With permission, I would like to make a statement on the process for invoking article 50. The Government’s priority at every stage following the European Union referendum has been to respect the outcome of that referendum and to ensure it is delivered on. To leave the European Union was the decision of the British people. It was taken after a 6:1 vote in this House to put that decision in their hands. As the Government told voters:
“This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide”—
no ifs, no buts. So there can be no going back; the point of no return was passed on 23 June.
Implementing the decision to leave the EU means following the right processes. We must leave in the way agreed in law by the UK and other member states, which means following the process set out in article 50 of the treaty on European Union. We have been clear about the timing. There was a good reason why the Government did not take the advice of some in this House on 24 June and trigger article 50 immediately. Instead, the Prime Minister was clear that she would not invoke article 50 before the end of this year. That gives us time to develop a detailed negotiating position, but we have also said that the process should not drag on and that we intend to trigger article 50 by the end of March next year.
Let me now turn to the issues at hand this week. Legal action was taken to challenge the Government on the proper process for triggering article 50. We have always been of the clear view that this is a matter for the Government, and that it is constitutionally proper and lawful to give effect to the referendum result by the use of prerogative powers. As I have said, the basis on which the referendum was held was that the Government would give effect to the result of that referendum. That was the basis on which people were asked to vote.
Our argument in the High Court was that decisions on the making and withdrawal from treaties are clear examples of the use of the royal prerogative, and that Parliament, while having a role in the process, which I will come on to, has not constrained the use of the prerogative to withdraw from the EU. Our position in the case was that the Government were therefore entitled to invoke the procedure set out in article 50. The Court has, however, come to a different view. It held that the Government do not have the prerogative power to give notice under article 50 without legislation authorising them to do so.
The Court said that the starting point was that the Crown does not have power to vary the law of the land using its prerogative powers unless Parliament legislated to the contrary. It held that the European Communities Act 1972 brought rights arising under EU law into the law of the United Kingdom, and that the Crown has no prerogative power to withdraw from the EU because the effect of withdrawal would be to take away those rights.
Let me be clear about this: we believe in and value the independence of our judiciary, the foundation upon which our rule of law is built—[Interruption.] I have to say to the Opposition that I have a little more background in protecting that independence than they have, in view of the previous Government. We also value the freedom of our press. Both those things underpin our democracy.
The Government disagree with the Court’s judgment. The country voted to leave the European Union in a referendum approved by an Act of Parliament. Our position remains that the only means of leaving is through the procedure set out in article 50, and that triggering article 50 is properly a matter for the Government using their prerogative powers. As a result, we will appeal the High Court’s judgment at the Supreme Court.
Given our appeal, it would not be appropriate to comment further on the details of the legal arguments—I am sure that the House understands this—but let me say a brief word about the process of the appeal. We have taken two necessary procedural steps. First, the Government have been granted a certificate to bypass the Court of Appeal and leapfrog the case to the Supreme Court. This will ensure that, when we lodge our appeal, it will be heard directly in the Supreme Court without further delay. Secondly, we will this week apply for substantive permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. It is likely that any hearing will be scheduled in the Supreme Court in early December. We would hope that the judgment would be provided soon after. This timetable remains consistent with our aim to trigger article 50 by the end of March next year.
We are now preparing our submissions to the Supreme Court in the usual way. As I have said, it would not be proper to go into those in great detail here today, but the core of our argument will remain that we believe that it is proper and lawful for the Government to trigger article 50 by the use of prerogative powers.
Of course, litigation is also under way in Northern Ireland. It is considering a number of specific issues linked to Northern Ireland’s constitutional arrangements. The High Court in Belfast found in the Government’s favour on these points. A hearing is being held in Belfast tomorrow to consider whether an appeal by the claimants in that case should also leapfrog to the Supreme Court, and whether the issues that overlap with the English courts should remain stayed pending the outcome of the hearing in the Supreme Court. Again, it would not be appropriate for me to say more at this stage, except that in the event of any appeal in the Northern Ireland litigation, the Government will robustly defend their position. For the avoidance of doubt, our view is that the legal timetable in relation to this case in the event of an appeal should also be consistent with our commitment to notifying under article 50 by the end of March next year.
I have said that because of our appeal, I will not go into detail on the points that were raised in the High Court’s judgment, but let me set out some fundamental principles for how we move ahead. First, our plan remains to invoke article 50 by the end of March. We believe that the legal timetable will allow for that. Secondly, the referendum result must be respected and delivered. The country voted to leave the European Union in a referendum provided for by an Act of Parliament. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door and no second referendum. The country voted to leave the European Union and it is the duty of the Government to make sure that we do just that. Parliament had its say in legislating for the referendum, which it did in both Houses, with an overwhelming majority in this House and cross-party support. The people have spoken and we intend to act on their decision.
Thirdly, irrespective of the ongoing court process, there is an important role for Parliament. Parliament will have a central role in ensuring that we find the best way forward, and we have been clear that we will be as transparent and open as possible. There have already been a number of debates and parliamentary statements on Brexit, and the Prime Minister has pledged that that process will continue before article 50 is invoked. I informed the House in October that there would be a series of debates on Brexit in Government time—the first will take place today—and that is on top of a number of other debates and opportunities for scrutiny. The new Exiting the European Union Committee has been established, and it provides another place for parliamentary scrutiny of our withdrawal from the EU. If I remember correctly, its members will be visiting my Department tomorrow.
The Government will introduce legislation in the next Session that, when enacted, will repeal the European Communities Act on the day we leave the EU. This great repeal Bill will end the authority of EU law and return power to the United Kingdom. We have made it clear that European Union law will be transposed into UK law at the time we leave, providing certainty for workers, businesses and consumers. We intend that this Act of Parliament will be in place before the end of the article 50 process.
It is important to remember that article 50 is the beginning of the process, not the end. As the Prime Minister has made clear, there will be many opportunities for Parliament to continue to engage with the Government once article 50 has been invoked. When negotiations have concluded, we will observe in full all relevant legal and constitutional obligations that apply. However, there is a balance to be struck between parliamentary scrutiny and preserving our negotiating position, which was why the House unanimously concluded last month that the process should be undertaken in a way that respects the decision of the people of the United Kingdom when they voted to leave the EU on 23 June, and does not undermine the negotiating position of the Government as negotiations are entered into. We will give no quarter to anyone who, while going through the motions of respecting the outcome of the referendum, in fact seeks to thwart the decision of the British people.
We are disappointed by the Court’s judgment in this case and we will appeal against it in the Supreme Court. None of this in any way diminishes our determination to respect and deliver the outcome of the referendum, and to notify under article 50 by the end of March next year. We are going to get on with delivering on the mandate to leave the European Union in the best way possible for the UK’s national interest—best for jobs, best for growth, and best for investment.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. This is the third statement that he has made to the House in just a few months. Nobody could accuse him of not being willing to turn up to the Dispatch Box; it is just that each time he does so, we leave none the wiser about the Government’s basic approach to the negotiation. Today was no different; he has not even made clear what will happen if the Government lose their appeal. I was going to say it is all process and no substance, but I realised I said that last time and that I am in danger of repeating myself—there are only so many times I can say, “Is that it?”
What we do know is that last week was not a good week for the Government. On Thursday, the High Court ruled the Prime Minister is acting unlawfully in seeking to use prerogative powers to invoke article 50. The Court had to remind the Prime Minister that only Parliament can make and repeal laws, and it is because the Prime Minister is seeking to use prerogative powers to change the European Communities Act that the judgment went against her. Only Parliament can do that. As the Court had to make clear to the Prime Minister, when it comes to legislation, Parliament is sovereign. That sovereignty matters.
The Government have approached their task in the wrong way and their approach is now unravelling, and I am afraid to say it is unravelling in the most divisive and ugly way. In the aftermath of the High Court judgment, we saw a series of appalling personal attacks on the judges, including the suggestion that they are “enemies of the people”. Some of us have worked in countries where judges do as the Executive tell them, and believe you me it is highly corrosive of democracy. Robust comment on, and criticism of, court judgments is right in a country that respects free speech, but we all have a duty to stand up for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. The Lord Chancellor has a special duty to do so because, by convention, judges do not engage in public debate and are thus unable to defend themselves. Yet the Lord Chancellor has been too slow and too reluctant to do her duty. It was disappointing that the Secretary of State did not take this opportunity to put on record the Government’s clear and unambiguous condemnation of personal attacks on our judges, and I ask him to do so now.
Turning to the approach that the Secretary of State has set out, it is clear that the Government intend to appeal last week’s ruling. Clearly, legally, they are entitled to do so, but would it not be better for the Government to stand back and ask whether it is right to continue with the approach they are taking? No one expects the Government to reveal the detail of their negotiating hand, but there are big headline issues that matter to everyone in every part of the UK. What relationship with the single market are the Government aiming for? What is the opening stance on the customs union? How do the Government envisage our future co-operation with EU partners in combating terrorism and serious crime? Do the Government have a plan for transitional arrangements in March 2019? These basic questions require clear answers.
Labour has repeatedly made it clear that we accept and respect the outcome of the referendum—[Interruption.] I have said that every time I have stood at this Dispatch Box. There is a mandate to leave. We will not frustrate the process by voting down article 50, but we cannot have a debate in a vacuum. The future relationship of the UK with our EU partners is at stake. The future relationship of the UK in the world is at stake. The Prime Minister simply cannot keep all this to herself. The Government need to act in the national interest—build a consensus; act not for the 52%, but for the 52% and the 48%; and put the country first. I call on the Secretary of State to abandon the furtive Executive approach that has been taken so far and to commit to a course of action that respects the role of Parliament and provides for proper scrutiny and challenge—to commit to a course of action most likely to deliver the right outcome for all of us and for generations to come.
The hon. and learned Gentleman finishes by calling me “furtive”, having started his contribution by commending me for the number of times I have appeared at the Dispatch Box—an interesting idea. I thank him for his reply none the less. I shall respond to his points in a moment, but let me first say that I am determined to work constructively with Opposition Members who want to make a success of Brexit. I have said that the Government will be as open and transparent as possible as we approach these vital negotiations—this must be the 20th time I have said that—and that Parliament will be closely and repeatedly engaged in the process of exit.
The hon. and learned Gentleman suggests that his party respects the referendum result and is not seeking to undermine the decision of the British people, but I have to say that the approach being taken by certain Opposition Members rather gives the game away. The shadow Foreign Secretary, the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), has declared that what the referendum result—the biggest democratic mandate for a course of action achieved by any Government—needs is an “injection of democracy”. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) has suggested that Labour would amend any article 50 Bill to bring about a second referendum.
The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), the former Deputy Prime Minister, who is in the Chamber, suggested after last week’s result that his party would seek to amend any legislation on triggering article 50 to allow for a second referendum on our new relationship with the EU. He did not like the first answer given by the voters, so he is seeking to put the question all over again in the hope of getting a different one. These are not constructive proposals to enable Britain to make a success of Brexit. I am sorry to say that they look increasingly like attempts to thwart and reverse the decision that was taken on 23 June—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Bacon, I always regard you as a cerebral denizen of the House, not the sort of person who would point across the Chamber. That is profoundly discourteous and very un-Bacon-like, if I may say so.
As we are speaking of cerebral issues, Mr Speaker, I shall return to the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). I read in the Financial Times that he recently attended a private event in Parliament at which he was hailed as
“the man who’ll make sure we stay in the EU”.
Apparently he winced at that because he
“does not want expectations to get out of hand.”
We have had a weekend of Labour confusion. The Leader of the Opposition suggested he might seek to block the triggering of article 50 if various conditions were not met. A few hours later, the deputy leader said that that was not right. I heard the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) on the radio this morning and he now appears to be suggesting a different approach. He says that triggering article 50 should be conditional on our going into this negotiation with all our cards face up for everyone on the other side of the table to see.
I have said repeatedly that we will be as open as we possibly can be. Indeed, we have set out our strategic aims for the negotiation again and again. I have told the House before—I do so again today—that they are: to bring back control of our laws to Parliament; to bring back control of decisions over immigration to the United Kingdom; to maintain the strong security co-operation we have with the EU; and to establish the freest possible market in goods and services with the EU and the rest of the world. But there are none so deaf as those who will not hear.
We will not achieve a good outcome, however, if the negotiation is being run by 650 people in the House of Commons and nearly 900 in the other place. No negotiation in our history has been run in that way. Indeed, if Parliament insists on setting out a detailed minimum negotiating position, that will quickly become the maximum possible offer from our negotiating partners, and the talk of a second referendum from some Opposition Members will simply encourage the EU27 to impose impossibly difficult conditions in the hope that the British people will change their minds. In other words, their whole approach is designed to wreck the negotiations.
So, Parliamentary scrutiny—yes. Telling the Prime Minister which cards to play and forcing her to disclose her hand to those she will be negotiating with—no. That will not be the approach taken by our EU counterparts. The European Commission states in a public document on how its negotiations are conducted:
“The negotiations and their texts are not themselves public...A certain level of confidentiality is necessary to protect EU interests and to keep chances for a satisfactory outcome high. When entering into a game, no-one starts by revealing his entire strategy”.
I will consider any suggestions that the shadow Secretary of State constructively has to make. We have said that we want as broad a consensus as possible, but we will not do anything to compromise Britain’s negotiating position or give grounds to those who want to thwart the result of the referendum.
The shadow Secretary of State did raise another point that I do not want to let pass. He accused the Lord Chancellor of failing to defend the judiciary. I do not accept that. I have the quote in front of me and the Lord Chancellor said:
“The independence of the judiciary is the foundation upon which our rule of law is built and our judiciary is rightly respected the world over for its independence and impartiality.”
I have been in this House for a little while. Over the past decade or so—since about 2004—there have been a number of occasions when I was sitting on the Opposition Benches that the Labour Home Secretary of the day criticised by name and in terms individual judges. I never did that. I did not attack him because I thought he was doing something he believed in—even if he was wrong. Nevertheless, I certainly never ever undermined the judges when I was in that position. A little later in that decade, Mr Peter Hain was threatened with prosecution for criticising judges, and I led the campaign to stop that prosecution, so I will take no lessons from Labour on this subject.
As usual, I want to accommodate the enormous interest of the House in this important statement and will strive to do so, but I must say to the House that questions and answers must be brief from now on.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that during the passage of the European Union Referendum Act 2015 the then Foreign Secretary, now the Chancellor, made it unequivocally clear that the purpose of the Bill that was being passed into law was to give to the British people the absolute right to decide whether we stayed in or left the European Union? At no stage was that unclear. Does my right hon. Friend therefore deplore all those, including 70 Opposition Members, who now say that that decision does not stand and that we should fight to stay in the EU regardless of the public’s decision?
My right hon. Friend is quite right. The then Foreign Secretary said in terms to this House, “This is giving the decision to the British people.” The Government of the day also spent £9 million circulating a leaflet saying just that: the decision was the public’s to take and that the Government would implement it.
I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement. We are about to embark upon one of the greatest constitutional upheavals that the United Kingdom has ever experienced. It will have an impact on almost every Government Department and every area of responsibility of the devolved Administrations. That means that scrutiny of the work of the Executive by the legislature is now more important than ever and should not be done on a nod and a wink. Just as the judges did their job in upholding the rule of law, so should this place have a full role in scrutinising the Government’s work.
Will the Secretary of State tell us whether a White Paper or any other preparatory materials for a Bill are being produced? Furthermore, will he acknowledge that democracy no longer begins and ends here and that there will be a significant impact on the devolved Administrations? Will he therefore tell us what meaningful involvement those Administrations will have over and above a hotline that takes 36 hours to answer?
Finally, the Secretary of State mentioned what he believes. Does he agree, and has he told his boss the Prime Minister, that we could have saved this Government, their lawyers and Ministers, and High Court judges a lot of time and effort had Parliament approved the Parliamentary Control of the Executive Bill that he brought before the House on 22 June 1999? It would have clearly restricted the use of the Crown prerogative until
“the assent of the House of Commons has first been obtained”,
“to exercise executive powers not conferred by statute”.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I have to say that I am a little surprised at his comments on the devolved Administrations and their involvement, as the very first thing the new Prime Minister did was visit the First Minister of Scotland to discuss exactly the issue we are talking about today. This week, we are having the second Joint Ministerial Committee meeting, at which Scotland’s Government will be represented.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the European Union Referendum Act 2015 and the Lisbon treaty Act of 2008 are both constitutional Acts—sovereign Acts—of the first order? Does he also agree that not only did the 2015 Act expressly and clearly give the voters the absolute right to leave the EU, but the 2008 Act also clearly intended that the Government would give notice to leave under article 50, and that the Government stated that both before and after the referendum?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and that was the subject of our case.
The Government have at various times in the past few months said that they wanted to unify the country, heal our divisions and build a national consensus, and all of us, in each part of this House—leave and remain—should want to see that. But how is it remotely possible to build that national consensus unless the Government are far more transparent with the country and this House of Commons about their plan for the Brexit negotiations?
It is not possible by trying to thwart the will of the people by all sorts of parliamentary games, but what I will say to the right hon. Gentleman is this: I agree that we want to unify the people of Britain about a common position, but in truth there are very few differences across this divide. When I looked at what the Leader of the Opposition said on Sunday, I thought I could agree with at least two thirds of it. I do not think the divide is quite as wide as the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) thinks.
Will the Government remind the Supreme Court that prerogative powers have regularly been used by Ministers over the past 44 years to introduce and change British law by accepting European decisions and regulations, without any referendum cover? Will they also give all the abundant evidence that this was not an advisory referendum to that same Court?
My right hon. Friend is inviting me to comment on the case in detail. I will not do that, but I will agree with him in one respect: prerogative power has been used for the past 40 years to increase the burden of European legislation but it seems not to be to reduce it.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the Governments of the day, of different political persuasions, published White Papers on their negotiating priorities ahead of the Amsterdam treaty, the Nice treaty, the constitutional treaty and the Lisbon treaty, and that Maastricht treaty negotiations were preceded by two whole days of debate under John Major’s Government and a vote in this House? Can the Secretary of State explain to the House why an approach involving Parliament’s prerogatives of scrutiny is appropriate for amendments to EU treaties but not appropriate to the much larger endeavour of pulling the UK out of the EU altogether?
What the right hon. Gentleman forgets of course is that we have announced already, right at the beginning of this process, that we will introduce the great repeal Bill, which will lead to an enormous length of debate in this House on exactly what powers will be kept and what powers will remain—most will remain. After that, there will be other Bills, I should think, that will also deal with the individual elements of the negotiation, which will inform the House, with the House having the right to both amend and vote on them. So I do not see what he is complaining about.
Our country is deeply divided. In my county of Nottinghamshire, hate crime is 18% higher today than it was a year ago. Is it not important that, in everything that we say and do in the years and months ahead of us, we watch the language and make sure it is temperate, and that we involve everybody? Seventeen million people voted to leave the EU and 16 million of us voted for us not to leave the EU, and most of us have accepted that we are now going to leave the EU. In that spirit of bringing our nation together, in the interests of everybody, will my right hon. Friend now take this opportunity unequivocally to condemn the language and the vilification of our judges, including the homophobic abuse of one of our judges? Will he now please set the tone for us to work together?
I wholeheartedly deplore the threats and the violent language used against the individual who I think launched this judicial case—that is utterly to be deplored. The point of division when one defends free speech is the point at which it encourages violence. In that respect, I absolutely agree. Hate crime is despicable, and those sorts of assaults are despicable.
The Secretary of State indicated last Thursday that, in all probability, legislation would be required to trigger the article 50 process if the judgment is upheld. Is that still his view? If so, will he give the House an assurance that, before that legislation is brought before the House, the Government will have published their negotiating objectives for the great endeavour on which the nation is about to embark. Whether people voted for or against remaining in the European Union, what all of them want to know now is: do the Government have a plan? The more he stands at the Dispatch Box and does not reveal one, the more worried people become.
First, on the question of legislation, the actual outcome will depend on what the Supreme Court judges rule. What I was commenting on was the state as of the hearing or declaration last week. On the negotiation, as I have said before, we will be as open as possible subject to the overwhelming national interest of preserving our negotiating position. It is no good creating a public negotiating position, which has the simple effect of destroying our ability to negotiate—full stop.
The independence of our judiciary is a very precious thing and it must be respected. The independence of our free press is also a very precious thing, and it must be respected. The fact that 17.4 million people—a majority of the British people—voted for our national independence is a precious thing and that must be respected. Will my right hon. Friend guarantee to me that he will not allow the efforts of the right hon. Members for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) and for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) or indeed any Member of the other place to thwart the mandate that this Government have been given in order to ensure that we can take back control of our laws, our money, our trade and our sovereignty?
I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that undertaking.
The Secretary of State’s words about the independence of the judiciary were welcome, but he will know that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said last week that the High Court decision was an attempt to frustrate the will of the British people. Does he agree that that was a deeply unhelpful thing for him to say, particularly at a time when the UK Independence party is calling for democratic and political control of judges—that was this morning—and when we all have a strong responsibility to ensure that the process of Brexit strengthens democracy and the rule of law in Britain and does not undermine and subvert it?
I did not hear the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government speak. I have seen—[Interruption] Wait a minute. I have seen some of the reportage of it. I say to the right hon. Lady that we can respect the judiciary’s independence and disagree with the conclusion that it arrived at—that is perfectly proper within our country.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, like the European Parliament under article 50, this Parliament will have a vote on any prospective deal with the EU 27 at the end of the negotiations, and that although it is very important that he informs his negotiating position by consulting all shades of opinion and interest in the country and in this House, our decision will be at the end of this process, not at the beginning?
My hon. Friend is right. I have said to the House on a number of occasions that we will—I have used the same formula—obey all the laws and conventions. He will know that that includes, for example, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and other Acts, including the European Union Act 2011. Before then, as I have said already, we will have the great repeal Act, which will be a major Act debated at length in this House, with possible consequential legislation, which may also be amendable. There is both a ratification process at the end and an amendment process along the way.
I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement and for the regular meetings that he is having with Members in the devolved Assemblies and Members from the devolved regions about this important matter. He can be assured that on the Ulster Bench the Government’s fixity of purpose is supported. Have last week’s events been a reminder that the courtroom is not the place for Britain to conduct its politics? Does he foresee any circumstances in which this case could end up in the European courts, and is there a contingency plan to address that matter?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive comments. Both cases in front of the courts are issues relating to the UK constitution, and the European Court has absolutely no locus in that area.
If the result had gone the other way, leavers like me would have unequivocally accepted it—[Interruption.] That is absolutely the case. Therefore the same should be expected of hon. Members who were defeated by the referendum result. Given that they all say that they would vote for article 50 in a vote in the House of Commons, why do we not hold such a vote straight away on a straightforward resolution, so that we can see whether that is sincere or whether they are as cynical as their reaction to the true statement that I made seems to suggest?
My right hon. Friend tempts me, but the proper route for the Government to pursue is to await the outcome of the court case and then act properly under the law.
The basis of the judgment last week was that rights conferred by legislation cannot be taken away by royal prerogative. The Secretary of State said in the wake of that judgment that it was his understanding that therefore legislation would be needed to give effect to the judgment. Is that still his understanding, or does he think that the judgment can be given effect without legislation?
As the judgment stands, that is my understanding. Basically, the right hon. Gentleman is right. What the court said, in effect, was, “You cannot remove rights without legislative power, and to give the Government legislative power, you have to have legislation”, but remember, we are now waiting on the Supreme Court outcome, which may be different.
Some 105 years ago it was a Liberal Government who established the supremacy of the elected over the unelected Chamber, so would it not be a scandalous state of affairs if Lib Dem peers were to use a parliamentary vote to frustrate the will of the people of this country?
I am tempted to say that Lloyd George would be spinning in his grave.
Is not the pressure on us, not on the judges? At elections the people give us sovereignty to exercise on their behalf, and at referendums we return that sovereignty to them. Woe betide us if we do not abide by that. Will the right hon. Gentleman hazard a guess as to how many remainers’ turkeys will vote for Christmas in next May’s election?
The right hon. Gentleman will not tempt me again, but he is quite right: 17.4 million people is the biggest vote—the biggest mandate—any Government have had in the history of this country, and we have to obey it.
Is there not a way to cut through the debate and to start to heal the rift between Parliament and the people? The Secretary of State has an opportunity this afternoon to say that there will be a one-line Bill authorising the triggering of article 50, which would be introduced to this House and then pass through the House of Lords. I would urge him to bring that Bill forward soon to test the will of this House and the House of Lords, which I think will approve the passing of that Bill, and we can then get on with negotiating the exit.
I hear what my right hon. Friend says, and I have to say I am very tempted, but what I also have to say is that this whole issue is a matter of extreme importance, and we do have to complete the test in the courts that is necessary to establish the law.
In 2010, responding to a House of Lords constitutional affairs report, the Government Minister asserted:
“Under the UK’s constitutional arrangements Parliament must be responsible for deciding whether or not to take action in response to a referendum result.”
Can the Secretary of State explain what has happened since 2010 to change the Government’s view on that?
What happened in 2015 was that the Government Minister responsible, the Foreign Secretary, said to the House of Commons that this gives the decision to the British people—full stop, no ifs, no buts. The Government then published a number of documents saying the same thing over and over again. If we betray the people by not responding to that properly, I think it will be very difficult to ever make a referendum matter again.
I am delighted with the certainty my right hon. Friend has that we are sticking to the current timetable, but he will have noticed that those who voted to remain are putting out a false narrative that we now have a choice between soft Brexit or hard Brexit. Will he please confirm that the biggest majority in British history voted to take back control, and that means making our own laws in our own Parliament?
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. We were given a national instruction, which we will interpret in the national interest, not in terms of any fictional soft or hard, or any other sort of, Brexit. We will get the outcome that suits this country best.
The Attorney General, who is helpfully sitting next to the Secretary of State, will know that the Government failed in the European Union Referendum Bill to set out how notification under article 50 would be given in the event of a leave vote. Consequently, the courts have had to intervene. So should the Secretary of State not come to the Dispatch Box and condemn the hysterical, vicious, personal attacks on our independent judiciary and condemn some of the comments from those on his own Front Bench?
The hon. Gentleman knows from our many operations together over the years that I am a great defender of the independence of the judiciary. In respect of the Bill, the presumption is that the prerogative exists, unless it is taken away, and it exists in this case.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that some people have been describing this moment as some kind of constitutional crisis? I will be inviting the constitution Committee of the House of Commons to take an interest in this crisis, if it is a crisis. In the meantime, may I commend my right hon. Friend, and indeed the whole Government, for taking a cool and calm approach to this? May I invite him to pursue the appeal to the Supreme Court, because the present judgment leaves unanswered a number of questions that need to be resolved? May I also say that it is quite possible that the Supreme Court may choose to exercise its independence by reversing the decision of the High Court?
My hon. Friend is, as ever, perspicacious about this. There are many issues to be resolved. It is not a constitutional crisis; it is simply the operation of the rule of law in the United Kingdom, which is how we like to see things done.
The Government’s handling of this situation does not inspire confidence at any level: Ministers cannot convince the High Court that their actions are lawful, they are fearful that they cannot persuade Parliament that their negotiating strategy is the right one, and they cannot even agree a UK-wide strategy that involves all the devolved Parliaments. On what basis are we expected to believe that this Government can persuade our partners in the EU that we should get a good deal from Brexit?
Yet again, I am astonished that Scottish National party Members are saying that we cannot agree a UK-wide strategy. We are two meetings into the process. We presumably intend to try to agree a strategy—or is it the intention of the hon. Lady’s party not to let one happen?
While it would be improper for Ministers to criticise judges, though not judgments, and disorderly for this House to criticise judges, except under a specific motion, is it not absolutely right that our press are free, fearless and outspoken, because there may be less happy times when judges need to be held more firmly to account?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. There are a number of pillars of our democracy. One of them is the independence of the judiciary, which we have maintained for centuries, and another is the freedom of the press, which we are still maintaining after centuries.
It is now more than four months since a clear majority voted to leave. In a spirit of constructive engagement, and further to what the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, may I suggest that Secretary of State bring a motion, as opposed to a Bill, before the House ahead of the Supreme Court hearing in January, because doing so might underline where the balance of opinion lies both in this House and in the unelected place?
As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), it seems to me that the proper approach of the Government is to respect the ruling of the Court and therefore wait on the final outcome in the Supreme Court.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that nothing in the High Court judgment in any way constrains the ability of Parliament to determine its own procedures, and that, in light of that, it would be possible for both Houses of Parliament to amend their procedures in such a way as to bring forward a Bill and to pass it, long before the Supreme Court judgment?
Does the Secretary of State agree with the view expressed by some of his colleagues that the High Court ruling was “clearly an attempt to frustrate the will of the people”?
The ruling of the Court is simply a judgment, no more, no less, and I do not see it in any political context.
Will the Secretary of State celebrate the fact that parliamentary sovereignty is now embraced even by those who campaigned to leave it in Brussels?
My right hon. Friend makes a point that I may agree with but dare not make myself.
Of course we should all accept the outcome of the referendum, but that does not necessarily mean that we all have to agree on the detail or that we should rush ahead with triggering article 50—particularly in March, ahead of the German and French elections, and before the Government have even developed a plan. As we now know that if the Secretary of State loses the Supreme Court judgment we are likely to have a Bill—primary legislation—he should entertain the idea of an amendment that considers triggering article 50 after the summer, not before September, so that we have the time to get this right.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the leader of his party, who recommended that we trigger article 50 on 24 June.
The Prime Minister is currently in India attempting to begin negotiations on a trade deal that the UK may, in the event, not have the authority to conclude—not, that is, unless the Government have already quietly decided to leave the customs union. Will the Government give at least some indication of when they will set out their negotiating position on the core objectives of whether we remain in the customs union, whether we are attempting to retain full access to the single market, and whether we intend to retain passporting for our financial services?
As my right hon. Friend well knows, the issue of the customs union is a complex one. There are many different configurations. Turkey is inside the customs union but outside the single market, Norway is inside the single market but outside the customs union, and Switzerland is outside the customs union and partly inside the single market. We have to make a judgment on what is best for Britain in toto, in terms of its access both to the European market and to the rest of the world. We will make that judgment in due course and make it public in due course.
Does the Secretary of State agree that nobody is above the law, not even his own Government?
On the subject of devolved Administrations, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Labour Government’s announcement that they will now seek to join the legal challenge to the article 50 process at the Supreme Court is entirely unnecessary and opportunistic, and that, rather than seek to impede or complicate what should be an orderly exit from the European Union, the Welsh Labour Government and the Labour party in this place should spend more time talking to their own voters about why they turned out so overwhelmingly to vote for Brexit?
I will leave it to the Welsh Labour party to take my right hon. Friend’s advice directly. He will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on who should or should not join the legal case.
Since the referendum result, there has been a carnival of reaction that has been in part vicious and pernicious, and that is now verging on the seditious with regard to the rule of law. The Prime Minister seems to want to just crowd surf that mood, wrapped in the royal prerogative. Would it not be better for this Chamber to move beyond yet another episode of roaming commentary and to give real consideration to the precepts and purposes that will inform negotiations? Does the Secretary of State recognise that it is not just UK constitutional interests that are at stake? Irish constitutional dimensions need to be taken care of, too.
I referred to the Northern Irish case, which the Government won, and the decision about whether to leapfrog it will be made tomorrow. I am entirely aware that this is a very wide constitutional issue that has to be resolved properly. That is one of the reasons I am resisting calls to do something before the Supreme Court rules on the issue. That is the proper place for the decision to be taken.
I am glad that the Secretary of State has characterised the decision as being a judgment. The judges were asked to answer a legal point of significant importance and they did so, rightly and faithfully, in accordance with their oath. Does he, therefore, agree that it is important for our reputation after we have left the European Union that all of us speak up for the independence of the judiciary and, above all, that we do not regard freedom of expression in the press as any excuse for personal, abusive and, frankly, disgraceful innuendo being raised against individual members of Her Majesty’s judiciary? That undermines us all.
My hon. Friend knows full well my view on protecting the independence of the judiciary, and I have not demurred 1 millimetre from that since coming to the Front Bench.
Of course, there should be absolutely no doubt that this House complies with the rulings of the Supreme Court and that we will do whatever is required by the law to trigger article 50, but article 50 gives expression to the result of the referendum. Does the Secretary of State agree that this House would do well to remind itself that, if the referendum had been a general election, 401 of the 632 English, Welsh and Scottish constituencies would have voted to leave?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is often said that if it had been a leave party versus a remain party, the majority would have been bigger than that of the Blair Government in 1997. We would do well to pay attention to that.
Since we clearly must respect the decision of the British people, and since it is also clear that the majority of Members of this House, including me, would vote to trigger article 50, surely the real question is the substantive one about what kind of Brexit will be pursued. Why is it that the former Government were able to set out a White Paper on their objectives ahead of the Lisbon treaty negotiations, but that this Government are saying that they will not set out a similar document in respect of these much more important negotiations?
I guess I was the part-author of the White Paper ahead of the Amsterdam treaty, and our aims were put only in very broad terms. In those terms, we already have our broad aims. They are very plain: control of laws, control of borders, maintenance of our security and the maximum possible access to free markets, both in Europe and elsewhere. Those are the broad aims. In terms of detail, I have just been asked about the customs union. As I have said, when we get to the point of being sure of where we are going on that—[Interruption.] I am glad that Labour Members are all very sure about that, since they do not seem to have looked at any of the numbers at all. The national interest requires that we make sure what the outcome is before we attempt to achieve it. That is a very small negotiating lesson.
I do not think that I want to commit at this point, but let me say this. I have said over and over again in this process that we will be as open as possible, consistent with maintaining our negotiating stance. I mean that. I have stood up for that principle through decades in this Parliament, and I will not stop standing up for it just because I am standing here.
Last week’s ruling was not about overturning the referendum, but it did recognise that this issue will affect every man, woman and child in this country and that therefore their democratically elected representatives should have a role in making sure that the Government get the best deal for everybody. Without greater transparency, how can the Government provide the reassurance that they are representing not just 52% or 48%, but the whole country?
The hon. Lady makes a good point, in that the aim of the Government is to carry out the national instruction, because that is what it was, in the national interest. At the risk of repeating myself, I have said that we will be as open as it is possible to be while maintaining that national interest, which means a degree of confidentiality in the early stages of negotiation. Parliament will have plenty of opportunities both to scrutinise the legislation and to amend it before it takes effect.
I was very pleased that the Secretary of State started his remarks by saying that he wanted to respect the decision. It seems to me that the confusion among many is that they think that the decision the British people took on 23 June was conditional on some kind of deal; it was not. I was on the remain side of the argument, but I accept unconditionally the decision of the British people. We are leaving. The task at hand for the Government is to negotiate with our partners for the best trade deal, the best access to the markets and the best security arrangements. I am confident that the Prime Minister will do so. Too many Opposition Members think that leaving is conditional; it is not.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is best demonstrated by the fact that the ballot paper had on it: “Leave the European Union”—nothing else, and no conditions. He has put it very well.
Gina Miller, who brought the case, has been subject to death threats. She has been attacked for being foreign-born. She has been subject to racial abuse and threats of sexual violence simply for exercising her rights as a British citizen. As has been mentioned, the judges in her case have been attacked simply for doing their job and not dancing to the tune of the Executive. Does the Secretary of State believe that whether we voted leave or remain, we can all agree that these vicious and deplorable attacks are not what our country is about or in keeping with British values? On that point, in relation to the judiciary, if our judges are intimidated and harassed and we have marches on our courts, that takes our country down a very dangerous avenue indeed.
I have already commented on the judges, but let me comment on the treatment of Gina Miller. I have said that I deplore—I cannot find words strong enough, frankly, to say how much I detest—the attacks on her. I have not seen them directly, but they sound to me to be effectively criminal attacks, because incitement of violence, threats of violence and racial abuse are all crimes.
May I press my right hon. Friend further on the idea of allowing both Houses of Parliament to vote early on a resolution calling on the Government to exercise article 50 before 31 March? Surely to do so would respect the judgment in the High Court, because that judgment made it clear that this House is sovereign; and, as a sovereign House, we should decide how to exercise that sovereignty.
I refer my hon. Friend to the comment put to me earlier, which was that it is within the power of the House, if it so chooses, to pass such a resolution.
Independent judges are vital to our democracy because they keep Governments honest and ensure that they cannot overrule the rule of law. The right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) is right that language matters. The Secretary of State talks about keeping his cards close to his chest, as though he was playing a late-night game of poker, but he must understand that people are exercised, whether they voted to leave or to stay, because they know the stakes he is playing for are their lives. The British public deserve to know whether there are any nasty surprises ahead. Will he now be honest about his Government’s red lines, so he is not left red-faced with the British public?
It is not a late-night game of poker; it is a devil of a lot more important than that. The simple truth is: when you go into a negotiation of this nature and you publicise your minimum negotiating objectives, you make them your opponent’s maximum negotiating objectives and you increase the price. I am afraid a commitment to parliamentary accountability—I share such a commitment with everybody else in the House—is not an excuse for naivety in negotiation.
If the referendum was no more than advisory, it makes one wonder why some people who now claim it was only advisory campaigned so hard during the referendum campaign. Triggering article 50 is just the start of the process, so if the Supreme Court does not overturn the perverse decision of the High Court, does my right hon. Friend expect the Labour party to agree to triggering article 50 without any conditions? Given that it was made perfectly clear in the Conservative party manifesto at the last election that we would have a referendum and honour the result of the referendum whatever the outcome, does he expect the House of Lords to honour one of the conventions of this place, which is that it should not stand in the way of a manifesto promise?
I am responsible for many things, but the Labour party’s stance is not one of them. Frankly, that is just as well, given that it had three of them—three different stances—over the weekend. As I understand it, the approach taken by my Labour opposite number is that conditions will be attached to the approval of triggering article 50. That does not reflect the will of the people at all—just the reverse.
Does the Secretary of State not accept that the judgment given by the Supreme Court could come as late as January? Does he not accept that, nevertheless, the debate about what the Government think Brexit should look like does not have to be constrained by the court judgment, and could start tomorrow if the Government had the political will? Does he not accept that the best way of doing that would be to table a White Paper as soon as possible?
The hon. Lady has not listened to my responses to earlier questions. Yes, she is right in one respect: the judgment may come as late as early January. The expectation is that the case will be held in early December, and I suspect that it will take two to three weeks for the judgment to be written up. I think the proper role of the Government is to await and to respect the judgment from the Supreme Court—full stop.
Does the Secretary of State agree, despite the arguments of Labour Members and of some Conservative Members, that no successful business deal has ever been done when the hands of the negotiator have been tied, and that the best way to take this forward is to allow the Prime Minister to negotiate without boxing her in?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Tying the hands of the negotiator is exactly what the Opposition are trying to do.
Following the UK Government’s decision to challenge the High Court judgment, the Welsh Government have announced that they will seek legal representation in the Supreme Court hearing, because of the impact of the use of prerogative powers on the legislative competence of the National Assembly for Wales. Surely the UK Government should now take a step back, take a deep breath and, instead of trying to steamroller through Brexit, fully engage with this Parliament and the national Parliaments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Again, the hon. Gentleman has not listened to what I said to the Scottish nationalists. That is precisely what we have been doing.
Having worked with my right hon. Friend for many years in this place, both in opposition and in government, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever about the truth of his suggestion about the value of the independence of the judiciary. Will he accept that the referendum gave the Government permission to leave the European Union—and that is going to happen—but the referendum did not give the Government a power they do not have?
As my right hon. and learned Friend will know better than almost anyone else in this House, that is precisely what is being tested in the courts right now.
I add my support to the principle of—and the urgent need to clarify and state—the independence of the judiciary, and its importance for our rule of law. I believe that it is to our shame that we are having this discussion at all, and that it is incumbent on every Member of this House, and of the media, to uphold the language and the high standard of debate that this country needs and deserves. If the Secretary of State wants the best deal for the country and the best chance of success in negotiations, does he not think that the Prime Minister will be helped by going into those negotiations with a united country, a thorough debate that is public and transparent, and the vote of support of Parliament behind her?
I reiterate that the independence of the judiciary is one of the fundamental pillars of our democracy, as is a free press and a number of other freedoms that are sometimes uncomfortable for people, I am afraid. Of course it would help to have the support of the House, and there will be plenty of opportunities for that to happen. During the great repeal Bill debates there will be a great deal of opportunity for all parts of this House and the other place to vote on the measures put before them. That will provide some support for the Government.
One of the complexities of article 50 is that there are no transitional arrangements. I know that the Secretary of State understands that there are genuinely held fears about people’s rights. Will he confirm that, notwithstanding the outcome from the Supreme Court, cases referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union either before article 50 is invoked or before the final date of the UK’s departure from the EU will be heard by that court and, more importantly, that any decision by that court, however long it takes, will remain binding in the UK?
The simple truth, which may sound rather platitudinous, is that we are in until we are out. We will actually obey every aspect of European law until we leave.
This summer, the country was failed by an embarrassing, misleading and, at times, toxic debate about the EU that all too often inflamed rather than illuminated. Legislation before article 50 is triggered could help lift us out of this quagmire, giving the issue the sort of thorough scrutiny and sensible debate it deserves. Why will the Secretary of State not commit to a Bill and a programme motion that allows each and every one of us to set out our views on the principle of triggering article 50, the terms on which it should be invoked and the process thereafter?
I think the hon. Lady has just given the game away.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that invoking article 50 changes not one word of English law, but is simply the process of sending a letter formally notifying the EU of the people’s vote to leave, and that failure to do that would be a betrayal of the British people that they would not lightly forgive?
I agree that of itself it does not change one word of English law. Some people see it as a point of no return; I see 23 June as the point of no return. We have to live by the instruction we were given on that day.
Further to that, the Secretary of State should take some comfort from the fact that the High Court in Belfast reaffirmed the view of the Northern Ireland Attorney General that not one comma or full stop of our devolved settlement will be amended by the triggering of article 50. Given that, and the fact that devolved arrangements are subject to the will not only of this House but of this Government and that constitutional arrangements and external relations are reserved matters, does he agree that this decision will be taken as a nation by this nation as a whole?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He is exactly right. That is precisely correct.
While I understand the Government’s desire to proceed with the court case—there is a principle of law—is it not a good idea, which we have heard from both sides of the House today, urgently to put a resolution to the House that can be voted on, which would help the courts to decide Parliament’s view on article 50?
I have stated my view on the proper approach for the Government. That does not constrain Parliament at all.
The Secretary of State has referred to the timetable for article 50. Once it is triggered, we have a maximum of two years. Does he agree that, if we do not have agreement towards the end of that period, we face a ticking clock, which weakens our position? Is there merit in the suggestion in today’s Financial Times, which apparently the Prime Minister is considering, to have a transitional arrangement of several years afterwards? Is it not time that hon. Members debated that?
I am afraid I do not recognise anything in today’s Financial Times.
I believe that acceptance of the High Court ruling would have offered a symbolic and inclusive hand to those of us who voted to remain. Inclusion is a part—a key ingredient—of the Prime Minister’s strategy of bringing the country back together and we all need to come along on this journey. The Government have chosen not to do that, but can we agree that the judiciary have an important role to play in our constitution and should be allowed to do so independently, with our respect? This is what grown-up sovereignty feels like.
I do not recognise the first part of my hon. Friend’s comments and I do not see how the Government have refused to be inclusive. We have taken input on vast amounts of policy from large numbers of people who voted or campaigned for remain, so I do not think her description is remotely true.
Will the Secretary of State tell the House how much taxpayers’ money he is expending on the court case, the appeal and future action to stop this House having a say on the important issues of the single market, employment rights and prisoner transfer agreements, which all matter, even if we have accepted the will of the referendum, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) has said?
All those figures will be published in due course, but the right hon. Gentleman is wrong about one thing: I have given in terms an undertaking to the House that there will be no dilution of employment rights as a result of our leaving the European Union. He has not been paying attention.
The High Court judgment noted:
“The Government accepts that a notice under Article 50 cannot be withdrawn once it has been given.”
Why did the Government simply accept that? If they had maintained that triggering could be reversed by Parliament, would not Parliament remain sovereign, despite the Executive taking the decision to trigger article 50?
The reason was not really a point of law so much as a point of constitutional and political reality. I did not see it as possible that we could reverse the decision of the British people.
I would be the first to admit that I am no legal expert, but throughout campaigning on the EU referendum I was clear with my constituents that Parliament would very likely have a vote on these matters. Have the Government been disingenuous with the public from day one, or are they completely unsure of the existing constitutional law of the country they govern?
If I remember correctly, every single one of the hon. Lady’s constituents received a document from the Government telling them that it was their decision and the Government would carry it out.
Is it not the case that, at various times and in various ways, the Government have given clear indications of their direction of travel on legal supremacy, migration policy, trade policy, reciprocal rights and regulatory continuity? To go further on what has been said and to tie the Government’s hands would be to act against the national interest.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. We have in fact given a great deal of information about our direction of travel and the overarching strategy, but, as I have said, there is none so deaf as those who will not hear.
The Secretary of State accepts that he could publish a Bill next week and we could have it on the statute book long before the judges have done their business, so the reason for taking the decision to the next stage is not to expedite it but some other. I can only presume that it is because, somehow or other, this man—the Secretary of State—a man who has always fought for Parliament, is suddenly fighting for the prerogative rights of the Crown.
For the people!
No, the Secretary of State is fighting for the prerogative rights of the Crown. Would it not be a phenomenal irony if the people who clamoured to bring back control to this country handed it from Parliament to Ministers and the Crown?
This is one of those rare occasions when the heckle is right. The truth here is that the rights of Parliament rest on the sovereignty of the people—in this case, 17.4 million people.
There are far too many Members of both this place and the other place, including my right hon. Friend’s opposite number at lunchtime today, who are taking to the airwaves to tell us that they fully respect the result of the referendum and then go on to insert that very important word “but”. Will my right hon. Friend use this occasion to explain, from the Dispatch Box, to those at this end and the other end that there are no buts on Brexit?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Indeed, I think earlier I said no ifs or buts.
Why will the Government not seek the agreement of Parliament to their basic broad objectives for Britain’s future relationship with the European Union before article 50 is triggered?
I really like the right hon. Gentleman. I am a great admirer of him and what he has done in his life. I will say this to him: we have made a great deal of information available one way or another and we are going to make more available. The simple truth is that nobody on the Labour Benches appears to recognise that serious decisions are being taken in the public domain. They just do not like them.
Who will be leading the Government’s case to the Supreme Court? Will it be the Secretary of State, the Attorney General or the Prime Minister? Or can we expect all three?
I think the taxpayer would have really good cause to worry if I was leading it. [Laughter.] We have a very good legal team. I suspect it will be the same brilliant legal team next time.
I am glad the Secretary of State is having a jolly time over this, but when I spoke to my constituents over the weekend, whether they voted to remain or to leave—I respect both votes—they were all deeply concerned about the sinister turn of events in the commentary in the media. Will the Secretary of State be absolutely clear on whether it is acceptable to call judges enemies of the people? Will he be equally clear that someone’s sexuality does not preclude their ability to make legal judgments or to hold the highest offices in the land?
The latter point is self-evidently the case, but let me say this to the hon. Gentleman. Over the decades, I have fought battles on both the independence and rights of the judiciary and the freedom of the press. They are both important, and they are particularly important when one does not like what they say.
Earlier this afternoon, the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) said that no one expects the Government to reveal their negotiating hand. Then, however, he set out a series of negotiating positions he would like the Prime Minister to reveal. Does my right hon. Friend agree that rather than trying to tie the hands of the Prime Minister, Members of both Houses of Parliament should put the national interest first and let the Prime Minister get on with the job of getting the best deal for Britain?
My hon. Friend has absolutely nailed the flaw in the case of the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras. Their case is to say, “We only want you to tell us a little bit, and a little bit more, and a little bit more.” Eventually, the whole thing will be in the open and no negotiation will be possible. She is exactly right.
The country will have noted that seven times now the Secretary of State has refused to comment on, or certainly to condemn, the statement on “Question Time” by his colleague on the Front Bench, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), that clearly impugned the integrity and impartiality of the High Court judges. I do not anticipate that he will do that, so will he instead condemn the comments by another politician who has urged people to march on the Supreme Court in order to intimidate it? Will he use this opportunity to ask the country not to do that?
Well, actually, I think in both cases the hon. Gentleman has misquoted the individuals. I will say two things about a recommendation to march. The right to demonstrate is another of our freedoms. One of the great things about our Supreme Court—indeed, all our courts—is that it would not matter how many people marched. It would not move its judgments by one comma and we should be proud of that.
The hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) suggested that the Government should abandon their appeal. Does the Secretary of State think that that would be sensible given that the Northern Irish court, albeit looking at a slightly different question, accepted the logic of the argument that article 50 does not of itself change individual rights, which was at the heart of the divisional court’s decision?
My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point that lies at the heart of the argument. She is quite right. The plaintiffs in the Northern Ireland case may appeal, but that case is not the same as this one, although it does have a relationship with it. It is therefore very important that if that appeal is allowed and expedited—even if it is not expedited—the cases are heard properly and together.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) mentioned the Secretary of State’s Parliamentary Control of the Executive Bill. Does the right hon. Gentleman still agree with the content of that Bill?
The primary aim of that Bill—its original author was actually Tony Benn—was to bring the right to declare war outside article 5 provisions under the control of the House. I politely say that that has happened.
My right hon. Friend has come under quite a degree of criticism for not being more revealing and transparent about the Government’s position. In fact, he is told that he is holding his cards close to his chest. I think that this warrants greater investigation. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meeting me and cross-party group of Members in the Department for a game of poker? They can put their cards on the table; we can keep our cards to our chests—and the money can go to Southend charities!
My hon. Friend makes his point.
My constituent Christopher voted to leave the European Union, but he told me:
“I did not vote to suspend the rule of law, nor to forgo the protection of Parliament as a bulwark against tyranny.”
Does the Secretary of State accept that people on both sides of the Brexit debate are appalled by the Government’s approach so far? Will he just get on and accept the judgment that was made last week?
I do not know what the hon. Lady thinks she is talking about. First, we made our case in court. We are going to appeal, as is entirely proper in an important constitutional case such as this, and we will respect the outcome of that appeal. In what respect is that somehow suspending the rule of law?
The High Court’s position is very straightforward: parliamentary consent is required to invoke article 50. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our response should be equally straightforward: give that consent without haste and without any conditions that seek to fetter the Prime Minister’s negotiating position?
I accept that Labour Members’ criticism of the procedure adopted by the Government is fully justified, but given some of the comments made by Government Members, let me make it absolutely clear that although I was on the remain side in the referendum, I accept the electorate’s decision without qualification. There can be no question but that, whatever the procedure, article 50 must be invoked. The British people made the decision by a majority—it does not matter that it was a narrow majority—so we should accept it. That is democracy.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his honesty and straightforwardness. He and I have been on the same side many times in these battles and it is good that we are again.
The judges are not enemies of the people, but the enemies of democracy would be Members of this House who sought to frustrate the triggering, or adulterate the substance, of article 50. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will not allow those still oscillating among the five stages of grief to derail our leaving the EU?
The Government will carry out the instruction given by the British people, and we will do so in the national interest as quickly as we can.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we have negotiating power only prior to triggering article 50 and that, after that, the 27 remaining EU member states are free to determine our fate and to say, “Like it or lump it”? Would it not therefore be right to delay the triggering of article 50 until we have a clear idea of what that means for costs, the economy and migration, so that the British people can then judge in another referendum whether the exit package represents a fair reflection of what they voted for in principle and whether they want to leave on those terms, with a default position of staying in the EU?
I will make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, under the mechanisms of the European treaty, the only point at which negotiations can formally start is when article 50 is triggered. Secondly, the notion that a two-year timetable is somehow problematic is true only if countries are unprepared when they go into the process. Ultimately, there will be costs on both sides if we do not get a deal and, as a result, I would expect everyone to behave rationally and get that deal.
Delivering his judgment, the Lord Chief Justice said
“the court…is…dealing with a pure question of law. Nothing we say has any bearing on the question of the merits or demerits of a withdrawal by the United Kingdom from the European Union; nor does it have any bearing on government policy, because government policy is not law.”
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Government policy is indeed to trigger article 50 before the end of March, to leave the European Union and to enact the great repeal Bill, and that the commitment of the Prime Minister and the Government is undiminished, regardless of the hearing in the Supreme Court?
Why does the Secretary of State think his Conservative friend, the now resigned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, believed that Ministers had ignored Parliament since the Brexit vote?
Strictly speaking, that is a question for him, not me. He is a very good friend of mine and I will not say anything against him. I am very sorry to see him go, but beyond that, I thought he got it completely wrong.
My understanding of parliamentary sovereignty is that it is a mixture of the will of this House, the views of the other place and the Crown in Parliament as exercised by the Government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that article 50 should be triggered and implemented as intended because the instruction has been given by the ultimate holders of sovereignty in this country—the British people?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, but that must be subject to one thing: a Government who operate under the law. That is what we are going to do.
A majority of voters and a majority of constituencies voted to leave the European Union, so of course Parliament will trigger article 50, but does the Secretary of State understand the difference between revealing his hand in negotiation and telling us what his opening position would be? In the past week we have seen the resignation of a Conservative MP because of the way in which the Government are handling their position and the Chairman of the Treasury Committee urging the Secretary of State to come clean about issues such as the customs union. If the Secretary of State did read the Financial Times, perhaps he would understand that his dithering and delay, and the lack of clear direction, are costing jobs and inward investment, and affecting the pound in people’s pockets today.
It is because I read rather more than the Financial Times that I know that most of that is not true.
Having had to report to the police disgraceful death threats that were made to me over the last few weeks, may I ask whether the Secretary of State agrees that we must all condemn all forms of hate crime on both sides of the political argument, and that it is utterly wrong to try to suggest that people who voted for the independence of Great Britain are in some way responsible for the unrepresentative actions of a tiny minority?
My hon. Friend is, as ever, exactly right.
Three quarters of my constituents and the majority of this country have said that they want to exit. I agree that we must get on with it—unequivocally, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). Why, however, are we waiting for a decision that may well go against the Government? By all means let the Secretary of State pursue the case in court if he must, but let him bring a Bill to the House and let us vote on it. Let us vote to trigger article 50 at the right time, as the Government have set out, and let us pursue exit from the European Union. Why does he not just do it?
I am going to. First, because the triggering of article 50 should be done only when the policy work is complete, and it is not yet complete. Secondly, because the judicial timetable still allows us to meet the date of 30 March, which is the date that we are going to hit.
Order. I am not sure that the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) yelling “Answer” from a sedentary position quite constitutes the sort of knightly behaviour that we have come to expect of him.
If the courts have banged their metaphorical gavel on our prerogative powers, does my right hon. Friend share my concern that they may do so again regarding, for example, a decision to go to war?
One—but not the only—reason why we are taking this to the Supreme Court is to get an absolutely specific outcome and answer.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will be glad to hear that I am delighted with the outcome of the referendum—the industrial working-class of West Dunbartonshire and the entire nation of Scotland voted to remain—but my constituents share a concern already brought to the Floor of the House by me and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about our relationship with our closest neighbour and our border with the sovereign nation of Ireland. This concerns the Ireland Act 1949, and I have had no answer from the Secretary of State. The Government talk about the common travel area, but there is no answer to this question yet. Will the Secretary of State say now on the Floor of the House that there will be no change to the rights of Irish citizens as dictated by the Ireland Act 1949?
That is a very specific question; forgive me if I have not answered it before. I will write to the hon. Gentleman, but I think the answer is that there will be no change. The aim, as I have said to him before, is that common travel area rights both ways—including the rights to vote, to work and so on—will continue, but I will write to him about the detail.
If the Government do bring forward a Bill to trigger article 50 and any Member tries to amend it in any material way that binds the hands of the Prime Minister, does the Secretary of State agree that the British public would lose out? They would get a worse deal on our exit, so nobody who truly believes in our national interest would do that?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. The whole purpose of our strategy is to get the best outcome for all people in Britain.
Does the Secretary of State accept that people voted to leave or to remain for all sorts of reasons? When they read that question on the ballot paper, however, very few of them wanted to vote to reduce the power of the judiciary to hold the overweening power of the Executive to account. Very few of them voted to reduce parliamentary democracy and the right of Parliament to discuss Government policy. Is it not therefore right that the Government come back to this House and seek authority to trigger article 50?
We have done none of those things. The simple truth is we are waiting on the judgment, and we will obey what the Court says.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is extraordinary to see Labour Members saying that Parliament should decide on article 50 and all matters Brexit when just a few short weeks ago they piled in to defeat a Bill that I brought to this House that would have provided for exactly that? Is that not double standards and doublespeak from Labour Members, including the shadow Secretary of State on this morning’s “Today” programme? Is it any wonder that the people of Britain think that Labour Members are seeking to subvert the will of the British people and to defeat the mandate of the masses, and that they have lost touch with the hard-working classes of modern Britain?
I could not have put it better myself.
Will the Secretary of State explain how any Prime Minister could be expected to negotiate effectively for the best outcome for this nation if the other side knows her objectives, aims, plans and goals before she sits down at the negotiating table?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Of course, any negotiator of any substance would recognise that, as indeed does the EU, which is why we are pursuing our strategy of giving the broad outline but not the details.
I presume that one of the reasons the Secretary of State used to believe in publishing a White Paper was that he wanted to ensure that business had confidence in the economy of this country. He will know that in the past week both the Japanese and Indian chambers of commerce have expressed grave concern about the current uncertainty and the situation’s impact on the confidence of international investors. Why does he not go ahead with publishing his White Paper and set out a plan so that international investors can have the confidence they need to continue investing in this country?
After all the questions that we have heard, I am slightly surprised that my right hon. Friend still wants to go ahead with his appeal. It must be blindingly obvious to him that a short Bill committing us to invoking article 50 would receive a huge majority on Second Reading. Will he reflect on the powerful statement that that would send to our EU partners and to those in the other place, if it happened?
I note that my hon. Friend adds the condition “if it happened”. There are issues here that are political, constitutional and legal, and we need to resolve all of them. The best way to do that is to take this case to its full course, and that is what we will do. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom will make the decision.
Yesterday my party colleague Mike Russell MSP spoke of how the Scottish National party has a triple mandate to protect Scotland’s place in Europe: from our manifesto commitment at the 2016 Holyrood election; from the 62% who voted to remain; and from the Scottish Parliament’s vote to protect our place in Europe. We in the SNP are fully committed to safeguarding Scotland’s place in Europe. Does the Secretary of State accept our overwhelming mandate, or is he willing to disregard the democratic will of the people of Scotland?
The decision in the referendum was taken at the United Kingdom level. If, in the Scottish independence referendum, the hon. Lady’s side had had a majority but, say, half of Scotland had voted against, would she have said that that had invalidated the referendum result? I do not think so. I do not think that any smaller group than the whole of the United Kingdom can invalidate or veto the referendum.
I echo the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) about the possible implications of this judgment for areas such as defence. Does the Secretary of State agree that while the independence of the judiciary is indeed a crucial pillar of our independent constitution, it is only one of a number of them? Does he also agree that for the judiciary to interfere between Parliament and the Executive would break frightening new ground?
Well, no. As I have said, we are taking this case to the Supreme Court for a reason. We are a Government who operate under the law. My hon. Friend has a point in that there has been a degree of judicial activism in modern times, but I do not think that this case is susceptible to that analysis.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the interests of the people depend on the Prime Minister and her balanced Cabinet having the maximum flexibility and authority to negotiate and conclude new arrangements with the EU as soon as possible, and that a second referendum would guarantee a bad deal, lost jobs and further divisions in our society?
Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right. A second referendum would give those on the other side in the negotiations—the European Union—an incentive to give us the worst possible deal to try to force the British people to change their mind. That would be entirely improper.
The Secretary of State obviously does not challenge his speechwriter much, because nothing changes from statement to statement. The High Court has just made a judgment on something that, at one time, he was fully in agreement with. So, for the third time of asking, will he tell us why he now disagrees with the Bill that he tried to bring forward? It was not about going to war; it was about the Crown prerogative not being exercised without the assent of the House.
Order. Just before the Secretary of State responds—which I am disinclined to facilitate him doing—I must just say that although I appreciate that repetition is a common phenomenon in politics and not in itself to be deprecated, there is a bit of a tendency on the Scottish National party’s Benches to keep asking him about matters for which he is no longer responsible. The questioning is to the Secretary of State in his capacity as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, not in his capacity as someone who previously expressed views from the Back Benches or elsewhere in an earlier incarnation.
I refer the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) to the answer I gave earlier.
The independence of the judiciary must be supported and upheld and—I do not say “but”; I say “and”—the Court itself recognised that the case had both political and legal aspects, and that they must be assessed elsewhere, namely in this place. Will the Secretary of State therefore reassure my constituents that he will respect the will of the people and lead us out of the EU?
The aim of our strategy is not only to respect the will of the people and to carry out the national instruction in the national interest, but to respect the laws of our country.
For a moment I thought I was going to be the last contributor, Mr Speaker. May I bring us back to the fact that on 23 June we had a single vote on a single political question? People across the country made their view clear. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was a direct decision to leave the EU? Therefore, we in this place should be doing all that we can to ensure that article 50 is triggered as soon as possible, and that the Prime Minister is able to negotiate the best possible deal for our country.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is the fact that 17.4 million people voted for us to leave the European Union that makes me confident that we can carry this through both Houses of Parliament.
You left it a long time to put me out of my misery, Mr Speaker. I am struggling somewhat, because we hear from Opposition Members and some in the country that, on the one hand, we need certainty for businesses—I agree with that and so do Ministers—and then, on the other hand, that they want to drag the whole process out with talk of next summer for invoking article 50. Has my right hon. Friend got on any better than I in understanding and deciphering exactly where they are coming from?
Listening to my hon. Friend’s question, I am reminded of the biblical comment that the first should be last and the last should be first. He asks a first-class question. He is right that it is impossible to work out what they are trying to do unless one assumes that they are trying to foil the interests of the British people.