Ken Clarke stole the show. He spoke third in the Brexit debate, and with ebullient relish defended the perfect right of MPs to defy the referendum result.

Matthew Arnold once called Oxford the “Home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!” But although Mr Clarke went to Cambridge, that description could nowadays more accurately be applied to him.

His message was not one that either of the front benches wanted to hear. According to David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, who opened for the Government, the question before the House is simple: “Do we trust the people, or not?”

Mr Davis was hoarse. He said his throat would not withstand the trial of taking the two-dozen interventions he would normally take. But he managed to make it quite clear that the Government intends to trust the people.

Sir Keir Starmer, who replied for Labour, indicated that it too intends to trust the people. But he admitted that “for the Labour Party this is a very difficult Bill”.

A glib politician would have tried to minimise those difficulties. Sir Keir instead accentuated them: “We’re a fiercely internationalist party. We’re a pro-European party… These beliefs will never change.”

He was heard in silence. He had the dignity of the good loser: his manner was that of a nonconformist preacher whose honest admission of failure compels respect.

Sir Keir recognised that he had lost the referendum, and was strong on the need to scrutinise what the Government does next.

It was, however, a pity that he refused to allow himself to be scrutinised by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who attempted at least half a dozen times to intervene.

Mr Clarke rose next, and delivered a magnificent swansong. He remarked that for over 50 years, ever since Harold Macmillan attempted to bring Britain into the Common Market, he had supported the official policy of the Conservative Party, which was that our membership was in the national interest.

He added that joining the Common Market had “enormously” benefited our economy, and had “restored to us our national self-confidence”.

And he drove a coach and horses through the argument that he was now obliged, as an MP, to respect the referendum result.

He had never wanted to have the referendum in the first place: “No sensible country has referendums.”

As we write those words it occurs to us that Switzerland has referendums. But Mr Clarke pointed out that neither the United States nor Germany does.

He proceeded to ridicule the idea that by defying the referendum result, “Somehow I’m an enemy of the people, ignoring my instructions.”

After all, the hard-core Eurosceptics would never have abandoned their beliefs merely because they had lost the referendum. “Hot tongs” would never have persuaded his good friend Bill Cash (Con, Stone) to vote in favour of staying inside the European Union.

This produced appreciative laughter. Mr Clarke added that since the referendum, some of his colleagues had seen the light on the road to Damascus, but “I fear that light has been denied me”.

He remarked on the surprise Enoch Powell, most eloquent of all Tory Eurosceptics, would feel on discovering that the party now agreed with him, and had also become “mildly anti-immigrant”.

And he ended by paraphrasing Burke’s Address to the Electors of Bristol, which contends that if an MP does not give his own judgment, and merely obeys the orders of his constituents, he is not serving them, but betraying them.

Here was a paradox: a man defending the sovereign rights of MPs, who wishes to give up sovereignty to Brussels. But he did it all with such genial self-confidence.

Some latter-day history painter should compose a vast canvas entitled “Mr Kenneth Clarke bids a reluctant farewell to the European Union”.

The House was full for this performance, and the Scottish Nationalists were vulgar enough to clap.