Leaving the Eu: Business of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Father of the House of Commons 3:35 pm, 12th June 2019

Governments pursue policies for which they have a parliamentary majority. I am going to be brief, so I shall not widen what I think is the very important broader constitutional procedural field.

It is now argued by many people that this Parliament has no powers, really, except when it is passing legislation, and I think that that is what is contemplated here. Unless a statute is passed to change the law, the Government can regard motions in Parliament as a mere expression of opinion. I regard that as nonsense, I regard it as dangerous nonsense, and the sooner it is shot down the better. It has emerged in the last two or three years precisely because Parliament is fragmented: both parties are shattered on several policies, so people are trying again to get round the problems.

Parties form a Government when they can command a majority in a vote of confidence. They can then only pursue policies for which they have a majority in the House of Commons, and continue to have a majority in the House of Commons. It is preposterous to start reinterpreting our unwritten constitution on the basis that no one ever intended that the Government should have to abandon a policy on which it is defeated in the House of Commons. That is complete nonsense. The worst thing to do—because one of the candidates at least fears that she would be defeated if she pursued her policy—is to send Parliament away and have no Parliament at all. I think that I have already made clear, in an intervention, my views on the prorogation point. I think that the sooner the House makes this clear, takes a day to make it clear and to make it illegal to contemplate doing that—and gives Parliament a role to stop it—the better.

Leaving with no deal has, as I recall, been ruled out with increasing majorities on the three occasions on which we have voted on it. With this mad debate going on in the country at the moment, it is obviously high time Parliament reasserted the fundamental basis of what is going on—that there is no majority in the House for no deal. Apart from those who defend the desirability of leaving with no deal, which no one has done in today’s debate so far, I cannot see why people are going to such lengths to resist that.

The Government’s policy, for which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State speaks, is to oppose leaving with no deal. I agree with him that we can say to the Opposition, “Well, we had a deal and you would not let it go through.” I supported the Prime Minister’s latest attempt to surround that deal with suggestions that I think should have been supported by Opposition Members who agree with my hon. Friends and me on a soft Brexit. I have an eccentric view that they would have been supported.

We have all constantly been attending plotting meetings. I have attended meetings at which Labour Members were agreeing to vote for the Second Reading of that Bill. What we were plotting was what amendments we would pass to put in improvements and safeguards. That could have prospered, but I am afraid that the Prime Minister preferred to do all her dealings, all the way through, with the members of the European Research Group. She always made concessions to them and eventually they told her that she had to go, so she said she was resigning. So we are now in this position.

I personally believe—it may be an eccentric belief—that the Prime Minister could have secured a majority for the deal as she had finally modified it, in an attempt to get cross-party support. It is obvious that the deal that we all need will only be achieved by any Prime Minister when we face up to the need for cross-party support to get around the party divisions. Both parties must accept that a minority will rebel against any deal that comes forward, but we could probably get a majority of the House to vote down the Labour left and the Tory right and actually pass something that is in the national interest. That, I think, is the main objective that really lies behind today’s debate. To listen to all these arguments about why, for pedantic procedural and textual reasons, we should reject it is, I am afraid, to take—not for the first time—a rather bizarre perspective on the huge and historic events in which we are involved. The House really has to take some control.

My final point is this. It might even improve the quality of the leadership debate that is going on in my party—and it needs to be improved—if we forced some reality into the exchanges between the extremely distinguished candidates who are vying for the privilege of being the next Prime Minister.