She may have left the Chamber, but I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend Mrs Moon for her moving speech in support of her Access to Welfare (Terminal Illness Definition) Bill. I also listened to some of the debate on the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill, on which unity broke out—in fact, there was a celebration of unity. I am not sure we can maintain that unity in this debate, but we can remain civil in our disagreements. In order to do that, apart from one reference, I had best avoid mentioning Boris Johnson.
The Prime Minister insists that her Brexit plan will deliver a “smooth and orderly” exit from the EU. Anyone looking in over these past few weeks will be bound to conclude that nothing could be further from the truth. The Chequers agreement took two years to reach and two days to unravel and, even in the past hour and a half, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has said that we should get behind it. The right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip called it the
“miserable permanent limbo of Chequers” to great cheering from that part of the Chamber.
A White Paper that should have been published before article 50 was invoked arrived late for the statement last week and, after this week’s votes, lies in tatters. There have been daily resignations and knife-edge votes, and we see a Government clinging on literally vote by vote by using, as I understand from last night, threats of no-confidence votes and of a general election to achieve a result and, it seems, by breaking pairing arrangements with an MP on maternity leave. I listened carefully to what the Prime Minister said about that earlier, but I ask the Secretary of State to explain how the Tory party chairman, Brandon Lewis, accidentally voted on two crucial votes and yet managed, presumably deliberately, to abstain on the others as agreed.
Now the Secretary of State is trying to sell a White Paper that he had not seen until last week and in which, in many respects, it is hard to believe he really believes. It is already dead in the water. That is before he has even had the chance to meet Michel Barnier.
Although some Brexiteers predicted that the negotiations with the EU would be the easiest in history—that was the Secretary of State for International Trade—and that new trade agreements would be signed by March 2019 with countries totalling 10 times the geographical size of the EU, which was the corker from the former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, most of us recognised that, in honesty, the Brexit process would be very complicated and very difficult. I have always accepted that negotiating Brexit would be a challenge for any Government.
What we have seen in the past few weeks is not just a weak Government struggling with the inevitable complexities of Brexit; this is simply the latest battle of a political party at war with itself. A war once contained in the Conservative party now threatens to engulf the country. For 30 years or more the Conservative party has been engaged in a civil war over Europe, and the national interest has been the collateral.
The European question has brought down the Conservative party’s last three Prime Ministers, and it could well bring down this one. Margaret Thatcher was completely at odds with her Cabinet on the exchange rate mechanism, and it eventually led to her downfall. John Major grappled with his Maastricht rebels, and we know how he referred to them. Indeed, that accidental recording of John Major’s comments has resonance today:
“The real problem is one of a tiny majority…a party that is still harking back to a golden age that never was, and is now invented.”
Then we had David Cameron, the man who told his party to stop “banging on about Europe” before calling a referendum, losing it and then riding off into the sunset.
While the Tory party fights with itself over Europe, as we have seen in the past couple of days, inequality continues to grow, the housing crisis spirals out of control, our NHS and public services groan under the cuts to their budgets, and any principle to guide our foreign policy has fallen by the wayside.