly did not give a mandate to the Government to indulge in the ludicrous, sycophantic farce that we have seen in recent days in which this Government, having burned every bridge left with our friends in Europe, rushed across the Atlantic to sidle next to a US President without seeming to be aware that his nativism, isolationism and protectionism is diametrically opposed to the long-term strategic interests of the United Kingdom.

Mrs Sheryll Murray

Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why my constituents, the majority of whom voted to leave, reject his party’s call to hold a second referendum? I really believe it is an insult to the integrity of my constituents to promote that.

Mr Clegg

The insult was that the Brexit campaigners deliberately withheld from the British people what they meant by Brexit. It was a deliberate, effective but highly cynical tactic. We never received a manifesto with the views of Nigel Farage, the Foreign Secretary or the former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for ​Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), explaining what Brexit means. Therefore, when we finally know what Brexit really means in substance, rather than in utopian promise, of course the British people should have their say.

No, I wish to make some progress. That is why I believe that this House has not a choice but a duty to withhold from the Government the right to proceed with Brexit in the way they have planned. That would not stop Brexit but would simply urge the Government to go back to the drawing board and to come back to this House with a more sensible and moderate approach to Brexit.

Mr Duncan Smith

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Clegg

I really wish to make some progress. I have only four minutes.

Some people say that there is no alternative, that we must leave the single market and that there is no remote chance that we could find an accommodation with our European partners. Nonsense. For instance, I confirm to the House that I have recently heard on very good authority that senior German decision makers, shortly after the Prime Minister, no doubt to her surprise, found herself as Prime Minister without a shot—or indeed a vote—being fired, were keen to explore ways to deliver her an emergency brake. In return, they hoped for an undisruptive economic Brexit.

But what did this Government choose to do? They decided to spurn all friendship links with Europe. They decided to disregard the needs of Scotland, Northern Ireland and, indeed, our great capital London. They decided to placate parts of the Conservative party rather than serve the long-term strategic interests of this country. They decided to pander to the eye-popping vitriol and bile that we see every day from people like Mr Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, and other members of the moneyed elite who run the Brexit right-wing press in this country—and this Government have become too slavishly preoccupied with their opinions. But, above all, this Government have decided to disregard the hopes, the dreams and the aspirations of 16.1 million of our fellow citizens, which is more than have ever voted for a winning party in a general election— 242 Westminster constituencies voted to remain.

Mr Duncan Smith

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Clegg

No, I have only two minutes.

Mr Duncan Smith

You will get an extra minute.

Mr Clegg

All right.

Mr Duncan Smith

I have a very simple question to ask and the right hon. Gentleman will get the rest of his minute. Does he recall that, during the referendum ​campaign, the then Prime Minister and many others on the remain side said that if the British people voted to leave the European Union, it would absolutely mean that we leave the single market? Did he agree with that at the time?

Mr Clegg

It is a novel concept that the winning side in a competition invokes the arguments of the losing side to make a case that it did not make itself. That is ludicrous. The Brexit campaign deliberately did not spell out to the British people what Brexit means, which is why it is right that, when we finally do know what Brexit means, the British people have another say.

My final point is that the British Government have taken the mandate of 23 June 2016 and not only disregarded the 16.1 million people and the 242 constituencies that voted to remain but have very deliberately decided to ignore the pleas, the dreams, the aspirations and the plans of the people who should actually count most. It is our children and our grandchildren, the youth of Britain, who will have to live with the fateful consequences more than anybody in this House or anybody on the Government Front Bench and—guess what?—conventional wisdom says that the youth of today are politically indifferent and do not participate. Sixty-four per cent. of 18 to 24-year-old voters voted. They mobilised in huge, unprecedented numbers, and 73% of them voted for a different future.

I know that the vote of a 19-year-old does not weigh any differently in the ballot box from the vote of a 90-year-old but, when we search our consciences, as we have just been asked to do, we should search our consciences most especially about what country we think we are handing on to the next generation. Call me old-fashioned, but when a country decides to go on a radical, uncompromising departure to a new and as yet entirely unpredictable future, and does so against the explicit, stated wishes of those who have to inhabit that future, it is a country embarking on a perilous path, and I hope that our consciences will not pay for it.

I have a great sense of foreboding. Notwithstanding my personal admiration for the Secretary of State for Brexit, who will try to conduct his negotiations in good humour, the negotiations are going to get nasty and acrimonious. Just think what will happen in the British tabloid press when the Government first start arguing about money in the next few months. The Government’s position is asking for the impossible and the undeliverable. Most especially, it is not possible to say that we will not abide by the rulings of a marketplace and then somehow claim that we will get unfettered access to that marketplace. That is not going to happen.

European leaders, many of whom I have spoken to, look at us with increasing dismay and disbelief at the incoherence and the confrontational manner in which this Government are proceeding with Brexit.

My final plea is that Members look to the long-term interests of our country and their constituents when voting, not to the short-term interests of this Government.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Yes, an excellent speech. It was full of passion and fair comment. It left me thinking, if only he had used these skills when in coalition. I look forward to more.

  • David Evershed 1st Feb '17 - 11:02am

    The first referendum decided that the UK is to leave the EU.

    So if there is to be a second referendum it will be between:

    a) leaving under the terms negotiated with the remaining members of the EU, and

    b) leaving under World Trade Organisation terms

    There would not be the option of remaining in the EU because that was ruled out at the first referendum.

  • Little Jackie Paper 1st Feb '17 - 11:17am

    ‘I confirm to the House that I have recently heard on very good authority that senior German decision makers, shortly after the Prime Minister, no doubt to her surprise, found herself as Prime Minister without a shot—or indeed a vote—being fired, were keen to explore ways to deliver her an emergency brake. In return, they hoped for an undisruptive economic Brexit.’

    This is intriguing! An emergency brake on what exactly? Who are these ‘senior German decision makers’ and who were they speaking for?

    Does this mean that there actually are people in the EU willing to at least look again at Cameron’s renegotiation?

    This sounds to me like another hint that there were indeed informal negotiations/talks prior to May’s speech.

  • Rob Parsons 1st Feb '17 - 11:26am

    David, nothing was ruled out by the first referendum, which was only advisory. With elections people get the chance to change their minds at regular intervals. By the time the final deal is known, a lot of people may well have changed their minds. They may also change their mind when they see what the shape of the final deal is, because any deal, whatever it is, it will not reflect what some leave voters voted for. We need a chance to vote on a) staying in the known quantity of the EU as it is, or b) leaving on the known quantity of what the leaving deal is. That is the fair and democratic thing to do.

  • simon mcgrath 1st Feb '17 - 11:31am

    Excellent speech. But if leaving the EU is so daft (it is) why did clegg put an in out referendum in our manifesto

  • Little Jackie Paper 1st Feb '17 - 11:36am

    Rob Parsons – ‘staying in the known quantity of the EU as it is’

    I would be very careful about that line of argument. One of the better LEAVE arguments is that what we had in 2016 is something very different to what we had in the 1970s. The EU is in effect a pretty open-ended deal and to say it is a known quantity seems a bit premature. We really don’t know what the EU would have been in 10 years had the referendum gone the other way.

    If in 2000 I’d told you that the EU would have EZ austerity, the refugee/migrant debacle, TTIP and severely asymmetric migration would you have thought it a likely outcome?

    To be clear this isn’t so say that leaving is anything other than a risk. Plainly it is. But to say that the EU is a known quantity seems to me to be a stretch. Indeed I don’t see a lot of people demanding a ‘hard remain.’

  • Rob Parsons 1st Feb '17 - 11:51am

    Little Jackie Paper – I take your point. I was being brief. We know things will change, but you can apply the same argument to leaving. Things might look rosy at the point of leaving but change dramatically when we are in our own dinghy on the high seas and Trump or Putin decides to whip up a storm.

  • Temerity Drax 1st Feb '17 - 11:52am

    If it is the case that “senior German decision makers … were keen to explore ways to deliver her an emergency brake’ we should note that prior to the referendum Martin Schulz went to some lengths to pour cold water on the idea of an emergency brake, indicating that such a measure would probably not enjoy the support of the EU Parliament of which he was at that time president.

    Whoever these senior figures may be, it would be interesting to know whether an emergency brake could ever be delivered. One notes that (i) Mr Schulz never seemed very enthusiastic about the idea and that (ii) he is very likely to be elected the most senior German figure of all.

    Frankly, nobody seems very supportive of an emergency brake, as is evidenced by the indifferent response on both sides of the Channel when Mr Cameron proudly unveiled the measure then promptly forgot about it as he did so many of his ‘bright ideas’.

  • Andrew Tampion 1st Feb '17 - 12:01pm

    If senior EU decision makers are willing to offer an emergency brake or any other concession then they can offer it when we have invoked Article 50 and the negotiating team can consider it. Perhaps a compromise can be reached in which we retain access to the Single Market in return for accepting limited freedom of movement. Mr Cleggs line of argument seems to me to contradict the arguments of those who say that theEU will offer no concessions and present us with a take it or leave it deal: Single Market or WTO.

    David Evershed is right leaving the EU on WTO rules must be one of the choices for any second referendum and since there can be only two choices reversing the original decision can’t be

  • “leaving under the terms negotiated with the remaining members of the EU,”
    Negotiating bilateral treaties with the EU may take many years.

  • Richard Underhill 1st Feb '17 - 1:09pm

    At PMQ on 1/2/2017 Tory MP Peter Bone (husband of Mrs Bone) said that the Liberal Democrats were not present yesterday, which is imprecise to the point of being untrue and will go into Commons Hansard. The Speaker then called Tm Farron.

  • Richard Underhill 1st Feb '17 - 1:23pm

    After PMQ the Daily Politics Andrew Neil gave a press release from Buckingham Palace about state visits, of which there have only two from Presidents of the USA, not including “Mr. Reagan”.
    President Reagan wanted an unprecedented banquet live on television, which was agreed. This was during the Falklands war. Prince Andrew was an officer in the Royal Navy in the area at risk of combat. The Queen expressed her disapproval of the invasion by the Argentinian military junta. PM Margaret Thatcher immediately put her face in her soup bowl, which did not yet contain soup, presumably surprised by the Queen’s speech, but without disagreeing with it.
    The UK wanted access to information from satellites controlled by the USA. The Republican administration in the USA wanted to try to be friends with both the UK, although operating outside the NATO area, and with the dictatorship in Argentina.

  • The UK’s post-Brexit trade deal brokered with the EU could be referred to Europe’s Court of Justice (ECJ), its president has revealed.

  • David Evershed 1st Feb '17 - 5:53pm

    Little Jackie Paper

    I think when Rob Parsons refers to ‘staying in the known quantity of the EU as it is’
    he may be referring to known unknowns as opposed to unknown unknowns. 🙂

  • Richard Underhill 1st Feb '17 - 7:21pm

    We should be careful not to embarrass the Queen, so a modest proposal should be considered. No timescale has been set for the proposed state visit by Donald Trump. Queen Elizabeth the Second was born in 1926. Her Mother lived to be 101 years old, so maybe 2037 or 2038 should be considered.
    Sadly Donald Trump’s presidency is limited by US law to a maximum of two four year terms, but they do not need to be consecutive. As the Queen told George W Bush, she is not limited in that way.

  • David Evershed – the question posed in the LIb Dem amendment is do you accept the new arragements or do you want the UK to stay in the EU

  • Katharine Pindar 1st Feb '17 - 9:10pm

    I think Rob Parsons is right in suggesting what the final voting choice should be. ‘Staying in the known quantity of the EU as it is’ might be acceptable, because the EU itself is in a state of flux, and so the ‘known quantity’ so to speak may be substantially different in 2019. This seems likely to be the case at least concerning freedom of movement of labour in the EU.
    It was great to read and hear (thanks, Caron) Nick’s passionate speech: the fight goes on to secure our party’s demands, with able leadership from both Tim and Nick, and nothing but Lib Dem principle affirmed by our other MPs. Compare Conservative principles, shifting like the sands swept by the tides. We must ‘fight them on the’… not the beaches, but on the floors of Parliament, and in our two vital ongoing by-elections.

  • Ruth Bright 2nd Feb '17 - 10:36am

    ACN – quite.

    A great speech. I watched it with a young person who is furious about what has been decided on his behalf and he hugely appreciated Clegg’s emphasis on the fact that young people overwhelmingly voted to Remain.

  • Linda Richardson 2nd Feb '17 - 12:46pm

    It was indeed a wonderful speech: I also was impressed with Nick Clegg’s emphasis on the views of the young and the impact of Brexit for them. It is so important that we refuse to accept this catastrophic move as inevitable, and continue to fight for their future.

  • Whether or not there is a second referendum, or even if there should be, I hope throughout history this point is made over and over when speaking of Brexit:

    “It is a novel concept that the winning side in a competition invokes the arguments of the losing side to make a case that it did not make itself. That is ludicrous.”

    The Leave Campaign claims seemed to disappear in a timescale ranging from within hours (buses) to within months (“Brexit does not mean leaving the single market”) now they pretend they were clear on their intention entirely based on how some of the opposition argument framed the debate.

  • Cardiff was one of five areas in Wales to vote remain at the referendum in June.

    “They decided to disregard the needs of Scotland, Northern Ireland and, indeed, our great capital London.”

    I find it so strange that there is one Lib Dem representative in UK government and yet the former Lib Dem, in the same speech where warning about forgetting those who voted to remain, leader fails to mention Wales.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Mar '17 - 7:19pm

    The PM will write a letter this week serving Article 50. Shame on her.

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