My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:
“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a Statement on yesterday’s Supreme Court verdict and the way forward for this paralysed Parliament.
Three years ago, more people voted to leave the European Union than have ever voted for anything in our history. Politicians of all parties promised the public that they would honour the referendum result. Sadly, many have since done all they could to abandon those promises and overturn that democratic vote. After three years of dither and delay that left this country at risk of being locked forever in the orbit of the EU, this Government that I lead have been truly trying to get us out. Most people, regardless of how they voted three years ago, think the referendum must be respected. They want Brexit done. I want Brexit done. People want us out on 31 October, with a new deal if possible but without if necessary.
Sixty-four days ago I was told that Brussels would never reopen the withdrawal agreement. We are now discussing a reopened withdrawal agreement in the negotiations. I was told that Brussels would never consider alternatives to the backstop, the trap that keeps the UK effectively in the EU but with no say. We are now discussing alternatives in the negotiations. I was told that Brussels would never consider an arrangement that was not permanent. We are now discussing in the negotiations an arrangement that works on the principle of consent and is not permanent. I was told that there was no chance of a new deal, but we are discussing a new deal—this in spite of the best efforts of this Parliament to wreck our negotiations by its attempt to take no deal off the table.
The truth is that the majority in this Parliament is not opposed to so-called no deal; this Parliament does not want Brexit to happen at all. Many of those who voted for the surrender Act a few weeks ago said that their intention was to stop a no-deal Brexit. They have said every day since that Parliament must vote against any deal. The people of this country can see perfectly clearly what is going on. The people at home know that this Parliament does not want to honour its promises to respect the referendum. The people at home know that this Parliament will keep delaying and sabotaging our negotiations because it does not want a deal.
The truth is that many Members of Parliament are living in a fantasy world. They really imagine that somehow they are going to cancel the first referendum and legislate for a second referendum, and that Parliament will promise that this time it really, really promises to respect the vote, the public will believe it, vote to remain and everyone will forget the last few years.
This is an extraordinary delusion, a fantasy even greater than the communist fantasies peddled by the Leader of the Opposition. It will not happen. The public do not want another referendum. They want—they demand—that we honour the promise we made to the voters to respect the first referendum. They also want us to move on: to put Brexit behind us and focus on the NHS, violent crime and the cost of living.
That is why I brought forward a Queen’s Speech. My Government intend to present a programme for life after Brexit. But some Members of this House could not stand that either. Instead of facing the voters, the Opposition turned tail and fled from an election. Instead of letting the voters decide, they ran to the courts. Despite the fact that I followed the exact same process as my predecessors in calling a Queen’s Speech, the Supreme Court was asked to intervene in this process for the first time ever. It is absolutely no disrespect to the judiciary to say that I think the court was wrong to pronounce on what is essentially a political question at a time of great national controversy. So we have Opposition MPs who block and delay everything, running to the courts to block and delay even more, including legislation on the NHS and keeping violent criminals in jail.
The people outside this place understand what is happening. They know that nothing can disguise the truth about this Parliament. It is not just that this Parliament is gridlocked, paralysed and refusing to deliver on the priorities of the people. It is not just unable to move forward: it is worse than that. Out of sheer political selfishness and cowardice, this Parliament is unwilling to move aside. They see MPs demanding that people be given a say, then running scared from the election that would provide them with one. Worst of all, they see ever more elaborate legal and political manoeuvres from the party opposite, which is absolutely determined to say “We know best” and thumb their noses at the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the European Union. The leader of the Opposition and his party do not trust the people. They are determined to overthrow the referendum, regardless of the cost. They do not care about the bill for hundreds of millions of pounds that comes with every week of delay; they do not care if another year or more is wasted arguing about a referendum that happened three years ago. All that matters to them now is an obsessive desire to overrule the referendum result.
While we want to take our country up a gear to go forward with a fantastic accelerated programme of investment in infrastructure, education and technology, they are throwing on the handbrake. We will not betray the people who sent us here; we will not abandon the priorities that matter to the public and we will continue to challenge Parliament to uphold democracy. If honourable and right honourable Members so disagreed with this Government’s commitment to leaving on 31 October, they had a very simple remedy at their disposal: they could have voted for a general election. I have to confess that I was a little shocked to discover that the party whose members stood up in Brighton this week and repeatedly, in the most strident terms, demanded an election, is the very same party whose members have already this month—not once but twice—refused to let the people decide on their next Government. For two years, they have demanded an election, but twice they have voted against it.
The leader of the Opposition changes his mind so often. Does he know whether he supports an election today or have the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Attorney-General overruled him again? They know that the voters will judge their manifesto for what it is in three words: more pointless delay. Is he going to demand an election and vote against it, just as he says he wants to negotiate a new Brexit deal and then vote against it? Is he actually going to vote no confidence in this Government? Is he going to dodge a vote of no confidence in me as Prime Minister to escape the verdict of the voters? Does he even want to be Prime Minister any more? He says the Prime Minister should go to Brussels on 17 October and negotiate another pointless delay, but he does not want to do this himself. Even if he did, his own colleagues would not let him because, quite frankly, they recoil at the idea of him negotiating on the people’s behalf, representing this country, with the likes of the EU, let alone Vladimir Putin. Or is that what he wants—a Conservative Government? It would be a curious state of affairs indeed if Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition had every faith in the Government of the day, so if the party opposite does not, in fact, have confidence in the Government, they will have a chance to prove it. They have until the House rises today to table a Motion of no confidence in the Government and we can have that vote tomorrow. Or, if any of the other smaller parties fancy a go, they can table the Motion and we will give them time for that vote. Will they have the courage to act or will they refuse to take responsibility yet again and do nothing but delay? Let us have a vote—a proper one, not the kind of dodgy show of hands we saw at their conference—and see where that leads. Why would they not? What are they scared of?
It is now well over three years since the people of the United Kingdom voted in record numbers to leave the European Union. As I commend this Statement to the House, I say it is time to get Brexit done: get Brexit done so we respect the referendum; get Brexit done so we can move on to deal with the NHS and the cost of living; get Brexit done so we can start to reunite the country after the divisions of the referendum. It is time for this Parliament finally to take responsibility for its decisions. We decided to call that referendum; we promise to respect it. The people have had enough of it: this Parliament must either stand aside and let this Government get Brexit done or bring a vote of confidence and finally face the day of reckoning with the voters.
I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, I think we have heard a change in tone. When I heard the Statement in the House of Commons, I was quite shocked, and I hope that the noble Baroness was embarrassed at having to read out some of that Statement this evening.
The Prime Minister just does not get it. I did not think I could be any more disappointed in the Government. I got it wrong, because I just was. Iain Dale, a Conservative Party-supporting journalist, blogger and broadcaster, has put out a message tonight saying:
“When in a hole you either stop digging, or you get a bigger shovel. Boris has clearly decided to hire a JCB”.
We need less of the aggressive bluster and more humility, which might be more appropriate. The Statement was provocative and aggressive. At every opportunity the Government have to take a step back and put the country and the unity of our country first, they fail to do so. The Prime Minister told us, his Cabinet, the British people and Parliament, that Prorogation was not about Brexit. But that claim is totally undermined by the Statement we have just heard.
The Prime Minister is fond of quoting former Prime Minister Winston Churchill—to whom he bears no resemblance whatever. But I think the most apt political quote today is from Harold Wilson:
“A week is a long time in politics”.
I suspect that it feels even longer for the Prime Minister, and so it should. He is wrong to say that his comments show no disrespect to the judiciary. They do. He is wrong to say that he followed the exact same process as his predecessors on the Queen’s Speech. He did not. The normal amount of time for Prorogation before the Queen’s Speech is five days. He chose five weeks.
Let us be absolutely clear about this: the Prime Minister sought legal advice as to whether his actions in advising Her Majesty the Queen to prorogue Parliament were lawful. Why? Has any Prime Minister, or any Government, ever before sought legal advice on whether Prorogation was legal? Prorogation is normally uncontroversial, so why did this Government do so? Why did this Government feel the need to get legal advice to find out whether it was lawful to prorogue? Because they knew it was dodgy. It was so dodgy that they did not even share their legal advice with the Cabinet. They would not even admit to the Cabinet that it was about Brexit. The Cabinet Office minutes—just of a conference call, not even a proper meeting—said:
“It is important to emphasise that this decision to prorogue parliament for a Queen’s Speech is not driven by Brexit considerations”,
but, they went on, by,
“an exciting and dynamic legislative programme”.
Does anybody believe that? Did the Cabinet even believe it when it saw the minutes?
The Government also say that there is discrepancy among the lawyers—that they have different views. No. All 11 justices of the Supreme Court of this country issued a judgment that was exceptional in both its clarity and its unanimity. The key to the Supreme Court judgment was whether the Prime Minister’s advice to Her Majesty the Queen was lawful. In reaching that judgment, the court addressed two issues. The first was whether the Prime Minister’s action had the effect of frustrating or preventing the constitutional role of Parliament—including the House of Lords—of scrutiny and holding the Government to account. The answer, the Supreme Court said, was that “of course it did”. The second question was whether removing that fundamental right of scrutiny and holding the Government to account was justified. The answer of the Supreme Court to that is devastating. It concluded that that there was no reason—
“let alone a good reason”—
for doing so.
The Supreme Court did not address motive. The Scottish court did, and that was not overturned by the Supreme Court. The Scottish court said that the principal reason for the advice to the Queen was,
“to allow the executive to pursue a policy of a no deal Brexit without further Parliamentary interference”.
The government arguments were always flawed and weak. As we have seen, this Government loathe scrutiny and fear challenge. The assertion used that the Prorogation was of a similar number of days to the proposed recess is—as the Prime Minister’s friend, President Trump, might say—“fake news”. It is not about time but functions. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet were fully aware that Prorogation meant no debates, no parliamentary sittings, no committee meetings and no awkward questions to answer.
The Prime Minister’s contempt for Parliament is clear in the full text of the redacted paragraph, when he says:
“The whole September session is a rigmarole introduced by girly swot Cameron to show the public that MPs were earning their crust”.
As a girly swot—and proud of it—this is a pretty pathetic insult for a Prime Minister to launch at a predecessor. It is also incorrect: there were September sittings long before David Cameron became Prime Minister. Like so much else from this Prime Minister, he tries to be offensive and gets it wrong even then.
I do not want to say too much about elections. As I said when we were debating the legislation before the—not—Prorogation, this is a matter for the House of Commons. However, I want to comment on one thing. I think that the language used by the Prime Minister in attacking MPs and the House of Commons is extraordinarily unpleasant and aggressive. It is embarrassing and could just be that, if it were not also dangerous. Whatever their views, MPs on all sides have struggled with the most difficult issue of our generation. They are trying their best. Their mandate comes after the mandate of the referendum held in 2016; they were elected in 2017. He should apologise to them as well as to the Queen. I think it is due.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House is in a different position from most of the Cabinet. She is being named in the Supreme Court judgment as being sent to the Privy Council meeting with Her Majesty the Queen. It would be wrong of me to ask and of her to answer about her meeting with the Queen. Beyond politics, however, there are questions of process and propriety. As Leader of the whole House, she has questions to answer. Did she see the legal advice on Prorogation? Did she ask to see it? Did she ask any questions about the advice being given to Her Majesty prior to being dispatched to Balmoral? Who told her to attend? Was it the Prime Minister or was the instruction from the special adviser Dominic Cummings?
It was a hard decision when I decided, along with the noble Lord, Lord Newby, not to attend the Prorogation ceremony that took place in this House. It was not taken lightly or easily. We feel totally vindicated in making that decision. Does she who took part feel that she should apologise to the House?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Prime Minister’s Statement, which is more of a rant. Little did I think it would only take two months for us to wish to see the return of Theresa May, comparing this with the kind of Statements she had to read out during her tenure.
My noble friend Lord Newby is in Sydney and asked me to stand in. I apologise that I was not present earlier to ask the Urgent Question in my name. I was on a plane that was delayed getting into Gatwick Airport.
There are lots of things I find difficult to take about the Statement. The Prime Minister rants against Parliament. He describes the legislation that this House passed earlier this month is described as a “surrender Act”. That is insulting. I also find it difficult to accept that coming from a man who, if he really wanted Britain to leave the European Union, could have voted for the deal that was put before the House of Commons. Two times out of three he did not support it, which is indicative of the man. In fact, the one time that he supported the deal it included the backstop, which he now describes as undemocratic. We have a Prime Minister who is prepared to support something when it suits him although he actually believes—or at least says he believes—that it is undemocratic.
Amid the inevitable furore, let us take a step back and consider what, at the core, the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday was about. In giving advice to the Queen, the Prime Minister acted unlawfully and accordingly, the purported Prorogation of the present Session of Parliament was of no effect. As the judgment of the Supreme Court stated, it was,
“as if the Commissioners had walked into Parliament with a blank piece of paper. It too was unlawful, null and of no effect”.
That is both profound and momentous, and I believe it requires contrition and humility, not the kind of bombast that we have heard this evening.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, indicated, it is a comment on her prescience and that of my noble friend Lord Newby that they decided to have no part in that Commission. I have probably known the Lord Speaker for over 35 years, as I have known the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, for over 40 years. I do not believe for one moment that they, in the words of the judgment, were,
“carrying out the Queen’s bidding”,
in a way which was not in good faith. I believe that is the case but I am not quite sure the same could be said about the Leader of our House, the noble Baroness, Lady Evans. She has some questions to answer, both as Leader of your Lordships’ House and as one who attended that Privy Council meeting at Balmoral when the unlawful order was made.
In the Supreme Court and the Inner House of the Court of Session, the judges placed much weight on the fact that in neither the Cherry case nor the Miller case was any explanation given by the Government as to why an exceptionally long period was required for this purported Prorogation. The Statement from the Prime Minister refers to,
“the exact same process as my predecessors”,
but the evidence of Sir John Major in the Supreme Court blew out of the water the proffered explanation that it was needed to prepare a Queen’s Speech. Does the noble Baroness have any other explanation? She must have known from precedent that five weeks was not needed. Indeed, when I asked her why no recess dates had been set for the conference season earlier this month, she told me, “There’s always been a conference recess for as long as we can remember”. For as long as we can remember, there have never been five weeks needed for a Prorogation. Did she, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, asked, have sight of the legal advice? Did she ask for sight of it? As a member of the law officers’ trade union, I uphold the convention that one should not lightly disclose law officers’ advice. But as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, has said, the fact that legal advice was sought in itself suggests that to seek a Prorogation in these circumstances was on dodgy ground.
In response to the earlier repeat of an Urgent Question to the Attorney-General by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem and the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, asked why no Minister—let alone the Prime Minister—had sworn an affidavit to put before the court to explain the reason for such an exceptionally long period of Prorogation. They asked whether it was because they did not wish to perjure themselves. Can the noble Baroness explain why no affidavit was forthcoming from either the Prime Minister or any member of this Government?
Reading the judgment, there are two key features in why the Supreme Court reached the view that it did. It believed that the sovereignty of Parliament was being undermined if the Prime Minister could advise a Prorogation for an exceptional length of time; and that Parliament has a key role in holding the Executive to account, which would be frustrated by an exceptionally long Prorogation. There is of course a distinction between Prorogation and recess: during Prorogation, committees cannot meet and Parliament cannot be recalled, except in very exceptional circumstances. The subject matter of the Statements and UQs that we have had today—on the collapse of Thomas Cook, Operation Yellowhammer and the situation in Iran, to which one could add issues such as the granting of an arms export licence to Saudi Arabia in contravention of a court order—illustrates just how crucial it is that Parliament is able to hold the Government to account. Yet this Government wanted to frustrate that for five weeks.
In paragraph 61 of the judgment, the Supreme Court says:
“It is impossible for us to conclude, on the evidence which has been put before us, that there was any reason—let alone a good reason—to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, from 9 or 12 September until 14 October”.
Ministers have rightly said that they will respect the Supreme Court’s judgment, but as the Statement from this Prime Minister makes clear, they then say that they think the Supreme Court got it wrong. Will the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, tell us, specifically, which parts of the Supreme Court’s judgment are wrong and why? Does she support the sovereignty of Parliament? Does she support the idea that Parliament should hold the Executive to account? Does she accept that Prorogation for such an extended period of time would have undermined both these cardinal principles of our constitution?
While the Supreme Court did not speculate on motive, the Inner House of the Court of Session, reaching the same conclusion, did consider motive. Lord President Carloway, at paragraph 53 of his judgment, said:
“The circumstances demonstrate the true reason is to reduce the time available for the scrutiny of Brexit at a time when such scrutiny would appear to be a matter of considerable importance”.
The Supreme Court neither disapproved nor disavowed the findings of the Court of Session. It is clear that senior judges did not find credible the public explanation of the Prime Minister of why he sought a Prorogation of such exceptional length; it is quite a staggering conclusion for the court to reach and quite an indictment of this Administration. Will the noble Baroness confirm, given this Administration’s track record, that if no deal is reached by 19 October, the Prime Minister will abide by the law passed by Parliament just before the attempted Prorogation—no ifs, no buts, and no second letters?
I understand that this morning Mr Michael Gove described the Prime Minister as the Pep Guardiola of British politics. Let us look at his record since he came into office just two months ago: parliamentary by-elections—lost 1-0; House of Commons votes—lost 6-0; appearances before the Supreme Court—lost 11-0. If Pep Guardiola had that record, I am sure that he would be considering his position—it is time the Prime Minister did likewise.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, for their comments. First, can I say that this Government have the highest respect for our judiciary? The independence of our judiciary is a fundamental part of the rule of law and the basis of our democracy—I am very happy to put that on record.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, was, of course, right to say that the Supreme Court judgment was unanimous, but she will also recognise there were disagreements in relation to these complex matters. The divisional court, led by the Lord Chief Justice, agreed unanimously with the Government’s position, as did Lord Doherty in the Outer House of Scotland. We were disappointed in the end that the Supreme Court had a different view, but, of course, we entirely respect their judgment, and they had every right to do so.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, asked about an affidavit. The reasons for the decision were set out in the documents that were provided to the court, and the Government’s written case remains available on the website. The court did not say that the Prime Minister should have given evidence, and my understanding is that it would have been unprecedented for him to have done so. Ultimately, the court did not find the evidence justified Prorogation—we regret that, but that is a matter for the court to decide, and they have done so. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about my attendance in the Privy Council. Before attending the meeting of the Privy Council, I both sought and received confirmation that in the legal opinion of the Attorney General, the Prorogation was lawful and so I believed it was appropriate for me to do my duty as a Privy Counsellor as I was asked to do. I also took part in the Prorogation ceremony as part of my role as the Leader of the House, and I can say I did so in the utmost good faith. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, also asked about whether the Government would comply with the law: we will.
My Lords, I have every sympathy with my noble friend, but that was the most disgraceful Prime Ministerial Statement I have heard in my 50-odd years in this Parliament. What is he trying to do? Set up an election that is the people versus Parliament—that is what he is trying to do. If that is what he does, he will cause enormous and lasting damage to both Houses and to the constitution of the finest country in the world. The Prime Minister has made me ashamed, more than I have felt ashamed for a long time—and I have felt ashamed a lot over the past three years. The Prime Minister’s disgraceful Statement is something that appals us all. Will my noble friend, for whom I have personal regard and deepest sympathy, please convey to him just how angry he has made many of us?
I thank my noble friend for his comments; he made his point forcefully and I am sorry about the way he feels. I assure him that we are working hard and flat out to get a deal. That is what we want to do, that is what we are focusing on, and the Prime Minister has put a lot of effort and energy into doing so. Talks are taking place between officials in Brussels today. At UNGA only a couple of days ago, he had a number of conversations with, for instance, Chancellor Merkel, President Macron, Prime Minister Rutte, the Taoiseach and EU Council President Tusk. We are focused on getting a deal so that we can leave the EU in the manner that we all wish.
My Lords, I am deeply sorry that the noble Baroness feels the necessity, as she of course does, to give this Statement from the Prime Minister. It is deeply embarrassing, and I am sure that she felt embarrassed. I felt very sorry for her until I heard her response to our Front Bench and that of the Liberal Democrats. I increasingly feel that, as she has represented the House of Lords, and as she was one of the three people who delivered this illegal information to the Queen, has she considered her own position in representing the House of Lords as its Leader?
As I said, I went to the Privy Council meeting as requested and I did so in good faith. At that point, until the judgment of the Supreme Court, the advice was lawful and the Attorney-General considered that it was sound advice. The Supreme Court has made a judgment that has changed the law. Obviously, that means that the situation has changed, but I did what I was asked to do in good faith and on the basis of the legal advice that was given at the time.
May I seek to reduce the temperature? The judgment of the Supreme Court will be of considerable constitutional significance for centuries. Brexit will have come and gone. We may have got back in, come out again, got back in and come out again, but this judgment will still retain the authority that it has. The Statement from the Prime Minister reminds me that one of his Ministers suggested that the judgment represented a coup by the judiciary. Well, I was in Canada at the time and did not have my English dictionary there, but it is a very strange coup that orders the Executive to open the gates of the House of Commons and the House of Lords so that the Members of both Houses may say that which they are free to say. The Statement was rather along those lines, and therefore a disappointment.
What is demonstrated by this judgment is that where the Executive exercise a pretended power—I use the word quite deliberately and advisedly, because I lift it direct from the Act of Settlement following the Bill of Rights—to silence Parliament, to avoid its scrutiny by shutting it down, the courts will step in to support and protect Parliament, the legislature, against the Executive. The last time I can think of when Parliament was closed down was when Oliver Cromwell went into the House of Commons and told them all to go home. This does not happen very often, so in a sense the decision of the Supreme Court was a revolutionary decision—but thank goodness it does not happen very often.
There is a simple way of looking at the judgment, and I shall not go beyond this. It is simply a modern manifestation of our ancient constitutional aversion to arbitrary, unchecked exercise of executive power. That is what this judgment is, that is why it matters and why, when some Government in far-off days to come decide that they too might take the arbitrary step to prorogue weeks before it is necessary, they might return to this judgment and remind themselves of these ancient constitutional principles.
But there is something else. Forgive me: I understand the deep political passion of the speeches we have heard. I also understand the amount of political froth that can be generated by an examination of these questions and I can understand how we can spend hours, like children in the playroom, saying, “The Prime Minister has been humiliated by this judgment”. “Oh, no, he hasn’t—he’s had a setback”. “Oh, no, he hasn’t”. Can we just remember what the point of this judgment is? We have more time. We are overlooking that this is the point of the judgment. We have more time to sort out the mess into which our political processes have led the Brexit debate, a mess that is damaging our public’s attitude and belief in their own political systems day by day. My question for the Minister—I put it to members of all parties—is, what are we going to do with the time we have been given?
I thank the noble and learned Lord for that contribution. He is absolutely right that this has significant implications. We accept the judgment and accept that we lost the case, and he is absolutely right that this judgment will be something everyone will adhere to and look to going forward. As for what we do next, my noble friend the Chief Whip has set out business for the rest of this week and we are having discussions through the usual channels about business for next week. Those discussions will continue. Noble Lords have been very clear about the importance of continuing government business—they will see that tomorrow, for instance, we are continuing to look at various statutory instruments. We hope to have other legislation to bring forward, but of course we will talk with the usual channels to make sure we make the best of the time we have and work with the House to ensure that we are covering topics that people want to discuss.
My Lords, has the Leader of the House come to the conclusion that the nature and tenor of this Statement confirm that the prorogation was indeed a political act, and that that is why there was no sworn statement to the court? I have great respect, personally, for the Leader of the House. Indeed, I would go so far as to say I have an affection for the Leader of the House. She has been particularly kind to me recently. She attended as one of the three privy counsellors, and she misled Her Majesty the Queen. She has said quite clearly, and I accept it, that she did it in all good faith: she was herself misled before she went to see the Queen at that Privy Council meeting. I am not going to say that she should consider her position at this point, but is she not going to find it increasingly difficult to come to this House, where as Leader she represents the whole House, and repeat the kind of Statement we have just heard from this discredited Prime Minister?
The reaction of the noble Lord, and this House, to the Statement have been quite clear. There is not much I can say: I am repeating the Statement, but I have heard what the House feels about it. All I can say to the noble Lord is that I continue to try to be—I am—the voice of the House of Lords in Cabinet. I speak for this House, I put forward the representations of this House and I am very happy to put forward the representations I have heard in the Chamber today. I thank him for his kind words. As I mentioned to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, the court did not say that the Prime Minister should have given evidence, and my understanding is that it would have been unprecedented for him to do so.
To try and strike a more positive note, has my noble friend noticed, in the last eight or 10 days, that the great organs of the media—the Financial Times, the Times, the Telegraph, and indeed the Daily Mail, but also Sky television and the BBC, have all changed their tune? They all said a fortnight ago that any change in the withdrawal agreement was impossible and could not reopened, and that they had heard it from Brussels that there could be no shifting on the Irish border situation. They are now all arguing that maybe it is possible that all the constituencies involved, in Belfast, Dublin, Brussels, and here in the House of Commons, may be coming together on changes that make it possible for there to be an invisible border with, nevertheless, the integrity of the EU and of the United Kingdom preserved. Would she like to bear that in mind, and might that not bring a little cheer to this rather gloomy debate?
I thank my noble friend. He is right that progress is being made. I am not saying that there are not significant hurdles still to get through—there are; but we are having constructive talks. As I said, talks are going on today and there will be a further schedule of meetings going on. We have been having detailed discussions focused on finding an alternative to the backstop. Ideas that we have put forward to avoid a hard border include alternative customs arrangements, alternative arrangements for ensuring regulatory compliance, a single SPS area for Ireland and how to ensure consent from Northern Ireland. We are discussing these issues and are making progress. That is an absolute focus of this Government, because we want to achieve a deal. Obviously, the EU Council meeting in the next couple of weeks will be a critical part of that process.
May I ask the Leader of the House for an assurance that the tone of this Statement goes against everything that this House stands for and, I think, everything that the House of Commons stands for? We live in dark times, where MPs receive death threats. They are trolled; they receive the most obscene messages on any of the media communications that they have. We have had one MP who was actually murdered. These are the kind of words that come out in the Statement:
“Out of sheer selfishness and political cowardice, this Parliament is unwilling to move aside. … They do not care about the bill for hundreds of millions … they do not care if another year … is wasted”.
The noble Baroness has huge respect for her fight on equal opportunities and against bullying and harassment. Will she use her good offices in Cabinet to try to undermine this kind of attitude? I believe that we are putting the health and safety of our Members of Parliament in danger with this kind of behaviour.
I thank the noble Baroness and pay tribute to her work and the support she has shown in this area as well. I am very aware of the environment within which we are all working in this House and in the House of Commons and the incredible job that Peers across the House and MPs across the House of Commons do to represent their constituents to put forward important views, discuss and debate them, and scrutinise legislation. This House made very clear to me today, and also more broadly, its concern about the tone used in the Statement. That is clear; I will reflect that back.
My Lords, my initial indignation about the Statement has been replaced rather by disappointment. Let me begin by saying that I have very great sympathy with the Leader of the House having to repeat this. It is a Statement that is vacuous; it lacks contrition or substance; and it fails, in my view, to make the kind of public apology to Her Majesty the Queen that is necessary in circumstances where she has been drawn into the political arena—not helped, if I may say so, by some of the observations of a previous Prime Minister.
The Statement says that:
“It is absolutely no disrespect to the judiciary”,
but that is the oldest form of weasel words. It goes on to say:
“the court was wrong to pronounce on what is essentially a political question at a time of great national controversy”,
emphasising the belief that the court was wrong. Then we look at the next paragraph, which says:
“So we have Opposition MPs who block and delay everything, running to the courts”.
What is that other than deliberately pejorative language, no doubt for the purpose in mind? To “block” is a pejorative word and “delay” even more.
Then we come to the least attractive feature of this Statement, which says that measures are delayed,
“including legislation on the NHS”,
suggesting that those that who run to the courts obstruct the good practice and the expansion of the National Health Service. If ever there were a piece of sleight of hand, to put it mildly, it is contained in that. Even more so is,
“and keeping violent criminals in jail”.
So those who went to court are to be blamed for adverse effects on the National Health Service and on keeping violent criminals in jail. That is why I am disappointed.
The Prime Minister had an opportunity to rise to the occasion, but he chose not to take it. I fear that that is precisely the judgment that not only Members of this House have formed, but which the public increasingly will form. It says a great deal about this Prime Minister—I will not rehearse his failures, as put so eloquently by my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace—that, at a time such as this, he is incapable of rising to the occasion.
I ask the Leader of the House one question: why did she feel it necessary to ask to see the legal advice about Prorogation? If Prorogation is a routine matter, as has been suggested, why was it necessary for her to be shown the legal advice that justified it? The inference that some might draw is that this was already accepted to be an unusual Prorogation.
First, the Prime Minister and this Government have made it clear—it was the first thing that I said in response to the first comments—that we have the highest respect for our judiciary, their independence and the work that they do. I am happy to put that on record again. In relation to the noble Lord’s question about the legal advice, as I said, I sought and received confirmation that the Prorogation was lawful. Therefore, on that basis, I attended the Privy Council.
My Lords, I shall be exceedingly brief. A quality shines through the whole of this affair which is reflected in the way that the Prime Minister casually contemplated breaking the law. It was certainly reflected in his attitude towards Prorogation, in his complete lack of any kind of contrition in the light of the court’s judgment and in the appalling drafting of the Statement that the noble Baroness read out to us this afternoon. That quality is arrogance or, if noble Lords prefer a Greek word, hubris. Those closer to the Prime Minister than I am or wish to be, or those who hope for a political future for him, might do well in the next few days to ask him whether he wishes that quality to be the mark of the rest of his Administration, whether that be short or long.
All I can say to the noble Lord is that we acted in good faith and in the belief that our approach was lawful and constitutional. I know that the noble Lord is extremely concerned about the negotiations with the EU and ensuring that we come to a good deal. The Government are fully committed to the negotiations and are attempting to achieve a result so that we can have a strong, positive relationship with our EU partners going forward, we can leave the EU with a deal that is good for both sides and we can build on the strong relationship that we want to have going forward.
My Lords, speaking on behalf of these Benches, I struggle to have to say that I was shocked as I listened to the repeat of the Statement. I could not believe that I was hearing it, from someone who knows that the nation is deeply divided and needs to find ways of working together. We need humility, repentance when necessary and an approach that listens carefully to the views of others rather than simply “Attack, attack, attack”. The Leader was not in the House earlier when my most reverend friend the Archbishop of Canterbury was here, but I encourage her to read his comments about the need for reconciliation—to find a different way forward to work together that is good for the nation. In one sense I am simply adding to the mood of the House as a whole, but I come at it from a very different point of view; I am not part of a political party and I have no axe to grind. I simply want to reflect that this was terrible. It was shocking. It is not worthy. I am sorry.
My noble friend spoke to me following the most reverend Primate’s comments earlier, and I look forward to reading the words that he said; I know that he has said a lot on this issue publicly and has concerns in this area. We will look to work on them.
My Lords, I want to follow what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said about the need for compromise and the abhorrence of confrontation. I said in my speech in the debate that has just been interrupted that confrontation is the wrong way forward. Can I raise a separate and slightly more rational—or less emotional—issue? There was surprise, I think among jurists as well as lay men, that the decision of the Supreme Court was unanimous, with all 11 judges coming to the same conclusion. Yet on the issue of justiciability, there was not unanimity between the High Court in England and the Scottish court. Clearly, there is an issue, particularly because, as I understand it, the way in which the Supreme Court put it was that the action of the Prime Minister was unlawful in these rather unusual circumstances. As a lay man who is not a lawyer, I would like the issue of when an action of the Prime Minister is judiciable to be explored further, so that Parliament and people generally can understand where we are.
My noble friend is right that this was a complex matter. As I said in an earlier answer, there were differing views among different courts and senior and distinguished lawyers. However, as the noble Baroness said, the Supreme Court came to a unanimous verdict. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said, the ruling will have a long-reaching and long-lasting impact, and we will all reflect on that over the coming months.
My Lords, what I am about to say in no way reflects on the noble Baroness’s good faith. I do not think that anybody in this House has any doubt that she is doing her best. Personally, like my noble friend Lord Winston, I genuinely feel extremely sorry that she has had to deliver such an extraordinary rant to your Lordships. I say very gently to her I am sorry, too, that she was not here for the three earlier debates this afternoon. I know that it is difficult to prepare for questions—I have been Deputy Leader of the House and know exactly what it is like when you are in a difficult situation—but she really might have listened in person to some of what was said, and then she might have been able to understand the feeling of this House about what has happened.
The Supreme Court’s judgment was not nuanced. As we all know, it was completely unanimous. I do not know whether the noble Baroness listened to the judgment by the President of the Supreme Court. It was extraordinarily lucid and absolutely clear. You did not have to be a politician to understand it, because it was very clear what was being said by all 11 judges. They are not all politically fixed; they have many different backgrounds. It was unequivocal, and nothing in the Statement acknowledges that.
I have two questions for the noble Baroness; I am sorry because I expect they are rather difficult to answer. She is a member of the Cabinet and says she was told by the Attorney-General that the proroguement was lawful. Did she see the Attorney-General’s advice? That is the crucial question that the noble Baroness has to answer. Did she ask to see the advice, and did she see it? Or, like Amber Rudd, did she ask to see it, was told that she would see it and believes that it was intercepted by Downing Street?
Secondly, was the issue of the proroguement discussed in Cabinet? Was it discussed round the Cabinet table, not in little side conversations, or did the Prime Minister seek to do the same thing that he has done with Parliament—bypassing Parliament and the Cabinet too? Those are two very straightforward questions which really deserve yes or no answers.
In relation to the noble Baroness’s point about the decision, I have said repeatedly that we accept the judgment and we accept that we lost the case. I will not comment on Cabinet discussions—I never have, and I am not going to start now. As I said, I was not stopped from seeing the legal advice; I sought and received confirmation of it from the Attorney-General and that he believed that the advice was lawful.
I did not ask for the advice; I accepted the word of the senior law officer that in his view it was lawful and constitutional. I am not a lawyer and I took that in good and sound faith and believed at that point that his advice was lawful. Indeed, as we have said, other distinguished lawyers agreed. The Supreme Court has made a ruling that is different—we accept that and we will abide by it. When I went to the Privy Council meeting, I did it on the back of the legal advice that the senior lawyer had given.
My Lords, my noble friend referred to alternative arrangements in Northern Ireland. She will be aware that there has been some speculation in recent days and weeks, particularly following the Prime Minister’s visit to Dublin, that the idea of a Northern Ireland-only backstop might be put back on the table as an option. Whatever bespoke arrangements might be made, will she give me a categorial assurance that there will be no question of Northern Ireland ever being placed in a separate customs union to Great Britain, the effect of which would be to create a hard border within the United Kingdom and to undermine the consent principle in the Belfast agreement?
We have made very clear our continuing commitment to the Belfast agreement in ensuring that we do everything to uphold it. We have also been very clear about the importance of the union and ensuring that as a United Kingdom we leave the EU together. We recognise that, for reasons of geography and economics, agri-food is increasingly managed on a common basis across the island of Ireland, and we are ready to find a way forward that recognises this reality, provided that it enjoys the consent of all parties and institutions with an interest.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House said—and I paraphrase—that the Prime Minister disagreed with the decision of the Supreme Court. That being the case, it seems to me that there are really only two possible ways of disagreeing: one is that, as a non-qualified person legally, he disagreed with the 11 judges of the Supreme Court on grounds of law, or, alternatively, that the Supreme Court did not allow itself to be swayed by political considerations. Will the noble Baroness please tell me which is the case?
The Supreme Court looked at the evidence before it and at the Government’s case and unfortunately the judgment went against the Government. The Supreme Court has made its decision; the legal position is now clear. We have accepted that judgment and we accept that we have lost the case.
My Lords, I had not intended to participate. I entered Parliament at the same time as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and have heard hundreds of Statements, but I have to say that this Statement is the most disgraceful that I have ever heard. It is not the disgrace or the politics that concern me, but that it is a dangerous Statement—incredibly dangerous. We are going through a period where democracy in Britain is being challenged in a way that it has not been since the 1930s. I pick that date quite deliberately.
As we have already heard today, MPs are under severe threat. I loved doing that job, but I am very glad that I am not an elected Member of Parliament these days. One Member has already been murdered and another was not only threatened but action was planned for her murder. The person perpetrating, or about to perpetrate, that crime ended up in court and was given a prison sentence. There are other cases that we do not know or talk about.
My point—and I would be very grateful if the noble Baroness would pass it on to the Cabinet; I am sure she will—is that we must be very careful with the words that we use if we are not going to enflame the situation in a nation that is almost split in half. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham has already said, we all need to approach this with humility and try to be positive in finding our way forward.
The noble Lord makes a powerful point and does so extremely well. It will certainly be reflected on. I have already made a commitment to the House that I will pass on to my Cabinet colleagues the views of this House and the concerns that have been raised.
My Lords, I think the whole House is sympathetic to the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal. We understand the position that she is in. I accept, and I think all my colleagues accept, that she personally has sought to act in good faith throughout this. However, the Supreme Court has found that the advice given to the Queen was unlawful. The noble Baroness was part of that process—again, I accept that she was acting in good faith—but the response has been to say nothing other than, “We accept the decision of the court”. Where is the apology to the Queen? Where is the apology to both Houses? Where is the apology to the public? We have talked about trying to lower the temperature and trying to avoid a situation in which there is more violence in public life. Perhaps some show of contrition from the Government would be helpful at this point.
I closely observed the present Prime Minister during his eight years as Mayor of London. I know that it is not necessarily part of his nature to be contrite, but perhaps, on his behalf, the noble Baroness could say now that she accepts that this was wrong and that the Government apologise. Looking at the faces of some of her colleagues behind her, I think that that would be well received on her Benches as well as by the rest of the House.
As I have said repeatedly to noble Lords, we did act in good faith. The Supreme Court has found against the case that we put forward and we accept that. We will reflect on that judgment and we will abide by it. The Prime Minister has spoken to the Queen—I have no idea what that conversation involved—and, as I have said, I will reflect back the views of this House and its reaction to the Statement today.
My Lords, in my lifetime, from Mr Attlee to Mrs May, there have been, I think, 13 Prime Ministers before the present one. Would the Leader of the House like to hazard a guess as to how many of them would not have thought it necessary to tender their resignation in the face of such a shattering and astonishing decision against them by the Supreme Court? Secondly, I think she said that the Supreme Court had changed the law. I am not a lawyer but I watched a lot of the Supreme Court proceedings with fascination, as no doubt many other noble Lords did. The very clear impression I got was that the Supreme Court was not trying to change the law; it spent a lot of time trying to establish exactly what the law is and, having decided that, then had the decision to make as to whether or not it had been broken.
In the other place, the Attorney-General said:
“The Supreme Court has made new law … from now on, the prerogative power”,
can be a justiciable subject and the implications,
“for the future of our constitutional arrangements will have to be reflected upon”.
My Lords, the striking unanimity in this House will not be missed abroad. Our European partners will be reading this Statement as much as we are. The Prime Minister has some interesting comments about the state of the negotiations and takes a very optimistic view of the likelihood of negotiating changes to the withdrawal agreement. One of the things European leaders will want to judge in deciding whether to make any moves in negotiations is whether the Prime Minister can get another deal through Parliament. I wonder whether the noble Baroness has any thoughts on how they will judge that likelihood in the light of the tone of this Statement towards his own Parliament.
The Prime Minister has been making it very clear to our European colleagues that the biggest issue MPs in the other place had in relation to the withdrawal agreement that was put forward was the backstop. That is why intensive efforts have been focused on trying to amend and change that element, because that is what raised most concerns. That is what he has been talking about with other leaders—I mentioned a number of them who he has been speaking to—and that is the focus of meetings with officials in Brussels. That is the focus because we want to get a deal. We are working very hard to get a deal and we are honing in and focusing on the element that MPs were particularly concerned about, which was a reason that the deal did not get through, despite three attempts to get a vote in favour of it from the other place.
My Lords, following on from the comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, about the use of time, we have spent far too long arguing about the outcome of a referendum and very little time on possible solutions. Will the Leader of the House tell me whether, during her discussions with the usual channels, some attempt will be made to give Members the opportunity to look at, debate and try to provide alternatives? That is the only way we will solve this. There is nobody in Parliament, in any party, who has completely clean hands on the issue of where we are today. Some people were advocating referenda years before anybody else and other people have been arguing the toss since it happened—554 Members of the other place voted for it. Can the Leader of the House ensure that, in discussions with the usual channels, we are given that opportunity? Some of us have ideas as to how we can replace the backstop with something that will work. People want a solution to this and that is what Parliament is supposed to do.
The noble Lord is absolutely right. I know he has been doing a lot of work in this area. A lot of work has been going on, both in working groups within government and externally. Ideas have been generated from Members across this House and from colleagues in the other place. He will be pleased to see that my noble friend the Chief Whip is sitting next to me, who I am sure has heard what the noble Lord said. We all want to come to a point where we can have a good deal with the EU, so that we can leave and have a strong relationship going forward. That is what we are focused on. All contributions, help and thought towards achieving that are what we want; we want to come together so that we can move on, focus on the issues that matter to the British people and develop a strong, positive relationship with the European Union going forward.