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No Confidence in Her Majesty’s Government

Part of Business of the House (Today) – in the House of Commons at 6:39 pm on 16th January 2019.

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Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 6:39 pm, 16th January 2019

This has been a very passionately argued debate. At my count, 59 Members gave speeches, and they were not holding back. The scene was set by Sir Christopher Chope, who said that the Prime Minister must accept the verdict of the House last night. The necessity for that was underpinned by my right hon. Friend Mr Howarth, who highlighted the fact that she is a Prime Minister with no majority and no authority. That is perhaps why Ian Blackford talked about the Prime Minister’s record lack of humility and Sir Vince Cable, in what I thought was a soulful speech, spoke of the Government’s arrogant approach to these negotiations. Why is that so important? Because, as my hon. Friend Ms Eagle said, the UK is more divided and fearful for the future than ever before.

We have had some comic moments in this debate. I was particularly amused by the contribution of George Freeman; his “Life of Brian” speech—an homage to one of the greatest satirical farces in British film history—was very appropriate for the times we are in. Alex Burghart also talked about the Conservative party re-bonding in the Lobby tonight.

I cannot fail to note the passionate and sometimes breathless critiques of the last nine years of austerity economics by colleagues on the Opposition Benches, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), for Warrington North (Helen Jones) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). And a special prize must go to Mike Wood, who at very short notice gave a four-minute speech in three minutes by speaking 25% faster.

As the Prime Minister said in this debate, this is a

“crucial moment in our nation’s history”,

but it is an unenviable task to summarise this debate today and to ask Members of this House to pass judgment on her stewardship of our country. First, let me say very clearly that I am not one of those people who questions her motives. I agree with Stephen Kerr, who said that she was motivated by public duty. I do not doubt that she has sincerely attempted to fulfil the task given to us by the voters in this referendum. I have no doubt too that she has tried her best and given it her all. But she has failed, and I am afraid the failure is hers and hers alone. I am certain that every Member of this House admires her resilience. To suffer the humiliations on a global stage that she has done would have finished off weaker people far sooner. Yet the reality is that, if the Prime Minister really sat down and thought carefully about the implications for our country of last night’s defeat, she would have resigned.

Throughout history, Prime Ministers have tried their best and failed. There is no disgrace in that—that’s politics. But this Prime Minister has chosen one last act of defiance, not just defying the laws of politics, but defying the laws of mathematics. It was Disraeli who said:

“A majority is always better than the best repartee.”

The Prime Minister is without a majority for a flagship policy, with no authority and no plan B.

The result last night was 432 to 202. That is not a mere flesh wound. No one doubts her determination, which is generally an admirable quality, but misapplied it can be toxic. The cruellest truth of all is that she does not possess the necessary skills—the political skills, the empathy, the ability and, most crucially, the policy—to lead this country any longer.

I know that there are many good people in the Government, and they will be examining their consciences as the clock runs down on these Brexit negotiations. Because the Prime Minister has refused to resign, we now face a choice between a general election to sort out this mess or continued paralysis under her leadership. But now the ante has been raised. The Government have been defeated on a Brexit plan that has been their sole reason for existing for the past two and a half years. They have not just been defeated on the most crucial issue facing our country; they have suffered the worst defeat of any British Government in history. The clock is ticking. MPs have shown that they are ready to take back control over what has been, from start to finish, a failed Brexit process. The question facing the House tonight is whether it is worth giving this failed Prime Minister another chance to go back pleading to Brussels, another opportunity to humiliate the United Kingdom and another few weeks to waste precious time. Our answer tonight must be a resounding no.

Let me remind the House why. It was this Prime Minister who chose to lay down red lines that never commanded the support of Parliament. It was this Prime Minister who refused to guarantee the rights of EU nationals who have made their lives and their homes in this country. It was this Prime Minister who time and again tried to shut Parliament out, refusing to give us a meaningful vote and refusing to release the legal advice on the deal. She has treated this place and Members on both sides of it with utter disdain.

Sir Edward Leigh said:

“the road to tyranny is paved with Executives ignoring Parliament.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2017;
Vol. 629, c. 1009.]

That is what the Prime Minister has done, and so Parliament is having to assert its rightful authority. At every turn, she has chosen division over unity. She has not tried to bring the 17 million people who voted leave and the 16 million people who voted remain together. She should have tried to assure those who voted remain. Instead, she chose to placate the most extreme of her colleagues on the leave side of the debate. That has left the nation more divided than it was in June 2016.

Out on the streets, in homes, schools and hospitals, people are struggling, and they take no hope and no strength from this ailing Government. What happened to those burning injustices that the Prime Minister said it was her mission to fight when she came into office? Racism, classism, homelessness and insecure jobs have all grown and burned brighter than ever before, and for so much of this, she is responsible. If the House declares tonight that it has no confidence in the Government, it will open the possibility of a general election and a decisive change in direction for our country on Brexit and for workers, young people and our vital services.

The Prime Minister will forever be known as the “nothing has changed” Prime Minister, but something must change. Our only choice left is to change her and her Government in a general election. We know that she has worked hard, but the truth is that she is too set in her ways and too aloof to lead. She lacks the imagination and agility to bring people with her, and she lacks the authority on the world stage to negotiate this deal. Ultimately, she has failed. It is not through lack of effort or dedication, and I think the country recognises that effort. In fact, the country feels genuinely sorry for the Prime Minister—I feel sorry for her—but she cannot confuse pity for political legitimacy or sympathy for sustainable support. The evidence is clear.

I know that Government Members will want to support the Prime Minister in the vote this evening out of loyalty to the party, but everyone in this Chamber, no matter which Lobby they go through, knows in their heart that this Prime Minister is not capable of getting a deal through. Government Members know it. They know that we know they know it, and the country knows it. That is why we must act. That is why we need something new. That is why we need a general election. I commend this motion to the House.