Peter Lilley: I apologise to you, Mr Gray, and to the Chamber for not being here at the beginning of the debate. I was in the main Chamber questioning the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union about his statement on this very subject.
I doubt if any Member today has taken or actually will take the words of this petition literally. It would condemn us to go on having referendums so long as neither side gets 60% of the vote or, even if one side does, the turnout is less than 75%. It is a recipe not for a second referendum but for a neverendum. It is essentially an emotional call by an unprecedented number of our fellow citizens to set aside the result of the referendum. They back that up with a number of arguments.
First, they argue—we have heard it argued today—that the leave side won by lying. Accusations of lying are, of course, a feature of all election campaigns, but free elections provide us with an opportunity to rebut contentious points made by the other side. In particular, the remain campaign, with the frequent help of the BBC, repeatedly rubbished the slogan on the leave battle bus that highlighted our gross EU contribution of £350 million a week and implied we could spend it on the NHS. I personally never used that figure. I always referred to Britain’s net contribution of nearly £10 billion—some £200 million a week. I did not meet a single voter who changed their mind and decided not to vote leave on finding that the net contribution was only £200 million, rather than £350 million.
Chuka Umunna: May I assure the right hon. Gentleman, to whom I am grateful for giving way, that an untold number of Labour voters in this country voted for us to leave the European Union on the basis that they believed £350 million extra per week would go into the NHS? There is no getting away from the commitment that was made and no wriggling around—“It was an aspiration,” or, “It was a mistake.” That was the commitment that many, many Labour voters believed would be delivered on if we left the European Union.
Peter Lilley: In that case, let me say two things. First, the hon. Gentleman and the remain side were singularly ineffective in rubbishing that claim, despite the fact that I heard it being rubbished many times. Secondly, he says that working-class voters—Labour voters—would have voted to stay if they had known it was only £200 million a week, but were prepared to vote to leave for £350 million. He has put a price on their vote of the difference between those two sums, which I do not find true.
Peter Grant: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Peter Lilley: I will continue, if I may.
If it was a lie for the leave side to refer to our gross contribution without netting off the money we get back, were not remain campaigners just as dishonest to focus on money we get back without mentioning the contribution we make? Remainers frequently claimed, with no rebuttal from the BBC, that the EU gives millions of pounds to universities, researchers, farmers, regions and so on, with no mention that British taxpayers contribute £2 or £3 for every £1 returned to us. They cannot have it both ways and say it is wrong for one side to mention the gross figure, but not for the other. I doubt if the outcome would have been any different if the leave battle bus had painted £200 million per week on its side, rather than £350 million. I met countless voters who said, “My heart is for leave, but my pocket says stay.” They were convinced by “Project Fear” that they would be worse off if we left the EU.
The Treasury analysis of the immediate economic impact of leaving the EU said that
“a vote to leave would represent an immediate and profound shock to our economy. That shock would push our economy into a recession and lead to an increase in unemployment of around 500,000, GDP would be 3.6% smaller, average real wages would be lower, inflation higher, sterling weaker, house prices would be hit and public borrowing would rise compared with a vote to remain.”
On top of that, we were promised a punishment Budget that would take away benefits from the sick, the disabled and the elderly. None of those things, I am happy to say, have occurred. There has been some hope from one or two Opposition Members that they will occur in due course.
Angus MacNeil: Does not the suggestion of a punishment Budget prove that the former Chancellor was a bluffer? He bluffed; he did not have a punishment Budget. By extension, his threat to Scotland of not sharing a currency was further evidence of yet another bluff.
James Gray: On the subject of a second referendum, Mr Peter Lilley.
Peter Lilley: The Scottish nationalists want to refer to the previous referendum, which they lost, but I will not be tempted down that path.
“Project Fear” could have become a self-fulfilling prophecy: I was rather afraid it might. In fact, in the month or two since the referendum, job listings are up 8% on last year; consumer spending is up 1.4%; manufacturing orders are at the highest they have been for 10 months; house builders have reported strong demand; and Moody’s is confident the UK will avoid a recession. That is clearly a disappointment to one or two Opposition Members, who were hoping for bad news to justify their “Project Fear”.
In one respect, they were right: sterling is, indeed, lower. However, the IMF—whose boss was famously once a member of the French national synchronised swimming team—joined in a synchronised campaign of gloom, saying that a leave vote would be bad to very, very bad. The IMF now welcomes the fact that the exchange rate move has removed some, but not all, of sterling’s previous overvaluation. Had the whole establishment of this country and of international unelected bureaucracies forecast what has occurred rather than what they predicted would occur, I cannot help feeling that the result would have been even more emphatically to leave than was the case.
The second argument for a second referendum is that the leave campaign had no plan for Brexit. That is a bit like saying that countries such as India, Canada, Australia and even the American colonies had no plan for independence. Of course they did, and we are the same. It is to take back control of our laws, our money and our borders. That is what countries do when they become independent. That is the purpose and that is the plan. By definition, that means we will not be part of the EU internal market. The precise trading arrangements we may have with the EU will depend on what it wants to arrange in its interests as well as ours.
There are only two realistic outcomes, both of which are perfectly acceptable to the UK. We could trade with the EU on WTO terms and the same basis as the EU’s three biggest trading partners—the US, China and Russia trade very successfully with the EU—which would mean facing tariffs averaging 4% on our exports, but that would be more than offset by the 12% improvement in competitiveness as a result of the change in sterling; or we could continue to trade on the current tariff-free basis. Neither option should require complex negotiations. To go from zero tariffs to zero tariffs is quite simple. To go from zero tariffs to WTO tariffs is quite simple. We should not be in for a prolonged and unnecessary delay in reaching agreement on one of those two options.
The final argument I want to deal with is that the referendum was only advisory. I debated daily with remainers—sometimes three times a day—but not once did a remain opponent say to the audience, “Oh by the way, this referendum is just advisory. If you give us the wrong advice we will ignore the result and remain in the EU anyway or perhaps call another referendum or vote against application of article 50 and the referendum result until we get the right result.” Did any Opposition Member say that to an audience and can they give me chapter and verse of them saying that they would treat the result as advisory and ignore it if they did not like it? Not one of them did. Now they are pretending that the whole thing was advisory. I forget which hon. Member said that was made clear during the debate.
On the contrary, the then Foreign Secretary, who introduced the Referendum Bill, said that it was giving the decision to the British people. When launching the campaign, the Prime Minister said:
“This is a straight democratic decision—staying in or leaving—and no Government can ignore that. Having a second renegotiation followed by a second referendum is not on the ballot paper. For a Prime Minister to ignore the express will of the British people to leave the EU would be not just wrong, but undemocratic.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2016; Vol. 606, c. 24.]
It was spelled out at the beginning of the referendum debate and again and again during it that this was a decisive choice for the British people. If we ignore that choice now and treat the British people with contempt, we will undermine their respect for democracy and prove how little faith we have in it.
…Later on, in response to Caroline Lucas…
Peter Lilley: Is the hon. Lady aware that the EU has free trade agreements with some 50 countries, only three of which have in return granted free movement of labour and made a contribution to the EU because their Governments were planning to enter the EU? The other 47 have free trade agreements with no free movement and no contribution. Why should we be different?