Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
We now come to the motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, to be moved under Standing Order No. 24. I remind the House, although I am sure that colleagues are keenly conscious of every word of it, that the motion is
“That this House has considered the welcome completion of all parliamentary stages of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill and has considered the matter of the importance of the rule of law and Ministers’ obligation to comply with the law.”
I call the Leader of the Opposition to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the welcome completion of all parliamentary stages of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill and has considered the matter of the importance of the rule of law and Ministers’ obligation to comply with the law.
I welcome the decision that the House has just reached, and I look forward to the Government abiding by and accepting that decision, and the necessary documents being released.
I begin by welcoming the cross-party efforts of many Members of the House in getting the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act passed into law, particularly those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin). Parliament has passed a law to ensure that the will of Parliament is upheld. The fact that Parliament is compelled to pass a law to ensure that its will is upheld shows what extraordinary times we live in. The House has rejected no deal. Businesses and trade unions are united in rejecting no deal, and there is no majority for it across the country. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the co-convenor of the Vote Leave campaign, said in March this year:
“We didn’t vote to leave without a deal”.
It is clear—there is no mandate for no deal.
In trying to diminish the Act, the Government’s spin doctors have branded it the surrender Bill, and Ministers have dutifully trotted out that phrase in the media. The Minister who is going to reply has already replied, like Pavlov’s dogs always do.
I remind the House again: we are not at war. The Prime Minister seems obsessed with hyperbole and aggressive language: “surrender Bill”; “do or die”; “rather be dead in a ditch”; and the list goes on. We are supposed to be having negotiations with our European partners. The lives at stake as a result of all this are not those of the Prime Minister or his Cabinet.
Indeed. I do not keep the Prime Minister’s diary. He may keep his own, but he is certainly not here to reply to this debate. I believe he ought to be, as the motion is specifically directed at him. [Interruption.] Again, I cannot help with that question, but others may be able to do so. We learned from leaked Government papers that our constituents whose medical supplies are at risk from a reckless no deal are very worried, so I urge the Government and Members in all parts of the House to tone down the rhetoric and inflammatory language, and try to heal, not widen, divisions in society. I give credit to those who have worked in a cross-party way, and I have been happy to have meetings with all Opposition party leaders.
A law has been passed by this House and by the other place, and the Government must abide by it. It is not complicated—it is very straightforward and simple.
Last week, I asked the Prime Minister whether, if the Bill became law, he, as the Prime Minister of our country, would obey the law. He said that he would, and so would the Government. The next day he announced that he would rather be dead in a ditch than obey the law. Which does my right hon. Friend think it is?
I do not really wish anyone dead in a ditch, even if that is their own wish. The first answer that the Prime Minister gave ought to have been that he accepted the will of the democratically elected Parliament. This is a parliamentary democracy—we do not have an executive president who can rule over us. We have to make it very clear that we expect the Prime Minister to abide by the details and specifics of the law that has been passed, which makes specific requirements of him.
The Leader of the Opposition is making some very important points. The conduct not just of this debate but of the whole discourse is important. He referred to the Government’s characterisation of the Act as a surrender Bill. Do not the Government bear responsibility for the language that they use? When we hear the language on the streets—he, I and many others have been told that we are traitors, and have sometimes heard much more abusive language—the Government have a responsibility to recognise the impact of their language and actions outside Parliament.
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. Language has consequences, as people trot out what has been said by the Prime Minister and others, and turn it into the most abusive language and the most abusive behaviour against others. Surely we can have an intelligent debate in our society without resorting to the kind of behaviour, language or violence that has been threatened against some individuals.
The Leader of the Opposition is very generous in giving way. When talking about the rule of law, if we get to 31 October and one of the other European countries says that we cannot extend, would he support coming out with no deal, because that is the law?
That is an entirely hypothetical question. The question that the Prime Minister has to answer is: an Act of Parliament has been passed, and it requires him to take a specific course of action. He, in his many statements over the past few days, appears to contradict the wishes of Parliament that he carry out those actions. Let us not go down a hypothetical road—let us get an answer from the Government about whether or not they accept the decision of Parliament to pass that legislation into law. It is not difficult, and I am sure that when the Minister comes to reply he will give us an answer—I seriously hope so.
It is not only Conservative Members who are encouraging the Prime Minister to break the law in their numerous WhatsApp groups. Cabinet Ministers are refusing to confirm that the Government will abide by the law.
No, I will not give way at the moment.
No. 10 has briefed that the Prime Minister will defy the law. Until the Government have abided by that law, I do not believe there will be a majority in the House for what the Prime Minister is proposing later today under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.
I would like to go back to the point that was just made about what happens if we reach the end of the October and one or more EU countries do not give an extension. The clock is ticking towards the end of October, and surely we should focus on supporting getting a deal now, rather than kicking the can further down the road. If there is no extension, what does the Leader of the Opposition suggest is done?
We have always wanted to get a deal, but what we do not want is the no-deal exit with all the dangers to jobs, living standards and supplies, and the Prime Minister and his chums taking us down the road into the arms of Donald Trump and the trade arrangements he will make with the United States.
Last week, the Prime Minister had several opportunities at the Dispatch Box, but on each and every occasion he failed to give a single detail, in response to numerous questions, about what the Government are aiming to negotiate in terms of a new deal with the European Union.
I am glad the hon. Gentleman managed to read out his intervention that was given to him earlier.
This is a debate about a Government saying that they will not abide by a law passed by this Parliament. I would have thought it was very straightforward. The Prime Minister should simply say, “This House voted. Of course the Executive must accept the decision.”
This weekend the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) resigned.
No, I will not give way any more.
The right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye resigned, saying that she had not seen any intensity of work going into negotiations with the EU. She stated:
“I no longer believe leaving with a deal is the Government’s main objective.”
That is a pretty big statement for a member of the Cabinet to make on resigning. Many of us had suspected that for a month or more, but perhaps a five-week delay is par for the course for the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. This week, the Chancellor could give no response to what was being negotiated, and not one shred of evidence that the Government have made any proposals whatsoever. Just this morning the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, said he has yet to receive
“realistic, legally-binding and workable”
plans to replace the backstop. The former Work and Pensions Secretary is therefore right to be concerned that only minimal effort, at best, is going into finding a negotiated deal.
It would be unusual for a Prime Minister to lose the confidence of the House so early in his tenure. It is extraordinary that he is already losing the confidence of his own Cabinet Ministers. If his own Cabinet members cannot have faith in his words, it explains why this House has found it necessary to legislate. For all the many criticisms I had of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), as Prime Minister she welcomed scrutiny, and, as much as I often disagreed with the policy positions she set out, she saw herself as a public servant. If the Government have a position on Brexit, I hope they will publish it. This House and the people of this country deserve to be able to discuss it, and I am a strong believer that policies are improved by scrutiny.
No, I will not give way. I have made that clear already.
In her resignation letter, the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye said the Prime Minister had committed an
“assault on democracy and decency”.
I would go further: the Prime Minister is also threatening an assault on the rule of law. He was asked on Friday whether he would abide by the provisions of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No.6) Bill, as it then was, and said he would rather die in a ditch. I do not wish him any ill. I do, however, wish that he would come to the Dispatch Box, set out his detailed plan for Brexit and confirm that he will abide by the law. More than that, the people of this country deserve, and democracy demands, up-front answers from the Prime Minister. So far, no answers have been forthcoming.
I hope the Prime Minister will live up to the office he holds, accept the decisions made by this Parliament, and carry out the wishes of the Act to ensure an application is made to prevent this country crashing out on 31 October, with all the damage that will do to food supplies, medicine supplies, and industrial supplies, and prevent his longer-term ambitions of heading this country in a totally different direction which many, many people are truly frightened of. The Prime Minister could sort this out very quickly if he just had the courtesy to come to the House and confirm he will accept all the provisions of the Act the House has just passed.
I seek a right hon. or hon. Member on the Government Benches, but it is not immediately obvious that any wishes to contribute. [Laughter.] I do not see why that is a source of such hilarity; I am just making a rather prosaic, factual observation. [Interruption.] Order. Who was that chuntering from a sedentary position?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is this in order? I think we all want to know who is going to reply for the Government. If it is the Foreign Secretary, many of us will find that surprising. Given the content of the motion, which is all about the rule of law, why is one of Her Majesty’s Law Officers, either the Secretary of State for Justice or the Attorney General, not replying on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government? Mr Speaker, I appreciate that you cannot answer on behalf of the Government, as much as I suppose you would like to, but this is a very serious matter, and a Law Officer should be answering the arguments being put forward in this debate.
The right hon. Lady may be flummoxed or irked to discover that the Government do not notify me of their intentions in relation to who might or might not speak. Unless there is a note that lists that, I do not have any intelligence on the matter. I am advised that the Foreign Secretary intends to wind up the debate for the Government. It is open to him, fleet of foot and intellectually dextrous as he is, to leap to his feet and deliver his oration now in substitution for the opportunity later, but he is not under any obligation to do so. [Interruption.] It appears that he does not wish to do so. However, Mr Peter Bone apparently does wish to speak. I call Mr Peter Bone.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] I think it a slightly outrageous suggestion from the shadow Chancellor that I should speak for the Government. I do not know who is more offended, me or the Government.
I rise very briefly to say that I do not welcome the passage of a Bill that has been rushed through the House in a totally outrageous manner without proper scrutiny. [Interruption.] I have no idea whether it has received Royal Assent or not. If it has, it is the law of the land. It still does not make it a good law. It seems to me that every Government would abide by the law. The point I made to the Leader of the Opposition is that the idea we have passed an Act of Parliament that takes no deal off the table is blindingly obviously not true, because we do not have that power. You may say that this Parliament wants an extension—that is one thing—but to say that every single European Union member country has to grant that extension is just wrong.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that one of the special circumstances in which the European Union would decide to give an extension is if there is an election? If the Opposition were to vote for an election tonight—we might then have, if they are confident, a new Prime Minister—that would guarantee an extension. What has been done today, however, does not guarantee an extension.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and it may well be that tonight the Leader of the Opposition will see the wisdom of her words and the Opposition will vote for a general election. I did a bit of research, and it is interesting that in this House, the Leader of the Opposition has called for a general election 35 times. It seems somewhat surprising that tonight, he is going to show support for the Government by not voting for a general election.
I am sure that Eric Forth was much better. He will probably be looking down, saying, “Oh my goodness, what a shower there is on both sides!” He would do this far better than me and he would wear a much better tie in the process, but alas, he is in a better place—and he will be wearing a better tie than the hon. Gentleman, that’s for sure. The really important point is that this House delegated the decision to the British people, and after three years, we have failed to do it. That is the fundamental difference between this and anything else that we normally debate.
The hon. Gentleman and I obviously disagree on the Brexit issue, but he would surely accept that since that point, we have had a general election where the Government lost their majority, and the Government have further lost their majority during that time. That is part of democracy. Given that the Prime Minister found time to vote in the last Division—we all saw him scuttling off down the corridor—is the hon. Gentleman not disappointed that neither he nor the Law Officers are here to explain whether or not they will comply with the law of this land?
Do I think that the Prime Minister should waste his time coming to an Standing Order No. 24 debate—a general debate—about whether he is going to obey the law of the land? Of course he is going to obey the law of the land. Nobody doubts that point. The hon. Gentleman made another important point before that, which I have completely forgotten—sorry.
This debate is important because it is about the Prime Minister obeying the law. This is not just about the Leader of the Opposition. Is the hon. Gentleman not surprised, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, that the Law Officers of the Government are not here to hear the debate, given, quite astonishingly, that the Lord Chancellor—the chief Law Officer of Her Majesty’s Government—had to see the Prime Minister to seek reassurances about the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom obeying the law passed by the legislature of the United Kingdom? Does the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) not agree that that is astonishing? Frankly, the importance of this debate is reflected in the fact that the Lord Chancellor had doubts about whether the Prime Minister is going to obey the law.
The hon. Gentleman might want to withdraw that remark, because I have seen no comments from the Lord Chancellor that he in any way doubts the word of the Prime Minister—on reflection, he might wish to withdraw that.
The truth is that this is a general debate that is being held for political purposes. Nobody in this House for one moment thinks that any member of the Government is not going to obey the law of the land. My only reason for speaking in this debate was to say that I do not welcome the Act. It was pushed through in an extraordinarily unconstitutional way, and I say with all sincerity to the Leader of the Opposition that if he sits on this side of the House as Prime Minister, he will regret that constitutional outrage.
According to Pericles:
“Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.”
Our freedoms, our rights and our democracy are today under threat—under attack from a Prime Minister threatening to ignore the rule of law, ignore the wishes of Parliament and railroad against the will of the people. Today is indeed a historic day—a dark day. It will be remembered as the day that the UK Government obstructed the people and plunged the UK into an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
Let me be absolutely clear: the Prime Minister is not, not ever, above the rule of law. He says that he would rather die in a ditch than write to seek an extension to protect our economy from falling off the cliff edge. If that is the course that he chooses, the Prime Minister must resign. Undermining democracy at every turn, the Prime Minister simply cannot be trusted. The rule book has been well and truly ripped up, and with it, democracy and decency have been shredded by a cult of Brexit fan boys in No 10—unfit to govern, unwilling to govern.
What a despicable state of affairs—that an unelected bureaucrat, the Prime Minister’s lead adviser, is sitting in No. 10 devising and directing an assault on democracy, preventing parliamentary scrutiny and transparency. Should we be surprised? These are the men behind the biggest con in modern times. The co-founders of fake news, who lied to the public during the EU referendum and removed the facts from the table, and here they are again, ducking and diving the truth, seeking to operate Government using cloak-and-dagger tactics, pretending to protect the right of the people when in reality they are crushing the rights of our citizens, strangling Parliament and gagging the voice of the people.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with whoever was responsible for writing a front-page article in The Spectator in 2004 —at which time the present Prime Minister was the editor—that said
“impeachment remains part of parliamentary law, a recourse for desperate times.”?
Are these not desperate times?
Absolutely they are, and I say to the Prime Minister: be very careful. Do not obstruct the rule of law.
The Vote Leave campaign in No. 10 does not care about the rules. They did not care in 2016 and they do not care now about the law. We must stop them, because the stakes are frankly too high. The Prime Minister and his Vote Leave cronies are not above the law. The law must stop this dictatorship, and Parliament must stop this Prime Minister acting like a dictator. Even the Prime Minister’s own Ministers cannot trust him.
In her resignation letter, the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), said that
“I no longer believe leaving with a deal is the Government’s main objective.”
It has been confirmed in The Times today that the Prime Minister’s negotiating team has been reduced to just four members.
The truth is that the Prime Minister’s priority is not to get a deal; his priority is to rip the United Kingdom out of the EU on 31 October, no matter the consequences. With the House suspending tonight, it is essential that all papers relating to the advice on Parliament being prorogued are published, and the determination tonight must be delivered on by Wednesday evening.
We cannot allow the UK Government to destroy our democracy and operate unchecked. We need to know the truth—the public deserves to know the truth.
Government Members have said time and again that the Prime Minister and the Government will obey the law, and yet we have heard the Prime Minister talk about how he would rather die in a ditch. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that with backroom shenanigans the Government are looking for a way to evade the law?
My hon. Friend says shenanigans; I would perhaps prefer to use some other words that I am prohibited from doing in this place. Let’s just think about a Government threatening to break the law. What signal are we sending to the citizens of the United Kingdom, when the Prime Minister of this country, the highest office in the land, is telling the people it’s okay to break the law? It is a dereliction of duty and demonstrates he is not fit for the office of Prime Minister.
If the Prime Minister wants an election, he must obey the law and take a no-deal Brexit off the table. The UK Government’s Law Officers and the Secretary of State for Justice must intervene to ensure he respects the letter and the spirit of the law and removes the threat of no deal. They have responsibilities, first and foremost to uphold the law, and if they cannot receive those assurances tonight from the Prime Minister, their positions become untenable. How can they look themselves in the mirror in the full knowledge that nobody, but nobody, is above the law, and remain in office? This sorry saga should lead to more Ministers asking a simple question: are they prepared to remain in ministerial posts in a Government prepared to break the law? That is a fundamental question.
The Government should face reality. This House has legislated to remove no deal as an option at the end of October. They must signal tonight that they will comply with that legislation. Make no mistake—once the threat of no deal is off the table, we will move for an early election. Make no mistake—we in the Scottish National party want an election, but we must first satisfy ourselves that the Government will uphold the law and deliver an extension to remain in the EU. The people should not be shut out or silenced by this Prime Minister. They must be heard, and heard on the right terms, not on the terms of the Prime Minister’s shabby and shady stunts.
Of course the Government and all Members of Parliament must obey the law, but Parliament must also pass wise laws and pass them according to our traditions, practices and rules. I wish to concentrate briefly on the question of the wisdom of the law and urge those who sponsored it to think again in the national interest.
This is no normal law. A normal law applies to everyone in the country equally, there are criminal penalties for those who break the law, and we wish to see the law enforced. This is not that kind of a law. This Act of Parliament is a political instruction to our Prime Minister about how he should behave in an international negotiation. Normally, this Parliament takes the view that international negotiations are best handled in detail by the Government, and we the Parliament judge the result by either approving or disapproving of it.
I urge colleagues to think again, because two things follow from Parliament instructing the Prime Minister in the way it has sought to do over this negotiation. The first is that the EU, the counterparties to the negotiation, can see that this Parliament has deliberately undermined the position of the lead negotiator for our country. It will take note of that, and instead of giving things it will say, “There is no point in giving things.” The second thing—even worse—is that the EU will take note that our Prime Minister under this Act is to seek an extension on any terms the EU cares to dictate. How can anyone in this House say that is good law or justice or makes sense for the British people? Those of the remain persuasion, just as those of the leave persuasion, must surely see that this is not the way to treat our lead negotiator—putting our country naked into the negotiating chamber with the EU. It puts the country in a farcical and extremely weak position.
I thought that the Labour party wanted us to leave the EU. Labour Members did not like the withdrawal agreement—I have sympathy with that—but they do not like leaving without the withdrawal agreement—I have less sympathy with that—so they are looking for a third way. They presumably think they could do some other kind of renegotiation, but they have never explained to us what that renegotiation would be like, and they have never explained how the EU would even start talking about it, given that it has consistently said we either take the withdrawal agreement or just leave.
That is even more bizarre. Normally, Governments do their best negotiation and then come back and recommend it to the House of Commons. It would indeed be fatuous if we ever had a Government in this country who negotiated a deal they knew they wanted to reject. They should not waste everybody’s time and just say, “Let’s leave without a deal.”
We are wandering a little from the point of this debate, which is about the rule of law. This House of Commons should think again. This is an extremely unwise law. It undermines the Prime Minister, but, more importantly, it undermines our country. It makes it extremely unlikely that those remain-supporting MPs who could live with our exit with a variant of the withdrawal agreement will get that because they have deliberately undermined the pressure our Prime Minister may place on the EU in the negotiations he is trying to undertake. Even worse, they have invited the EU to dictate terrible terms for a few months’ extension, and why would the EU not do it? Please, Parliament, reconsider. Parliament has a duty to put through wise laws and to represent the national interest. This miserable Act is an act of great political folly and is undermining our country in a very desperate way.
It is astonishing that we are even having a debate about whether a Prime Minister is going to adhere to the rule of law. Let us just think about that for a minute or let it sink in. The Government have let the House of Commons be in genuine doubt about whether they will respect a law that has passed through this Chamber and the other place and received Royal Assent. We have a Prime Minister who thinks the rules do not apply to him. He is acting as though he has a majority, when he has none. His majority dissolved when the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) joined the Liberal Democrats, and then it was made worse by his own brutal sacking of 21 Conservative colleagues, many of whom had served their party and their country with distinction and public service over decades.
The Prime Minister is on a power trip, but the truth is he does not have unfettered power, much as he would like to. There is a sense of arrogance and entitlement about this action. He acts as though rules and conventions simply do not apply to him. He will stand in front of the police—in front of public servants—and make a political speech talking with apparently no sense of irony about how he would rather die in a ditch than obey the law. This is a Prime Minister who has trampled over conventions, such as observing basic courtesies and manners, roaming the world as Foreign Secretary causing offence wherever he went.
This is a Prime Minister who has refused to stand up for the traditions of our civil servants, who give their advice to Ministers freely and frankly, who act in a neutral and independent way and who should be backed up by Ministers. Instead, he was prepared to throw Sir Kim Darroch under the bus. This is a Prime Minister who has appointed to the Cabinet the former Defence Secretary, who was sacked by the previous Prime Minister because she believed that he had leaked material from the National Security Council. This is a Prime Minister who saw fit to appoint to the heart of No. 10 a chief of staff who has been found in contempt of Parliament. This is a Prime Minister who truly thinks that rules and conventions do not apply to him.
Let me now turn to the specific law requiring the Prime Minister to request an extension of article 50 to prevent us from crashing out of the EU without a deal. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) said that it does not take no deal off the table, and I have some sympathy and agreement with the hon. Gentleman on that point. This law is not perfect. This law is what we arrived at, working on a cross-party basis and building consensus in Parliament, but it is not perfect. It is a good step, but it is not a guarantee. As has been said, what happens if the EU does not grant an extension? I, for one, do not put anything past our Prime Minister when it comes to what he might try to engineer.
It was suggested that an extension would be granted for a general election, and I think that that is a fair representation of what the EU has said. The EU has also said that it would grant an extension for the purpose of a people’s vote so that the specific deal could be voted on, and that remains the best way in which to resolve this issue. There is no guarantee of a resolution through a general election, but if there is a people’s vote on the specific Brexit deal, we will know whether that has majority support in our country or whether it does not.
It is important for Parliament to be sitting during the period after the European Council. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) said that, normally, Prime Ministers would not be told how to conduct a negotiation; they would bring back what they had negotiated to the House of Commons and seek approval for it. Actually, this law does exactly that. It asks the Prime Minister to do his job—negotiating in Brussels—and either to get a deal or, if he fails to get a deal, to come back to the House and hold a vote in Parliament to see whether there is approval for what he has achieved.
Is there any limit on the conditions that the EU could impose on us to get the extension that the hon. Lady would find unacceptable? Let us say that it wanted billions of pounds that we need for schools and hospitals in Britain. The hon. Lady wants us to just pay that.
That is absolute nonsense. As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, our views on Brexit differ intensely. I think that the EU, in good faith, is likely to respond positively to a request for a genuine extension, such as one for a people’s vote. Ultimately, it will be up to the House to decide, if a recommendation was made, that that should not be taken into law.
I want to make some progress.
If an extension were not granted and we were in the days running up to 31 October, there would be a choice to be made. I am very clear about the choice that I would make, and the choice that the Liberal Democrats would make. If we are on the verge of leaving the European Union without a deal, we should revoke article 50, and that is something that we have the power to do. We have unilateral power in the United Kingdom to do it, because it does not require agreement from the European Union, and that is why we must not dissolve Parliament at this time. If we do so, and we are not sitting at that point, we shall have no reason and no ability to act at that time.
It is no wonder that the Prime Minister wants to shut down Parliament for five weeks, because it is in Parliament that the Prime Minister must answer questions, it is in Parliament that he must be held to account and it is in Parliament that he is found out for having no substance behind his bluster and bravado. The fact that we are having this debate today is astonishing, and it is a sad day for our democracy, but the voice of people in Parliament will not be silenced.
It a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). I will start my speech by agreeing with two of the points that she made, although I fundamentally disagree with her points and her stance on Brexit.
First, I agree that it is truly astonishing that we are having this debate today. It is faintly ridiculous that there should be an accusation, an allegation, that anyone on the Government Benches, let alone the Prime Minister, would fail to obey the rule of law. Secondly, I agree that the Act does not take no deal off the table. The hon. Lady was absolutely right to say that and to point to other weaknesses in the Act. She was right to be open and straightforward about a matter on which other Members have been less than straightforward.
My hon. Friend is making some powerful points, and, like him, I completely agree with those points made by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). However, the hon. Lady also referred to a people’s vote on a deal. A deal would have to be negotiated to go to a people’s vote. There would have to be a considerable delay before that could happen if a deal was not secured.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I was going to mention the people’s vote, because that is where I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Lady. Apparently, the Liberal Democrats want a people’s vote, although we are now hearing that their position may be moving towards straightforward revocation. The irony is that they have said that if there were another vote and that vote was to leave, they would not abide by it: they would not accept it. Is that democratic? Is it democratic for the Liberal Democrats to say, “Let us have another vote, but if we do not like the result, we will not accept it”?
I am astonished by the way in which members of other parties proclaim our Liberal Democrat vision. It is simply not true that we would not abide by the result of a people’s vote if we gave them a vote on the final deal. We would give the people the final say on a deal. That is our line; there is nothing about not abiding by the result.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend.
There have been questions about why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is to respond to the debate, and a ridiculous point of order was made at the beginning. My right hon. Friend is the Foreign Secretary and the first Secretary of State. He is, in effect, the Deputy Prime Minister, and it is perfectly appropriate and reasonable for him to respond to an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 24.
No, I will not. I am going to carry on.
The leader of the Labour party stood up and said that the Prime Minister should stick to his word, and I completely agree. It is vital for the Prime Minister to stick to his word. He said that we must leave on 31 October. There has been a breakdown of trust between politicians and the people because we have not stuck to our word.
I am going to make some progress.
We have said that we are going to leave on 31 October. It is imperative that we do so, and I will be encouraging the Prime Minister to do precisely that.
There is a sense of unreality in the Chamber. We have been having, endlessly, the same debate on Brexit for the past three years, and democrats have not accepted the democratic result of the referendum. The leader of the Labour party says that the Prime Minister should stick to his word, but I invite the leader of the Labour party to stick to his word directly in relation to this Act.
This is what the leader of the Labour party said during last week’s debate.
“I repeat what I said last night. Let this Bill pass and gain Royal Assent”—
and, Mr Speaker, you yourself have confirmed that this Bill has received Royal Assent—
“and then we will back an election”.—[Official Report, 4 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 292.]
Those are the Leader of the Opposition’s own words, in Hansard, said from the Dispatch Box. He invites the Prime Minister to stick to his word: absolutely, and we must leave on 31 October, but the leader of the Labour party should stick to his words. He should have the courage of his convictions. He should stand up and do what Opposition leaders should be doing, rather than chickening out and bottling it and failing to vote tonight for an election.
In examining the question of the rule of law does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential to look at the wording of the Act itself? Is there not a substantial degree of uncertainty in the duties that are being imposed upon the Prime Minister, not least because of the provisions contained in the so-called Kinnock amendment, and also because it is sometimes impossible to perform a duty if the framework of the duty that is to be complied with is itself incoherent and unclear, as it is in the Bill?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. So far no one has suggested during the course of this debate that it would be proper to disobey the rule of law, and I agree entirely, but does that prevent the Government from examining precisely what the law does and does not say while still abiding by the rule of law?
Labour’s position on Brexit is entirely incoherent. The shadow Foreign Secretary says she is going to negotiate a deal but then, having negotiated the deal, she is actually going to vote against the deal that she herself has negotiated. The Labour leader has said that he wants a general election to be called as soon as the Bill is passed; the Bill is passed, and he is still running away from a general election.
There is such a sense of unreality in this Chamber. We have had these debates for three years. My constituents are saying, “Get on with it.” That is precisely what we should be doing.
The part of the motion that I want to speak to is about politicians upholding the rule of law, and I have to say right at the outset that I think it is absolutely incredible to hear the Leader of the Opposition lecturing anybody else—[Interruption]—lecturing anybody else about observing the rule of law. [Interruption.] Labour Members have already started moaning, but they ought to listen. [Interruption.] They ought to listen; they are going to have to get used to this, because the points I am going to raise are the questions they will have to answer in an election campaign. They will have to explain to their voters and their constituents, and the people of this country, why they think someone with an appalling record like the Leader of the Opposition is fit not just—
Order. I do not wish to be unkind to the hon. Lady, but she is not entirely averse to making loud noises from a sedentary position, so although I appreciate her important contribution on this, I think I will make the judgment myself, if she doesn’t mind. I am deeply obliged to her.
The more Labour Members interrupt, the longer it will take: I am going to make these points. The reason I have not moved is that I did not leave the Labour party to join another party; I left the Labour party to shine a spotlight on the disgrace it has become under the Leader of the Opposition’s leadership and because I regard myself as proper, decent, traditional Labour, not like the extremists who have taken over this party and are dragging it into the mud. That is the point I am going to make in this debate.
These are people—the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Chancellor—who have spent their entire time in politics working with and defending all sorts of extremists, and in some cases terrorists and antisemites. We should remember what these people said about the IRA. It might be ancient history to the Labour party’s new young recruits, but many people will never forget how they supported terrorists responsible for horrific carnage in a brutal civil war that saw people blown up in pubs and hotels and shopping centres.
A few weeks after the IRA blew up a hotel in Brighton—murdered five people at the Tory party conference—the Leader of the Opposition invited two suspected IRA terrorists to Parliament, and when the man responsible for planting that bomb was put on trial he protested outside the court. The shadow Chancellor said that
“those people involved in the armed struggle”
—people he said had used “bombs and bullets”—
should be honoured. And they have the brass neck to lecture anybody about the rule of law; what a disgrace.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand that this debate is about whether the Prime Minister obeys the rule of law, not whether Members talked to people who allegedly have broken the law; it is about whether we deliver the rule of law.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and his antennae are keenly attuned to the debate. There is a fine dividing line, and the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) is dilating on the broad theme of disregard, bordering on contempt, for the law. If I think he has elided into a wholly different subject then I will always profit by the counsels of the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), but for now the hon. Member for Dudley North is all right—just. But I do warn him that I hope his speech tonight is, given that many others wish to contribute, not going to be as long as the speeches he used to deliver at the students union at the University of Essex 36 years ago, when we jousted together; it needs to be shorter.
I am not going to argue that point, Mr Speaker.
This is a debate about whether politicians can be trusted to obey the rule of law, and there is not a single Labour figure in the past—not a single one—who would have backed violent street protest, as the shadow Chancellor did when he called for “insurrection” to “bring down” the Government or praised rioters who he said had “kicked the s-h-i-t” out of the Conservative party’s offices. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) might not want to hear it, but I will tell her this—
I am here because voters in Dudley North sent me here to represent them, and none of my views have changed on any of the things I stand up for—decency in politics, the rule of law—and everybody in Dudley knew exactly what I thought of these people at the last election. And I will tell the hon. Lady this: I will make absolutely certain that she is going to have to answer to her voters for these points at the next election.
Don’t worry about that.
No other senior figure in the Labour party’s history would have joked about lynching a female Member of Parliament. These people do not believe in the rule of law abroad, either. They always back the wrong side, whether it is the IRA, Hamas or Hezbollah, who they describe as friends. No previous Labour leader would have supported brutal totalitarian dictatorships like the ones in Cuba or Venezuela that have no regard whatsoever for the rule of law. No previous Labour leadership would have allowed a party with a proud history of fighting racial prejudice to have been poisoned by racism—which is what has happened under these people—against Jewish people to the extent that Members have been arrested on suspicion of racial hatred and the party itself has become the first in history to be investigated under equalities laws by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. These people and the people around them are a million miles away from the traditional mainstream, decent politics of the Labour party. They have poisoned what was once a great party with extremism, and they cannot be trusted with the institutions that underpin our democracy. They are completely unfit to lead the Labour party, let alone our country.
Our fundamental values are democracy, human rights and the rule of law—those are our fundamental values across Europe—yet we now have a Prime Minister who says he would prefer to die in a ditch than to deliver a law that was developed by our democracy, the mother of all democracies, in order to protect people’s human rights and prevent no deal. We have not seen the implications of no deal, but a lot of it has leaked out. The reality is that nobody in Britain voted for no deal. People did not vote to get out, “do or die”, on 31 October. They do not want to die.
The majority voted to leave, but the people who did so in Swansea say to me that they voted for more money, more jobs and more control. Now they learn that they will not get any of those from Brexit. We see Ford leaving Bridgend, we see Airbus leaving and we see problems with Tata Steel. We see no more control and no more money. Those people who voted leave deserve a final say and a final vote. They certainly did not vote for no deal. It is a bit like people agreeing to go to the cinema to see a love story or a comedy and ending up with a chainsaw massacre. They are being told that they agreed to go to the cinema, but now it is the chainsaw massacre and they still have to go in.
This links me back to no deal. In Wales we are going to see the slaughter of millions of sheep because we will be unable to export them, given the immediate 40% tariffs that will be imposed. We also know that 1 million diabetic people in Britain will be at risk of not having enough insulin. The list goes on, yet the Prime Minister—who has failed to turn up to this debate about whether the Government will deliver the rule of law—is now known not to be negotiating. Instead, he is spending £100 million of taxpayers’ money on delivering propaganda even though he knows from Operation Sledgehammer, or whatever it is called—Operation Yellowhammer—that we face calamitous ruin.
The unfortunate truth is that the Prime Minister is spreading the contagion of nationalist populism: the basic idea that we here are better than the Europeans over there, and that if we have a problem here, it is their fault over there. We have seen it before with Donald Trump talking about the Mexicans, the wall, the Muslims and the blacks. We have seen it in Germany with the Jews. Now we have heard it here, with people talking about the Europeans. Nigel Farage’s narrative has now been taken on by the Prime Minister when he says, “Oh, they voted leave three years ago and nothing could be simpler: just leave. The reason we’re not leaving is because MPs are corrupt and parliamentary democracy is rotten.”
It is easy for everyone here to agree to leave. The difficult business is getting us all to agree where we are going to. It is no surprise that a lot of parliamentarians think the deal would have made us too close to Europe, while a lot think we would have been too far from it. We do not agree—this is not easy, and everybody here knows that—but the lie is spread around that it is the people versus Parliament, or the people versus the courts. Tonight, we are here to defend our fundamental values of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, and it is those institutional values that are under attack on the footway to neo-fascism.
The Prime Minister wants an immediate election in the hope that the Brexit vote will unite and think that he is mad enough to vote for no deal, and that the remain vote will divide, so that he can say, “We’ll have no deal. Everything will be all right.” We know that people like Dominic Cummings, Farage and others want to undermine our fundamental democratic institutions, whether the BBC, the civil service, the universities or parliamentary democracy itself. We face a chilling time and a moment of truth as we wait to see whether the Prime Minister will in fact obey democratically agreed laws. He is willing to go around promoting the lie that no deal can be delivered without massive collateral damage. The democratic world is looking to us, as the mother of all Parliaments, to see whether we will ensure that the rule of law and democracy go forward. We must show the rest of Europe and the rest of the world that we will not bow to the language of popular tyranny, but stand true to the rule of law and democracy and move forward.
We rightly heard earlier today several tributes recognising your role, Mr Speaker, in protecting Parliament and parliamentarians and making Parliament relevant and accessible to ordinary people, and I associate myself with those comments.
When my constituents ask me about what might happen down here tonight, they are recognising our role in making our laws. They are recognising that it is Parliament’s job to seek solutions. They are acknowledging that this where we argue, debate and pass laws, but people up and down the country have been shocked to discover the Prime Minister putting so much effort into a no-deal Brexit at the expense of seeking a solution, not least because that was never what he told us was his intention back in 2016. People do not understand how the leader of the Brexit campaign, who is now the Prime Minister, is closing down Parliament, pursuing no deal with such vigour, and encouraging media briefings to confirm that he will not abide by the latest Act of Parliament.
I associate myself with my hon. Friend’s comments in relation to Mr Speaker because, to be quite honest, people across Europe are tuning into this House and watching how both the Speaker and this Parliament have fought back against the overweening power of an Executive that have tried to close down debate and to stop the people’s voices being heard. That is a true democracy, which is why we are fighting here tonight.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. I fear the attempts to silence and close down this House. Can any of us really talk about the rule of law and expect our constituents to respect it when those at the top of our democratic institutions are showing such disrespect for Parliament and the law on such a crucial issue?
The Prime Minister’s behaviour is simply wrong. He is treating Parliament—the people’s Parliament—with utter contempt. The Prime Minister and those around him are using language that we normally associate with repressive, dictatorial, anti-democratic regimes around the globe. In trashing the reputation of Parliament and parliamentarians and threatening to disobey the law, the Prime Minister is calling into question his fitness for office. This man led the Brexit campaign, and he was Foreign Secretary when the negotiations commenced. He is now the Prime Minister, and he should be using every waking hour to conclude the deal on which he sold his Brexit plans. He should not be closing down Parliament and running away from his responsibilities.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if we do not reach a deal with the European Union while we are a member of it, we will inevitably have to reach a trade deal from outside, where we will be negotiating from a position of abject weakness and therefore will be unable to get a good deal?
I think that that is the conclusion that most rational people have come to. That seems the inevitability of where we are heading. The Prime Minister of this country should not be running from his responsibilities, and we should not even have to ask whether he will obey the law. It is unbelievable.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, during this debate, we have heard two irreconcilable positions from Conservative Members? We have heard that the Government will obey the law, but we have also heard that the Government will deliver Brexit, do or die, on 31 October. Those two things are self-evidently contradictory, and therefore the conclusion must be that there are back-door shenanigans going on to evade the law, stretching every sinew to do so.
The terrible fear is that the Prime Minister and other members of the Government are saying one thing and doing another, which is what the recent resignation of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions seemed to reveal.
It seems straightforward. If this man and this Government carry on like this, they will be responsible for destroying the very institutions in which the rule of law and democratic politics are based. We should all be fearful of a Government who are intent on moving down that road.
The people of this country are angry. They will not understand what this debate is all about. The people of this country voted to leave the European Union, and numerous Members on both sides of the House said during the referendum debate that the result would be honoured. We have had a general election in which the two major parties stood on a platform stating the result would be honoured, and my party voted in overwhelming numbers to trigger article 50 and for both the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The people of this country will not understand these shenanigans.
I was at the Moreton-in-Marsh show last weekend, and there were angry people, both Brexiteers and remainers, who said, “For goodness’ sake, our businesses are suffering and our jobs are at risk. Just sort out this EU problem. We voted to leave the European Union.”
We are debating the hypothetical situation of whether the Prime Minister might break the law. It is inconceivable that he would break the law, but this Parliament has passed a rotten law. It has asked him to seek an extension on terms that we know not what they are or might be. We could face all sorts of terms in that extension. We could be asked to pay billions of pounds extra. We have no idea, yet this Parliament has mandated the Prime Minister to accept the terms, whatever they are.
The people cannot understand why our democratic Parliament has not sorted out this problem. The longer this whole matter goes on, the more they will hold this Parliament in contempt and the more that Parliament and its Members will lose their reputation for representing this country properly.
It is a great pleasure to wind up this debate, and I pay tribute to the interesting points that have been made on both sides of the House.
This Government will always respect the rule of law. That has consistently been our clear position and, frankly, it is outrageous that it is even in doubt. Of course, how the rule of law will be respected is normally straightforward, but sometimes it can be more complex because there are conflicting laws or competing legal advice. The Government usually get their interpretation right, but there have been many judicial reviews down the years, under many different Governments of different complexions. The Government cannot and would not wish to prevent that. Indeed, judicial review is part and parcel of the rule of law.
When, on occasion, the Government have lost a case on one or more contentious grounds—this has been true under successive Governments—of course they must correct their position accordingly and expeditiously.
I am a lawyer by training, I have served twice in the Ministry of Justice and I can reassure hon. Members that I take this duty to respect the rule of law particularly seriously. At the same time, it is true to say that the country is appalled by what it is seeing in Parliament, not for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), but because hon. Members voted for a referendum and promised repeatedly to respect the result, and yet now people see that the Leader of the Opposition and others have repeatedly tried to frustrate Brexit. The right hon. Gentleman has now made it clear that that is Labour party policy. The ballot paper in 2016 did not say, “Leave, if and only if Brussels agrees a deal”; it did not require us to seek permission from Brussels before departure. and it did not give the EU a veto over Brexit.
The Prime Minister and this Government have been working hard for a good deal—the Prime Minister has been at it again in Dublin today—but it must be an acceptable deal that Parliament can pass. We will continue that effort. But respecting the referendum must also mean that this House allows us to leave without a deal if Brussels leaves no other credible choice. Three years of experience, to date, demonstrates that taking that option off the table severely weakened our negotiating position in Brussels, yet last week this House voted for another delay, and in doing so it further weakened our position at a critical juncture in these negotiations, a point made powerfully and eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood).
So we are now in dangerous territory. Across the country, millions of voters are concluding that Parliament is refusing to allow Brexit to happen, because some MPs just do not like it and because some politicians think the voters got it wrong in 2016—that was the thrust of the comments made by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford).
Would my right hon. Friend like to comment on the way in which the Commons swept aside the idea that support is needed for the big financial consequences of this legislation—there was no money resolution—and swept away Queen’s consent, which is normally needed when encroaching on negotiations of an international treaty?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that. Of course, all the normal checks and balances that would apply if the Government were bringing forward a piece of legislation cannot apply—almost by definition—as a result of the way this was done. It has been done swiftly, without the normal scrutiny, and as a result it is a flawed piece of legislation and rightly dubbed the surrender Bill, because of its impact on our negotiations in Brussels.
I am going to make a bit of progress, because we are coming to the close.
In her contribution, the leader of the Liberal Democrats made the case for a second referendum, but she has also said that if people voted to leave for a second time, she would just ignore the result again. I want a deal, and this Prime Minister and this Government want a deal. I believe it would be much better than no deal. But much, much worse than no deal would be to destroy confidence in the most basic democratic principle we have: that politicians respect what the people vote for. That argument was powerfully made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson).
The country wants this mess sorted out by 31 October, but the House wants to delay again. In those circumstances, the proper way to proceed is for this House to allow the voters to decide in an election who goes over to negotiate at the European Council on 17 October—the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition. That is constitutionally the correct course of action. Given the position we have arrived at, it is plain common sense. What is the right hon. Gentleman afraid of? Just last Monday, the leader of the Labour party said:
“A general election is the democratic way forward.”
This is on Labour leaflets that have been delivered just this weekend, up and down the country. Just so that we are clear on this, I will read out the direct quote, so that we get it right. The leaflets said:
“We need a General Election now”.
What happened to all that bluff and bluster between the printing of the leaflets and their delivery just two days ago? The public will draw their own conclusions if the right hon. Gentleman’s actions conflict so starkly with his words. They will draw the inescapable conclusion that he does not trust the voters and he does not believe that they would trust him.
In those circumstances, if the House will not take the necessary decision, and if the right hon. Gentleman will not do the right thing, it risks further undermining respect not only for the Labour party but for Parliament. If that is the case, the Prime Minister will go to Brussels on 17 October, but let us be clear that he will not go to negotiate a delay; he will go to negotiate our departure from the EU on 31 October with or without a deal.
I urge the House to vote today not for more deadlock and delay, but for the only course of action that will break this deadlock, restore public confidence in our democracy and allow this country to move forward.
It is extraordinary that the House is having to debate whether the Prime Minister will abide by a law that has just been passed by Parliament, and that the same Prime Minister, who managed to be here for the Division earlier, cannot be here to answer questions from Members, and no Law Officers are present either. All the Members who have spoken raised questions—
I am very grateful to the Leader of the Opposition, who is much more courteous than the Foreign Secretary in taking interventions in this very important debate. The Foreign Secretary described as flawed the legislation that is intended to stop the country leaving without a deal, which received Royal Assent today. May I recommend to him, and indeed to all Members of the House, Radio 4’s interview with Lord Sumption, a very distinguished former member of the Supreme Court? He said that there was not “the slightest obscurity” about the Act. I rest my case. It is not flawed.
The Foreign Secretary shakes his head and does not wish to intervene.
The situation is simply this. The House has voted several times to say that a no-deal exit must be taken off the table, and it subsequently passed legislation to prevent no deal. The Government then apparently refused to accept the decision of the House, which is why this motion has been brought before us this evening. The Government’s response is to try to prorogue Parliament later this evening so that no Minister can be put under any scrutiny for more than a month, during what they themselves must accept is quite a significant point in our country’s history. The Government have now been forced to produce Operation Yellowhammer documents, as a result of a decision taken earlier by this House.
Surely the very least we deserve from the Prime Minister is a clear undertaking that a requirement that we ask for an extension until January to prevent us crashing out must be made at the appropriate time. Why can the Foreign Secretary not say that? Why can the Prime Minister not say that? All that we have left is the ability of this House to declare its view this evening, and I hope that is what we will do.
When the Government have made it clear that they will carry out the law and, if necessary, prevent a no-deal exit, we will then be very happy to debate all their policies in a general election, including ending austerity and the poverty and misery that the Government have brought to the people of this country. I look forward to that opportunity. The priority in this is that operations in hospitals will be damaged, the supply of medicines will be damaged, the supply of food will be damaged, and the supply to manufacturing will be damaged. If all this is a lot of scaremongering, why were the Government so unkeen to present Yellowhammer documents, which will show that truth to be the case? If they have nothing to hide, why are they hiding it? This House has forced them to put those documents out to the public, but, of course, the House will not be sitting. How convenient is that? I say to the Government: do not go ahead with the Prorogation of Parliament; do not go ahead with the threat of no deal. Instead, they should look after the interests of the people of this country which will not be served by our crashing out unless, of course, there is another agenda, which is to rush into the arms of Donald Trump and all the trade deals that they want to make with him.
There we have it. First of all, no Tory MPs want to speak. Now they have all turned out to have a bit of a shouting match. That is absolutely fine, I do not mind.
No, I will not give way.
I simply say that the House has an opportunity tonight to express its view that the Prime Minister should obey the decision that was taken by both Houses of Parliament and that was passed into law today. I hope that Members of this House will vote accordingly, and that his Government will learn the lesson that they cannot ride roughshod over our democracy.
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Main Question put accordingly.
That this House has considered the welcome completion of all parliamentary stages of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill and has considered the matter of the importance of the rule of law and Ministers’ obligation to comply with the law.
Order. There is quite a lot of noisy chuntering from a sedentary position. The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) is quite beside herself in an extraordinarily irate condition, which I feel sure will not endure for very long.
I was trying to explain to our French counterparts at the weekend the significance of the term “chuntering from a sedentary position”. They were beginning to understand it, but I would have to reinterpret it tonight as yelling from a sedentary position to which, apparently, there is no equal in the Assemblée Nationale.
I was going to call on the Minister to move the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 Section 3(2) motion, but I am underestimating the exalted status of the right hon. Gentleman who graces the Dispatch Box. The motion is indeed to be moved by no less a figure in our affairs than the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.