Motion of Confidence in His Majesty's Government.

Part of Orders of the Day — War Situation. – in the House of Commons on 29th January 1942.

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Photo of Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha , Plymouth, Devonport

As I understand the Prime Minister desires to address the House for longer than he originally intended, I will endeavour to go lightly over the ground which has been fully trodden in the two days' Debate. The issue raised is whether or not the House of Commons can properly make a Vote of Confidence in the Prime Minister conditional upon his revising the composition of his Cabinet, or conversely, whether the Prime Minister can suitably accept a Vote of Confidence from a House of Commons which seeks to impose a restraint upon his liberty of choice. To such questions there is only one answer, and that is the answer which the Prime Minister has given. We in Parliament can break Governments, but we cannot expect to form them. That is the historic and indefeasible right, the most basic of all the rights, of the Prime Minister. He stands or falls by the verdict of Parliament on the work of the Government which he has chosen. The country requires that he should have regard solely to the public interest in selecting his colleagues and in maintaining them. Were he to yield them up to clamour or to pressure, he would indeed be derogating from the high traditions of his office. That was the fate of Lord Haldane in the last war, and indeed it was the fate of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister himself. In each case the country suffered a grievous loss. One was sacrificed to popular superstition and the other to political prejudice.

For my part I was glad to hear the defence which my right hon. Friend made of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The blunt announcement that he had been asked to wind up his mission and to return home caused the impression that he had been "sacked." I would have liked the Prime Minister to have said more about his mission and about the great service which I am sure he has rendered. He has wrestled heroically with great difficulties. It is fitting that the injustice under which he must have laboured should be removed.

While the question of Cabinet responsibility has been the dominant theme in this Debate, the developments in the Far East were the primary cause of it. There has been a terrible, indeed an almost incredible, series of disasters. When Hong Kong, our oldest trading port in the Far East, fell it was a shock. When Malaya, a stretch of the Empire of which we are most proud and with which we have had so long a connection, was being severed from us, and we were being involved in great and irreplaceable and unexpected losses, it was inevitable that there should be serious perturbation. The country has naturally expected a full explanation of the circumstances and desires to know that vigorous remedial measures are being taken. Searching questions jump to the mind about the loss of Malaya, and some have been put in this Debate. There were the usual self-confident statements, indicative of our under-estimation of the skill and resources of the enemy, statements which have proved to be the invariable preludes to disaster. It must be understood that commanders in this war are being put into a very difficult position by being called upon to make pronouncements to appease public feeling or to stimulate courage. The question of what their exact relationship to the public should be should be investigated. In the meantime, Let not him that girdeth on his armour boast himself as he that put eth it off. Events have shown that a scheme of defence was operated which did not anticipate the kind of attack which was launched. Perhaps it was felt that the monsoon would rise and prevent a Japanese landing, or that the jungle would be an impenetrable barrier preventing the passage of the enemy down to Singapore. Certainly it was believed that forces would be sent out of Burma to strike at the Japanese. Announcements to this effect were made. All these considerations, however, fall into comparatively insignificant proportions when the real and fundamental cause of our reverses is considered. The defence of Singapore was always regarded as a naval operation, but the great strategic plan, which had required years to evolve, was burnt in the conflagration in Hawaii. The instrument which was to execute that plan—the American Main Pacific Fleet—was disabled. Its disruption was an indispensable preliminary to the execution of the Japanese project—