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Leaving the EU: Business of the House

Volume 661: debated on Wednesday 12 June 2019

I beg to move,

(1) That, on Tuesday 25 June—

(a) Standing Order No. 14(1) (which provides that government business shall have precedence at every sitting save as provided in that order) shall not apply;

(b) precedence shall be given to a motion relating to the Business of the House in connection with matters relating to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union;

(c) if more than one motion relating to the Business of the House is tabled, the Speaker shall decide which motion shall have precedence;

(d) the Speaker shall interrupt proceedings on any business having precedence before the Business of the House motion at 1.00 pm and call a Member to move that motion;

(e) debate on that motion may continue until 2.00 pm at which time the Speaker shall put the questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on that motion including the questions on amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved;

(f) any proceedings interrupted or superseded by this order may be resumed or (as the case may be) entered upon and proceeded with after the moment of interruption.

I move the motion in the names of the Leader of the Opposition and of the leaders of the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, and I am thankful for the support of the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin).

This is a genuinely cross-party motion—so much so that for a short while at least it appeared even to have the support of one of the Conservative leadership candidates, the Secretary of State for International Development, but I assume that after a phone call from his Chief Whip he thought better of it.

The motion makes a simple proposition: that, on 25 June, Parliament and not the Executive will have control of the business of the House. That would ensure an opportunity for the House to bring forward a further business motion to set out, at that later date, a schedule for the stages of a parliamentary Bill relating to our departure from the EU.

I will in a moment, but I want to set out what we seek to achieve.

I want to be clear: the motion does not introduce legislation today; it does not specify what form any subsequent legislation should take; and it does not prevent the Executive from seeking to pass a Brexit deal. Instead, it is a first and limited step to ensure that Parliament cannot be locked out of the Brexit process over the coming weeks and months. It paves the way for Parliament to take further action, including to prevent no deal, should the House consider that necessary.

Crucially, the motion means that if the next Prime Minister were foolish enough to pursue no deal without gaining the consent of this House, or to prorogue Parliament to force through no deal, Parliament would have the means to prevent that. It is a motion to empower Parliament. It would introduce a safety valve in the Brexit process and be a reminder to all Conservative leadership candidates that this House will take every step necessary to prevent no deal.

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman be good enough to tell us exactly which constitutional authority he refers to? Every single constitutional authority that has ever been written is clear that we operate on the basis of parliamentary government, not government by Parliament. Can he cite an example of that being abrogated in any constitutional authority?

The Bill that we passed in March mandated the Prime Minister to seek an extension of article 50. We are in unprecedented times. Parliament has to have the ability to speak on this issue. When we face the suggestion by some leadership contenders that Parliament be prorogued and shut out of the process, we are forced to take action.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend as alarmed as I am by the cavalier way in which certain contenders fighting the election for the leadership of the Conservative party seem to think that they can cast Parliament aside to ensure that they have their no-deal Brexit, when this Parliament clearly would not allow a no-deal Brexit to pass? In those circumstances, is not the responsible and right thing to do to give this Parliament the chance to prevent such outrageous shenanigans?

I agree with every word of that intervention, and I am grateful for it.

The motion makes a simple but important proposition. Let me address why. Primarily, after nine years of austerity, a no-deal Brexit would make the huge social and economic challenges that the country already faces much worse. In the words of manufacturers organisation Make UK, it would be an act of “economic lunacy”. To quote the CBI, it would take a “sledgehammer” to the economy, and Toyota has said that “no deal is terrible” and would “create big additional challenges”. Only yesterday, I was with GMB representatives at the Ford plant in Bridgend. They were very clear about the appalling impact of no deal on jobs.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is in exceptional circumstances that the Trades Union Congress and the CBI say exactly the same—that no deal is utterly reckless and irresponsible?

I hope it is not the only time that the CBI and the TUC say the same, but they obviously do on this issue.

We have spent many hours in this Chamber debating the Government taking Henry VIII powers; now Conservative leadership candidates are trying to take Charles I action. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that an internal conflict in the Conservative party is creating a constitutional crisis in this country?

It did not end well for Charles I. We find ourselves in a very serious position. Having been through the best part of three years of debate and argument about Brexit, there is a suggestion that Parliament should be shut out of the process, with no further business until November. That is completely unacceptable.

Some highly irresponsible Tory leadership contenders are traipsing around the country advocating no deal when before the referendum they were saying, for example,

“mutual self-interest suggests we’d cut a very good deal”,

or talking about

“a free trade arrangement that continues to give access to UK goods and services on the European continent.”

There are many other examples where those very same candidates, prior to the referendum, were offering the best deal possible, but now seem to be advocating crashing out—which would not affect them personally, financially speaking, I am sure, but would affect many of their constituents.

I agree with that intervention and I am grateful for it. This translation, or attempted translation, of the vote to leave into a vote for no deal is to misrepresent the arguments and what was said at the time of the referendum.

The hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) asked us to contemplate examples of where a Parliament helps to set its own business rather than just the Government doing so. Of course, he does not have to look too far—only to Holyrood, where business is set by a Committee of the House. When we are discussing an issue as grave as a no-deal Brexit, would it not be a gross abdication of all our responsibilities if Parliament did not act to stop this Government pursuing such a ridiculous policy?

I agree. It would be an abdication of our responsibilities not to support this motion and give this foothold to Parliament to have proper involvement in what happens next.

Some Conservative leadership contenders are of course in favour of no deal, while the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), seemed this morning to be hedging his bets—it was not even clear whether he is clear or not, as it were. Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that there is no such thing as a clean and simple no deal, or a managed no deal, any more than a fall from a high building is managed until you hit the ground?

There is no such thing as a managed no deal. No deal would be chaotic and highly disruptive—for the economy, as I have already set out, but also in other areas. I was Director of Public Prosecutions for five years. I worked in Europol and Eurojust, and I worked with the security services day in, day out. I know all too well that no deal would cause immense disruption to judicial co-operation and to joint criminal investigations going on at the moment, and throw a wrench into vital arrangements on extradition and shared databases. I know the Secretary of State shares my concern about these issues.

No deal would make us less safe. I think, ultimately, that is why the current Prime Minister, whom I knew and worked with when she was Home Secretary, came to realise that no deal was never a credible policy. She did at one stage say that no deal should be the default and that it was her deal or no deal, but towards the end she recognised that it was not credible, for a number of reasons, but I think, ultimately, because of the impact, or likely impact, on national security and counter-terrorism provisions. These are not light issues for us to brush aside and not even have a voice on if we were to go down this route.

Then there is Ireland. The UK has a solemn vow to protect the Good Friday agreement and avoid a hard border in all circumstances. It is one of the most important treaties this country has ever entered into, and it is one that we cannot break or undermine. We should be clear that a no-deal Brexit risks that. I know how concerned communities on both sides of the border are about that.

The motion is simple and important. It is also necessary. Over recent weeks, we have witnessed the Conservative leadership contest descend into the disturbing, the ludicrous and the reckless. It has become an arms race to promise the most damaging form of Brexit or to make the most absurd and undeliverable promises. No wonder the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) is the front-runner, against that criteria. But not to be outdone, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), whom I shadowed for a short time when he was Brexit Secretary, has told us that he is so committed to protecting democracy that he is willing to close down Parliament to force through no deal. That is how strong his commitment is to democracy.

What is my right hon. and learned Friend’s assessment of the likely reaction in the palace were an unelected new Prime Minister with no mandate to close down Parliament when Parliament had voted time and again, overwhelmingly, against no deal?

Does the shadow Secretary of State share my anger and frustration at the way in which those words around taking back control have now been cynically reinterpreted to mean a reckless new Tory Prime Minister taking all the control for themselves and certainly not sharing it with the people—and much less their parliamentary representatives?

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the flow of debate. I understand that the motion before us is about the business of the House on 25 June, yet we seem to be having a far-ranging debate on the merits, or otherwise, of a no-deal Brexit and the outcome of the Conservative leadership election. Have I missed some additional paperwork on this matter, or is this now a debate on the principles of no deal, which I absolutely would not support?

No. The hon. Gentleman is a perceptive denizen of the House, and he has not missed any relevant paperwork. He is right about the procedural character of the motion. There is a degree of latitude as the background to the debate—the context in which it is taking place—is aired, but I am sure that ere long colleagues will wish to focus on the procedural specificity of the motion, both for their own sakes and possibly to satisfy the parliamentary palate of the hon. Gentleman.

I was about to respond to the intervention by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). I do think it is fundamental that we deal with the argument that it is in any way proper to close down Parliament at such a critical stage of the exercise. The idea of Parliament not sitting and not having any business until November is unthinkable, and we have to take action to prevent that from happening. I double-took when the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton said that and wanted to check that it is actually what he said, but of course it is. My office did try to read more about the former Brexit Secretary’s plan on his campaign website. However, they were met yesterday with this rather ominous message:

“Access to is denied because it belongs to a category that we block to protect customers using the Parliamentary network.”

Quite right, too. [Laughter.]

I always knew that the parliamentary ICT people would get it right in the end.

After a few weeks’ respite from this, we seem to be back on to it, but I am not sure that we have moved on. People have said that this House has expressed the view that we do not want to leave with no deal. However, there are only two ways in which this House can do that: it can either revoke article 50 or vote for a deal. It has done neither. When are the shadow Secretary of State and Opposition Front Benchers going to decide which they choose—revoke or a deal?

I just want to be clear about what today is about. It is not about the substance. It is about the business of the House so that the House can decide what to do next. The House can move forward only with a majority. If there is a majority against no deal, and I believe there is, that majority needs to be heard now more than ever. That is all that this motion is about. The alternative is simply to say that it is perfectly acceptable for an incoming Prime Minister to push Parliament to one side at the most critical stage of the exercise and say, “It doesn’t matter if Parliament doesn’t want no deal—I’m not going to listen to it. In fact, I’m not going to even let it sit.”

I am going to make some progress.

This is a serious point, because the Tory leadership race is now increasingly offering, as the Leader of the Opposition has said, a choice between no deal, no deal and no deal. Candidates are openly threatening to sideline or silence this House on an issue that would affect all our lives and the fabric of this country for a generation. That is reckless and it cannot be allowed to stand.

We may be using a novel parliamentary mechanism today—I accept that—but it is not the first time that I have had to make this kind of argument from the Dispatch Box. Time and again, I have stood here saying that Parliament must have a meaningful role in the process. When it got to the cross-party talks in April this year, there was a near consensus that they should have happened two years before. This pushing away of Parliament has been a huge part of the problem. The Prime Minister fought against us far too often, but every time this House fought back. Now we must focus on the next fight. We face the very real challenge that the next Prime Minister will force through a no-deal Brexit without the consent of this House or the British people.

I know there is a great deal of fear that the successful Tory candidate may be somebody who wants no deal, but it could also be somebody who wants to try to secure a deal. If that were the case, would it be the Labour party’s position that we would re-enter negotiations, to try to get an agreement that this House can support?

I am grateful for that intervention. As I made clear at the outset, this motion does not prevent a deal being passed by the House. It simply allows Parliament to have a say—a foothold—in the event that an incoming Prime Minister tries to force through no deal or shut Parliament out altogether.

To return to the substance of the debate, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that if Government cannot control the business in this place, we risk ignoring the wishes of the electorate when it comes to elections, and election manifesto promises will turn to dust if this sort of thing is allowed to continue?

My right hon. and learned Friend is giving an excellent defence of parliamentary democracy. Government Members are trying to derive legitimacy from a very narrow and contentious referendum result, which under no circumstances specified that no deal carried majority support in this country. Is it not the case that, through this action, Parliament is standing up for the will of the majority of people in this country?

We have heard a lot about parliamentary democracy in the short time we have been having this debate, but this is surely about parliamentary sovereignty—our right to have a voice on all the great issues of state.

I absolutely agree with both interventions. That is why I started by saying that this motion makes a very simple proposition: that Parliament should not be shut out of the decision on no deal or shut out of the process altogether. I cannot think of why any parliamentarian would vote against that proposition—I genuinely cannot.

Is it not the case that we face a ludicrous narrative that there is the possibility of walking away from the EU with no deal, when the very first request, if there is any attempt at a free trade deal, will be dealing with citizens, dealing with the money and dealing with the border in Ireland?

I agree. The difficulty is that if I were to list every ludicrous promise and statement that has been made in the Conservative party leadership contest so far, there would be no time for other speakers in the debate. There is a ludicrous concept that the EU has always been willing to ditch the backstop, and it only takes the likes of some of the leadership contenders to go and ask for it, and it will happen. I do not know a great deal about the details of the current Prime Minister’s negotiating strategy, but I do know that had it been possible to get an alternative to the backstop, she would have sought to secure it. That is what she was trying to do. The idea that a new Prime Minister can go across to Brussels and the EU will say, “Well, we don’t bother about that any more. That’s fine—if you’re asking for it, the backstop will go” is simply ludicrous. The promises being made are ludicrous, and they are going to fall apart. The EU is not going to change its position, and this Parliament is not going to change its position on no deal. That is why we have to have a vote at this crucial time.

It strikes me that there are two principles at stake today. One of them is the convention in this House that the Government should be able to control the Order Paper, and the other is the constitutional principle of whether the Government can prorogue Parliament in pursuit of their policy objectives, with all that that means for the Crown and the Crown’s involvement in politics. I believe that the latter principle is the weightier one and the one we should bear in mind when we vote today.

I am grateful for that intervention. The prerogative powers always have to be seen and analysed in their political and historical context, and they always have been. As the House knows, prerogative powers have changed over time, and some of them have almost disappeared completely, because it has been recognised that what was a prerogative power needs to be a power that is vested in this House. We may well be at that point in relation to this prerogative power to push Parliament aside altogether, which needs properly to be tested.

The very idea of pushing Parliament aside between now and the next deadline for leaving, so that Parliament cannot have a voice, even to take preparatory steps for no deal, only needs to be set out to be shown to be undemocratic. This motion is a safety valve. It is about providing certainty and empowering this House, and I urge all MPs to back it.