Labour former Cabinet minister Lord Mandelson has warned against the government taking the UK out of the EU in “just about any vandalistic way it chooses”.
In the marathon Lords debate on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, Lord Mandelson said the only way to maintain “frictionless” trade was to enter the European Economic Area.
Highlighting Cabinet divisions over Brexit, he said Parliament had to make a better job of the process than the government was currently doing.
Lord Mandelson said after the referendum in 2016 he took the view the result must be upheld and the Government should deliver Brexit with Parliament facilitating this.
“I no longer believe this to be axiomatic,” he told peers. “The government cannot behave as if it has a blank cheque to take Britain out of the EU in just about any vandalistic way it chooses.”
Cabinet splits had left British business leaders bemused and demoralised, and the only way to get coherence in a negotiation was by adopting a unified view, he said.
“Yet one side of the Cabinet says it wants modest divergence from Europe and the other side wants to go it alone.”
The prime minister should have adopted a clear position of principle that, because business needed stability and had to protect access to EU markets, Britain would leave the EU but continue in the single market and customs union.
The former European trade commissioner said this would have brought the country together and given the UK advantages in negotiations.
Britain’s future relationship with the EU could not now be determined “on the outer reaches of the Conservative Party as if the rest of the country doesn’t matter,” he warned.
To keep the economic damage and disruption to a minimum and maintain frictionless trade in goods and service, the UK should “enter the European Economic Area as Norway did when its people decided against EU membership in the 1990s”.
Lord Mandelson said this would not be perfect but the guiding principle must be to put jobs and investment first.
He added that the referendum result could not be ignored and both the government and opposition parties were finding it hard to agree a way forward.
“So a referendum on a new question about the future relationship may become unavoidable – although this is not something on which we should be voting at this stage.”
Brexit was the biggest decision since the Second World War, he said.
Lord Mandelson added: “We have got to make a better job of it than the government is doing now and Parliament must take its responsibilities to ensure the country does so. We should not duck that responsibility.”