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I am glad we are having this debate. It is often demanded of this House on international matters and in negotiations that we back the Prime Minister of the day, but 78 years ago this month the Labour party did the unimaginable: in the early stages of the second world war, when we were fighting for national survival—arguably a bigger issue than Brexit—we voted against the then Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and we drove him from office. At the time, the Labour party was led by one of this country’s greatest ever leaders, Clement Attlee.
Our decision in May 1940 to force a Division in this House on what was dubbed the Norway debate, because it related to the allies’ campaign to stop the German invasion of Norway, led to the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. At the time, we were attacked for being opportunistic, undermining the Prime Minister, and being devious and divisive. We were told by Conservative Members that this was not the right time, at such a dangerous moment, to “snipe” at the Prime Minister. The Times called it “a great misfortune” that we did what we did. The criticisms being levelled at us now, for scrutinising what the Government are doing on Brexit, are similar in tone. Looking back, that moment in 1940 is celebrated. It led to a new Government of national unity, led by Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, which helped to see off the Nazis.
Brexit is clearly a very different situation: it is not a decision about war and peace, life and death, but it is surely the gravest issue to face this Parliament in more than 50 years. Given the importance of the issue we are dealing with, no one who sits in this House—I say this to Ross Thomson —should see it as their job to act simply as a rubber stamp for the Prime Minister of the day, whichever side of the House we sit on. That is why it is absolutely essential that this House is provided with the papers and the evidence on which Ministers are making decisions.