(Urgent Question): I am happy to have been slightly delayed by an actual point of order. My urgent question is to ask the Prime Minister to make a statement on compliance with the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019.
In the tone that you are setting, Mr Speaker, perhaps I may refer to a Member incorrectly and thank my hon. Friend, because there are many friends across the Chamber. If one reads the newspapers this morning, there is a feeling that we are permanently adversarial and at war with one another. That is not the case. Many of us work together bilaterally in groups and Committees in this House, and most of the time on the Floor of the House we work in a consensual nature.
Turning to this important urgent question, the Government will obey the law. That has always been the case. The House has heard that from the Prime Minister; it has heard it from the First Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary; it has heard it from the Lord Chancellor, who has constitutional responsibility for upholding the rule of law; and yesterday right hon. and hon. Members had the opportunity to put similar questions to the Attorney General.
The Government opposed the Act that was passed earlier this month. Notwithstanding our fervent attempts to resist the passage of the Bill, even its architects must accept that the Act makes provision for a potential range of outcomes, not one outcome. The outcome the Government want—the outcome this Government have always wanted—is a deal with the European Union. That deal can deliver the mandate of the British people. That deal is possible and is now within reach.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, along with the Prime Minister’s negotiating team, has been engaged in constructive negotiations. As the Prime Minister told this place yesterday, we were told that Brussels would never reopen the withdrawal agreement, but we are now discussing reopening the withdrawal agreement in detail. While I appreciate that some may seek to anticipate failure, to frustrate from the sidelines or to speculate for some type of sport, this Government will not indulge in defeatism.
I trust that the House, and the collective wisdom of hon. Members, will focus its energies today and beyond on the prospect of success in the negotiations, and prepare to give any revised agreement its full and unfettered support.
In the same tone, I would like to say to my hon. Friend—we have been on many delegations together—that we should treat one another with respect across the House. I would also like to say, in the same spirit as your opening remarks, Mr Speaker, that I stand in front of the shield of Jo Cox and I hope that today this Parliament could have a little bit more respect—not just for one another and Parliament, but for the public as well.
Mr Speaker, thank you for granting this urgent question. The European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act was passed by the House and given Royal Assent by Her Majesty the Queen on Monday 9 September, brought in the names of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). That Act clearly says that the Prime Minister must seek an extension to article 50 to 31 January if the Prime Minister is unable to meet one of the two conditions of either having a withdrawal deal passed by this House, or having an affirmative vote by this House to back no deal.
The Minister said in his opening response that there was a range of options. That is the only range of options in that Bill—to pass a deal, to pass no deal, or subsequently to seek an extension. The Supreme Court decision this week, and the statement in this House followed by questioning of the Prime Minister yesterday, were a national embarrassment. Under any other political equilibrium, this Prime Minister would have seriously considered his position as Prime Minister, and potentially resigned from it. Many people have lost their jobs in government for a fraction of what this Prime Minister has done over the last two weeks.
Yesterday the Attorney General, at that Dispatch Box, during the urgent question tabled by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), said clearly, in answer to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), that he would abide by the law of the EU (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019. He said that with uncharacteristic clarity when he said simply, “Yes” in response to that question. Last night, the hon. Members for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) and for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and many others pressed the Prime Minister to make the same commitment. He did not give the same commitment in this House. And under questioning from myself, very late in the sitting last night, when I asked whether he would fully comply with the provisions of the Act, should he not get a deal through this House, or an affirmative vote for no deal, by 19 October, the Prime Minister answered with one word: he answered, “No.”
I have tabled this urgent question, first, to seek clarity; and secondly, to ask the Minister, in all good faith, to tell us, which he has not done yet, what the Prime Minister meant when he said “No”, because frankly, and with reference to my earlier remarks about respect across this House, I am sure that there are very few people in this House, and very few people in this country, given the events of the last few weeks, who trust the words of the Prime Minister, even when said from that Dispatch Box. The Prime Minister used—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister used, in a direct answer to my question, the word “no”, so I have several questions to ask the Minister, and with this new level of respect I hope he is able to answer them directly.
What does the Prime Minister intend to do if he does not get a deal through this House by 19 October or an affirmative vote for no deal? That is question No. 1.
Order. Can I very gently say to the hon. Gentleman that he must rattle through the remainder of the questions very quickly, without drama? Very quickly—please.
Question No. 2: do we have to take the Prime Minister to court again to comply with the law? Question No. 3: what message does it send out when the Prime Minister says no to a straight question of whether he will comply with the law? Lastly, and most importantly, the Minister said, and the Attorney General said, that the Government will obey the law. What does that mean? Can the Minister just come to the Dispatch Box and say that obeying the law means that the Government will seek an extension to 31 January if the provisions of that Act are not met?
In politics, we are quite often berated for not giving a straight answer. I thought that the Government’s position was very, very clear: we will obey the law. Does the Prime Minister, do this Government, want to extend? No, we do not want to extend. We want a deal. That is our focus.
The hon. Gentleman talks of equilibrium. Well, in a normal equilibrium we would be having a general election, and we would ask the public to decide. That would bring back the equilibrium.
The hon. Gentleman needs to appreciate that the Prime Minister, the Government, and I, as a Minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, will obey the law, and we will obey the law at every stage and turn of this process.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Prime Minister has said that he will both obey the law and not seek an extension. Can my hon. Friend point to any legal argument made by any senior lawyer that suggests that if the conditions are not met—in other words, if Parliament has not voted for a deal, or has not approved no deal—the Prime Minister will have any choice? The law is quite clear: he would have to seek an extension.
I was interested to read this morning that the right hon. Gentleman nearly became Chancellor of the Exchequer. I apologise—I have never been in such illustrious circles, and I am not, like him, a lawyer—but that was a hypothetical question into which I do not really want to be drawn at this stage. However, we will obey the law.
The Act that was passed three weeks ago is very simple. If by 19 October the Prime Minister has not got a deal through and has not secured the agreement of the House to no deal, he must seek the extension in the terms that are set out in the Act. It is very simple.
It is true that the terms of the letter that the Prime Minister must write were set out in a schedule, as was the duty to accept the extension that the EU agrees. Those were not in the previous version of the Act, which was passed in April, because there was a consensus that the then Prime Minister would comply with the law, understood the rule of law and could be trusted, and it was therefore not necessary to put them in the Act. They are in the Act now because, I am afraid to say—and this is a low point in our history—across the House those assumptions no longer hold, and the answers given by the Prime Minister last night, and his behaviour, make that less likely.
If the Prime Minister genuinely wanted to get a deal through the House, he would not have divided the House in the way that he did yesterday. That is not the behaviour of a man who is trying to unite the House so that it can come together around a deal. The role of the Prime Minister is to unite the country. This Prime Minister is whipping up division, and I have not seen that from any Prime Minister in my lifetime.
There is a very simple, non-hypothetical question, and a precise question. If a deal has not been passed by the House by 19 October and there has been no agreement in the House to no deal, will the Prime Minister comply with the law by asking for the extension, given that that is what the Act requires? Let me make clear that if he does not do so, this will be enforced in the courts, and we will take collective action in the House to do whatever is necessary to make him comply with the law.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that we are at a low point. I agree. One of the reasons we are at a low point is that we asked the public for their views, and now Parliament is ignoring their views. We do have a responsibility—the whole Government have a responsibility—to unite, but not necessarily to unite this Parliament. Our responsibility is to unite the country behind the decision that the country has taken.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me specific questions about 19 October. The Government will obey the law on 18, 19 and 20 October, and will always do so.
The issue of compliance raises a very simple question. I say this to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer): it is by no means certain that the law of the land is reflected in the passing of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act, because there is an apparent inconsistency between that Act and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. I have no time to go into the details, but the reality is that compliance is not just a simple question. It is a matter of grave importance in terms of which law is the law of the land.
I thank my hon. Friend for advancing that argument. I think that the House will be grateful if I take it outside the House and have a detailed discussion with him, rather than detaining the House when it is dealing with urgent questions.
It appears that that was one of my more popular answers.
I wholeheartedly associate myself and those on the Scottish National party Benches with your earlier remarks, Mr Speaker. Hardened political journalists went home last night in tears, and none of us can feel any pride in what happened. I say this from the SNP Benches. I have had words with some of my colleagues, and I hope that those on other Benches have done so as well. No party is entirely innocent, and it does not take us forward in any way if all we do is blame someone else.
I commend the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for asking the urgent question. The identity of the Minister who has been sent to answer it—I say this with respect to the relative juniority of the Minister—and the fact that the Prime Minister has not come to answer it, perhaps tell us more than the answer itself. I make this offer from the SNP to those on the Government Benches, and I hope they will take it back to the Prime Minister: if he brings back an extension that takes no deal off the table, he can have his general election. However, the Minister might also want to advise the Prime Minister that he should be careful what he wishes for, because his wish might just be granted.
What an extraordinary position we are in, when we have to ask questions in Parliament about whether the Prime Minister will obey the law of the land. Yesterday, he was asked whether, in a specific set of circumstances in which the law required him to take precise action, he would do what the law required. I heard him say no. This is an extraordinary state of affairs. We have not yet had a satisfactory answer as to how the Prime Minister thought that that single one-word answer, no, was not an assurance that he would defy the law. He does not want to extend, but if the law says to him “thou shalt extend”, will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister will obey the law of the land? Will he also confirm that a Prime Minister who shilly-shallies in any way over obeying the law of the land is not fit to be Prime Minister?
I particularly reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s comment that there are no innocent parties. Every Member of the House has probably overstepped the line at one point or another, and we must certainly all reflect on the words that we use. I can guarantee that there will be no shilly-shallying. The law will be obeyed, and I look forward to discussing that in more detail when I visit the Scottish Parliament next Thursday—this place permitting.
The difficulty we face is that most laws are relatively easy to interpret because they prevent you from doing something rather than making you do something. They prevent you from murdering your wife; they do not make you love your wife. This Act is therefore capable of numerous interpretations, and we are talking about a completely hypothetical situation. For instance, what is a deal? There is one way round this, however. We just need to compromise and agree a deal.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend’s mastery of some of the technical details will stand him in good stead in his candidacy for your role, Mr Speaker, as and when that comes. He is right to say that the Act is not perfect. Specifically, the Government believe that the Kinnock amendment has deficiencies and that its effect is unclear.
May I ask the Minister what his interpretation of the law is? If no deal has been agreed by Parliament or if the Prime Minister does not get a deal and Parliament has not voted in favour of no deal, does he think that the law will then require the Prime Minister to write a letter? Yes or no?
The Government will take legal advice on this and a number of other issues. As the right hon. Lady knows, there is a long-standing constitutional convention that neither the fact nor the content of Law Officers’ advice is disclosed outside Government without their consent, and I am not intending to break that convention today.
I am delighted to hear again of the Government’s commitment to getting a deal, which is actually what this House ought to be debating in the coming weeks. Will the Minister tell us a little more precisely how the passage of this Act has made the negotiations and discussions in Brussels more difficult?
There was a big shift in the negotiations when the Prime Minister met Macron and Merkel, and that has really opened up the dialogue with the Prime Minister’s sherpa, who has been travelling twice, then three times a week, including to meetings at the United Nations General Assembly and several other forums. That activity has potentially slowed as a result of the House of Commons position. What the House of Commons has done makes a deal more difficult, and no deal, which is not what we want, more likely.
If the Prime Minister fails to secure a deal by 19 October and refuses to send the letter, as he is required to do by law, does he intend to resign or stand down temporarily and let someone else in Government sign the letter for him?
The Prime Minister will obey the law.
The problem with the Minister’s answers is that he obviously needs to leave the Government significant wriggle room because the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has clearly reflected the underlying Government policy, which is that they want to find a way to avoid complying with the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, which this House passed. That does this country a disservice, because it means it will take us till late October before we resolve the question that the Government are clearly raising. Would it not be better for people in Britain if the Government were simply transparent about their views and intentions and we could find a way to resolve that much earlier?
If I may try to be clearer, the Government want to be transparent, we want a deal and we will use every bit of wriggle room we can find to get that deal.
The House is grateful to the Minister for confirming that the Government will obey the law, but it should not need saying. The fact that the Minister is here today, having to answer these questions is a sign of the anxiety felt on both sides of the House and by many people in the country about the way in which the Government are conducting this matter. The problem is that the Minister’s clear answer is not compatible with the answer that the Prime Minister gave yesterday evening to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray). I want to read the exchange. My hon. Friend asked:
“if he does not get a deal or a no deal through this House by 19 October”—
those are the two conditions to meet that mean that he would not have to write the letter—
“will he seek an extension to 31 January from the European Union?
The Prime Minister: No.”—[Official Report, 25 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 821.]
How on earth can what the Minister has said, in good faith—and I have great respect for him—possibly be reconciled with what the Prime Minister said to the House of Commons last night?
I was here when the Prime Minister made that statement—
Why is he not here?
The hon. Gentleman asks why the Prime Minister is not here today. He was here for three and a quarter hours, answering, I think, more than 125 questions—
One hundred and eleven.
Thank you for rescuing me, Mr Speaker. Your encyclopaedic memory is better than ours.
The Prime Minister does not want an extension. Every sinew of Government is focused on a deal. [Interruption.] Hon. Members say that that is not the case, but my day is filled with trying to find a deal. That is the right thing for the country, the right thing for Parliament and it is the right thing to do, and we will obey the law at every single point.
I associate myself with your remarks at the beginning of the proceedings, Mr Speaker.
My hon. Friend the Minister’s insistence that the Government will comply with the law and his repetition of that sounds as if he is dodging something. That is the problem. I am a simple soul, so I ask my hon. Friend: under what circumstances will the Prime Minister seek an extension?
A week is a long time in politics and in a negotiation things move—
Answer the question.
The right hon. Lady says, “Answer the question”, but we are trying to be as simple as we can and use as few words as possible. We will obey the law, but who knows what will happen between now and the end of negotiations? We are seeking a deal and the nature of that deal is moving forward on a daily basis. Beyond saying that we will always abide by the law, I will not get into it any further.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s answer today, the Prime Minister hinted in answer to my question last night that he would obey the law but said directly to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) that he would not. The Minister’s answers today would be listened to with a little more belief if senior sources in No. 10 did not keep briefing that they are going to break the law.
The hon. Lady has a Minister, not a senior source in No. 10, saying on the record that we will obey the law. I think that trumps any so-say, off-the-record briefing.
Tomorrow the Prime Minister will hold a political Cabinet. May I ask my hon. Friend to make sure it is heard that we support the Prime Minister in his pursuit of a deal and have a huge reluctance to an extension, but that it comes to a very bad place in politics when a Tory Government’s adherence to the rule of law comes into question and is in doubt? There needs to be a change in the mood music emanating from No. 10 because, as a Tory party, we obey the rule of law, and the fact that that is in question in this place should bring shame on all of us.
I am sure a number of people will hear my hon. Friend’s comments, which I will pass on to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, who will attend the Cabinet on behalf of the Department. I thank my hon. Friend for those comments.
The Minister has repeatedly said this morning that he will obey the law, but it is the law of the land that, if the Prime Minister cannot get a deal or a no deal through this House by 19 October, he must seek an extension to 31 January from the European Union. Last night, as the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, the Prime Minister was asked by the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray):
“So for the sixth and final time: if he does not get a deal or a no deal through this House by 19 October, will he seek an extension to 31 January from the European Union?”—[Official Report, 25 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 821.]
And the Prime Minister replied, “No.”
Again, I ask the Minister to explain how his assurance this morning that the law will be obeyed sits with the Prime Minister’s direct denial last night that the law will be obeyed.
The Prime Minister does not want an extension. He will obey the law, but every sinew of our efforts is based on getting a deal. If this House got behind a deal, perhaps we could move forward and change the tone of this place, with which we are collectively unhappy.
Part of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act is to agree a deal by 19 October, but a person would not get that impression from this place’s obsession with discussing an extension. Does the Minister agree that, if people want to avoid a no-deal exit, all our energies should be behind getting a deal and getting it through this place? Or is the real motive stopping Brexit completely?
I fear my hon. Friend is right that many are less worried about the law and more worried about stopping Brexit. We have had extension after extension, and the answer to this uncertainty cannot be more extension.
The most visible evidence giving us grounds to doubt the Government’s intention is their £100 million billboard advertising campaign saying, “Get ready—31 October, here we come.” That is actually inaccurate and misleading, because nowhere, not even in the small print, does it mention that the law of the land may prevent a no-deal Brexit. Should the Government not be honest with businesses and consumers? I will certainly be writing to the Advertising Standards Authority. The Government should be honest in their advertising and not mislead the public in that way.
Let us be honest that a no deal is a very real possibility. Even if this House extends, whether through this Act or some other mechanism, we still might be in the same position and a deal might not be done. We would then be in a no-deal position. It is right that every responsible business prepares for no deal, despite the fact that we want a deal.
Extension or a renegotiated deal are the two options, but the only demand we have heard today is for an extension. Given that the European Union has shown that it is prepared to move and to renegotiate, does the Minister agree that the House of Commons should unite behind the Prime Minister to get the best deal for the United Kingdom? If it does not do so, this House would be seeking to defeat democracy and the democratic decision of the British people.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It does worry me that this House seems consistently to agree on what it does not want but fails to grasp what it does want. If we could take some of the energy around the semantics of obeying the law and put it into getting a deal done, I think this Parliament would be held in greater respect than it is currently by the country.
The Minister is a popular man in the House. We all know that some Members are more popular than others, and some less so. Indeed, a junior Minister has just left the Chamber shouting. I deplore that. I want all of us to work together harmoniously. The Minister has said that he wants greater transparency. There is a rumour running around the place—it is in the press—that the Government are going to shut down Parliament again for their own purposes. Is that right and why are they doing it?
That is the first time I have heard that I am popular. I think the hon. Gentleman may very well be misinformed, but I thank him for that. When it comes to rumours, I am slightly conflicted. I am not sure what gives me more pleasure: appearing at the Dispatch Box to answer Opposition questions, or speaking to lobbyists at the Conservative party conference.
People watching will notice that the Minister has been at the Dispatch Box for nearly 40 minutes and has repeatedly failed to answer a simple question, which I will put to him again. In the absence of this House supporting a deal or no deal, how will the Government comply with the Benn Act and leave the European Union on 31 October?
For 40 minutes I have tried to give a consistent answer. I think it is the case that hon. Members do not like that answer.
Everyone understands that the Government are trying to get a deal—we know that and do not need to hear it again—but this House bears a responsibility to test the Government’s intentions in the event that on 19 October they fail to agree either a deal or no deal. Once again, therefore, I press the Minister: please show respect for the House and give a proper answer to the question. How does he reconcile refusing to ask for an extension with obeying the law, namely the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019?
We do not want an extension, but we will obey the law as it stands at that time.
The Minister has repeatedly answered questions with what the Government want to do. In circumstances relating to the law, however, what is important is not necessarily what we want to do but what we might be obligated to do. Could I ask the Minister a slightly different question? What is his understanding of what the Benn Act asks the Government to do if, by 19 October, neither a deal has been agreed by this House nor a no deal has been passed?
Our focus is on a deal. When it comes to the point that the hon. Lady refers to, we will look at the law very carefully and we will obey the law.
Many of us in this House genuinely want a deal and have been working cross-party to achieve it—in fact, we amended the withdrawal (No. 2) Bill to make it clear that the purpose of the extension was to achieve and agree a deal. I say to the Minister that we can see what is happening here. We can see what the Prime Minister was doing with that horrendous, divisive language yesterday. We can see that it is a clear electoral strategy to whip up hate and try to divide us and to whip up the hate of people against Parliament. For those of us who want to work cross-party to achieve a deal, that is making it much, much more difficult. Will the Minister now restore some trust to this House of Commons and tell us clearly, on the record, that if a deal is not achieved by 19 October, the Prime Minister will sign that letter seeking an extension from the European Union?
I want to restore trust in the House. There is genuine division—it is not just an issue of linguistics and language. The House is divided; the country is divided. That is why we want to provide as much clarity as possible: we want a deal, and if we do not get that deal, we will obey the law as it stands at the time.
Is the Minister saying that the Government believe that if this House does not agree a deal and does not agree no deal by 19 October, there is a doubt that the law requires the Prime Minister to sign the letter asking for an extension?
I am not going into that legal advice. I have not done that. I think the hon. Gentleman is asking if that is the point that I am making. That is not the point that I was making. In my answer to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), I talked of legal advice and the normal conventions around it.
On Tuesday, I was in Addis Ababa with a delegation from across the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in a meeting with the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union. I sat with my colleagues and saw the shock on their faces as they watched a pronouncement that a British Government were deemed to have acted unlawfully.
In an alliance, trust is essential. It used to be that when people talked to the British, we could say, “My word is my bond.” People no longer have that trust. I understand the Minister’s expertise, particularly in relation to Africa, but is he aware of the damage done internationally to our reputation when we hear of a Government trying to wriggle their way out of a binding legislative decision by this House of Commons?
There is an international danger to our reputation. I saw as my NATO colleagues watched on their iPads—they all speak English—the responses from across the British press. They watch this House daily. They no longer have the level of respect and regard for this House that used to be felt. May I urge the Government to rebuild that respect, because the dangers and the risks to this country are huge?
I thank the hon. Lady for the work she does on defence and for giving me the opportunity to confirm this Government’s belief in the international rule of law, specifically and incredibly importantly in relation to NATO. Although exiting the European Union is rightly taking up an awful lot of time in this House, the relationship across the eastern border and with NATO is potentially more important than it has been for a long time. Our NATO allies, whether in meetings in Addis or in normal NATO meetings, should know that they can rely on the United Kingdom as they have done in the past.
The Minister earlier appropriated the words of Harold Wilson when he said that a week is a long time in politics, so what does he think is going to happen in the next week—or, for that matter, the next month—that will change the terms of the Benn Act?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for reminding me whose words I was stealing to try to sound eloquent. Anybody in this House who predicted where we might be in a week would be a fool. If anyone does have any certainty, I suggest that they head to the bookies shop.
It feels like we have entered into some kind of surreal world or parallel universe, a bit like “Alice in Wonderland”, where words mean whatever we want them to mean and the Minister is outdoing the Queen—I mean the Queen in “Alice in Wonderland”—who was thinking six impossible things before breakfast. Anybody watching this will think that this Government have taken leave of their senses. They cannot be trying to claim that two incompatible things are compatible, so I ask the Minister again: will he stop hiding behind the falsehood that legal advice is necessary to clarify the law on this and tell us how the Prime Minister is going to keep to the law?
I must say that I did not quite keep up with all those “Alice in Wonderland” references, but I am more than happy to discuss this matter over a cup of tea, as long as the hon. Lady and I are not considered two Mad Hatters.
I think many of us feel that the Minister has prevaricated with his answers today, so may I just ask him again what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) asked him earlier from the Front Bench? To comply with the law, the Prime Minister is required to send a letter should a deal or a no deal not be agreed by Parliament. The schedule to the Act actually includes the letter; it is part of the law. That letter starts, “Dear Mr President” and finishes, “Yours sincerely, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom”. How on earth can the Minister stand there and say that the Prime Minister can comply with the law without reassuring Parliament from the Dispatch Box that the Prime Minister would sign the letter as set out in the schedule to the Act in the circumstances that the two conditions laid out in the Act are not met?
I have consistently said that the Prime Minister will obey the law, but we do not want to get to that position; we want to get to a deal position as early as possible, and that is what we are trying to do. That is what we were mandated to do by the British people in the referendum, and it is what previous laws have instructed us to do.
The Prime Minister hit the nail on the head last night when he described the Act in the way he did, because the fact is that he has two choices: to go in all sincerity and negotiate a deal, which we know would be voted down by those who do not want us to leave the clutches of the EU; or to crawl to Brussels begging to be allowed to stay at the cost of £1 billion a month. Does the Minister agree that if there is such distrust in the Prime Minister, the courageous thing to do would be to hold a general election and allow the people of UK to decide what they think of this humiliating piece of legislation? If it was not for the fact that the scaredy-cats on the Opposition Benches are running away from the electorate, they would be calling for an election today.
I should thank the right hon. Gentleman for what now appears to be a cross-party consensus that we should have a general election. It is good to see other people—even hon. Friends on the Opposition Benches—saying that they would support an election. A general election will lance the boil that has been festering here in the Commons. We are a divided House, and we are divided not just on normal party lines; crucially, we are also dividing ourselves against the nation. That is only going to be resolved by delivering Brexit or by going back to the nation and saying, “What do you want?”
The Minister has repeatedly told us this morning that his Government are focused on a deal. If that is the case, why did the Prime Minister yesterday call for an immediate confidence vote, which would shut down Parliament within 14 days and make voting on a deal impossible?
The new Parliament would be able to vote on a deal and negotiations would continue. Ministers remain Ministers as we go through the process and negotiations would continue.
I welcome the change in tone from last night, which many people have already said was absolutely appalling, but I have to say that I do not find it helpful to question the legitimacy of the EU (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act. Is this the basis for the apparent contradictions between what the Minister has said and what he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) last night, or is there something else?
Let us be clear: I did not question the legitimacy of the EU (Withdrawal) Act. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) questioned it. I did say that there were a number of outcomes within that Bill, but I did not question, and had no intention of questioning, the legitimacy of a Bill that has been passed through the House. We opposed that Bill and we lost.
Exactly, because that was the House exercising the sovereignty and taking back the control that the leavers were so desperate to do. I do not know what message the Minister thinks it sends even to leave voters when there are questions about whether the Government will respect a law that this House has passed. The one thing the House does agree on—the one majority that there is—is that we do not want to crash out with no deal. So if they really want to get around the Benn Act, the way to do it is to agree an extension now, and then we can all have the general election before the extension period ends.
All I will say to that is that it is somewhat amusing to see a member of the SNP defending the sovereignty of this House.
I accept what the Minister says—that the Prime Minister wants to secure a deal—but may I respectfully suggest that the best way for us to do that with our European friends and allies is in a relationship of mutual regard and respect? To talk of the legislation as being a surrender Act implies that they are somehow trying to bully us into accepting a deal that will be good for them but bad for us. May I invite the Minister to pass back to the Prime Minister that that language is not only unacceptable in creating divisions in this country but divides us further from our European neighbours?
Without wanting to up the tone of a debate that has been quite consensual, the Act does surrender some of our negotiating power by matter of fact. It compels the Government to do something, reducing the leverage in negotiation. I am actually seeing that as being part of the negotiating. It is deeply unhelpful and it has surrendered some of our powers of negotiation, which makes it more likely that we will get no deal. It is unfortunate. I am trying not to up the tone in any way but just to speak factually about what is happening.
Am I right in understanding that the British Government have sought and obtained legal advice on how to avoid the provisions of the Benn Act?
We do not discuss what legal advice has been taken; nor do we discuss the contents of that legal advice, as I have already said in the House.
I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. We have had a lot of discussion and intimation today about complying with the rule of law. Section 3 of the Act will oblige the Prime Minister to do something. In the spirit of the law, how will the Prime Minister meet that obligation?
The law very clearly lays out the obligations in section 3 and other sections. I have nothing further to add.
If, as many of us suspect, the Prime Minister and Mr Cummings will attempt to navigate a path around the effect of the Benn Act—a feeling that the Minister’s answers this morning have not assuaged—what will the Government’s response be when the Court of Session in Edinburgh uses its nobile officium powers to sign a letter seeking an extension for him?
I do not think I am sharing a secret: it is the Government’s intention to navigate their way around the Benn Act by getting a withdrawal agreement and a deal through the House of Commons. That is our plan A.
I have to tell the Minister that I am extremely concerned that he has indicated that it is acceptable to the Government and the Prime Minister, for whom he is speaking this morning, that no deal will be acceptable. Can I just remind the Minister of the very serious consequences of no deal for Northern Ireland? I should not need to remind him or, indeed, the Government. If there is any hardening of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it will incentivise dissident republicans, who are already attacking the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to commit even greater violence along the border. With that, I suspect there will be a backlash—certainly a reaction—from loyalists. I do not predict that with any pleasure at all, but this Government should be aware of the consequences of no deal in Northern Ireland.
It will also embolden—
Thank you. It will embolden Sinn Féin to campaign for a border poll, in order to take Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom into a united Ireland. The Government need to be extremely mindful, and for the Minister to imply that it is acceptable that we leave without a deal is totally unacceptable.
We want to leave with a deal, but no deal is a possibility. I am very aware of the concerns that the hon. Lady raised, and the Government are committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. In fact, one of the first things I did as a Minister was go to Belfast and also down to visit the border and the people who live around it. In itself, turning up and looking around does not solve the problems, but I am very aware and consistently bear these things in mind when looking at negotiations, particularly those that are currently happening in relation to the Northern Ireland border. That will continue to be very important in the Government’s machinations.
The terms of the Benn Act are very clear, but so too is its intended purpose and spirit. The Minister has not been asked today whether the Government and the Prime Minister want to comply with the terms of the Act. He has been asked a very specific question: if, by 19 October, the House has not agreed to a deal or no deal, will the Prime Minister write the letter asking for an extension, as set out in the Benn Act? Can he answer yes or no, because I am afraid we have no clarity at all on that specific question today?
We will obey the law.
The Minister is knowingly confusing the Government’s negotiating position with the authority of the law as made in Parliament and enforced by the courts. The Prime Minister says, without evidence, that the Supreme Court is wrong, and now he is saying that he will not follow a very clear provision in an Act of Parliament. Does the Minister accept that that trivialises and undermines the rule of law?
No. It is not the Government who are causing the confusion; it is the Act itself and the constitutional position we found ourselves in through a number of areas, including the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which means that we cannot have a general election and resolve this by going back to the people, who have already decided in a referendum—a referendum that our predecessors in this House fully supported.
To any rational person, the law of the land states that if the Government do not get a deal through the House of Commons or a mandate for no deal, they must write a letter by 19 October asking for an extension. The Prime Minister has said that he will not do it, and the Minister at the Dispatch Box will not answer yes or no about sending a letter; he just keeps saying that the Government will obey the letter of the law, sometimes adding “at that time”. Without breaking convention and giving away the contents of legal advice, will he confirm—yes or no—that the Government are taking legal advice on alternatives to sending that letter and complying with the law?
Successive Governments do not comment on not only the detail of advice but whether legal advice has been taken, so the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is no, I cannot comment on that further.
Businesses are telling me that thousands of jobs in my constituency are at risk if there is no deal, but it sounds to me like the Government think that that is a price worth paying to get Brexit done by 31 October. Is that right?
We have the highest rate of employment for decades. I am specifically responsible for small and medium-sized enterprises in deal and no deal. While some of the larger businesses are well prepared, there is still more room for further preparations in smaller businesses, and I recommend that they visit the Government website, which is absolutely superb and very detailed. Last week I was in Birmingham and while some specific issues were raised, which we are working on, people were impressed with the Government’s preparations.
A few moments ago the Minister said that the Benn Act was unclear. Will he explain to the House why he thinks it is unclear?
That is a fair question, but I am not necessarily going to give him an answer that he will be happy with. I have already said that the Government will take advice, but that legal advice will be confidential. That cannot and would not be shared with the House, and that would have been the case when the hon. Gentleman was a Member of the European Parliament and when he was a Minister.
In some countries Governments try to make compliance with the law considerably easier for themselves by making political appointments to the judiciary. Can he please categorically rule out reports that the Government are seriously considering political appointments to the judicial bench?
I think that is well beyond my pay grade.
I say for the benefit of those observing our proceedings as much as for Members of the House that there is a notable although on the whole healthy competition between two hon. Members who share the same surname but whose first name is spelt in one instance Stewart and in another Stuart. One is Stuart C. McDonald and the other is Stewart Malcolm McDonald. I have called Stuart C. I do not want Stewart Malcolm to feel socially excluded in any way. That would be very damaging.
I am grateful for that, Mr Speaker.
The Minister and I are both successors of the late Teddy Taylor. When Teddy was a Glasgow MP, he was known as the Tenement Tory who talked straight. Let me invite the Minister to find his inner Teddy this morning. Are there circumstances in which the Prime Minister will write to Brussels as outlined in the Benn Act?
I thank the hon. Gentleman enormously for allowing me to pay tribute to my successor—[Interruption.] Predecessor, apologies. It is a great disappointment that, while he saw the referendum—I campaigned with him and he was in good health at that point—he has now passed away. Even after we won the vote and we knew he was in ill health, we thought that we would have Brexit before he died. I think that, looking down on us, he will be disappointed that, collectively, the House has not continued in that light and delivered on the referendum result.
Minister, this House and the country would have more confidence in the Government’s will and ability to do a deal within the rapidly reducing timeframe if we had any evidence of that happening. The Prime Minister’s update yesterday contained a lot of criticism of this side of the House but not a single word on the actual progress he had made in negotiations in the past few months. Will the Government bring a statement to the House on their progress and the abundant options that the Prime Minister has claimed there are?
The Prime Minister answered a large number of questions and there was plenty of opportunity when he spoke for more than three and a quarter hours. I suspect that there will be plenty of opportunity to go into more detail on the negotiating strategy over the coming days and weeks.
The Minister pointed to the Opposition Benches and suggested that those who want to remain will vote against a deal or never vote for one, but there are also Government Members who would never vote for a deal. Twenty-one Tory MPs have been thrown out of their group, including some who said that they would vote for a deal. Has the Prime Minister held negotiations with the European Research Group, some of whom are in the Cabinet, and have they signed up to say that they would vote for a deal that he negotiates?
The Prime Minister constantly meets and talks to all members of the Conservative party and other parties.
The Minister said there would be ample time after an election for any new Government to legislate accordingly and vote on a deal or seek an extension, but it normally takes at least four weeks for a new Government to pass substantive legislation. Does that reveal that having an election before seeking an extension is simply a bogus device for this Government to engineer a no-deal Brexit by default?
No, not at all. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the timetable is highly constrained, but after three and a half years we have only ourselves to blame collectively as a House.
Nearly every question from the Opposition Benches has included the word “if”. Does the Minister feel that it is unreasonable to expect him to have a crystal ball and predict what situation this country will face on 19 October, and what complying with the law will require? Is it better just to accept his assurance that the Government will obey the law?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. A lot could change between now and 19 October, and providing clarity that we will obey the law is clearer than picking specific laws and saying how we will obey them.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s previous response, he said that plan A is to get a withdrawal agreement agreed at the European Council, which is merely three weeks away. He also said that we are only just at the stage of reopening the withdrawal agreement. If—if—no agreement is reached at the European Council, does he guarantee that the House will get the opportunity to vote on a motion on whether or not we will accept a no-deal Brexit?
It is not that negotiations have just restarted. Michel Barnier’s mandate to negotiate has not formally started, and that cannot happen until the European Council, where effectively all the work will be done. However, right from the point of the meeting with Macron and Merkel there was a step change in meetings at sherpa, political and technical levels with the Commission—that was the point I was trying to make, not that negotiations have only started recently.
At the start of the urgent question, the Minister rightly reiterated your call, Mr Speaker, for greater respect. One way of being respectful in this House is to be transparent, but the Minister has clearly not been transparent after repeated questions about whether the Prime Minister will write the letter seeking an extension. I now give the Minister one final opportunity to be clear and unequivocal in his response, and not to hide behind some form of words about obeying the law or dodge the question: if the first two conditions of the Benn Act are not satisfied, will the Prime Minister write a letter seeking that extension—yes or no?
I hate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but we will obey the law.