Lib Dem Lords vs Brexit Dick Newby calls for unprecedented measures to deal with unprecedented collapse of Government

Yesterday’s farce in the House of Lords reminded me of the sorts of shenanigans that used to go on in student politics. Basically, Tory Brexiteer peers spent 8 hours arguing about the timetable motion to consider the Cooper Letwin Bill compelling the Prime Minister to seek an extension to Article 50 in the event of a looming no deal deadline. Given that the cliff edge comes next Friday night, the need for speed is pretty darned clear.

For 8 hours, the Tories filibustered. There were around 11 votes in all and on every occasion the Brexiteers lost by a large margin. A massive well done to our peers who faced them down with patience and reason.

Former Tory education secretary Kenneth Baker even had the cheek to lecture the Lib Dems on Mill. Baker said:

I remind them what JS Mill wrote in On Liberty. He warned democracy about the tyranny of the majority. He thought that that was the greatest threat to democracy. There is a clear majority on the Benches opposite that this Bill should pass. There is a minority on this side of the House. To silence the minority is very much against the principles of JS Mill, the founder of the Liberal Party. He would not have approved at all.

Dick Newby responded in style as he set out the Lib Dem position. Remember this is still just on the procedure for debating the Bill, not the Bill itself.

My Lords, I shall begin by responding to the noble Lord, Lord Baker, who very helpfully quoted Mill at me. I absolutely agree that democracy requires the exercise of free speech. It also requires the following of rules and the exercise of its powers with responsibility. We have just heard a 30-minute speech. It may have been an excellent speech, and I am sure that if I now speak for 30 minutes it will be an excellent speech as well, but if I speak for 30 minutes, and all my colleagues speak for 30 minutes, we will never get to the substance of today’s debate. Therefore, your Lordships will be pleased to know that I do not intend to speak for 30 minutes—25 should be enough.​

The burden of all these amendments is that the House is being expected to follow unprecedented procedures. Is this surprising? We are in extraordinary, unprecedented times. We are in a national crisis the like of which has not occurred in my lifetime. It is a national crisis which consists in no small part of the fact that there has been a collapse of government. The Prime Minister, after seven hours in Cabinet, addressed the nation to say that she would like the leader of the Opposition to tell her what to do and that, if she did not like that, she would go to the House of Commons and ask it to tell her what to do within hours of having to put something to the European Council next week in order to prevent no-deal Brexit. This collapse of government is unprecedented, and it would be slightly surprising if Parliament did not respond to it by taking unprecedented measures to fill the vacuum where normally one finds government. The third unprecedented point, which is unprecedented in human history, is that unless we prevent a no-deal Brexit at the end of next week, this country will be the first democracy ever to have agreed to make itself poorer, less secure and less influential. Therefore, it is unprecedented and needs dealing with in unprecedented ways.

The key element which means that it is necessary to deal with this Bill today is just how little time there is. We are talking about a very few days before the Prime Minister has to write to the European Council, hopefully with some view about why we should have a further extension. As of this minute, the only thing that can be written in that letter about why we are doing it is because we cannot think of what we want. I hope that by close of business on Monday we will be a bit further forward on that, but, if this House blocks this Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, whom I do not always agree with, said earlier, how would that be perceived? How would it be perceived if we were to agree with the noble Lord, Lord True, that we could not possibly deal with this until a Select Committee had dealt with it? At a time of national crisis, I think that the world would think that your Lordships had lost a sense of proportion.

The other argument that has been made against the Bill, including by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, is that it is unnecessary because of a commitment made by the Prime Minister. However, it is a sign of the confidence that the Commons has in the Prime Minister that it does not think that that is enough. It thinks—and I agree—that, unless we have something like this Bill, there is absolutely no assurance that the Prime Minister will come forward with the necessary guarantee.

Finally, I have two points to make about the amount of time that we have to debate the Bill. First, we will have longer to debate the Bill, the less time we waste on these procedural Motions. Secondly, I look forward to the debates that we shall have later. I look forward to the Second Reading and to debating amendments in Committee and on Report. I have brought my toothbrush. It will not be the first time that I have spent all night in your Lordships’ House, and many of my colleagues have done the same. We are here at the service—says he very pompously—of the country to debate this issue for as long as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and his colleagues want to debate it. ​No doubt we will hear the same arguments time and time again but, if that is what the noble Lord wants, I shall, as always, look forward to hearing them and will be in my place to listen to them, however long it takes.

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

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7 Comments

  • Paul Barker 5th Apr '19 - 5:30pm

    That was a brilliant speech & expresses my feelings very well.
    Actually I am more optimistic about Brexit than I have been since before the 2016 Referendum. It feels to me that Brexit is dying & the only person who could save it is Corbyn. He would love to save Brexit but I dont think he will dare to.

  • Yeovil Yokel 5th Apr '19 - 8:26pm

    A work injury has forced me to spend more time than I’d like off the farm. However, it has enabled me recently to watch debates from both Houses of Parliament at some length and the experience has been most enlightening (plus it has shown just how poorly proceedings are reported by the mainstream media).

    I saw some of the debates in the Lords yesterday and was struck by the quality of some of the speeches (including two by Dick Newby). Although I agree with you, David Raw, that the institution is archaic and eccentric, and that its members should be at least in part elected, I think that some peers take their responsibilities deeply seriously and do the best they can in the circumstances. And do they really have a “major say in the outcome of Brexit”? – from what I could see and hear they had received the hastily-drafted Yvette Cooper bill from the Commons and were trying to improve it and make it a fit piece of legislation, which is surely their primary purpose.

    The ‘Brexipeers’ did not show themselves in a good light yesterday, let’s hope they behave themselves better in Committee Stage next Monday.

  • The Tory Lords filibustered until the rest agreed to let the debate spill over into Monday, giving May time to submit her extension request before the Cooper/Letwin Bill comes onto force on Tuesday. If she manages to secure an agreement with the EU by then, Cooper/Letwin becomes redundant. Peers don’t seem to realise the situation; it would have been better to have got the bill through yesterday, as originally planned.

  • Katharine Pindar 6th Apr '19 - 9:15am

    Thank you, David, for getting me laughing and singing this Saturday morning! And our peers at least are indeed ‘pillars of the British nation’ at this juncture’, though I hope our party will still continue firmly to advocate them only coming back as elected representatives in a reformed House of Lords.

  • Peter Hirst 7th Apr '19 - 10:07am

    If I can generalise the issue, what do people do in a democracy when their views are in the minority? Perhaps some suffer this more than others. You either accept the majority view or campaign to change it. What you can do is limited by the rule of law and procedures. We therefore need stricter rules around wasting time in parliament with appropriate sanctions for those who transcend them. Does not the HOL have a speaker and if so what powers does he have?

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