We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 25th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset 7:00 pm, 25th March 2019

Amendment (a) has already been much discussed in the course of this debate, and I do not want to detain the House long. First, though, I wish to say what it is trying to do and what it is not trying to do. It is not some kind of massive constitutional revolution, although I know that some of my hon. Friends and others have suggested that it is. The truth is that, as you said yourself earlier in the debate, Mr Speaker, the House has since its inception owned its Standing Orders. In fact, under the principle of comity—one of the most fundamental principles of our constitution—the courts have never sought to intervene in the proceedings of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and have recognised that the House in each case controls its own proceedings.

As a matter of fact, the idea that it is an ancient constitutional principle that the Government should control the Order Paper is slightly anhistorical, if that is the right word, because the practice started in 1906, so it is not, as far as I am aware, part of our ancient constitution. For about 400 or 500 years, things that either were the House of Commons or were very much like it controlled their own Order Papers. That changed at the beginning of the 20th century, but what did not change was the fundamental point that the way that Standing Orders are decided is by a majority vote in the House of Commons, and therefore they can be adjusted by such a vote and, if so adjusted, the adjusted version is what applies.

Every time there is a private Members Bill Friday, astonishingly, the Government do something that we are apparently now entreated to regard as utterly revolutionary—they hand over to private Members the opportunity to put forward Bills. According to this soi-disant constitutional theory that has been invented, that must be a kind of revolution, because it is not the Government putting forward a Bill, but in fact we have been doing it perfectly happily for years. So there is no revolutionary intent behind the amendment at all.

The second point I wish to make is about what the amendment does do. It does exactly what has been described in the debate; namely, it provides an opportunity, simply and nothing more, for the House of Commons to begin—I stress, to begin—the process of working its way towards identifying a way forward that can command a majority in this House.

I wish to reflect for a second on my own personal history in this matter. I find sometimes from the communications, not always utterly polite, that I receive from various quarters on my iPhone, that it is supposed that I have from the beginning attempted to destroy the Government’s efforts to carry out an orderly Brexit. That is obviously a more amusing story than the real one, but the real one is very sad and ordinary. I started as an entirely loyal member of the Conservative party. I had never voted against the Conservative Whip in my entire parliamentary career—not once. What is more, although I voted remain in the referendum, I was absolutely determined that we should continue our proceedings by ensuring that we fulfilled the mandate of the British people and left the European Union.

For a long while, although I personally thought from the very beginning that the Prime Minister was unwise to set out her red lines, I swallowed my concerns about them and utterly supported her in her endeavour to get her version of leave across the line. Indeed, on frequent occasions, as several of my right hon. and hon. Friends will recall, I acted as a kind of broker to try to bring together my European Research Group colleagues with other colleagues who now sit in various parts of the House, to produce results—some of which are now encoded, as a matter of fact, in section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act. It was my endeavour to make this a process that enabled the Prime Minister to get to the end of the road successfully.

I have fulfilled that endeavour by trying to vote with the Prime Minister on every occasion on which she has brought a section 13 motion to the House. I apologise to Opposition Members for saying that I will do that again if the Prime Minister brings forward a meaningful vote 3, or 4, or infinity. I will go on voting for the Prime Minister’s deal, because I happen to think that it is perfectly okay. I am very conscious that many Members do not agree with me.

The problem we have faced—all 650 of us can agree on this—is that we have not been able to get a majority for the Prime Minister’s deal. That is the fact, and it is a problem, because if there is no majority for that deal and we want to leave the EU, we are forced down only one of two possible tracks, one of which is to find an alternative and the other of which is to have no deal. It was at the point a few months back when I surmised that there was a real possibility that the Prime Minister, I think by mistake rather than on purpose, was going to end up taking us out without a deal and without having adequately prepared for that, that I became so concerned that I started to work on a cross-party basis with many colleagues on both sides of the House to try to find a solution. This modest attempt to provide the House with an opportunity to vote in the majority in favour of an alternative way forward is simply part of that process.