Oral Answers to Questions — Israel and Egypt (Anglo-French Ultimatum)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20 December 1956.

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Photo of Mr Kenneth Younger Mr Kenneth Younger , Grimsby 12:00, 20 December 1956

asked the Prime Minister whether he will consult with the Prime Minister of France with a view to issuing a joint statement on the circumstances surrounding the decision not to inform the United States Government in advance of the delivery of the Anglo-French ultimatum to Egypt and Israel on 30th October.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Younger Mr Kenneth Younger , Grimsby

Is the Prime Minister aware that, in his absence, a series of evasive answers on this Question has been given by his colleagues, and that we were hoping that on his return he would be able to clear this matter up, as was requested by Earl Attlee in a letter to The Times only two days ago? Is he aware that by answering as he has done, leaving the matter where his colleagues had left it, he is really inviting the country to believe that this very important operation, which was a departure from what had previously been discussed with our allies, was agreed, without any prior discussion, entirely in that last interview with the French Prime Minister, and that this explanation is no longer credible and is no longer believed; and that the alternative explanation given by the French Prime Minister holds the field, unless the right hon. Gentleman will deal with it?

Photo of Mr Anthony Eden Mr Anthony Eden , Warwick and Leamington

I was dealing with the actual Question on the Order Paper, and in that regard there are two points as to consultation and as to American policy. The United States Government have made it quite plain recently that their criticism is not in respect of consultation but in respect of policy. But I am perfectly ready, if the House will bear with me, to make some observations on the general, wider topic to which reference has been made. It will not take the House very long, but I should like to do that before we rise for Christmas. I should like to say just these things.

We have been accused of being, ever since the Israeli attack on Egypt, and indeed long before that, in collusion with the Israelis. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary emphatically denied that charge on 31st October. Since then, it seems that the charge has been altered and Her Majesty's Government have been asked to prove that they had no foreknowledge of the Israeli attack.

The extent of our knowledge has repeatedly been stated to the House and was explained fully by my right hon. and learned Friend on 5th December. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about the Minister of Defence?"] Hon. Members must be patient; I am dealing with the matter.

There were certainly a number of indications of an increasingly dangerous situation, particularly, as we thought, between Israeli and Jordan. We warned the Israeli Government of the consequences of an attack on Jordan, and we gave a number of other warnings, including the general warning to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred. But to say—and this is what I want to repeat to the House—that Her Majesty's Government were engaged in some dishonourable conspiracy is completely untrue, and I most emphatically deny it.

Photo of Mr Hugh Gaitskell Mr Hugh Gaitskell , Leeds South

Is the Prime Minister aware that the French Foreign Minister, M. Pineau, said yesterday in the French Chamber that France and Britain had for long realised Israel's predicament and had therefore decided together what action they would take if Israel began a preventive war? That, he went on to say, was the sole reason why, when the Israel attack came, France and Britain seemed so prepared for it.

I should like to ask the Prime Minister, first, whether he would care to make any comment on M. Pineau's statement and, secondly, whether the decisions which M. Pineau says were taken well in advance were the ones taken at the private meeting on 16th October and again on 23rd October.

Photo of Mr Anthony Eden Mr Anthony Eden , Warwick and Leamington

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. The position is exactly as I have stated it to the House now. It is perfectly true that there were a number of discussions on every kind of hypothetical event in the Middle East—[Interruption.]—hypothetical attack. If anybody is surprised at that, I will merely mention—I forget the exact figure—that there were over 100 people killed on the Jordan-Israel frontier alone during a period of about six weeks. So of course we discussed every possible hypothesis. But I repeat that there was no agreement arrived at until I informed the House about it.

Photo of Mr Hugh Gaitskell Mr Hugh Gaitskell , Leeds South

The Prime Minister has not answered my question. I asked him whether the decisions to which M. Pineau refers were taken at those meetings on 16th and 23rd October. In order to help the Prime Minister, may I ask whether the decisions were, in the event of an attack by Israel upon Egypt, to attack Egypt ourselves?

Photo of Mr Anthony Eden Mr Anthony Eden , Warwick and Leamington

I am responsible for what I say to the House and not for what Ministers in other countries say in other Houses. I must have an opportunity to examine the words used by other Foreign Ministers. I know myself what the position of our own Government was quite clearly. That is that the decisions were taken on the date I gave, and that, though we did discuss every other hypothesis—and far more than any other, I tell the House, the hypothesis of an Israeli attack upon Jordan—[An HON. MEMBER: "Jordan?"] Of course, it seemed for a long time the most probable, and was probably, I dare say—I do not know—much more likely to have taken place but for our very definite warnings.

If the House asks why did we warn more definitely about Jordan than about Egypt, the answer is that we had Treaty obligations to Jordan which nobody shares with us.

Photo of Sir Henry Studholme Sir Henry Studholme , Tavistock

Does my right hon. Friend not think it deplorable, to put it mildly, that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and his hon. and right hon. Friends should be so anxious to discredit our country—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—for the sake of trying to "do down" the Government?

Photo of Mr Reginald Paget Mr Reginald Paget , Northampton

Will the Prime Minister tell us whether, when he was discussing the prospect of the possibility of an invasion of Jordan, the agreement come to with the French was not to the effect that the proposed attack on Jordan was to be diverted against Egypt?

Photo of Mr Anthony Eden Mr Anthony Eden , Warwick and Leamington

What we did, not only privately but publicly also, if the hon. and learned Gentleman would look at the record, was to issue repeated warnings that if there were an attack by Israel on Jordan we should act in accordance with our Treaty obligations. That is quite true, and we so informed our allies, including France. I see nothing whatever wrong in that. Indeed, I can imagine nothing which would have horrified the House more than if we had come here and said we must now act in accordance with our Jordan obligations against Israel, with the support of Col. Nasser.

Photo of Dame Florence Horsbrugh Dame Florence Horsbrugh , Manchester Moss Side

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Opposition, in trying td bring discredit on the country—[Interruption.]—in making statements that they thought were discreditable to the country or misstatements so framed as though meant to bring credit to the country, have only here and throughout the world brought discredit on themselves?

Photo of Mr James Griffiths Mr James Griffiths , Llanelli

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he and his hon. Friends realise that we represent some part of this nation as well? Will he consider, in view of what is very widely believed outside this country and in this country, arranging for a full statement to be made on what was discussed and decided at the meeting in Paris on 16th October?

Photo of Mr Anthony Eden Mr Anthony Eden , Warwick and Leamington

I have made a very full statement. I would add only this, that—[An HON. MEMBER: "What about Egypt?"] I am willing to answer about Egypt; I have no objection, if hon. Members will be patient. As regards a fuller statement, I have explained that we did examine—and I am not in the least ashamed of it—every conceivable hypothesis which might arise in a very dangerous Middle-Eastern situation. Of course we did, and I do not think that any Government would have done otherwise.

As regards the position about Egypt, I have discussed this before. The hon. Member is perfectly correct. The position about Egypt was not the same as with Jordan, first because we did not have a treaty with Egypt. [An HON. MEMBER: "The Tripartite Declaration."] I know. Secondly, the House is aware of the statements already made about Egypt's own attitude towards the Tripartite Declaration.

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Mr George Wigg Mr George Wigg , Dudley

On a point of order. If it is not in order to put supplementary questions to the Prime Minister now, it will, of course, be in order to raise them on the Motion to adjourn for the Christmas Recess, will it not, Mr. Speaker?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

It might be a subject that would be fit to raise on the Motion for the Adjournment.

Photo of Mr Hugh Gaitskell Mr Hugh Gaitskell , Leeds South

The Prime Minister has indicated, very properly, that he is prepared, and is anxious, to give every possible explanation of this matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "He has done so."] He has not as yet answered some of the questions put from this side, or given an explanation which is satisfactory to this side of the House. I would ask your permission, Mr. Speaker, to put one or two further questions to him.

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

The right hon. Member puts me in a difficulty. I have my duty to do to the House, which is to see that Questions should come to an end at half-past three and not be unduly prolonged. It is very unusual for me to allow Questions to carry on until after twenty minutes to four. I do not wish to stifle discussion, but this is an irregular debate and the rules are in my keeping. I cannot alter them.

Photo of Mr Hugh Gaitskell Mr Hugh Gaitskell , Leeds South

With respect, Mr. Speaker, the circumstances are somewhat unusual. We are shortly to depart for the Christmas Recess. Furthermore, the Prime Minister, on his own initiative—we appreciate that—and not in reply directly to the original Question, made a statement on this matter, and I think that we really are entitled to put questions to him on that statement.

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I understand that the Motion for the Adjournment is shortly to be moved. The matter can be pursued then; it would be quite in order. The subject is a responsibility of Her Majesty's Ministers, and it could be pursued then, but I cannot allow the Question hour to be unduly prolonged.

Mr. H. Wilson:

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are these not, as my right hon. Friend suggested, completely unusual circumstances, in that, first, the House is due to adjourn tomorrow for several weeks, and secondly, the House has, for about three and a half weeks, been denied the presence of the Prime Minister? During that period, we have not had any answer even as full as the partial answer given by the Prime Minister today. Therefore, while we understand from your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, that it would be in order for my hon. and right hon. Friends to make speeches, short or long, on this subject later, what we do not have now is an opportunity to press the Prime Minister for clear answers to these questions.

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

That can be done in debate, but it cannot be done by a prolongation of the Question hour long after the time appointed by Standing Orders. That is my difficulty. The Adjournment is shortly to be moved.

Photo of Mr Hugh Gaitskell Mr Hugh Gaitskell , Leeds South

I must again point out, Mr. Speaker, that the Prime Minister, on his own initiative, made a statement. It is quite usual, when statements are made from the Government Front Bench, that the Opposition should have an opportunity of putting questions; and questions, as you will agree, Mr. Speaker, frequently continue for up to half an hour or more. We have had only ten minutes of questions to the Prime Minister on this issue, and I submit that in all the circumstances, and in view of the fact that the Prime Minister himself, together with the Foreign Secretary, is the only person who was present at the meetings about which we are questioning him, we should have an opportunity of questioning him further.

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

All this arose, if I recollect aright, from a Question asked by the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger) before the expiration of Question Time. There were several supplementary questions which extended it and it has gone on and on. I am in an awkward position, but I could not alter the decision I have given.

Photo of Mr Desmond Donnelly Mr Desmond Donnelly , Pembrokeshire

On a point of order. I am sorry to interrupt, but as you are aware, Mr. Speaker, I wrote to you to suggest that on the Christmas Adjournment we might have a debate on this question of collusion. The reason I suggested it, for the Christmas Adjournment specifically was that the Prime Minister would not be back for certain until the latter part of this week. You have decided to reject that subject as one of the Christmas Adjournment debates.

I am not questioning your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, but I venture to seek your guidance. Here is a very important matter. The House will be going away for a month and the country will be left in doubt. This is not just a question of the status of the Government. The integrity of the House of Commons and of the country is also involved. Is there any way in which we might extend the time, either tomorrow or today, so that we can have an opportunity of having a fuller statement and of hearing the actual details of the position?

Mr. Vane:

Further to the point of order. Have the many hon. Members who wish to debate the country's economic situation no protection against the many versions of "his Nasser's voice" opposite?

Photo of Mr William Morrison Mr William Morrison , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I am not concerned in the slightest with that aspect of the matter. I am concerned with the rules of order in the House.

In answer to the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly), I can only repeat what I have said. We are about to move on to the Adjournment and the matter can be discussed then. It does not lie in my hands to rule out of order anything that is proper for the Adjournment, and I would not do so. Mr. Head.