The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill returned to the House of Commons for consideration of Lords amendments. Those amendments were debated over two days. On the first day, Sir William Cash made the flowing speech and interventions:
Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): Would the hon. Gentleman care to reflect on the fact that the decision to transfer the vote to the people was done quite deliberately and voluntarily by this House by six to one, as a sovereign Act of Parliament? Any attempt to reverse that is in defiance of the decision that was taken by Act of Parliament.
Matthew Pennycook; The hon. Gentleman makes the same point as many others have done, and I have dealt with it in saying that their lordships’ amendment is not about overturning the referendum result. [Interruption.] No, it is not—not at all. It is about giving Parliament a say in shaping the direction under one scenario that could well occur.
Sir William Cash: Will my right hon. and learned Friend explain whether he believes it is possible, with the meaningful vote, to manage to maintain the Brexit process? Does he not accept that the effect of the meaningful vote is actually to reverse the Brexit process, and furthermore, to use a certain expression, that it is completely failing to understand the nature of the amendments to suggest otherwise?
Mr Clarke: I am grateful my hon. Friend—he is a genuine personal friend, and always has been—and he has brought me to the point I was moving on to.
This debate is being dominated, as far as the Brexiteers are concerned, by the argument that the amendment on the meaningful vote—Lords amendment 19, as amended by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve)—is really an attempt to get around the referendum. For the past several months, I have found that I am told on practically every subject, when the details get a little difficult and the argument gets a little odd, “Ah, you’re not accepting the will of the people”. I first faced that when I opposed our withdrawal from Euratom, and I still do not believe that the public voted for that.
For the avoidance of doubt, as I have repeatedly made clear, I was on the losing side in the referendum—much as I regret it—but after the majority on article 50, we are going to leave the European Union. I have not joined the campaigns to have a second referendum, and I hope I do not live to see another referendum on such an important subject in my lifetime. The fact is that the key decision was then taken, but I will not go back over the quality of the debate and the arguments put forward by the leading figures on both sides that then dominated the national media.
Once the decision was taken by this House, on invoking article 50, that we are leaving, hundreds and hundreds of detailed questions arose about what new arrangements we are going to have for our relationships with the European Union on a huge range of subjects, some of which we have scarcely looked at at the moment, and for our relationships with the rest of the world, because all our trade agreements are based on the European Union as that is how we have entered into them for the past several decades.
The idea that the yes/no vote—leave or remain—on referendum day actually decided each and every issue that now arises, if I may say so to people for whom I actually have respect, is, frankly, intellectually lazy. It is a refusal to engage with what we are actually talking about. I realise that many of the public are exasperated. The prevailing mood among the public is, “What are they all doing, and why don’t they get it over with?” I am sorry about that, but the fact is that leaving poses a lot of questions. I do not think that most members of the public feel that their vote decided the issues we are talking about today in relation to parliamentary scrutiny and control. I am only guessing, but if we had said, “Of course, if you vote leave, you are giving the Government the absolute right to do what they wish in the negotiations and come to whatever agreements they want”, I do not think it would have been easy for my right hon. and hon. Friends to get a majority for such a proposition.
Let me get on to what we are really talking about, because I have already taken longer than I wished. As I have said, any suggestion that Parliament should hand over absolute discretion to any Government to handle such things would have been treated with absolute outrage, not the usual cheers and counter-cheers, expressed to any Minister who dared to do so. It is said—the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is persuaded by this, but I do not agree with him—that the next argument we will face is, “Well, what you’re saying is that the House of Commons should take over the negotiations”. Of course we are not. I quite agree that that is a ridiculous proposition.
The Lords amendment was proposed by my right hon. and learned Friend Lord Hailsham. As we are all aware, he and others gave a lot of thought to putting together a parliamentary process that would be practicable and workable; the drafting might be improved, but the Government could have done that if their lawyers thought it was worthwhile. My right hon and learned Friend had in mind that a further resolution would be required, but this second resolution, after the proposed settlement had been rejected, would of course be moved by a Minister. The amendment tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield makes that even clearer. The idea that we would have a mass meeting of 650 people to decide what resolution to put forward is not postulated in the Lords amendment, and nobody is suggesting that.
Sir William Cash: I am somewhat troubled by what the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) just said, not least because he wants to kick the matter back to the House of Lords. I thought that the whole argument in respect of the amendment tabled by Viscount Hailsham was about the primacy of the House of Commons. Why would we go back to the other House and ask the Lords for an opinion when it is this House that voted 6:1 in favour of having a referendum? Furthermore, this House endorsed the decision taken by the people to leave the European Union. That is what is now being put under pressure, and it is complete nonsense—junk—to suggest that the amendment about the meaningful vote is not in fact an attempt to reverse the decision of the people.
Sir Edward Leigh: It has been said that the amendment of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) is a compromise, but people should read it. Proposed new subsection (5C) is absolutely clear. It states:
“If no political agreement has been reached”,
the Government must come back for
“a resolution in the House of Commons”.
That is exactly the same thing as in proposed new subsection (5) in Lords amendment 19. It is not a compromise; it is a wrecking amendment.
Sir William Cash: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, because I have the texts of the two amendments in front of me and was just about to make the point that they are not that different. Both state that the Government
“must follow any direction in relation to the negotiations under Article 50(2)…which has been—
(a) approved by a resolution of the House of Commons”.
What on earth is that supposed to mean? There is no way in which this House of Commons—650 Members of Parliament—can arrive at a motion that would prescribe what the Government will do in the negotiations. It is not simply a question of whether we are somehow or other departing from normal constitutional procedures; it is that the amendment is complete nonsense and makes no sense.
Furthermore, what would such a resolution say? I heard the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who chairs the Exiting the European Union Committee, talk about the customs union and the single market and so forth. However, the amendments talk about approving a resolution of the House of Commons. Who would devise it? What would it say? How on earth would we get 650 people to agree either on what the motion would say or on what the outcome would be?
I have listened to this debate with great interest, and I must say that this is just a cover for a reversal of the decision. That has to be said, and it has to be said clearly. I find it extraordinary that there should be some attempt to throw the matter to the House of Lords so that they can then tell us—we, the people who are elected by the people of this country, who themselves were given the right by the transfer specifically of the responsibility to make the decision on behalf of themselves, their families and future generations—what to do. This is what people fought and died for, which is who governs this country. I say—[Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must be heard. I have never known him to be shouted down, and now is not going to be the first time.
Sir William Cash: Thank you, Mr Speaker. You did quite a good job to shout down the shouter downers.
The reality is that this is about who governs this country. This country is governed ultimately by an Act of Parliament that gave the sovereign right to the people. It was a deliberate and voluntary transfer and—the primacy of the House of Commons rests in this—it was done by 6:1 in this House. Some Opposition Members did not vote for that referendum.
George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend knows that I am not a remoaner and that I am completely committed to delivering Brexit, but he is not being fair to the thinking behind the amendment. Many of us are committed to delivering Brexit. Our fear is this, and the question for him is this. I do not want to tie the Prime Minister’s hands or to put her negotiations in Europe at the whim of this great colourful Parliament. I want her to be able to go and negotiate, but if we were to vote down a deal or have no deal, is his view that the House would then be locked into accepting no deal, or that this sovereign House at that point should have the ability to say to the Prime Minister, “Go back and push harder”?
Sir William Cash: I absolutely disagree with the notion that this House has the right to overturn the decision taken by the people. Furthermore, approval on the terms of the amendment is completely unacceptable. I repeat that the amendment states that the Government
“must follow any direction in relation to the negotiations under Article 50(2)…which has been—
approved by a resolution of the House of Commons”.
That is not acceptable for one simple reason: the decision was taken by the people. We gave them that decision and we have to stand by it.