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[1st Day]

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 4:57 pm on 21st June 2017.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Father of the House of Commons 4:57 pm, 21st June 2017

I agree with my right hon. Friend. I always credit him with consistently sound principles. I have the same respect for him that I have for the two right hon. Friends who have interrupted me. [Interruption.] No—I mean that genuinely, as they have not been on all sides at various times. They have argued consistently, in a principled way, with knowledge of the European Union all the way through. There is always an element in politics—we have to have this—where some people change, quite rapidly sometimes, according to the latest headline or the prospect of promotion or whatever it might be. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union cannot be accused of that, and neither can I. I credit him, too, for not using any of the daft arguments during the referendum. I do not remember him saying that 70 million Turks were coming to molest our womenfolk and take our jobs. He did not say that there would be £350 million a week to spend on the national health service—the two big arguments of the national leaders—and I did not use the daft ones on our side either. The result was that we hardly got reported—nobody took any notice, because the national media were not remotely interested.

It is obvious that we are going to have to have some cross-party appeal now, and there are important reasons for that. The Labour party will be tempted by another election. So many Labour Members I know are still pinching themselves at the fact that they are still in the House. I quite accept that the Leader of the Opposition had a personal triumph, but I point out that Labour is still miles from forming a Government. It has 50 fewer seats than the Conservative party, and its chances of forming a coalition with the Democratic Unionist party, the Liberals or the Scottish Nationalist party on the kind of platform it stood on are absolutely nil.

I also think that another general election would be an appalling risk. The public do not like any party. I have never known such—ill-founded, I think—adolescent cynicism to be so widespread among the electorate, who treat the political class with growing contempt. Are we going to start playing party games and have another election when they are so volatile? About 20% of the population changed their minds in the last fortnight of the campaign. It was not with deep conviction: most of them were reassured that they could cast a protest vote for the Labour party without any risk of its winning and taking power. Another election would be a bigger gamble than the last one, with no certain outcome.

We in this House have to prove that occasionally our tribalism can subside and that we are capable of putting the national interest above the short-term knockabout of discredited party politics. The French have been saved by President Macron. They have got rid of both their long-established parties—they cannot stand either of them. A new, hopeful person has emerged from the centre or centre-left. Heaven knows whether he can succeed, although I very much hope that he does. We went in the opposite direction. The two parties surged in support—the electorate went back to the old two parties, but I do not think that they were deeply convinced by the arguments that either was using during the election. Heaven knows what they would do if this Parliament failed or collapsed or some stupid party vote took place and there was another general election. That would be a lottery from which we might all lose.

Let us show that we can rise above things. I am glad to know that channels are already open to the Liberals and the Labour party—as well as the Scottish Nationalist party, I am sure. We do not really know the basis on which we are negotiating Brexit at the moment; I think it will have to be carried by what I think would be an extremely sensible cross-party majority that the House could easily command if we were able to put in place some processes to achieve it.