Lib Dem Lords vs Brexit – Dick Newby “Purgatory has its limits”

Yesterday, the Lords debated the Brexit shambles. Here is our Dick Newby’s contribution.

This is the 11th debate or statement on the Government’s withdrawal bill and political declaration. During the three months which these debates have spanned not a single ting has changed. ML, the purgatory continues. 

For a number of months, when my colleagues have become exasperated that Jeremy Corbyn appeared to set his face against supporting a referendum on the Brexit deal, I have sought to reassure them by using the analogy of the 5-year-old schoolboy, who doesn’t want to go to school. As he is being dragged to school by his parent, he stamps his foot and says, “I don’t want to go to school”, “it’s not fair”, “I’m not going to school”. He knows, of course, that he will have to go to school but his amour propre won’t allow him to admit it. Only when he crosses the school threshold does he stop his wailing and runs to join his schoolmates. Mr Corbyn has now crossed the threshold.

I think that the analogy is a fair description of what Jeremy Corbyn has done, but until yesterday I didn’t think of applying it equally to the Prime Minister. Yet, this is exactly what she has done in relation to an extension of Article 50. She has said publicly all along that 29 March was a sacrosanct departure date. She has stamped her foot – as late as the weekend – to repeat this mantra. But she has now proposed giving the Commons a vote to extend Article 50 for an unspecified number of months.

She must have known for some time that she was going to have to shift her position, but she has done so with the greatest reluctance and in a manner which will enable her to blame the Commons for the decision, which she will have flunked.

She should herself be advocating a short extension, on the basis of her conviction that her deal will succeed, for without one it is simply impossible to get the necessary legislation through in an orderly fashion

When I debated this with Brexit Minister Chris Heaton-Harris at the end of last week, he said that everything would be on the statute book on time, but apparently only by dropping half the primary legislation which we had previously been told was necessary, and the by implying the use of emergency powers to get the rest through. Could the Noble Lord Lord Callanan tell the House in his wind-up which pieces of legislation the Government believes it will need to pass before 29 March, if the Government’s deal is approved by the Commons. Specifically, does it include the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill, the Trade Bill and the Immigration Bill?

Yesterday the Noble Lord the Leader of the House said that, in col 148, in respect of Brexit -related primary legislation, we “need to ensure that this House has adequate time to scrutinise it in the usual manner”. Could the Noble Lord  the Minister explain how we are going to be able to scrutinise the Withdrawal No 2 Bill in the usual manner? We will not know until 12 March whether the Government’s deal has been approved, which gives the Bill a mere two weeks to pass all its Parliamentary stages. Will he acknowledge that we would have to break our normal rules in considering legislation if we were to get this Bill through on time? And will he apologise to the House on behalf of his colleague the Leader for giving a misleading impression yesterday?

So,  the Prime Minister refuses to contemplate extending Article 50 to give time for her deal, if passed, to be implemented in an orderly manner. But she has been forced to concede a vote on an extension of Article 50 if – as is highly likely – it does not. And the purpose of any extension, as is clear both from the Cooper/Letwin initiative and the possible rebellion of members of her Cabinet and Government more generally, is that there is a clear majority against crashing out without a deal. And if any MP had any doubts about why they should avoid no-deal  the Government’s damning document of yesterday – “Implications for Business and Trade of a no deal exit on 29 March 2019.” The Noble Lord, Lord Livingstone of Parkhead summarised the position yesterday brilliantly when he described no-deal, and I quote, “not a negotiating card but an act of wilful self-harm.” 

So, there are going to be votes on the 12 March which are likely to lead to a further rejection of the Government’s deal and a rejection of no-deal. The following day there will be a vote, which is likely to pass, to ask the Government to request an extension of the Article 50 period. 

There is a danger that everyone then relaxes, but that would be a big mistake. 

Because the clock will still be ticking – just for slightly longer. And the Government – whatever the vote on 12 March – will still argue that no-deal is on the table.

So, what are the options going forward beyond 13 March if an extension is approved?

There are, in reality, very few. We now know that Labour will be supporting a people’s vote on the Government deal versus remain, as the way or breaking the impasse. So will we.

We know that a mere extension does nothing to make resolving the backstop issue easier. And in the meantime, we are no clearer about our future relationship with the EU were, by some miracle, the Government to get its deal through the Commons. And as the Noble Lord, Lord Kerr demonstrated last week, the lack of substance in the political declaration condemns us to years of wrangling, during which time investment, businesses and jobs will leech out of the UK.

In these circumstances, what will those Conservatives – both inside and outside Government – who are fiercely opposed to no-deal and believe that remain would be in the country’s best interests actually do.

We have watched with fascination as, week after week, there has been a growing chorus of members of the Government discussing circumstances in which they might resign and follow the examples of Philip Lee and Sam Gyimah. So far, they have all teetered on the cliff edge.

If Ministers remain in the Government after 13 March, they will, according to the Prime Minister’s statement of yesterday, still be working in support of a Government which has kept no-deal on the table for the end of the extension period. Liam Fox, Chris Grayling the Noble Lord Lord Callanan and the Leader of Your Lordships House might not find that offensive to their beliefs. But many – most – of the Government front bench in both Houses do. Yet they seem willing to keep going along with it? Why? What greater good than an aspiration to keep the Tory Party in one piece can possibly motivate them?

Might I suggest that they heed the statement by Duff Cooper who resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty in October 1938 in opposition to the Government’s appeasement policy:

“I have ruined perhaps, my political career. But that is of little matter. I have retained something which is of greater value – I can still walk about the world with my head erect.”

Can kicking remains the Prime Minister’s defining attribute. But this is now no longer a credible strategy. Purgatory has its limits. For every Parliamentarian, the day of judgement really is now at hand. 


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  • R A Underhill 1st Mar '19 - 8:06pm

    life peers should be appointed as young as possible, so that they last longer, as some hereditaries do. I fear it may be difficult to re-enact the 2016 referendum so that today’s voters accept how much the available information has changed (unlike the 2014 referendum in Scotland which had copious quantities of information, as Charles Kennedy used to say).
    Today’s Daily Telegraph has a full page obituary of Andre Previn. It mentions his televised musical encounter with Morecambe and Wise and Eric Morecombe’s famous comment that he was playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.
    They failed to mention that Morecombe and Wise had dressed him as a bus conductor, but perhaps they are right to do so, who nowadays remembers or knows what a bus conductor was? Without this knowledge the joke was pointless.
    The Independent Group has decided that they are not having a leader because they are not (yet) a political party. I remember when the Greens proudly said that they did not have leaders, but they do now, indeed one former leader is an MP, elected first past the post. How long will it be before the TIG spokesman is accused of abusing his position as if he were leader? That might be unfair, but politics is a rough game in which adjudicators should be setting aside the 2016 referendum for the many reasons which necessitate another UK-wide referendum, soon.

  • R A Underhill 1st Mar '19 - 8:09pm

    It may be necessary to explain purgatory to people of other religions, or none, or other Christian denominations.

  • Arnold Kiel 2nd Mar '19 - 4:20pm

    Dick Newby’s use of the term purgatory is not quite correct, because it implies both eventual destinations are still a possibility. But once the EU elections have been missed, its only going down, not back up again.

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