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Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:10 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay 3:10 pm, 4th December 2018

I am neither a lawyer nor a constitutional historian, but I concur with my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke, the Father of the House, and indeed, my hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg, in suggesting that it is regrettable that we have got to this position. One would not—Government Members, certainly—start from this position if we had to choose, but as hon. Members, we have to make a decision about the facts before us. The point I put to the Opposition is that they have failed to answer a very obvious question. Their motion is a take-it-or-leave-it, all-or-nothing approach, which does not recognise the sensitivities of the situation at hand, which has been built up by convention over decades, if not centuries, in trying to balance the will of Parliament with the national interest.

Many of us in this place have no problem with the concept that the will of the House of Commons should be recognised by the Government, but there is a delicate balance on issues of national interest. I do not think that anybody in this place would question the national interest when it comes to, for example, the role of our special services or our intelligence services, or indeed, Cabinet minutes freshly laid. That is generally accepted, but there is a grey area that we have to approach very carefully, and the Opposition’s all-or-nothing approach risks establishing a principle that they may come to regret one day. It is very important that there is honesty and honour in this place, but we also have to recognise that there needs to be a filter for claims about the national interest by Governments, and the Opposition motion lacks that filter. What the Opposition would be doing is putting everything out on the table, but there may be issues in that disclosure that are sensitive when it comes to the national interest. It is a reckless idea that risks riding roughshod over decades of convention when it comes to trying to establish that balance.

I make no bones about it: I do not like where we are as a Government on this issue, but we have to judge the situation as it is now, and the filter that could achieve the delicate balance that is needed in this situation is with regard to the Committee of Privileges. Although it is not a perfect answer to this situation, it would serve as a means of filtering information that is perhaps against the national interest.

I will support the amendment this afternoon—one hopes—but I urge the Opposition to think this through very carefully. On the balance of opinion, I think that the Government may lose this, but I suggest that the Opposition act with restraint in the follow-up, because there is a real danger that they could one day regret what they have done, and they should be careful what they wish for.