Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:44 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons) 2:44 pm, 4th December 2018

Your wisdom, Mr Speaker, in always making that point just before you call me is shared by the whole House, I am absolutely sure. So we are all united now and everybody can just agree with what I am about to say.

Although I sympathise with the arguments made by the Father of the House and for that matter with the points made by Mr Rees-Mogg, I disagree with the conclusion to which they have come. I am delighted that the motion does not mention the Attorney General by name because I do not think this is a matter of the Attorney General being a dishonourable man at all. I am very fond of the Attorney General. I think he is a wonderful man. I think he is entirely honourable and, yesterday, he did his level best in the Chamber to provide what he thought he could, within the terms and the strictures given to him by the Government. However, I would say that we are today facing an extraordinary moment. I cannot in the history of Parliament find a moment when the Government have referred themselves to the Committee of Privileges. The best argument they have today, in response to the motion moved by my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer, is—“Instead of deciding already on the House’s behalf that the Government are in contempt, we will refer it to the Committee of Privileges.” Always in the past, that has been to decide, prima facie, that there is a case to answer. So the Government themselves accept at the very least that there is a case to answer about their being in contempt. I cannot think of another moment in our history when that was true.

In fact, as several Members have already said, the Attorney General himself in a sense confessed his own guilt to the charge of contempt yesterday. He said on the motion for the debate we had previously:

“We should have voted against it.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018;
Vol. 650, c. 579.]

Of course we should have done. It would have been good if the Government had made in the debate back then all the arguments they are making today and made yesterday afternoon. Some of us might have listened to the argument about national security then. It might have been an appropriate argument then, but it was not an appropriate argument yesterday and, for that matter, it is not an appropriate argument today.

The Attorney General repeated time and again yesterday that he knew he was not fulfilling the will of the House. That is what we are asked to decide today—whether the Government are fulfilling the will of the House. He himself said yesterday that he was not fulfilling the will of the House. In an extraordinary moment, he said:

“The House has at its disposal the means by which to enforce its will.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018;
Vol. 650, c. 574.]

That is what we are doing now. To all intents and purposes, the Attorney General yesterday asked us to do what we are doing this afternoon and I think he fully accepts that the House has to be able to have its way in the end.

I say to Mr Grieve and the hon. Member for North East Somerset, the other thing that is extraordinary about the motion before us—the Opposition motion, supported by the other Opposition parties—is that there is no sanction involved in it. In fact, the only thing it requires to happen is that the will of the House is abided by. That is the only thing. It may be that we have to return to this if the Government choose to ignore it, but my suspicion and hope is that, if the Opposition motion is carried today, the Government will say, “Alright. Fair do’s. That’s twice we’ve been told now. We do actually have to abide by the decision of the House.”