Article 50 Extension

Part of Destitution Domestic Violence Concession (Eligibility) – in the House of Commons at 4:59 pm on 20th March 2019.

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Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield 4:59 pm, 20th March 2019

I have been in this House for long enough—nearly 22 years—to know that Governments face great difficulties and often have to adjust to circumstance, so one should get used to the fact that occasionally Governments say things in this House that they intend to do and then subsequently are unable to do. But I have to say that the process of Brexit has brought me face to face with the fact that the underlying integrity that one hopes one will continue to see from Government, even in difficult circumstances, now seems to be fast running out. That troubles me very much. I have been a member of the Conservative party for over 40 years and find myself in a state of amity with my colleagues, even though Brexit has introduced a revolutionary upheaval into our affairs which means that we have divergent views on a specific issue, which is causing the party great difficulty. Notwithstanding that, we and the Government we are being asked to support have to try to maintain some sustained integrity through that process.

What, therefore, am I to make of a situation in which only a few days ago, in order to avoid something that the Government did not want, which was the possibility of this House taking control of the Order Paper to debate alternatives outside the control of the Government, Ministers of the Crown standing at the Dispatch Box gave a series of plain assurances to the House on what the Government intend to do if their deal cannot go through regarding how they are going to approach the negotiations with the European Union thereafter and the length of extension they are going to seek? That is what happened; and subsequently, today, these assurances have been entirely reneged upon.

Most extraordinary of all, one might have expected the Secretary of State for the Department for Exiting the European Union, who is no longer in his place, to come along and provide some coherent explanation for why this had happened, but he did not. Indeed, the only explanation he half advanced was a total irrelevance. It was the suggestion that this situation was due, Mr Speaker, to your ruling that the motion could not be brought forward a third time, which is of course nonsense, because the Government know very well that, had they so wished today, they could have brought forward a motion to disapply our conventions and, had they wished to do so, to move on to a meaningful vote on their motion. It is beyond comprehension and rational analysis how a Minister of the Crown standing at the Dispatch Box this afternoon can say that that is the justification for having changed the position and decided that the extension is going to be extremely short, when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had described such a short extension, on behalf of the Government, as “reckless”.

Now, of course this is part of a wider pattern of the complete disintegration of collective responsibility in Government. We have Ministers coming to the Dispatch Box and saying entirely contradictory things. We have Ministers publicly dissociating themselves from the Government policy and staying in post. We have Ministers who come up to one in the corridors, acknowledge that the situation is very serious and that they disagree with what the Government are doing, continuing to serve in a Cabinet with which they apparently fundamentally disagree.

When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister came to the Dispatch Box today at Prime Minister’s questions, I confess that it was the worst moment I have experienced since I came into the House of Commons. I have never felt more ashamed to be a Member of the Conservative party or to be asked to lend her support. She spent most of her time castigating the House for its misconduct. At no stage did she pause to consider whether it is, in fact, the way that she is leading this Government that might be contributing to this situation. I have great sympathy for her. I have known her for many years and we have a personal friendship beyond and outside of this House, but I have to say that I could have wept—wept to see her reduced to these straits and wept to see the extent to which she was now simply zig-zagging all over the place, rather than standing up for what the national interest must be.

Now we are told that there is going to be a short extension. We are told that next week we will have an opportunity, perhaps, for a meaningful vote, which I very much think is going to lead to the Government’s deal being rejected, because, for a whole variety of reasons, Members of this House feel very strongly that it is bad for our country. But, if I may say so to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, that view cannot simply be cast to one side, whether it comes from hon. Members and hon. Friends with whom I disagree or those with whom I agree on the issue of Brexit. It cannot just be lightly dismissed. It comes from their own analysis of what they think the national interest to be.

Of course, that is a huge challenge for the Prime Minister, and I have immense sympathy for her in that regard. But you do not meet that challenge by ducking and diving, and avoiding, and having a galaxy of Ministers appear at the Dispatch Box and say contradictory things; you have got to face up to your responsibility and, rather than coming along and showing contempt for this House, actually try to engage with it and making use of what this House can do pretty well, which is debate issues in a rational way which, in itself, by a process of debate, might lead to a reasonable outcome.

I have come in for quite a lot of flak over the past two years because of my various amendments, but most of them have been designed not to achieve a specific end but to try to facilitate process. Each time I put them up, the Government have tried to prevent them, so my view is bound to be coloured of a Government who seek to close down debate in this irrational fashion.

Next week we are going to face the same challenge again, but in a very concertinaed timeframe. We are in danger of crashing out with no deal. If the rumours are right, we are coming very close to the point where the EU—perfectly reasonably, in my judgment—may well be saying, “We’ve had enough.” Indeed, reading the statement that has recently come out, I think that that is probably what it is saying. What are we going to do next week? What is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister going to do next week? Are we going to extend across the House and try to reach some level of consensus on a way forward? Are we going to try to bring this sorry saga to an end by, for example, going back to the public, as was suggested by Hilary Benn as a possibility in putting the options to them and asking them, which I would be perfectly prepared to do—and to support my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in doing, if that would help? Are we prepared to look at alternatives when it seems so apparent that the deal itself is going to be rejected?

Just browbeating this House is going to serve no purpose at all. It brings us, undoubtedly, into contempt, but the contempt falls much more on the Government who are doing this than on Members who are voicing their individual views and doing the best they can to represent their constituents’ interests. That is the challenge we now face, and we may face a very short timeframe for doing it—something which, on the whole, I rather hoped we might avoid. It is not perfect in itself, but that was the purpose of a longer extension—to enable the process to happen which has been shut down over past weeks and months.

We may now have to do this very quickly. But I have to say this in conclusion: if we do not do it, one has to ask oneself the question, what is the purpose of this Government? What are they doing? How are they furthering the national interest? How are they contributing to the quiet good governance that I think most people in this country want? We really are—I am sorry to say this—at the 11th hour and 59th minute. The Government’s credibility is running out. Trust in them is running out. Unless my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, by some great exertion of will—and she has plenty of will and plenty of robustness—stands up and starts doing something different, we are going to spiral down into oblivion, and the worst part of it all is that we will deserve it.