Business of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:19 pm on 27th March 2019.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset 1:19 pm, 27th March 2019

I am in a very odd position, in that, as it happens, I know, roughly speaking, what the official machine has been saying about the whole of these proceedings. I know that it has been raising very serious concerns about the idea of Parliament acting in this way. In fact, it has even been reported to me that one very senior official described the situation as one in which it was necessary for Whitehall to save Parliament from itself—not in a formal meeting, but outside one.

I understand that because, as a Cabinet Minister for six years, I observed the way in which, in trying to govern the country appropriately, Whitehall necessarily takes the view that the Houses of Parliament as a whole are quite an encumbrance. It tries to govern the country in a way that will, so to speak, tolerate and obey the democratic necessities of a legislature that is sometimes annoying. But, so far as is possible, it governs the process. It is very difficult for the official mind to absorb the fact that, ultimately, that is not how our constitution works. Ultimately, how our constitution works is that Governments depend on confidence in the House of Commons, and the House of Commons—or, at any rate, the Houses of Parliament—is the sovereign body: the Crown in Parliament is the sovereign body.

It is actually a very important point that we are making here about how the country is ultimately governed. In that sense, I agree with my right hon. Friend Sir Patrick McLoughlin that this is a precedent. It is a precedent for Whitehall to recognise that, in an emergency, the House of Commons is capable of controlling its own business in such a way as to find a solution with which the vast majesties of Whitehall and Government have been unable to provide us. If they were able to provide us with that solution, and if my hon. Friends were willing to vote for the proposition which the Government have conscientiously negotiated over a very long time—and, in my view, have rather admirably succeeded in negotiating—we would not be having this discussion. It is because Whitehall has failed, not owing to the inadequacies of any individual but owing to the basic difficulty of the situation, that the Commons is taking these steps, and I think that in those circumstances we are right to do so.