Principles of Democracy and the Rights of the Electorate

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 26th September 2019.

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Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 4:45 pm, 26th September 2019

I thank all hon. Members for taking part in this all too brief debate, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle). It is an honour that the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend, is a Member of this House and sits on the same Benches as me.

The issues discussed in today’s debate could not be more important, and I welcome Mr Speaker’s guidance today that we should moderate our behaviour, although civility should never be used as a mask to prevent the seeking of the truth or the holding of the Government to account. At a time when the country and the House are deeply divided and the spotlight shines on politicians like never before, it is vital that we reaffirm our commitment to the principles of democracy and remind ourselves of the rights of the electorate and our duties to them as their representatives.

I only ever feel great pride in representing the people of the City of Chester in this place, and Mr Baker is right to say that most hon. Members—in fact, I would say almost all hon. Members—are here with the best of motives for their constituents.

Why have the Government chosen today to discuss the principles of democracy and the rights of the electorate? Is it because they respect these crucial principles and rights? I think not. Democracy is not just about elections; it is about respecting the institutions that underpin our democracy. The Attorney General’s pantomime bombast in denouncing this Parliament yesterday will no doubt have the effect he intends, which is to damage people’s faith in democracy, yet the Government had the nerve to call a debate today about the principles of the very democracy they seek to undermine.

Let me be clear to the Attorney General and this House: this Parliament was elected in 2017 because the Conservative party tried to cut and run by calling a snap general election. This Parliament accurately reflects the divisions in the country on Brexit, and it is doing the job it was returned to do—my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood referenced that point.

Although the Minister referred in his opening speech to the Labour and Conservative manifestos, which both mentioned respecting the result of the referendum, I remind him that neither said we would leave without a deal. That is what the Brexit fundamentalists controlling the Conservative party are now pushing for.

Democracy is about respecting the rules of the game, and we know, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham said, that the leave campaign broke the rules during the referendum on such things as data transfer and spending, as well as being untruthful to the electorate. We still do not know where the money channelled to the leave campaign via the Democratic Unionist party came from.

Why is that important? As my hon. Friend reminded the House, it is because the same people who broke the rules when running the leave campaign are now in charge of this Government, whether it is Dominic Cummings, whose commitment to democracy is such that he has been found in contempt of Parliament, or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who continues to dodge my hon. Friend’s questions about what he knew and when about the Vote Leave funding misdemeanours. This does not appear to be a Government who are committed democracy. More, it is a Government who are committed to power by any means––a Government who believe that the rules of democracy do not apply to them.

My hon. Friends on the Government Benches—decent Conservatives whom I do consider to be friends—must be aghast at what has happened over the last couple of days in the name of their party. They must reel their leader back in.

The Supreme Court found that the Prorogation was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification. Although the Supreme Court’s judgment was utterly devastating, it provides a legal opinion on a truth with which we and the rest of the country are now already familiar. The truth is that the Prime Minister has no respect for the law, no respect for democracy and no respect for the electorate. His whole career as a journalist and as a politician has been defined by an arrogance that leads him to think he can disregard everything and get away with anything.

Like the previous Government, the current one is defined by their total lack of respect for this House and for the public. David Linden, speaking on behalf of the SNP, mentioned not getting enough Opposition days and how Opposition day votes are ignored. This morning, we heard the Father of the House and others raise concerns that the Government are operating a deliberate strategy of division and inflaming tensions, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend referred to in an earlier intervention, quoting a Government spokesman.

The Government operate with a secrecy and evasion that betray utter contempt for the electorate and for democracy. They have tried to keep this House in the dark. If it were not for this House demanding that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster publish the now notorious Yellowhammer papers, we would still be relying on leaked excerpts in the press and rumours around Whitehall. At least now we know, in the Government’s own words, just how disastrous a no-deal Brexit would be for this country. Due to the lack of time, we will not be able to go into the detail of the Yellowhammer papers, but it is enough to say that there are few more disgraceful episodes in our country’s recent history than a Tory Government willing to countenance food, fuel and medicine shortages just to appease a few no-deal obsessives in their own party and the Brexit party.

I suspect that the details of the Yellowhammer papers will not be mentioned in the Government’s Get Ready for Brexit scheme, which appears to me and many others to be the most expensive party political advertising scheme this country has ever seen. I have written to the Cabinet Secretary to see if he shares my opinion and to seek clarification as to whether the campaign has breached the rules that prohibit the Government from using public funds for party political purposes.

We will not allow a no-deal Brexit to go through, but let me be clear: once no deal is off the table, we will use every power at our disposal to secure a general election, and when it comes we will be ready for it. The public will be ready for it, too: after a decade of Tory austerity, the electorate is crying out for real change and we are ready to deliver it. We will not, however, fall into the trap that the Conservatives are setting us of giving them the opportunity to force through a no-deal Brexit against the wishes of this House and in the face of the democracy that this House has decided.