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I beg to move,
That there shall be an early parliamentary general election.
I rise to speak to the motion on the Order Paper in my name and those of my right hon. Friends. The motion confronts every member of this House with a clear and simple opportunity—a chance to vote for a general election that will secure the strong and stable leadership the country needs to see us through Brexit and beyond. It invites each one of us to do the right thing for Britain and to vote for an election that is in our country’s national interest.
My priority when I became Prime Minister was to provide the country with economic certainty, a clear vision and strong leadership after the long and passionately fought referendum campaign. This Government have delivered on those priorities.
In the time-honoured fashion, my right hon. Friend has called this election in what she considers, and I consider, to be the national interest at this moment. It would be a brave man or woman who voted against this motion. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is therefore seen to be an emperor without clothes—it serves no purpose, and many of us have questioned it for many years. Will the first line of our manifesto be to scrap it?
My hon. Friend tries to tempt me down that road. What is clear is that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act gives us an opportunity, notwithstanding the fixed-term element of it, to have elections at another time, but it is of course for this House to vote for such an election. Like him, I think it is very clear that every Member of this House should be voting for this election.
Order. The Prime Minister is perfectly well able to fend for herself, but what the hon. Gentleman has said is a breach of order and I must ask him to withdraw it. He is versatile in the use of language—he used to pen articles for newspapers; he is a journalist—so withdraw, man, and use some other formulation if you must. At the very least, however, withdraw it.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that yesterday I gave the country a very clear indication of my intentions. If he has a little patience, he will hear the reasons why I did that.
As I was saying, the Government have delivered on the priorities that I set out last year. Despite predictions of immediate financial and economic danger, since the referendum we have seen consumer confidence remain high, record numbers of jobs and economic growth that has exceeded all expectations. At the same time, we have delivered on the mandate we were handed by the referendum result by triggering article 50 before the end of March, as we pledged to do. As a result, Britain is leaving the EU and there can be no turning back.
We have a Fixed-term Parliaments Act that enables us to have fixed-term Parliaments. I believe that at this point in time, it is right for us to have this debate and this vote in this House, and I believe that it is right for Members of this House to vote—I shall explain why—for us to have a general election at this stage.
I will not take any further interventions for a while. This is a limited-time debate and hon. Members wish to make their contributions.
Today we face a new question: how best to secure the stability and certainty we need over the long term in order to get the right deal for Britain in the Brexit negotiations and make the most of the opportunities ahead. I have come to the conclusion that the answer to that question is to hold a general election now in this window of opportunity before the negotiations begin.
I believe it is in Britain’s national interest to hold an election now. A general election is the best way to strengthen Britain’s hand in the negotiations ahead. Securing the right deal for Britain is my priority and I am confident that we have the plan to do it. We have set out our ambition: a deep and special partnership between a strong and successful European Union and a United Kingdom that is free to chart its own way in the world. That means we will regain control of our own money, our own laws and our own borders, and we will be free to strike trade deals with old friends and new partners all around the world.
I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. I can understand that she wants to give the House the opportunity to determine whether there should be an election, but if the House determines that now is the time, why is it that the Prime Minister stands in the face of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, which have voted for a referendum on Scotland’s future? If it is right that the people here have a voice and a vote on the future of this country, why should not the Scottish people be given a vote as well?
Now is the time for a general election because it will strengthen our hand in the negotiations on Brexit. Now is not the time for a second Scottish independence referendum because it would weaken our hand in the negotiations on Brexit. Strength and unity with the Conservatives; division and weakness with the Scottish nationalists.
I will just make a little more progress.
I believe that our plan for Brexit delivers on the will of the British people. It is the right approach for Britain and it will deliver a more secure future for our country and a better deal for all our people. But it is clear that other parties in this House have a different view about the right future for our country, while Members of the other place have vowed to fight the Government every step of the way.
In the referendum, the people of Rossendale and Darwen gave my right hon. Friend and the Government a mandate to exercise article 50. She has done that and we are now grateful to have the opportunity to strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand so that she can go out there and get the best possible deal for people who live in Rossendale and Darwen, manufacturers in Rossendale and Darwen, and every family in Rossendale and Darwen.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should be united in this Parliament in wanting to get the best possible deal not just for the country as a whole, but for everybody across the whole of this country. I commend him for the work that he has done in Rossendale and Darwen to support his constituents on this matter.
I can see how it suits the Prime Minister’s purposes to make this election all about Brexit, but does she accept the possibility that it may just become a referendum on her brutal cuts, which have left older people without care, schools sending begging letters to parents and a record number of homeless people on the streets of Greater Manchester?
Of course when we come into the general election campaign, people will look at a wide range of issues. They will look at the fact that pensioners are £1,250 a year better off because of the actions of the Conservative Government. They will look at the fact that 1.8 million more children are in good or outstanding schools. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about impact on the economy, I suggest he searches his memory for the time he spent as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, when Labour were trashing the economy of this country and leading us to virtual bankruptcy.
No, I am going to make some progress.
I have set out the divisions that have become clear on this issue. They can and will be used against us, weakening our hand in the negotiations to come, and we must not let that happen. I believe that at this moment of enormous national significance, there should be unity here in Westminster, not division. That is why it is the right and responsible thing for all of us here today to vote for a general election, to make our respective cases to the country, and then to respect the result and the mandate it provides to give Britain the strongest possible hand in the negotiations to come.
We gave a commitment in the last manifesto to provide the people of the United Kingdom with a vote on whether or not to leave the European Union. We gave them that vote, with the support of Parliament, and they gave a clear message that they want the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. That is exactly what we are going to do.
I fully support the fact that the Prime Minister needs a stronger hand going into the negotiations as we leave the European Union. Does she not think it perverse that some people who did not want a referendum in the first place now want a second referendum at the very end of the procedure, just in case the British Government do not get a good deal from Brussels? Does she not believe that if we were to have that second referendum, it would deeply weaken her position in the negotiations she will have with the European Union?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in his description of what would happen. Those who say that they want a second referendum would actually be denying the will of the people, because people voted for us to leave the European Union. We are going to go out there and get the best possible deal.
Waiting to hold the next election in 2020, as scheduled, would mean that the negotiations would reach their most difficult and sensitive stage just as an election was looming on the horizon. A general election will provide the country with five years of strong and stable leadership to see us through the negotiations and ensure we are able to go on to make a success of the result. That is crucial. That is the test. It is not solely about how we leave the European Union; it is what we do with the opportunity that Brexit provides that counts.
Leaving the EU offers us a unique, once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape a brighter future for Britain. We need the leadership provided by a strong and stable Government to seize it: a Government who have a plan for a stronger Britain, a Government with the determination to see it through, and a Government who will take the right long-term decisions to deliver a more secure future for Britain. The Conservative party I lead is determined to be that Government.
I have not denied the fact that when I came into this role as Prime Minister, I was clear that what the country needed was stability and a Government who would show that they would deliver on the vote people had made in the referendum on leaving the EU. We have provided that over the last nine months. Now it is clear to me that if we are to have the strongest possible hand in the negotiation, we should have an election now. As I have just said, leaving the election to 2020 would mean that we would be coming to the most sensitive and critical part of the negotiations in the run-up to a general election. That would be in nobody’s interests.
I have said that the Conservative party I lead is determined to be that Government who have the determination to see through our plan for a stronger Britain. We are determined to provide that leadership, and determined to bring stability to the United Kingdom for the long term. That is what the election will be about: leadership and stability.
Absolutely: voting yes is a sign of strength, but I would say a little more about abstaining. Anybody who abstains and thinks we should not have a general election is presumably endorsing the record of the Conservative Government, so we are happy both ways.
Does the Prime Minister agree with Lord Hill, who was a European Commissioner? When asked by the Foreign Affairs Committee what was the best strategy for negotiation, his response was that we have to come together, because our interlocutors will be watching this place and will exploit any weakness in our political system.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I am grateful to him for reminding us what Lord Hill, with his experience, said. It is important that we come together, that we do not show the divisions that have been suggested in the past, and that we are able to show a strong mandate for a plan for Brexit and for making a success of it.
We are determined to bring stability to the United Kingdom for the long term. That is what this election will be about: leadership and stability. The decision facing the country will be clear. I will be campaigning for strong and stable leadership in the national interest with me as Prime Minister. I will be asking for the public’s support to continue to deliver my plan for a stronger Britain, to lead the country through the next five years, and to give the country the certainty and stability that we need.
On the timetable before yesterday, the Prime Minister would have concluded her negotiation by 2019. We would have gone into the general election in 2020, a year later, talking about her deal. That would have given the country an outlook as to what it would be voting for. She is asking the country to strengthen her hand, but does she agree that she is asking the country to vote for a blank cheque?
No, I am not asking the country to write a blank cheque. We have been very clear about what we intend in terms of the outcome of the negotiations. I set that out in my Lancaster House speech in January, it has been set out in the White Paper, and it was set out in the letter we submitted to the President of the European Council to trigger article 50.
The choice before the House today is clear. I have made my choice to do something that runs through the veins of my party more than any other. It is a choice to trust the people, so let us vote to do that today; let us lay out our plans for Brexit; let us put forth our plans for the future of this great country; let us put our fate in the hands of the people; and then let the people decide.
We welcome the opportunity of a general election because it gives the British people the chance to vote for a Labour Government who will put the interests of the majority first. The Prime Minister says she has only recently and reluctantly decided to go for a snap election. Just four weeks ago, her spokesperson said
“there isn’t going to be an early general election”.
How can any voter trust what the Prime Minister says?
Britain is being held back by the Prime Minister’s Government. She talks about a strong economy, but the truth is that most people are worse off than they were when the Conservatives came to power seven years ago. The election gives the British people the chance to change direction. This election is about her Government’s failure to rebuild the economy and living standards for the majority; it is about the crisis into which her Government have plunged our national health service; and it is about the cuts to our children’s schools, which will limit the chances of every child in Britain, 4 million of whom now live in poverty. It is a chance of an alternative to raise living standards. More and more people do not have security in their work or their housing.
I try not to take it personally that, having arrived so recently, the Prime Minister is that desperate to get rid of me that she is calling an election.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister, in calling this election, has essentially said that she does not have confidence in her own Government to deliver a Brexit deal for Britain? One way in which she could secure my vote and the votes of my hon. Friends is to table a motion of no confidence in her Government, which I would happily vote for.
I congratulate my Friend on his election to the House and on his work. I agree with him: I have no confidence in this Government either.
My right hon. Friend highlighted the fact that the Prime Minister for 12 months dithered over whether she wanted an election, and all the time said that she did not want one, but is not the reality that her mind was focused by the fact that she may well lose some of her Back Benchers if the Crown Prosecution Service has its way?
The Leader of the Opposition talks about trust in leaders. What trust can the public put in a leader who has no confidence from his parliamentary colleagues, and who is put in place not by people inside Parliament, but people outside?
I was elected leader of my party by 300,000 votes. I do not know how many people voted for the Prime Minister to be leader of her party. I suspect it was none whatsoever.
To the 6 million people working in jobs that pay less than the living wage, I simply say this: it does not have to be like this. Labour believes that every job should pay a wage people can live on, and that every worker should have decent rights at work. To the millions of people who cannot afford a home of their own, or who have spent years waiting for a council home, I say that this is their chance to vote for the home their family deserves. Labour Members believe that a housing policy should provide homes for all, and not investment opportunities for a few. To the millions of small businesses fed up with the red tape of quarterly reporting, hikes in business rates and broken promises on national insurance, I say that this is their chance to vote for a Government who invest and who support wealth creators, not just the wealth extractors.
The Prime Minister says that she has called the election so that the Government can negotiate Brexit. We had a referendum that established that mandate. Parliament has voted to accept that result. There is no obstacle to the Government negotiating, but instead of getting on with the job, she is painting herself as the prisoner of the Lib Dems, who have apparently threatened to grind government to a standstill. There are nine of them and they managed to vote three different ways on article 50, so it is obviously a very serious threat. The Tories want to use Brexit to turn us into a low-wage tax haven. Labour will use Brexit to invest in every part of this country to create a high-wage, high-skill economy in which everyone shares the rewards.
The Prime Minister says this campaign will be about leadership, so let us have a head-to-head TV debate about the future of our country. Why has she rejected that request? Labour offers a better future. We want richer lives for all, not a country run for the rich.
Order. Is Jeremy Corbyn giving way? [Interruption.] No, he has finished. [Interruption.] Order. I have known Mr Francois for more than 30 years, since we stood against each other in a student election. He is not going to take it personally, but the right hon. Member for Islington North has finished his speech. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford wants to raise a point of order, I will hear it with courtesy.
It is very generous of the right hon. Gentleman to seek to invest me with additional powers, but the question of whether it is “it”, as he puts it, is a matter not for me but for the right hon. Member for Islington North, and he has completed his contribution.
I accept entirely the logic laid out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in her statement yesterday in Downing Street. I reached that conclusion somewhat earlier, but I did not believe it was possible to deliver. Indeed, I found myself discombobulated by a reversal in Government policy for the second time in a few weeks, having told the readers of the Forest Journal in terms that there was no question of there being an early general election, because it was not in the Prime Minister’s gift to deliver it. Because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, that decision lies with a two-thirds majority of the Members of the House of Commons and, as I told those readers with absolute confidence, turkeys will not vote for Christmas. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having achieved the impossible and secured the fact that today those turkeys will indeed vote for that.
I first reached the opinion that an election was necessary during the passage of the article 50 Bill. Opposition Member after Opposition Member got up to announce their recantation that, notwithstanding having voted to remain, they were now going to abide by the will of their constituents. Yet at every opportunity they cheered to the rafters those few who spoke out to say that they remained with the 48% and believed that, as events unfolded, the 48% would become a majority. They pursued a strategy of desperation: a strategy of “Hang on, something might turn up”, whether that was the long-promised economic shock or whatever. The “hang on” strategy, however, requires an essential ingredient: delay. Delay was the tactic they clearly pursued through their amendments to the Bill and they promised there would be more.
The other place is currently not bound, in respect of the Government’s policy, by the Salisbury convention. Norman Lamb and I were invited to debate in front of a City audience the motion “That the United Kingdom is leaving the EU”. Two highly respected peers—Lord Butler, the former Cabinet Secretary, and Lord Lester, one of our premier human rights lawyers—argued the case that we would not leave the European Union because they were in a position to prevent it and would do so. The policy the Prime Minister announced, of pursuing a general election and securing a mandate in this House and a mandate to bind the other place to the Salisbury convention, is therefore essential.
I am confident that the Prime Minister will achieve that majority, because I am confident that she will be backed by the overwhelming majority of this nation. She will know that last year I voted for every other possible candidate for the leadership of the Tory party. I have to tell her that I have become her greatest fan. As my constituents recognise and tell me continually, she is doing magnificently. May she long continue to do so.
The Prime Minister says that she wants unity and an end to division; she intends to achieve that by crushing opposition, with political opponents described as “saboteurs”. I invited her earlier to distance herself from that, but she was not prepared to do so. This is not a vision or an understanding of mainstream democracy that I share with the Prime Minister.
For months we have heard from the Prime Minister that
“now is not the time” for the public to vote, that “no one wants it”, and that it is important to
“get on with the day job”.
We have been told that the Prime Minister needs to concentrate all her time on the Brexit negotiations and that nothing should get in the way. In the past 24 hours, however, we have learned that that was all empty rhetoric.
There are two key reasons why there is going to be an early general election. The first is total political expediency—it is about the woeful, unelectable state of the Labour party, and not wanting to repeat the political error that Gordon Brown made. The Prime Minister wants to receive her own electoral mandate and to crush political opposition in England. The second reason for holding an early general election is that it has finally dawned on the UK Government that the Brexit negotiations are going to be very difficult and the realities of the hard Brexit that the Prime Minister is pursuing have not yet fully dawned on the public. As one commentator wrote today:
“The EU is not going to roll over and give the UK free and ‘frictionless’ access to the internal market. The Prime Minister is cutting and running;
getting a vote in before the reality of hard Brexit hits home”.
The Prime Minister might think she can get her way with all this against the Labour party in England, but she will not get away with it in Scotland.
On the subject of hard Brexit, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is incumbent on those who advocate it to set out very clearly their assessment of the impact on jobs of our coming out of the single market and the customs union?
In a normal general election campaign, there would be an opportunity to do just that when the party leaders debate issues on the record. There has been an interesting development since this debate began—I notice colleagues looking at their mobile phones—because ITV has confirmed that there will be a leaders debate. I am looking around at a number of the other party leaders in the Chamber. Does the Leader of the Opposition intend to take part in the debate? I suspect that he probably will take part in a television debate as, no doubt, will the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Green party. It is unsustainable in the multimedia age of the 21st century to go to the country but not debate with the leaders of the other parties. The notion that the UK Prime Minister might be empty-chaired because she was not prepared to stand up for her arguments is just not sustainable.
I do not think that the Prime Minister would manage that with Nicola Sturgeon. However, I am surprised by, and welcome, what the hon. Gentleman has to say in encouragement to the Prime Minister. I think that the public deserve a debate—indeed, more than one debate—during the election campaign, and I think that the Prime Minister should have more confidence in herself. She should be prepared to address the country, and to debate the ideas presented by all the different political parties in the United Kingdom. We in Scotland, of course, have already learnt that the Prime Minister is prepared to ignore the mandate and wishes of the Scottish electorate, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, so why would anyone in Scotland vote for such a dismissive and disrespectful party and Prime Minister?
I need to make some progress as time is limited. I will try to take some interventions later.
The Prime Minister promised that she would establish a unified approach with all the devolved Governments—an agreement—before triggering Brexit. She did not: she broke her word. As we have learnt in recent weeks in connection with the appalling rape clause, the one thing that the Scottish Tories do not like talking about is Tory policy, but this election will highlight the dangers posed to Scotland by unfettered Tory Westminster Governments. We live in one of the most unequal countries in the developed world, but the Tories want to make it even more unfair. Experts say that their policies will cause the largest increase in inequality since the days of Margaret Thatcher.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if this election is, as the Prime Minister says, about a more secure future for the country—if it is an election of such national significance—there should be, as a matter of urgency, a change in the law to give Britain’s 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds a say in what will be very much their future on
As one who made a maiden speech about enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds, I totally agree with the hon. Lady. It is, again, unsustainable that young people should be given the vote in some elections and referendums, but denied it in others.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Supreme Court made it abundantly clear—the judges decided unanimously—that issues concerning Brexit negotiations should be determined by this House, which represents the whole United Kingdom, and were not to be decided by any of the devolved institutions. Which bit of that does the right hon. Gentleman have a problem understanding?
What I have difficulty understanding is the commitment that the Prime Minister gave when she went to Edinburgh. On the front page of the house journal of the Conservative party, The Daily Telegraph, it was stated in terms that the Prime Minister wanted to seek a UK-wide approach and an agreement with the devolved Governments. The hon. Gentleman may wish to rewrite history, but the Prime Minister gave a commitment to reach an agreement, and she did not reach an agreement.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was supposed to stop political parties abusing their position and putting party before country. Today the Tories are going to do just that, and, sadly, the Labour party is going to vote with the Tories and make life easy for them. We on these Benches will not vote with the Tories but, given the reality—the Labour party will be voting with the Tories—there will be a general election, and boy, we look forward to that contest—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr David Morris, you normally have a very emollient manner. You are a very restrained individual, bordering on the cerebral, but you have become rather over-excited. Calm yourself. Take some sort of soothing medicament; it will have a beneficial impact upon you.
In Scotland, the general election will be a two-horse race—a straight fight between the SNP and the Tories. Do I think that mainstream Scots, regardless of whether they voted remain or leave, will vote for a hard Tory Brexit? No, I do not. Do I think that most mainstream Scots will vote for more austerity and cuts in public services? No, I do not. Do I think that most Scots will vote for a party that is actively undermining the mandate already given by the voters in a Scottish general election for people in Scotland to determine their future? No, I do not. We on these Benches will work hard for every vote in every seat in Scotland, and we look forward to defeating the Tories in this general election.
Order. At least 10 Members want to speak and we have less than an hour left. Members can do the arithmetic for themselves. It would be appreciated if each Member would help others by tailoring his or her contribution accordingly.
I welcome the courage that the Prime Minister has shown in taking to the public this question: who do they expect to lead the country for the next five years? Having listened to the speech made by Angus Robertson, I can honestly assure them that it will not be him. I think that the public will have to think long and hard, because Brexit is happening.
No. The debate is time-limited, and I want everyone to have a chance to speak.
This not about us in here; it is about delivering to the British public the future that they deserve. It is about delivering the best possible outcome for this country as we leave the European Union. I know that when the election takes place on
The question that will be posed in our constituencies is this: which of the party leaders who could be Prime Minister should be Prime Minister after the election? That is what we will be asking the country. Does the country believe that Jeremy Corbyn could lead it? I suspect that a large number of the right hon. Gentleman’s Back-Bench colleagues would say no, and that the businesses in my constituency would say no as well. Does Tim Farron—his voting record and attendance in the House, along with those of his colleagues, is generally pretty low; two Liberal Democrats are present today, but none were here to vote on the Budget yesterday—really believe that he can lead the country? I suggest that the answer is no.
I suggest that the British public, when deciding who to vote for on
Our party and our Government have taken a strong stance. As I said, youth unemployment in St Albans has fallen by two thirds since 2010, and there has also been a 76% increase in the number of young people taking up apprenticeships. That is the record that we will be putting to the public. Brexit is happening and we are going to make the best of it. Our Prime Minister should not have to suffer 100 unelected Liberal Democrats in the other place, and nine in this place who rarely turn up, trying to tug her tail.
No. I am about to finish my speech.
We need to make the future secure for all our young people and all our families. The game-playing in this place does a disservice to the British public. They are probably fed up with having elections anyway, but let us get on with it and get a mandate for our Prime Minister—[Interruption.] May I say to Jess Phillips that the public do not respect the fact that people yell from the Back Benches? She can speak up for her own leader, her own manifesto and her own party, and she can explain why she believes her leader, the right hon. Member for Islington North, is the right person to take the country through the next five years. I do not share her conviction, but she obviously has a lot of confidence in his capabilities.
I know that this Government, who have delivered so much already and have so much more to deliver, will have resonance with the British public when they look at what is on offer from the other parties, which are divided, wrangling, scaremongering and in Brexit denial. This Government will give us the best deal for all our businesses and all our constituencies.
This is an appropriate time to be called. I noticed a tweet earlier from David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, whom I am sure we all remember fondly, welcoming the Prime Minister’s decision to call an early election. Given that in one sense the country is in this mess because in calling the referendum David Cameron put party before country, it is hardly surprising that the current Prime Minister should follow him and choose to put party before country once again.
Give me a moment.
From the moment the Prime Minister took office, she has ignored the closeness of the referendum vote and has pursued the hardest form of Brexit, driving division instead of cohesion. She has ignored the British people, British businesses, the British public sector and the national health service, and now, in another clear act of putting party before country, she has chosen an early election. We must not buy the nonsense that she needs a mandate to deliver Brexit; the Labour party has given her that mandate. She is acting upon the narrow majority of the 2016 referendum.
Not for the moment.
Let us all be very honest and clear about this: the Prime Minister has chosen this election because she looked across the Dispatch Box and could not resist the temptation of doing the political equivalent of taking candy from a baby, and facing this Labour party in a general election. She expects a coronation, not a contest. That is why the Liberal Democrats relish the challenge of a general election.
I have responded to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. It is very clear that we are not talking about balanced Parliaments. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister takes the view that calling this general election gives her an opportunity to have a 100-seat majority. [Interruption.] She takes the view that this gives her an opportunity to drive through not just a hard Brexit, but her agenda to slim down the national health service, to slim down—[Interruption.]
Order. The atmosphere in the Chamber is rather disorderly. Mr MacNeil is undertaking an apprenticeship to become a statesman, but he has several modules and some years to go. He must calm himself. He is listening to a statesman: Mr Farron.
I will not give way for the time being.
The Prime Minister thinks this will allow her to deliver the hardest form of Brexit, shrink our national health service, undermine the support for our education and, indeed, take us out of the single market.
If people want to avoid a hard Brexit and keep Britain in the single market, and if they want a Britain that has a decent opposition, then only the Liberal Democrats will give them the final say. There is only one route to the Prime Minister losing this general election, and it is a Liberal Democrat route, and I am happy to explain why that might be the case.
I will not give way now as there is not much time.
Let me move on and explain why the only route through which the Prime Minister could lose her majority is a Liberal Democrat one. Unless my friends and colleagues here on the SNP Benches are about to launch an aggressive foreign policy, they can gain only one seat from the Conservative party, and nobody, not even the Labour party, believes that the Labour party will be gaining seats at this general election, so the only outcome that will not lead to a Conservative majority is the Liberal Democrats’ revival and growth in every part of this country.
The Government have already stated that they will not outline their negotiating stance any further than the damp rhetoric we have already heard. We say that that is not good enough. If they will not tell us what they are pursuing, they must instead entrust the people with their say on the final deal. The Prime Minister has already confirmed that she will not do any TV debates, preferring to cower behind the hard-right pages of the Brexit press than stand up and present her case to the British people.
I rise to help the hon. Gentleman. I think he may have misheard my hon. Friend Stewart Malcolm McDonald, who asked him a straight question. We have a word in Scotland: feartie. I say to the hon. Gentleman, “Don’t be one. Give us a straight answer: will you rule out a coalition with the Tories, yes or no?”
I do not think the hon. Gentleman gave a straight answer to that question, so let us try another question. His views will be examined over the next seven weeks. He was asked one question to which he refused to give an answer, so will he do so today: does he think being gay is a sin?
I do not, and I tell the hon. Gentleman this: I am very proud to have gone through the Aye Lobby in the coalition Government when the Liberal Democrats introduced gay marriage and equal marriage, and, indeed, did not go as far as they should have in recognising transgender rights. There is much more to be done, and if we campaign in this election, as we will, for an open, tolerant, united society, we will need to make sure we are not in any way complacent about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, and not just here, but in other parts of the world, particularly given what is going on in Chechnya at the moment.
I will not, as other Members wish to speak. I am flattered that so many Members wish to know my views. I will put myself up for a leaders debate with Angus Robertson, the Leader of the Opposition and others, even if the Prime Minister does not do so, and people will have more of a chance to scrutinise me then.
Last June’s referendum was a vote to start the process and it gave a mandate to the Prime Minister to negotiate Brexit, but it did not give her a mandate to enact any old deal at the end of the process.
I will not.
What the Prime Minister is asking for now is a blank cheque to allow for the British people to have to put up with whatever stitch-up she and the Brussels bureaucrats put together over the next two years. That is not democracy. An election taking place on
So, yes, the Liberal Democrats welcome this opportunity to show the British people that there is another way, and that the values of tolerance, openness and fairness can help build vibrant and successful communities and opportunities across the whole of the United Kingdom and beyond. The Government have made it clear that this is not the Britain they believe in; they have chosen isolation over co-operation, and meanness over fairness. I believe in a better Britain, and that is why we will support this motion.
Order. On account of the level of interest, and given that there are only about 37 minutes to go, I am going to impose a three-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches with immediate effect.
I hope that I can take up less time than that, Mr Speaker.
It is a great honour to follow Tim Farron, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats. I had hoped to hear him rule out coming into a coalition with us, because I can tell him that there is no chance that those on the Conservative Benches would want him in our coalition or in any Government.
Party politics are in full swing today, but really this is a good day for Parliament. This is another slight step towards parliamentary democracy and away from diktat by the Executive. The Prime Minister has not called a general election; it is this House that will decide whether there will be a general election. I do not think for one moment that this election has been called for party political reasons. Previous Governments have decided to go early to the country; they were able to choose to go to the country for reasons of political advantage. This gave great power to the Executive. However, a strange set of circumstances has come about. We have had a change of Prime Minister and a change of all the senior Ministers. We have moved from having a Government who were anti-Brexit to one who are pro-Brexit.
That is why I will cast my vote today in support of the Government motion. It is up to each Member to make their own decision. I believe that this proves that the Fixed- term Parliaments Act 2011 is working—[Interruption.] If Members disagree, they can vote against the motion.
The hon. Gentleman says that Parliament will decide on this question, but the Prime Minister went on television yesterday and staked her reputation across the world by declaring that there would be a general election. If she does not get the support of 422 MPs and a two-thirds majority today, would such a public humiliation mean that she had to resign?
This illustrates the advantage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. If the House does not agree to a general election, it will not happen and the Government will continue in office. Any Opposition Members who did not want a general election would be very strange creatures indeed. Any Opposition Members who sat on their hands and did not vote would be regarded as impotent Members of Parliament. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make his mind up and cast his vote one way or the other.
But does this not demonstrate why the Fixed-term Parliaments Act can never work? No Opposition can sensibly say that they would prefer a Government they oppose to continue in office, rather than having a chance to defeat them. The Act does not therefore fit within our constitution, and it ought to go.
I rarely disagree with my hon. Friend, but I believe that these events are proof that the Act is working. I believe that we will have the required majority. I understand, Mr Speaker, that if no one objects when the vote is called, and if you decide the matter according to the voices, the motion will be carried without a two-thirds majority being required. That is a strange anomaly, and I hope that someone will shout “No” so that we get a vote. I will not be doing that today, however, because our vote has to follow our voice and I would never dream of doing anything other than that. Despite the party politics, this is a great day for Parliament and a small step forward for parliamentary democracy.
I want to address three issues in the short time available to me. First, this election is happening in the midst of political discussions in Northern Ireland about the formation of an Executive. That is unfortunate. I want to make it clear that, as far as our party is concerned, we are responding positively to the Secretary of State’s request for discussions to continue in Northern Ireland. We have made it clear—along with the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Ulster Unionists—that we are ready to form an Executive. We do not believe in setting red lines or preconditions about important matters such as health and education funding and the future of public services in our Province. Those things are far more important than some of the issues that are now said to divide us, so we are ready to get the Executive up and running today, next week or whenever. We do not need prolonged negotiations.
Secondly, on Brexit, Northern Ireland’s position is different from that of the rest of the United Kingdom. That has been made clear in the Government’s paper, which recognises our special circumstances. It is absolutely imperative that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard very strongly. That is why it is such a tragedy that Sinn Féin has walked away from the Executive, collapsed the Assembly and forced us into an unnecessary Assembly election, while boycotting this place and demanding special status, which has been rejected by the Irish Republic, the European Union and even the European Parliament when it set out its negotiating position. Nobody accepts the need for special status, although we agree with the need for special arrangements that recognise Northern Ireland’s special circumstances. It is essential that, in the forthcoming general election, the people of Northern Ireland recognise that they have a clear choice between a party that has walked away and abandoned its responsibilities on a number of fronts and a party that will enter Government in Northern Ireland, that takes its seats here and that contributes and raises its voice to stand up for Northern Ireland.
Finally, this election will provide clarity on the big issue of how this country is to go forward. It will provide clarity on the Union that really matters: the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Again, the people of Northern Ireland will have a clear choice on that issue. They will have a clear choice on whether to rally round and state firmly that they want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom or to go down the route presented by Sinn Féin, whose Marxist-Leninist concept of a republic has been rejected even by most of those who accept its nationalism. They reject the party’s economic outlook. The only way to support the Union is to rally behind the Democratic Unionist party on
The Prime Minister presents herself, to adapt a phrase from Mr Tony Blair, as a pretty straight sort of a person. She is a former Home Secretary—I am glad to see that the present Home Secretary is in the Chamber today—and she well knows the value of evidence as it is proved. She was initially in favour of leaving the European Union, which was an honest and honourable stance, even if it is one with which I disagree. Then she was in favour of remaining in the EU, although she was something of a shrinking violet in her support for that argument. Now she is again resolute in her determination to leave.
The Prime Minister was also utterly opposed to holding an early general election, saying that it would be a distraction, turning us in on domestic matters when she had important and time-limited international negotiations to conclude. And now, hey-ho, she is equally determined that a general election we must have. She was against the European Union, then for the European Union, then against it again. She was against holding a general election and is now determined to have one. Her record is about as straight as the legendary European Union banana.
The Prime Minister has said repeatedly today that she wants an early election in order to produce a larger Tory majority. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that she is treating the electorate of the United Kingdom with contempt by assuming that the election will result in a larger Tory majority, and that she is thereby admitting that she has no plan at all for this country if she does not get that result?
I have no crystal ball. Unfortunately, however, I can see the disarray in the Labour party, but who knows what the outcome will be?
I am suspicious of the Prime Minister’s motives and her reasoning. She says that the general election will enhance her status among the other 27 EU member states, for example, but I cannot see how that can be the case. Her motives are in fact pretty clear and straight. This is not only about the destruction of the Labour party as a credible Opposition for the next decade or so—I am afraid that Labour is doing a pretty effective demolition job on itself without her help—or about raising a challenge to my friends from Scotland, although in this I think her case is already lost. No, this election is about seeing off not her opponents on our side of the House but her enemies behind her. As ever with the Tories, desperate disunity is being papered over while it suits.
Plaid Cymru welcomes the opportunity that this election presents to the people of Wales to change our long-term course away from Labour’s leaden Government in Cardiff and away from this hyper-centralised and heedless Government in London, cutting our own path towards economic regeneration and prosperity, social justice, and a proper, confident place for Wales in the world.
If the Prime Minister had said when she took office that her Government wanted a general election, there would have been less controversy than there is now, but there has been denial at every opportunity. The Prime Minister or those who speak for her denied that there would be a general election. “When is the general election?” they were asked, and the answer, which was quite clear, was “2020.” There is no great public demand for a general election. How many Members have received letters and emails in the last few days or weeks clamouring for a general election? Hands up! No, it is clear from Members on the Tory Benches that there has been no such demand.
My hon. Friend Rob Marris said that the Government should not be complacent about getting a large majority. Indeed, hopefully they will not get a large majority. When we consider the harm done to people in need—the disabled, the vulnerable, the low-paid—by this Government with a small majority, just imagine what will happen if there is a large Tory majority. It would be an absolute nightmare for the people we represent and for the millions of people in this country who need the Government to protect them, not harm them, but that protection will not come from a Tory Government with a small or large majority. I was here during the Tory Government of the 1980s and saw the harm that was done to my constituents and so many others.
The motion before us is murky, completely opportunistic, and certainly reflects badly on the Prime Minister. Many people are cynical about politics in this country, and that trend has unfortunately increased, for which perhaps all of us in the political class are responsible. The motion and the coming general election, which is happening purely for opportunistic reasons, will increase that cynical feeling, which is damaging to the democratic process.
I, too, will be voting against the motion today, because it is totally unnecessary. I say that as somebody who voted leave on
Furthermore, the Prime Minister says that she needs a larger majority because the business of the House is likely to be disrupted by Opposition parties or by the House of Lords. She ought to look back to what happened when the Wilson Government were in power between 1964 and 1966. He had a majority of four. The Callaghan Government governed for five years in the 1970s without any majority. If she fears what could happen in the House of Lords, she should do exactly what Tories have done in the past and flood the place with her own people to ensure that she gets her way. There is no justification for her argument that she needs a larger majority in order to get business through the House.
To take the arrogant view that the electorate should concentrate purely and simply on one narrow issue is to treat the electorate with contempt. I can speak only for my constituents, but when they consider the issues, they will be asking questions. Why is every school in my constituency losing out under the new funding formula? Why is the city council having to make horrendous cuts? The Government have cut the support grant. Why are waiting times at local hospitals increasing? There are just not enough staff.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under the Labour Government, we had the Building Schools for the Future programme and Sure Start centres. Under this Government, that programme was stopped and Sure Start centres are being closed left, right and centre.
My constituents will ask other questions. Why is it that more and more hard-working families are being forced into the humiliation of having to use food banks? They just do not have enough money at the end of the week to feed and clothe their families. Why are energy consumers paying ever-increasing prices? Utility firms are ripping them off in the sacred name of competition. Why are young people, married and unmarried, unable to acquire proper housing, often having to stay with in-laws and parents? Those views will be echoed throughout the country. There is no justification for this election, and I will certainly oppose it.
I support the motion because, as a Government Member said earlier, it seems rather bizarre that the Opposition should say, “We want to keep a Tory Government in power.” That just makes no sense. We have to put our case to the British people and see what happens. We have arrived today at a point that I always thought was inevitable. This was bound to happen. I never bought all that guff about “no election”. There is a political dynamic at work here that has made this decision almost inevitable.
Given that the hon. Gentleman is going to support the Government motion, is he confident that a Tory Government will not return after the election with two more years in power? What does he think will happen? What is the follow-through on his actions?
The follow-through is to do whatever we can to get rid of a Tory Government as soon as we can. That is always the case. It might not work, but that is up to the British people in an election. It is their choice.
In saying why I think this position is inevitable, I want to pay a minor tribute to Mr David Cameron—late of this parish. When the history of this country in the early part of the 21st century comes to be written, he will have probably one of the most prominent roles in it, and it will not be a particularly glorious tribute. Decisions that he took will, over time, damage this country immensely.
I remember serving on the Public Bill Committee on the original European Union (Referendum) Bill, which was known at the time as the “Wharton Bill” after James Wharton, who picked it up from No. 10. I remember sitting in the Committee one evening and the then Prime Minister David Cameron actually came into, I think, Committee Room 7 or 8 and sat in the Public Gallery simply to pay obeisance to the hard right wingers of the Tory party who were on that Bill Committee. I have never seen or heard of a Prime Minister faced with such ignominy as having to pay obeisance to those to whom he is in thrall. Of course, he gave them the guarantee of an in/out referendum. He did not say, “I am going to renegotiate the terms of our EU membership and then put it to you.” He said, “I am going to renegotiate the terms and then have an in/out referendum,” and this is the consequence.
Mr Cameron will go down as one of the most damaging Prime Ministers, but prominent none the less. He has not just jeopardised the whole future of the United Kingdom as a trading nation and in our relationship with the European Union; he has jeopardised the future of Scotland as part of the United Kingdom, and people have all kinds of views on that. It was he who granted the referendum that set in train the dynamic that has, frankly, destroyed the Labour party in Scotland and given the Scottish National party the prominent role it enjoys today. He also jeopardised our relationship with the Republic of Ireland and, as Mr Dodds mentioned, put at risk the very stability of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
All those things add up, and the damage done will be with us for decades. The people who pay the greatest price, as others have mentioned, will be the young—the next generation, and those who come after. It will permanently damage this country. I will vote for the general election, but it will not change anything. The landscape will essentially remain much the same after the election, and it all follows from the calamitous decision of last June to leave the European Union. I understand the party political reasons for calling the election, and there is a certain amount of sanctimony and hypocrisy here today. Politics is neither science nor art, and it is certainly not religion. People do things for their own political advantage, and every Prime Minister has always done so.
I did not intend to speak in this debate, but Mr Winnick would not let me intervene to respond to the question he posed. I have, in fact, received emails from constituents over the past few weeks asking me to encourage the Prime Minister to call a general election and go to the country once again. The hon. Gentleman seemed to imply that nobody in the country was asking for a general election, but some of my constituents were.
When the Prime Minister made her announcement yesterday, I was initially in shock because, like my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne, I was boldly telling people that there was no chance of a general election. I was not quite so bold as to put it in the local paper, but I told people both verbally and in emails that I did not believe it would happen. Having listened to the Prime Minister’s reasons yesterday, I am happy to say that I have come to a position where I believe it is right for the country that we obtain a new mandate to go into the negotiations to leave the EU and put the Prime Minister, and the others who will be negotiating our terms, in the strongest possible position.
I am happy to stand on the Government’s record of delivering for this country. The election is not just about the Brexit negotiations; it is about a Government who have delivered growth, one of the world’s best performing economies, record numbers of jobs and great investment in our NHS. I am proud to go to the country and say, “Let us continue with the job we are doing to deliver what our country needs and to continue putting us in the strongest possible position.”
Finally, we take nothing for granted, but if the Conservative party is returned to government with a substantially increased majority, will the leader of the Liberal Democrats accept that it is the will of the British people to return the Conservative party with a clear mandate to press on and take us out of the European Union on the grounds that the Prime Minister has set out? Will he then drop his opposition and game playing to thwart the democratic will of the British people?
As someone who believes that the Prime Minister has presented the case for this election on an entirely false premise, I, too, will be voting against the motion. I was not asking for an election last week or the week before; I was arguing that any move to an election in the near future would not help the negotiations in Northern Ireland. My mind has not changed, so why should I pretend that it has?
I will not be gamed or goaded into voting differently by the Prime Minister’s actions and stances. She has accused others in this Parliament of playing games. In essence, her argument is that she has no confidence in Parliament. We have this bizarre situation in which, after having a referendum about taking back control and parliamentary sovereignty, the Prime Minister has pronounced that she has no confidence in Parliament. She does not trust the Opposition parties, on which she confers all sorts of exaggerated powers to block and correct. Then, of course, she has her complaints about the House of Lords. If Tory Members are concerned about the House of Lords, they should move to abolish it or to introduce competent, coherent and democratic reform, but they should stop using it as a prop in this argument.
This is also a false premise because the Prime Minister is pretending that she needs an election now so that she has a strong hand in the short term, but we know that what she is really after is a free hand in the longer term. She wants wriggle room on the periods of adjustment, the transitional arrangements and other things on which too many of her colleagues have been too strident.
Order. I am interested in hearing the hon. Gentleman, but I would like him to face the House.
I was being spoken to by an illustrious member of the Opposition Whips Office, no less, so I would put it rather differently.
The nearest parallel is the election of 1974, when the miners were on strike and Ted Heath, the then Prime Minister, decided that the election would be on a very narrow argument about who ran the country. Most general elections are about a lot of things, but that one was about a specific thing. What happened in effect was that the Labour party finished up with the largest number of seats and the Queen asked Ted Heath to try to form a coalition with the Liberals, and the Liberals ran away.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. While we are making comparisons with the election of 1974, an unforeseen casualty of that election was the Sunningdale agreement. The power-sharing Executive formed in Northern Ireland out of the 1973 Assembly ended up falling as a consequence of the 1974 general election because of what was seen to be the balance of forces.
Of course, this general election has been called without regard to the sensitive ongoing negotiations in Northern Ireland, and it is hard to see how it will not have an impact on those negotiations. First, it will probably colour the parties’ attitude to some of the issues we are dealing with, and it will certainly colour their attitude towards each other and their level of trust. Also, the British Government will not be in a position to give undertakings or commitments in the context of those negotiations as purdah kicks in, so how will we get any sort of comprehensive agreement in such circumstances?
As someone who worked with might and main for the Good Friday agreement and its implementation, I do not take those issues lightly. I cannot dismiss them. I want to make sure that we fully protect the agreement, which is why I am no saboteur when it comes to anything endorsed by a referendum, least of all what the Irish people endorsed by referendum when they voted for the Good Friday agreement.
I worry about the implications of Brexit for the Good Friday agreement, and I worry that the Government are in denial about the Brexit process having implications for the agreement. Of course, I also recognise that the agreement gives us the machinery to answer many of the questions and challenges for the whole island of Ireland in terms of Brexit. Strand 2 gives us the material to ensure that, in future, we can operate on a north-south basis in ways that continue to be supported and funded by the EU. We can treat the island as a common market—a single market—in sector after sector under the auspices of the Good Friday agreement.
We go forward in this election positively, but we have no pretence that the election is necessary or that the Prime Minister is justified in the terms she has used. Nor do we buy the sham fight that Mr Dodds is having yet again with Sinn Féin.
I believe this is the sort of thing that gets politics a bad name in our country and it is what is leading to the alienation of many of our citizens from the political process. There is only one reason the Prime Minister wants a general election on
This election has nothing to do with the country’s interests and everything to do with the management of the Conservative party, and I give two clear reasons why that is the case. The Prime Minister has suggested that she needs to have a majority, but she has not won any vote on Brexit over the past year with a majority of less than 30, so the majority is already there. She also says that this election will give clarity to the Brexit process, but we on these Benches have been trying for 10 long months to get clarity on the Brexit process, and every question we have asked has been met with silence and with a refusal to say what Brexit does indeed mean. I do not believe for one minute that the Tory party manifesto for
Yes, I do; I think that is remarkably suspicious. But my concern is that the Prime Minister wants to silence dissent and disagreement in this House and in this country. Therefore, her instincts are not democratic, but authoritarian, and that is a great worry for our country.
May I just turn to the situation in Scotland? There are two reasons why the people of Scotland should be given another choice on their self-government. The first is not because the people who lost the referendum in 2014 do not respect the result, but because the people who won that referendum changed the deal afterwards; the United Kingdom that people voted to be part of in 2014 will no longer be there in the future. The second is that although the Scottish Government took a compromise position, which neither challenged the Brexit deal nor argued for independence, it was thrown back in our faces. So there is no option now but to offer people in Scotland the opportunity of the choice between a hard, Tory, isolationist Britain or taking control into their own hands. This election is not required as a mandate to have that second referendum, because the Scottish Government already have that mandate, but this will be a judgment, Prime Minister, on your refusal to agree to the wishes of the Scottish Parliament. I would like to ask this in finishing: if the Conservative party loses the general election in Scotland, will you stop blocking the right of the Scottish people to have the choice in the future?
I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate, Mr Speaker. As we all know, Northern Ireland is in a brittle state at the moment. We have no Executive and no Government, and I wonder whether the Prime Minister fully considered what may happen to us. Before the recess, I was given an excellent answer as to our position in the Union, and I was very grateful for it, but I want to get three points across now.
Although the first is not about this election, because we fully support today’s motion, I must say that the public in Northern Ireland are fed up to the back teeth with elections. They have had so many and they see no point in another Assembly election. Secondly, people who watched what was going on at Easter may have seen paramilitaries—I believe this was in west Belfast and somewhere else—marching and carrying the European Union flag as if it were their banner. Brexit for us is a very different and brittle world. Ulster Unionists fully support the need to find the right way forward, but this is going to be used by Sinn Féin to try to break up the Union and we need that support. So I ask that in their manifesto the Government look not only at how they deal with Northern Ireland’s special status, but at how they ensure we have a workable Government in the future. We need change, which is what the Ulster Unionists have been all about; we need to get back to the central parties running Northern Ireland.
My last point is about making sure that that manifesto looks after our armed forces and our ex-servicemen. Legacy is playing its way out and it is not protecting the people who should be protected for doing their duty. We will support today’s motion.
Two colleagues wish to speak. They can help each other.
As several hon. Members have pointed out, the Prime Minister heads up a party with a majority gained partly by it cheating in the last general election, and it has been fined by the Electoral Commission as a result. Yet today she had the brass neck to stand there and give a speech all about leadership, so I want to know, what leadership is the Prime Minister showing on this issue? She refused to answer the questions from Mr Skinner and from my hon. Friend Stewart Malcolm McDonald about election cheating and some of her current MPs participating again in this forthcoming general election. What leadership intervention has she made within her party to make sure that this spending cheating does not happen again?
If the hon. Lady must.
I think it is a matter of taste rather than of order, but the hon. Lady has made her point with force and alacrity, and it is on the record. Had Alan Brown concluded his oration?
I have a bit more—about further non-leadership interventions by the Prime Minister. She consistently said that there would be no general election, but she has now done a massive U-turn. She could not answer why she has changed her mind on the single market. We have heard no evidence as to what this hard Tory Brexit is going to mean and what it would mean compared with Scotland staying in the single market. She has consistently ignored the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament, so I ask her to show some real leadership now.
Sir Desmond Swayne goaded Labour Members over not being turkeys voting for Christmas, but they will be more than turkeys voting for Christmas if they follow the Prime Minister and dance to her tune—they will be turkeys ready to jump into the baking tin. That is exactly what they are doing. The Prime Minister needs 433 MPs to support her today. She has gone on television and told the world that there will be a general election. If Parliament does not back her—if Labour MPs do not dance to her tune—and she does not get the 433, will she resign? The answer on that could change the views of Labour Members as to whether to dance to her tune.
One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Speaker put the Question (
The House divided:
Ayes 522, Noes 13.