Lib Dems vs Brexit Joan Walmsley: The people must have an informed choice

Joan Walmsley tackled the “will of the people” argument in her speech.

The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, asked us to be optimistic. I would not be a Liberal Democrat if I were not.

I have great respect for the House of Commons and am optimistic that next week honourable Members will do the right thing. They will vote against making their constituents poorer, damaging the future of their young people and removing this country’s influence in Europe. They will vote against Mrs May’s deal and reject the disaster of leaving the EU without a deal. Let us be clear, to use a favourite phrase of which the Prime Minister is so fond, especially when she is about to obfuscate: our economy would suffer both from her deal and no deal.

Our economy is not just some economist’s theory. It provides the means to protect the most vulnerable, the young who need education, the old who need care, the unemployed who need benefits and jobs, the poor who need affordable homes, the workers who need efficient transport to work and decent pay, and all of us who rely on the NHS. All this is threatened by every possible form of Brexit. It has become clear over the past two and a half years, to all who are not too blind to see it, that the deal we have as members, and could keep if we wish, is the best we could get with our biggest trading partner, neighbour and friend. Let us not be lured by the fantasy that we will negotiate beneficial trade deals around the world that would more than make up for loss of trade with the EU. This is a typical unicorn promised to the electorate by a campaign funded by money about which very serious legal questions are being investigated. Through our EU membership, we have trade deals, not just with 27 other countries, but with 88. All those would go if we left the EU without a deal.

I respect the way in which Mrs May has tried to get a good deal while leaving the EU. But she became the architect of her own failure when she stated her red lines, which made it impossible for her to take us out of the EU without damaging our economy and curtailing opportunities for our young people. She has given two and a half years of respect to the “will of the people” ​as she puts it, although I find it hard to understand how someone who is so keen on the will of the people is so reluctant to ask them for it.

Let us look for a moment at the will of the people. In 2016, those who would be most affected by the referendum were not allowed to vote: British citizens who were too young at the time but are now on the electoral register; British expats of more than 15 years, many of whose jobs or pensions will be at risk if we leave; and legal EU residents who could vote in local and European elections but not the referendum. All these people were disfranchised. Of this flawed electorate, just over a third voted to leave—17.4 million people out of a population of 65 million; about one in four of the population. On that basis, Mrs May is making the choice—yes, the choice—to lead us over a cliff edge when, as she knows it will be, her deal is rejected in another place.

How do the public feel now that they could give informed consent, or not, to what this minority Government plan to do? We need to postpone Article 50 and ask the public by giving them a vote on the matter in a final say. I say a final say, not a “neverendum” as some Brexiters are suggesting, because most people would support the outcome of such an informed choice. The Prime Minister has said she wants to unite the country, a laudable aim. I can suggest to her a way in which she could do that because the deal she is proposing now will not do it. The solution is to put it to the people. We know what our current membership package is but what we might have in the future when she has finished negotiating our future relationship with the EU is vague. It is really a matter of trust, because the withdrawal agreement is only the beginning. After we have left, and are in a weaker position to negotiate, the Government will have to start discussing that future relationship within the laundry list—excuse me, the political declaration. Given the poor negotiating record of this Government, as demonstrated by the mess that is now on the table, do we trust in their ability to come out of the next five to 10 years with a set of good deals? I and most of the public think not.

What the businesses that create our wealth require is certainty. The only certainty we would have if we left on Mrs May’s terms is years of further negotiations following a short transition period during which we would be rule takers rather than rule makers. In other words, no certainty. If we left without a deal, there lies chaos, not certainty. The only way in which business can get certainty is if we do not leave and continue as a member of the EU with a voice, a vote and a veto. We would not have any of those under Mrs May’s deal. “Ah”, say the Brexiters, “but we would have full control of our borders, our money and our laws”. Not true. Our borders would be jammed with trucks and we would lose all co-operation from France in the effort to stop illegal migration across the channel. We would be sending away valued EU citizens, who have been contributing to our economy and public services, in exchange for unknown migrants from elsewhere because we need immigration. As for our money, there would be less of it because our trade in goods would be knocked sideways. As for our laws, we would have no say in the 12% of our laws that originate in the ​European Union but, if we want to continue to trade with it, we would have to abide by its standards and regulations. To coin a phrase “No, no, no”.

I would prefer a voice, a vote and a veto about how the EU develops over the coming years. Europe wants our influence and we should be there wielding it because we will be affected by it whether we are a member or not. We will be affected by how it deals with mass migration, with crime, how its environmental policy develops, whether it thrives economically, and our security will be affected. We will be affected by the EU’s politics, where already we are seeing dangerous right-wing tendencies. We will be affected by its attitude to us—risky, given that we still need to attract the brightest and best, even if we insist that we do not want those valuable people who earn less than £30,000 a year. Why give away a say in all that? It does not make sense, and now there is strong evidence that today’s electorate believe that too. We have convincing polling results about what people want now. A YouGov poll of 25,000 people over Christmas showed that a majority want a final say, including 75% of Labour voters. When the choice is staying in the EU versus the Government’s proposal, remain wins by 63% to 37%, a margin of approximately two to one. If the choice was remaining on current terms versus no deal, remain wins by 58% to 42%. The will of the people now is clear and must not be ignored. We should reject this deal and vote to remain in the EU.

Finally, to those who say another referendum would be divisive, I say this: what would be divisive is to allow a minority Government without the consent of the people to take us into a situation that would make us poorer and less influential in the world. That would be unprecedented, undemocratic and a betrayal of future generations and the will of the British people.

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  • Richard Underhill 15th Jan '19 - 5:51pm

    The PM’s respect for parliament is measured her departure from the Commons chamber as soon as her Attorney General had stopped speaking.
    He was followed by Labour’s shadow Solicitor General.

  • Richard Underhill 15th Jan '19 - 6:19pm

    The PM re-entered the chamber at 18:14.

  • Yeovil Yokel 15th Jan '19 - 7:21pm

    Caroline Lucas usually sits on the fringes of the Lib Dem benches, but today at 19:18 before the big vote she was sitting between and chatting with Vince & Jo Swinson.

  • Peter Hirst 16th Jan '19 - 3:06pm

    A wise politician, especially a Westminster one might say that (s)he is not the wisest person to make these constitutional decision, being too easily influenced by political and other non material factors. Perhaps the lesson is to have more deliberative and participatory decision making such as Citizens’ Assemblies. MPs can still have the last word as long as they agree with the advice of the people, unless unusual circumstances exist.

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