UK’s Withdrawal from the EU

Part of Business of the House (Today) – in the House of Commons at 2:37 pm on 14th February 2019.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset 2:37 pm, 14th February 2019

It is traditional in this House to say it is a pleasure to follow the previous speaker; it really is a pleasure to follow Hilary Benn, with whose speech I thoroughly agree. I did not think that today’s event, unlike the one two weeks from now, would be of any real interest. I was wrong, but in a very bad way.

There was a fascinating, and rather horrifying, series of exchanges before this debate began and during its opening, and those exchanges have driven me, finally, to the conclusion that I admit I have gradually been forming over the last few weeks and months.

First, when the chips are down, this Government—my Government—and this Prime Minister, for whom I, unlike many colleagues, voted when she came for re-election, would prefer to do what some of my esteemed colleagues would prefer to do: head for the exit door without a deal. The Secretary of State informed us that that is the policy of Her Majesty’s Government if the Prime Minister’s deal does not succeed. That is a terrifying fact.

Secondly, I fear I have been driven to the final conclusion that it is only by legislation that we will resolve this problem, because it is only by legislation that the Government will feel compelled to act. They do not accept any motion in this House as binding on them—but they do accept orders that order you, Mr Speaker, to take certain actions, or that order the House to follow certain procedures, the Standing Orders having been changed, as happened successfully in the past weeks and months. When it comes to governmental action, it is abundantly clear that only legislation will compel.

The third conclusion I am driven to is that the Bill that Yvette Cooper and I, and others, have put forward, which is a successor Bill to the previous Bill, is a necessary instrument. It commands the Prime Minister to take a series of actions that will enable her to find out what delay the House commands and what delay the EU is willing to accept, and then to follow that course if she has not achieved a deal by 13 March. Beyond that, I am driven to the conclusion—this came out in the brief conversation I had with the Father of the House—that we will then have to do what the Opposition shadow Secretary of State and many other hon. Members have suggested: find a consensus across this House for a positive alternative, also, alas, by legislation.

This is a remarkable condition for Parliament, the Government and this country to find themselves in. The structure of our affairs, almost throughout our history, since this House first established its rights over and against the Crown, has been that the Government—Her Majesty’s Ministers—put forward policy and carry it out, subject only to the ability to maintain the confidence of the House, and to legislate in it. To my knowledge, it has never previously been the practice for this House to have to take control and direct Government policy by legislation. That is an astonishing turn of events.