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House of Commons Hansard
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07 March 2019
Volume 655

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the light of Attorney General’s questions this morning, I thought it would be convenient—

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Order. I probably ought to say that is not the norm to take points of order at this stage, but in deference to what I would describe as the celebrity status of the hon. Gentleman, and the salience of his inquiry to earlier exchanges, of which he has recently notified me, I am willing to take his point of order now, and I think the House should listen with bated breath. I mean that most sincerely.

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I am extremely grateful, Mr Speaker. Tomorrow, as recorded on page 12 of today’s Votes and Proceedings, the European Scrutiny Committee will be publishing a unanimous report—“The draft EU/UK Withdrawal Agreement: key legal and political questions”—and written evidence entitled “Ministerial Correspondence”. I thought it would be convenient for the House, and for those who pick up on these things in the press and otherwise, to know that that would be available as of tomorrow.

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The hon. Gentleman is ever solicitous towards the House, protective of its interests, and periodically keen to secure its attention for what I might describe as a helpful public information notice. I feel sure that he would work on such a basis in any event, but given his additional status as a highly respected and experienced Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, we are, if I may politely say so, doubly grateful to him.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to raise a point of order regarding another Member. I attempted to ring his office and give notice, but I could only leave a message.

Earlier, at Attorney General’s questions, I asked the Attorney General about the sensitive issue of how, if he is now negotiating the Government’s potential deal on the withdrawal agreement and specifically the backstop, he would get round the problem that he would then have to give advice to the House and would therefore, in effect, be marking his own homework. I appreciate that that is a controversial question, but given the seriousness of the matter, I think it was a fair one. As I was leaving the Chamber, the Attorney General’s Parliamentary Private Secretary ran down the corridor and asked to speak with me. I said that I was in a hurry and needed to go, but he insisted. He remonstrated with me about my question and said it was “indecent” of me to ask that question in the House.

I realise that feelings are running high; I am inured to that. Those in the House who know me know that I am not a snowflake. I am used to being disagreed with, but I suggest that for a Government aide to attempt to intimidate a Back Bencher for asking a difficult question is wrong, because if we are not going to ask the Government difficult questions in this place, what is the point of us? I would like to know your opinion, Mr Speaker, on how I should take this further.

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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Let me say to him, for the avoidance of doubt, that there was nothing in procedural terms disorderly about his inquiry, and from my recollection of what he posited to the Attorney General, there was nothing that I would regard in any way as indecent. A little light-hearted fun was had on the subject of a codpiece, but if memory serves me correctly, it was the Attorney General who introduced the concept of “Cox’s codpiece” and the merit of it being in full working order.

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He brought it up.

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The Attorney General did indeed raise that matter, and he delivered his point in his usual magnificent baritone and with considerable eloquence. There was nothing improper in procedural terms about what the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) had to say.

If I can, in a light-hearted spirit, say something else to the right hon. Gentleman, it is this. I know that he is not a notably delicate flower, and the reason why I can say that with absolute certainty is that I was myself very disobliging—indeed, I would go so far as to say rude—to him long before he came into this House. It was on the occasion when first we met, at a student conference in September 1983—[Interruption]. I do not remember the time of day, but I will check. I very wrongly suggested that he was intellectually knee-high to a gnat.

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It was a grasshopper.

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Oh, a grasshopper. All I can say is that thereafter, his career went from strength to strength, and he certainly did not seem to take umbrage.

The right hon. Gentleman is in perfectly good order. I am sorry if there is some ill feeling, but there is no way that anybody is going to intimidate him; I have known him long enough to know that that is simply not going to happen. I am sure the PPS was doing his duty as he thought fit. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) is a decent man, and I make no criticism of him, but the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford is not the sort of person to be pushed around, and we need to be absolutely clear about that.

The Leader of the House has been extremely patient, so if there are no further points of order, we come now to the business question.