Before we begin, I believe it would assist the House if I remind Members of the decision in question and the procedure on this motion. The decision before the House is whether or not to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges at this time. It will be for the Committee to report back on whether it considers there has been a contempt. While it is perfectly in order for hon. Members to question the veracity of the Prime Minister’s responses to the House cited in the motion, it is not in order to challenge more generally the truthfulness of the Prime Minister or any other hon. or right hon. Member. Good temper and moderation must be maintained in parliamentary language.
Much of what might be said today has already been said in response to the Prime Minister’s statement on Tuesday. Previous debates on such motions have been relatively short. Since 2010, the longest such debate has been for one hour and 29 minutes, and debates have been as short as seven minutes. That said, an amendment has been selected and the motion is of great importance. The debate may continue for as long as it takes unless either there is a successful closure motion to bring the debate to an end or we reach 5 o’clock, in which case the debate will be adjourned to a future day. I would also say that if the debate becomes very repetitive, we may have to consider whether to do closure earlier, but I will leave that to how the debate develops. Any Members who wish to speak need to stand to ensure that they catch my eye at the beginning of the debate.
Keir Starmer has tabled a motion for debate on the matter of privilege, which I have agreed should take precedence today. I inform the House that although I have selected the amendment in the name of the Minister for the Cabinet Office, I understand that it is now the Government’s intention not to move it. I call Keir Starmer to move the motion.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I beg to move,
That this House
(1) notes that, given the issue of fixed penalty notices by the police in relation to events in 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, assertions the Rt hon Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip has made on the floor of the House about the legality of activities in 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office under Covid regulations, including but not limited to the following answers given at Prime Minister’s Questions:
(2) orders that this matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges to consider whether the Rt hon Member’s conduct amounted to a contempt of the House, but that the Committee shall not begin substantive consideration of the matter until the inquiries currently being conducted by the Metropolitan Police have been concluded.
The motion seeks to defend the simple principle that honesty, integrity and telling the truth matter in our politics. That is not a principle that I or the Labour party have a special claim to. It is a British principle. It is a principle that has been cherished by Conservatives for as long as their party has existed. It is embraced by Unionist and nationalist parties alike and still guides members from every political party in this House.
I lost my mother to covid in the first lockdown. It was a very painful experience because she was in a hospital bed and, as we obeyed the rules, we could not be by her side when she passed. I have made my disquiet known to the Prime Minister a couple of times, and he has taken that on board. I am deeply unhappy about how No. 10 performed over the period in question. However, I suggest to the right hon. and learned Member that it is perfectly natural in this country to weigh all the evidence before deciding on intent. As the central issue is whether the Prime Minister misled Parliament, does he agree that, in us all accepting that the matter should be referred to the Privileges Committee, that Committee needs to weigh all the evidence before coming to a decision, and that that includes the Sue Gray report?
Order. May I say to Members that interventions are meant to be short? If you are on the list to speak and you intervene—I know that Mr Baron is not and would not want to be as he has made his speech—you will go down the list.
I am sorry for the loss in the hon. Member’s family. We all send our condolences. I know how difficult it has been for so many during this period. In relation to the substantive intervention, I have two points, which I will develop later. First, there is already a clear case before the House: the Prime Minister said “no…rules were broken”, and 50 fines for breaking the rules and the law have already been issued, so there is already a reasonable case. Secondly—I understand the sentiment behind the intervention—if the motion is passed, the Committee will not begin its substantive work until the police investigations are complete, so it will have all the evidence before it, one way or the other, to come to a view. That is within the body of the motion and is the right way; the way it should work. I hope that addresses the concerns raised.
Further to the point made by Mr Baron, many of us in the Chamber have lost loved ones in the last period of time and feel greatly aggrieved that we have not had our day in court, if that is perhaps the way to put it. We feel the need to have justice seen for all those who have lost loved ones—those who passed away and whom we miss greatly. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman feel that, when it comes to justice, while we do need to see all the evidence, there must be accountability in the process, and accountability means that people have to answer for their actions?
Again, I express my sadness at the loss that the hon. Member and his family have endured. I was particularly struck—I think we all were—by how he spoke about that in this House just a few months ago.
On the substantive point, which is the point of the motion, this is about honesty, integrity and telling the truth in this place. It is an important principle, and one that we all share—as I say, I do not claim it as a Labour party principle—because we know the importance of it. That is why it is a matter for the House to consider. But it is a principle under attack, because the Prime Minister has been accused of repeatedly, deliberately and routinely misleading the House over parties held in Downing Street during lockdown.
That is a serious allegation. If it is true, it amounts to contempt of Parliament. It is not, and should never be, an accusation made lightly. Nor should we diminish the rights of Members to defend each other from that accusation. But the Prime Minister’s supporters do not seek to do that. Instead, many of them seek simply to dismiss its importance. They say, “There are worse crimes,” “He didn’t rob a bank”, “He only broke the rules for 10 minutes” and, “It was all a long time ago.” Every time one of those arguments is trotted out, the status of this House is gradually eroded and our democracy becomes a little weaker. The convention that Parliament must not be misled and that, in return, we do not accuse each other of lying are not curious quirks of this strange place but fundamental pillars on which our constitution is built, and they are observed wherever parliamentary democracy thrives. With them, our public debate is elevated. When Members assume good faith on behalf of our opponents, we can explore, test and interrogate our reasonable disagreements about how we achieve our common goals. Ultimately, no matter which Benches we sit on, no matter which Whip we follow, fundamentally we are all here for one reason: to advance the common goals of the nations, of the peoples, that make up our United Kingdom.
I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for giving way. He mentioned some of the arguments around, “Well, it was just nine minutes.” I met a woman, the daughter of a serviceman who lost his life the week before that birthday party. She said to me, “What I wouldn’t give for just nine more minutes with him.” I congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman on the way he is rising above party politics here. To diminish nine minutes as just anything diminishes us all across both sides of the House. Would he not agree?
I am grateful for that intervention, because it goes to the heart of the matter. Some have tried to suggest equivalence between these fixed penalty notices and speeding. That just does not understand the enormity of the difference. It is very rare that the whole nation goes through something together—a trauma together, that was covid. There are awful cases of funerals, of weddings that were missed, of parents who did not see the birth of their children. They are awful cases, but I think almost every family was marked during this period, including my own, by things we did not do that we would have liked to have done—usually visiting elderly parents and seeing children. There was a huge sense of guilt that we did not do it, including in my own family: guilt that because we followed the rules, we did not do what we thought was actually right by our elderly relatives. That is why it hurts so much. That is why anybody trying to say, “This is just like a speeding ticket” does not understand what this goes to politically and emotionally.
Going back to the principles, I want this debate to be about the principles, because that is where I think the debate should be. The Committee will be charged, if the motion goes through, with determining whether there was any misleading. But this is about the principles we all care about. That is why I think everybody should simply vote for the motion this evening to uphold those principles. Those principles, that we do not mislead the House and in return we do not call each other liars in this House, ensure that we make good decisions and avoid bad ones. It is what makes our democracy grow in ways that reflect the hopes and tackle the fears of those we represent. It is what makes our democracy thrive. It is what makes this House thrive. It is what makes Britain thrive.
Mr Speaker, we do not have to look far to see what happens when that faith is lost and there is no hope of reason resolving disagreements. When nations are divided, when they live in different worlds with their own truths and their own alternative facts, democracy is replaced by an obsession with defeating the other side. Those we disagree with become enemies. The hope of learning and adapting is lost. Politics becomes a blood sport rather than a quest to improve lives; a winner-takes-all politics where, inevitably, everyone loses out.
The Leader of the Opposition was big-hearted enough to say that he unwittingly misled the House. I am sure he would agree that it is very important to stick to the convention that we do not call each other liars, and there is a good reason for that. Two of our colleagues have been killed and there have been a lot of attacks on colleagues. In this debate, can we just accept that everybody here is an honourable Member and that when they speak here, although they may unwittingly mislead the House, they think that they were, for instance, abiding with the rules? Can we tone down the whole nature of this debate?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention; I will try to keep within those parameters and elevate this debate to the principles that we apply when we debate in this Chamber.
I am grateful for what my right hon. and learned Friend said about the fact that we do not want Opposition Members to have a monopoly on truth. He makes a very important point, but does he agree that the fundamental point is about whether we as Members of Parliament are fit to hold our powers to hold people to account or whether politics will always get in the way? It was disturbing to hear that Conservative Members might vote against the motion because a Labour Chair was involved, and it is disappointing that my hon. Friend Chris Bryant felt that he had to step down. The principle of whether we either have an independent process or do it ourselves is very important.
That is very important. We have these procedures to hold us all to the rules of the House, and it is very important that they are applied in the right way with the right principles.
The right hon. and learned Member is making a very powerful speech. On procedures, does he agree that there is a bigger point about Parliament’s governance structures? Our whole system of checks and balances is completely out of date. It is beyond ludicrous that the arbiter of whether the ministerial code has been broken is the person who is accused of breaking it—in this instance, the Prime Minister. Does the Leader of the Opposition agree that we also need a wider look at those governance structures, which are simply not fit for purpose?
I am grateful for that intervention, because it raises a very serious point. A lot of our conventions, rules and traditions are based on the principle of honour and on the fact that Members of this House would not, other than inadvertently, mislead the House. That is why the rules are set, and they are set on that proposition. If a Member of the House—whoever that is—does not abide by those honourable principles, we have that stress test of the rules.
I understand completely the point made by Sir Edward Leigh about toning down the rhetoric—[Interruption.] I understand that position, but let me make this point, because I have known him over the years: we cannot tone down the seriousness of this matter. I was in the Prime Minister’s constituency earlier this week; it is the neighbouring constituency to mine and we are campaigning for the London Borough of Hillingdon in the election. There is some shift in the vote from Tory to Labour because of this issue, but that is not the significant point. What is significant is the number of people we found who were totally disillusioned, who had had enough of the system and who were blaming the system itself. That is what we are fighting and campaigning for. We are campaigning to restore the credibility of our country’s democratic processes.
That is a really important and powerful point, because if we do not pass this motion and take this opportunity to restate the principles, we are all complicit in allowing the standards to slip. We are all complicit in allowing the public to think that we are all the same, that nobody tells the truth and that there are alternative sets of facts.
I will make some progress and try to come back to hon. Members when I can.
The conventions and the traditions that we are debating are not an accident. They have been handed down to us as the tools that protect Britain from malaise, extremism and decline. That is important, because the case against the Prime Minister is that he has abused those tools, that he has used them to protect himself rather than our democracy, and that he has turned them against all that they are supposed to support. Government Members know that the Prime Minister has stood before the House and said things that are not true, safe in the knowledge that he will not be accused of lying because he cannot be. He stood at the Dispatch Box and point-blank denied that rule breaking took place when it did, and as he did so he was hoping to gain extra protection from our good faith that no Prime Minister would ever deliberately mislead this House. He has used our faith and our conventions to cover up his misdeeds.
I will just finish this point. After months of denials, absurd claims that all the rules were followed and feigned outrage at his staff discussing rule breaking, we now know that the law was broken. We know that the Prime Minister himself broke the law, and we know that he faces the possibility of being found to have broken it again and again and again.
As the police investigation is ongoing, we do not need to make final judgment on the Prime Minister’s contempt of Parliament today. When the time comes, the Prime Minister will be able to make his case. He can put his defence—of course he can. He can make his case as his defence that his repeated misleading of Parliament was inadvertent; or that he did not understand the rules that he himself wrote, and his advisers at the heart of Downing Street either did not understand the rules or misled him when they assured him that they were followed at all times; or that he thought he was at a work event, even while the empty bottles piled up. He can make those defences when the time comes.
I will give way in just a minute.
We already know that he has a case to answer. The Prime Minister said that no rules were broken, but more than 50 fines for breaching the rules and the law have now been issued, including to the Prime Minister. Anybody who denies that simple fact has their head in the sand or has given up any interest in the truth and in the traditions of our nation in order to prop up a lawbreaking Prime Minister.
Today’s motion would refer the matter to the Privileges Committee, a Committee that has a Government majority. No one can say that the Prime Minister is not being judged by his peers. The Committee would investigate the Prime Minister for contempt only once the police had concluded their investigation. No one can say that there is prejudice to the rest of the inquiry. And, of course, any findings the Committee comes to and any sanctions it might propose would then come back before the House as a whole, so no one can say that it is too soon for the House to decide. It is a system of self-governance, and it should be, because with the great privilege that comes from sitting in this place comes the great responsibility to protect the conventions that underpin our democracy.
On conventions, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that language is equally important? Will he therefore take this opportunity to distance himself from John McDonnell, who said that he wanted to lynch another hon. Member, and from Angela Rayner, who is sitting right next to him and who called Members on this side of the House Tory scum? He should distance himself from them.
If the debate descends into a shouting match, Mr Speaker, we lose the principle that is there to defend all of us, including all the Conservative Members. We are not claiming a principle to support those on the Opposition Benches and not those on the Government Benches; it is a principle that supports us all. If we fail—
The Leader of the Opposition has just said, quite rightly, that this issue affects everyone in the House. Does he accept that at this moment there is a complication, namely that the Committee on Standards is conducting a report, under the aegis of Sir Ernest Ryder’s recommendations, which raises questions about whether a fair trial and natural justice are possible at this juncture? That is currently under discussion in the House. The same rule applies with regard to the question of the Committee of Privileges, which has already been criticised. I was on the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, and I can assure the Leader of the Opposition that serious problems arise in relation to the need to rectify those omissions in procedural fairness.
I have heard the hon. Gentleman put his case on natural justice a number of times, and of course he has every right to do so. I disagree, but that is the point of the debates we have. However, a debate about natural justice, or due process, need not hold up the current process. This motion can and should be passed today, and everyone should support its being passed today to uphold the principles to which I have referred. There is a discussion to be had about natural justice—an interesting debate, in which we will take different views—but it need not hold up this process.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely correct to prosecute the case on the basis of principle, but there is still an amendment on the Order Paper, even if the Government will not move it, which would indicate that not everyone in the House shares his view of the importance of these principles. Does he share my view that at the conclusion of this debate there should be a Division, so that we know where every single Member of this House stands on the principles? At a time like this, on an issue like this, there should be no hiding place for anyone.
I agree. We have a duty here today, in relation to this motion and these principles. If we fail in that duty, the public will not forgive and forget, because this will be the Parliament that failed—failed to stand up for honesty, integrity and telling the truth in politics; failed to stand up to a Prime Minister who seeks to turn our good faith against us; and failed to stand up for our great democracy.
It is not just the eyes of our country that are upon us. There will also be the judgment of future generations, who will look back at what Members of this great House did when our customs were tested, when its traditions were pushed to breaking point, and when we were called to stand up for honesty, for integrity and for truth.
I call the Father of the House.
Part of this is about the Prime Minister. My habit over 46 years has been not to make a public or private comment about a party leader, whether mine or someone else’s, and I do not propose to change that now. If I have something to say to a Prime Minister, I say it directly, as I did first with Harold Wilson, and have done with most other Prime Ministers since then.
My preference would be to back the amendment, but if it is not going to be moved, I cannot do so. This is not the right time for the House to make a decision. The words in the amendment are ones that I would support, and I am sorry that the House will not be able to consider them. I may be in the minority in that, but that is not a problem in the House; it happens to a lot of people.
The words in the third paragraph of the Prime Minister’s statement on Tuesday spell out the situation: he said that he did not think, in effect, that it was a party, or that the rules had been broken. He now accepts that the situation has been judged differently by the police. I do not think we should build a great big cake on top of that admission and acceptance; the House would do better to leave it like that.
It would also be better—I am not challenging you, Mr Speaker—if the House decided that the reference to the Committee on Privileges should be made when all the information is available from the Cabinet Office report and the results of the police investigation.
The last thing I want to say—without attacking Wes Streeting—is that those who heard the “Today” programme this morning heard repeated references to the local government elections on
On a day like this, we think of all those who made so many sacrifices over the covid pandemic and those who lost so many loved ones. Our thoughts and our prayers today are with each and every one of them. There is one reason why it is so important that this motion be debated and passed today. At the very heart of the scandal, there is one thing that needs to be said and heard, and it is the very reason why we all need to act. The reason is this: the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is a liar. I genuinely do not say that lightly, and I do not say it loosely. I honestly believe that it is right that we are slow to use that word, but equally, I consider it right that we should never be slow to say it, and to call it out, when it is so obviously true. Members across this House know it to be true, and the public have long known it to be true. That is why it needs to be said today, and why we all need to act.
Every single day, motions come before this House that are complex and nuanced. There are usually two sides to the argument, and valid reasons for any position that is proposed, but I think we can safely say that this definitively is not one of those debates. The evidence in the motion speaks for itself. It is as clear as day. If there ever was an open-and-shut case, this is it.
Last December, the Prime Minister came to this House and denied that there were any parties in 10 Downing Street during the long covid lockdowns. Typically, and tellingly, he hid behind his staff in saying that. He told us that he was given firm reassurances that no parties had happened, and that no rules had been broken. Every Member of this Parliament witnessed that; the public saw it with their own eyes; and, shamefully, to this very day, it is still on the record of this House. But we know the truth, and the truth contains no ifs, buts or maybes. The House was misled, and so were the public. We were all misled deliberately, because the Prime Minister knew the truth. Not only were parties happening, and not only was the law broken, but the Prime Minister was at the very parties that he denied had even happened. The truth is simple: he lied to avoid getting caught, and once he got caught, he lied again. There is no other way to describe it. There is no other word for it.
I can understand that this may be a terrible truth for those on the Government Benches to hear, but it is a truth that they need to hear, and that they need to live with. I say to the Father of the House, for whom I have the utmost respect, that this has nothing to do with any elections. This is about the behaviour of a Prime Minister in office. Much more importantly, the uncomfortable truth that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is a liar is exactly why those on the Government Benches finally need to act and remove him from office. Other Prime Ministers, including all his predecessor Conservative Prime Ministers, would have been long gone by now. Members on the Government Benches put the Prime Minster in power; they have the power to remove him, and the public expect them to act. We have reached this point. A motion of contempt for a sitting Prime Minister is shocking, but unfortunately it is no surprise.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about Conservative Members being here to listen and watch. Regardless of the number of flushed or drained faces on the Conservative Benches, what does he say to those who previously called for the Prime Minister to resign, but who, as things got worse, changed their position, and are not here today?
I will come on to that in a little more detail, but the Tory MPs who are here, and those who are not here for whatever reason, should show some moral fibre and show a backbone. They should recognise what this Prime Minister is doing to the very fabric of our democracy. Today of all days, they should do the right thing and support this motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition and of the leaders of so many other parties in this House.
We should not forget that, when the Tories put this Prime Minister into Downing Street nearly three years ago—[Interruption.] Actually it was the Conservatives who elected Boris Johnson as their leader. The important fact is that the Tories knew exactly the kind of person they were putting into the highest office in the land. They knew his track record; they knew his character; they knew who he was and what he was; and they still chose him as their leader. Conservative Members know better than anyone else in the House that a trail of scandal and lawbreaking was always going to define his time in office.
In three short years, those who made those predications have unfortunately not been disappointed. The sleaze and the scandal has been ten a penny. From lying to the Queen to illegally proroguing Parliament—
Order. We have to be careful. I have asked for moderate, more temperate language. I am not having the Queen brought into it. Withdraw that point.
Order. I said this at the beginning, and I know the right hon. Gentleman will want to stick to what I said. We cannot go beyond the terms of the debate. I know he is very good and can stick to the script that I have explained.
Stuffing the House of Lords with Tory party donors, VIP lanes for covid contracts, and even dodgy donations to decorate Downing Street—this is who the Prime Minister is. It is who he has always been. As Prime Minister, he has done exactly what it says on the tin. The real point is that as the days pass with him staying in power, it is who the entire Conservative party has become.
My right hon. Friend is making a very measured and powerful speech that will strike a chord with the electorate in my area, where people of all political persuasions have been writing to me calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation. They are not surprised by his repeated pattern of behaviour and the lame excuses, but they are surprised that Conservative Members are keeping him in office. Why does my right hon. Friend think that is?
I hope Conservative Members listen very carefully to what my hon. Friend says, because the power to remove the Prime Minister rests with them. They can submit letters to the 1922 committee, and they can recognise the damage that the Prime Minister is causing to the fabric of our democracy—and, yes, to the integrity, honesty and decency of this House.
Here we go. Once again, the Conservatives want us to sit down and shut up. They do not wish to hear the voices of those of us, here to represent our constituents, who are frankly appalled at the way the Prime Minister has laughed at the people of these isles with his behaviour during covid. If Conservative Members vote down this motion, not only will they be endorsing all those scandals and all that sleaze, but they will be handing the Prime Minister a blank cheque to do it all over again. I would be surprised if the hon. Gentleman accepts the scandals, the sleaze and the corruption and is prepared to give the Prime Minister a blank cheque. I do not want to do that. If he does, he can explain why.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to be surprised, because of course I am appalled; that is why I encouraged him to sit down. If he would let us speak, he might advance his own cause. Some of us are actually extremely disappointed. The right hon. Gentleman heard what I said on Tuesday. He is a brother in Christ. Does he not believe in redemption?
Mr Baker talks of contrition. Does my right hon. Friend think that, when the Conservative party attacks the very foundations of the Church of England—the Conservative party at prayer—we should take no lectures from them on being contrite or reconciled sinners?
I wonder whether it is worth pointing out to the House that, before we can have Christian forgiveness, we must first have confession and contrition, neither of which we have seen from the Prime Minister.
How we get confession from a Prime Minister who denies everything, I just do not know.
Mr Speaker, I know you will understand that I cannot let this moment pass without a special word for the spineless Scottish Tories. In fairness, the Scottish Tory leader is probably the only person in the Conservative party who finds himself in a deeper hole than the Prime Minister. In fact, he is so far down a political hole that he obviously found it impossible to dig his way out and make it down to London to vote his boss out tonight. I understand that plenty of people back home are looking forward to the Scottish Tories being given a straight red in the council elections in a few weeks. [Interruption.] There we go again. I hope people in Scotland are watching, because what we see is the Conservatives trying to shout down parliamentarians in this House. That is what is happening.
For most people, it is very understandable—[Interruption.] There is Scotland’s answer from the Tories: “Let’s shout Scotland down.” That is what they are doing this afternoon. [Interruption.]
Order. Can we just calm down? I want to hear the right hon. Gentleman, and I know he wants to get back on track. He does not want to distract from this important debate.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
It is understandable that most people’s main reaction to the flip-flopping Scottish Tory leader and his support for the Prime Minister is disbelief and justified anger. I have to admit that, when I reflect on the position of the Scottish Tory leader, my main reaction is something I know he will appreciate far less. I actually feel sorry for him, because he is by no means the first person to have his career ruined by the Prime Minister. That pile of people is a mountain high. Everybody, and I mean everybody, is eventually thrown under the Boris bus. As we saw yesterday, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury is safe. Clearly, the days of the Church of England being the Conservative party at prayer are long gone. The Prime Minister’s party is obviously praying to another god these days, although no doubt even that will not guarantee its salvation.
But in all seriousness, that unjustified attack on the archbishop gives another toxic insight into the thinking and methodology of this Prime Minister. His modus operandi is very simple: when he finds himself under political pressure, he finds someone else to blame—anyone else, just as long as he never takes responsibility himself, because nothing and nobody else matters. The only thing that does matter is that this Prime Minister will stop at nothing to save his own skin. That is why Conservative Members should not save him today. Think about it: he would not even lift his finger to help them. So if they have any self-respect, they need to ask themselves why they should even be contemplating walking through the Lobby for him.
Let me end on this point. It might surprise hon. Members to hear, from a party that is unapologetically seeking out of this very institution and out of this Parliament, that I actually do care how it acts and operates, and about the values it holds. I care deeply for this reason. Today’s motion is not just about this Parliament or about this place. We should all know by now that democracy and decency are under assault the world over. If we fail to defend these values in every single institution we are part of, these values will decay and decline. It was George Orwell who famously said:
“Political chaos is connected with the decay of language”.
I know that people are deeply fearful about just how real that prophesy has felt in the last few years because, when language decays, so does the truth and so does trust in our politics. A Prime Minister who cannot be trusted with the truth marks the end of that dangerous decline. So if today is about anything, it has to be about finally ending that decline.
That decline did not start with this Prime Minister, but it needs to end with him. We should all be very clear as to what the consequences are if this House fails to act today. If we don’t act—if we don’t stop—this Parliament will be endorsing a new normal in this Parliament and across our politics: a new normal where no one is held responsible, no one is held to account and no one ever resigns. That is exactly why this motion matters, because it can and it will only ever become a new normal if we put up with it. It only becomes normal if those responsible are not held to account and are not made to answer for their actions. So I genuinely say to Members from across the House, but especially those Members opposite: if they have any interest in maintaining some dignity and decency in public life, they should finally hold this Prime Minister to account for his actions and remove him from office. They should support this motion, they should submit their letters of no confidence and they should finally show this Prime Minister the door.
Thank you for calling me so early in this debate to deliver my sermon, Mr Speaker. If I may, by means of parish notices, let me wish Her Majesty a happy 96th birthday.
My intention was to vote against the Government’s amendment and that would still be my intention were it to be moved. I appreciate the efforts by my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip to find a way through—he is somebody we are lucky to have in his role—but we were at risk of making a mistake. The original motion is perfectly acceptable and allows for much of the spirit of the amendment. For example, the publication of the Gray report would be automatic upon the conclusion of the Metropolitan police’s work. There was no need to complicate matters.
The Ukraine situation is of huge importance, but the invasion of a sovereign nation by a dictatorial aggressor should not be a reason why we should accept lower standards ourselves. I have told the Prime Minister to his face that I think he is doing a good job in robustly supporting the Ukrainian Government. Her Majesty’s Government, along with our nation, can be proud of their role and generosity. Let us give credit where credit is due. However, much as I may have tried, I cannot reconcile myself to the Prime Minister’s continued leadership of our country and the Conservative party. I say this by means of context, so that everyone, particularly my constituents and colleagues, can understand my position, without hiding my views with ever more elaborate disguises. To those constituents who disagree with me, I say that I appreciate their anger, just as I can appreciate the anger of colleagues. However, say what you mean and mean what you say.
I submitted my letter of no confidence to my hon. Friend Sir Graham Brady in December last year. I did so for the following reason. It followed the leak of the Allegra Stratton mock press conference video. I believe that in that video she did nothing wrong. She nervously laughed and sought to make light of an embarrassing situation. To see her crying on her doorstep, feeling the full weight of responsibility and anger of a country, was deeply moving and I felt immensely sorry for her. I hope that she is well and will be able to continue her distinguished career. But what alarmed me most was that, later that evening, a press preview of the winter covid plan B measures was brought forward to try to move matters on. We debated those measures at length, but we can agree, if not on their extent or importance, that they none the less sought to compel or restrict what people in this country could do. I therefore thought to myself: if a Government were prepared to bring such measures forward earlier in order to distract from their own embarrassment, the Prime Minister was no longer fit to govern.
I care deeply about my colleagues. I know that a number are struggling at the moment. We have been working in a toxic atmosphere. The parliamentary party bears the scars of misjudgments of leadership. There can be few colleagues on this side of the House who are truly enjoying being Members of Parliament at the moment. It is utterly depressing to be asked to defend the indefensible. Each time, part of us withers.
I have questioned my place in this party in recent months and perhaps that is symptomatic of a swathe of our voters in the country, but I tell them firmly that I am not going anywhere and I urge them to stick with us in the forthcoming elections. But for us to maintain their trust and confidence, we must be seen to do the right thing. It is our responsibility—it is the Conservative parliamentary party’s responsibility. We must stop delegating and delaying our political judgment. We each only have our own limited and imperfect integrity. We cannot keep spending it on others whom we cannot be sure will not let us down.
I have great empathy for all those who worked at No. 10 and in the Cabinet Office. They bore an immense burden and worked under the most intense pressure. They worked hard and made sacrifices. I extend that same empathy to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who knows more than most the personal challenges and personal battles that came from the pandemic. But the matter before us is one at the heart of this institution, of our Parliament.
I love this place, believing it to be a place of high ideals and purpose. What is said here matters. Quite apart from the Facebook clips about roundabouts and drains in our constituencies, or indeed the confected anger to wind people up, it should be a place venerated by those of us given the singular honour of being sent here. Of course it can be a pantomime, a farce, turgidly boring and obscure, but it should always be reasonably honest. It is for that, I hope not naive, principle that I cannot support the amendment and I will vote for the motion. [Interruption.]
Order. Come on, Mr McDonnell—you have been here longer than most people! We do not want to clap after every speech.
I warmly commend Mr Wragg for the speech he just gave. He did so with great courage and honesty and, frankly, with the integrity that a lot of us have seen him show in his chairmanship of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. This House knows that serving on and chairing Select Committees is not always easy, because quite often people come to Select Committee meetings with fixed views. They are not all that interested in the evidence that is presented to them and resolutely hold the same view after the meeting that they held at its beginning, even though everything has been proved to be quite the opposite of what they thought. I know from those who serve on the hon. Gentleman’s Committee that he listens to the evidence, and he is a very good parliamentarian as Chair of the Committee.
It all got a bit religious earlier and I felt like I was back at theological college. Being, I think, the only person in the House who can actually pronounce absolution on anybody, I thought I was suddenly going to get a new job!
I also warmly commend the work that the Chief Whip has done this week, because he has got us into a much better place today than the House would have been in if he had not made the decisions that, doubtless advised by others, he has made today.
I had not expected to speak in this debate. I will be very straight with the House—if you see what I mean—in saying that it is sometimes difficult being the Chair of the Committee on Standards and of the Privileges Committee, because one is asked to comment on literally every single Member of the House at some point. I am absolutely scrupulous in making sure that I never comment, in public or in private, on anything that might possibly come to either of the Committees. I did not think this matter would come to the Privileges Committee, which is why I commented on it. Consequently, it is quite right that I recuse myself: I will not take part in the deliberations of the Committee on this matter if this motion is passed in any shape or form. I think I could have done it fairly—I chaired the Standards Committee when we had the Prime Minister before us in respect of a different matter and we disagreed with the Commissioner for Standards and found in the Prime Minister’s favour—but I understand that the House needs to know, absolutely for certain, that the process will be fair. In a strange way, that means that I can actually say something today.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his speech and thorough sense of decency. Does he think the same principle should apply to other members of the Privileges Committee?
I will say something about the Privileges Committee later but, having recused myself, I do not think it is really for me to tell its members what to do or how to behave.
One thing I am very keen on is this: I passionately care about Parliament. I believe in Parliament. I believe in democracy. The only way that I can get change for my constituents is through the democratic process. Anything that undermines trust and confidence in Parliament damages my opportunity to do anything useful in my life at all. That is why I always want to urge the House to be extremely careful in these matters of standards and privileges. Each generation of MPs has a responsibility to burnish, not tarnish, the reputation of this House, because we hand democracy on to a future generation, and if we have undermined it, it may not last.
I draw to the House’s attention the fact that in this Parliament, two MPs have been found guilty of serious offences in a court of law, and another two are awaiting trial; four MPs have been suspended for one day; a Minister was suspended for seven days; seven MPs have been required to apologise to the House for breaches of the code of conduct; three MPs have resigned their seats in the face of convictions; and the Independent Expert Panel has suspended a Member for six weeks for sexual harassment, made another apologise for bullying staff, and found another guilty of such terrible sexual harassment that he resigned his seat before he was sanctioned. All that is without any consideration of whether any right hon. or hon. Member has lied to the House. And it is not yet six months since the Owen Paterson saga, which I do not think covered the House in glory.
In a very short period of time, two of our colleagues have been murdered, and others are wearing stab vests. We have to take the reputation of the House extremely seriously. We have to burnish it, not tarnish it.
I have heard Ministers argue, quite rightly, that there must be due process. I say to the House that this is the due process. It always has been the due process. When there has been a claim that a member of the public or a Member of the House might have committed a contempt of Parliament by lying to the House, breaching the confidentiality around a Select Committee report or whatever, the standard process is that it is sent to the Committee of Privileges—or, as it used to be, the Standards and Privileges Committee, and before that the Committee of Privileges—so this is the due process.
I have absolute confidence in the other members of the Committee and that they will do a good job. They will think very carefully about, as Sir William Cash said, making sure that there is a fair hearing. The court of public opinion is not very good at providing a fair hearing, I find; the House should do a great deal better than the court of public opinion. We try to uphold the rule of law—that is one of the duties for all MPs—so it is particularly important that we make sure that there is a fair process. I am sure that the other Committee members will do that.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful and important contribution. This mostly relates to Members of Parliament, but he will know that occasionally somebody feels it necessary to use parliamentary privilege to say in the House things over which those outside the House might otherwise sue for defamation. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he will consider whether the public ought to have a right to reply, so that if we use privilege, they have some chance to put their side of the story?
The hon. Member makes a good point. We have had some discussions about that issue outside the Chamber. The difficulty is that I am not sure that is a matter for the Standards Committee or the Privileges Committee; I think it is a matter for the Committee on Procedure. There is a good argument for putting something in place so that there is a right of reply. I cannot go further, for reasons of which the hon. Gentleman may be aware—
Order. I do not want to open up that area of debate. I know exactly what is going on—we can leave that part of it there.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
My second point about fair process is that it is actually quite a high bar that the Privileges Committee will have to consider. As the Leader of the Opposition said earlier, I do not think it is debated that the House was misled. I think even the Prime Minister admits, in effect, that the House was misled. It was said that rules were not broken and it is self-evident that rules were broken, so the House was misled—it got a false impression. The question is whether that was intentional. The Committee will have to devise ways to investigate whether there was an intention.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent and poignant speech. Does he not find it strange and deeply worrying that we seem to be in a position in which the Prime Minister seemed unable or incapable of following his own rules and his own laws, yet he is using the rules and processes of this place to frustrate the course of, as Sir William Cash said, natural justice?
I would normally agree with the hon. Lady on these kinds of things, and I sort of would have agreed with her last night, but I think we are getting to a better place now. In a sense, sometimes the Back Benchers persuade the Front Benchers of a better course of action—I am looking intently at the Government Chief Whip at the moment.
As the Clerk advised in the case of whether Stephen Byers had misled the House on a single occasion in 2001:
“In order to find that Mr Byers committed a contempt in the evidence session of
As I said, that is quite a high bar, but it is for the Privileges Committee to decide that.
“any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”.
The question rests on “knowingly”, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point clear.
We will leave it at that.
The only difference I have with the hon. Gentleman is that he was talking about the “Ministerial Code”. The “Ministerial Code” is for the Prime Minister. This House adjudicates on its rules, its code of conduct and contempts of Parliament, so they are different matters. This is about upholding a simple principle around making sure that Ministers speak honestly.
I will say one other thing about the Committee: it is very important that the six members of the Committee are not pressurised by anybody. Members may not be aware of this, but the Attorney General and the Solicitor General can attend those meetings and take part in the deliberations, but they are not allowed to move amendments or to vote. It is very important that the Committee is able to do its business without being leaned on by anyone.
My final point is why I think all of this is important. I care far more about what is happening in Ukraine and on the cost of living crisis than about this—far more. I have constituents who are in tears about their finances at the moment. They have absolutely no idea how they will pay their bills, how they will pay the rent, and how they will be able to provide school uniforms and things such as that. They are in tears. All of us have seen the horror in Ukraine. In 2014, I said that if we did not take Putin far more seriously and if we did not impose far stricter sanctions, he would end up coming for the rest of Ukraine. I care far more about those things than I do about this motion today, but they are not alternatives. I would argue that, in the coming months, the Prime Minister may have to come to this House and say that we will have to change our strategy on Russia. We may have to consider offensive weaponry. We may have to consider British troops being put in a place of danger. Similarly, the Prime Minister may have to come to this House and say, “I have to ask the British people to make further sacrifices because the economy is in a very difficult place, and the public finances are in a very difficult place.” At a moment of national and international crisis, we need a leader of completely and utterly unimpeachable moral authority. We do not have that at the moment, not by a long chalk, but that is why these two things are intimately connected and not separate. It is why I believe that this must be referred to the Committee of Privileges.
I appreciate and respect the seriousness of tone that Chris Bryant, the Chair of the Privileges Committee, just brought to the debate. I respect the work that he does as Chair of the Committee, and I respect the work of the other members of the Committee, too. That seriousness of tone is important and it is one that we should try to adhere to. It is inevitable that there will be a party political overlay to this, and it is inevitable that, with the proximity of important local elections, party political elements and electoral considerations will intrude, as they have today, and as they will do in the way that whatever is decided will be reported later. None the less, at the end of the day, the debate that we are dealing with is about a very serious matter, and it therefore deserves a serious tone.
The hon. Gentleman referred to his past calling—if I may put it that way—as influencing his approach, and I respect that, too. Perhaps I can do the same. I am very conscious of the fact—I am very proud of the fact—that I was a lawyer before I became a politician, and I will be a lawyer after I finish being a politician. Therefore, I hope to approach decisions such as this from the perspective of a lawyer.
Perhaps I can make a little bit of progress before I give way.
That may cause me, in the view of some, to be cautious, but I would rather be accused of being cautious than of acting on inadequate evidence or without a full and proper process. That is the preamble to what I am about to say.
Let us assume that the Prime Minister inadvertently misled the House. Is not the problem that, from the beginning, he was not straight with us? Even if he knew that he was at a birthday singsong with a birthday cake, why did he delay being straight with Parliament for such a long time? Is it not the case that we are here today, so close to the local elections, because of the delay that has been caused by him, not by those of us on the Opposition Benches?
I do not think that that intervention reflects the tone of the debate thus far. With respect to the hon. Lady, although I will touch on some of those matters, I will not follow directly down that route, because what we are talking about is an important and serious matter. It is important because it relates not just to the incidents that are reported, and, to some degree anyway, are accepted to have happened at No.10 Downing Street, but to a general culture and attitude. It is important for this House because it relates to three important things, which I—and I hope the whole House—hold dear: the first is the issue of public trust; the second is respect for the rule of law, and that in the context of adherence to the laws and the fact that the laws made by this House must be adhered to by all equally—
May I just finish the phrase? There is always a tendency to intervene while someone is part way through a sentence.
The third point is that respect for the rule of law also means respect for procedural fairness, which is what I will come to in a moment.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I wish to put it on the record that he has been extremely courteous to me on a personal level ever since my first appearance here and that I have great respect for him.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman, like me—I speak as a Scot—is a Unionist, and those on the SNP Benches in front of me know that. I believe in the United Kingdom and in the benefits of the Union between Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Part of the reason why that Union works is exactly to do with what the hon. Gentleman was talking about, which is respect for this place and the way that we do things. Does he think that the continuation of the Prime Minister in office will strengthen or threaten that precious Union?
As I will make apparent shortly, I will come to my conclusion on the position of the Prime Minister—as I am entitled to as a Conservative Member of Parliament—once I have heard the full evidence. The importance of the respect of this institution in the various parts of the United Kingdom is, of course, well made, and I take that on board.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I also commend the Justice Committee and him in his role as Chair for the investigation that took place in respect of fixed penalty notices. The Counsel for Domestic Legislation, as he will remember, says that there was a great lack of clarity over what regulations apply to specific situations at what times and so on, and I shall refer a bit more to that if I am called to speak a bit later. The bottom line is that I am sure that this very distinguished Chairman of that Committee appreciates that, in relation to the rule of law question that he has just raised, it is by no means clear exactly what the law is on these subjects.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his observations. That brings me on to the point that I was about to make. The subject of the motion is not of itself the fixed penalty notice that was accepted by the Prime Minister, or any of the other fixed penalty notices. It is, as is rightly said, the question of whether there was a deliberate misleading of the House. I think that that is the common ground. Of course, the fixed penalty notices are part of the factual background that gives rise to that, and he is quite right to say that the Justice Committee was critical of the fixed penalty regime that was brought in on a number of counts, and in particular of the confusion that existed in many people’s minds—ordinary individuals whose cases would never be the subject of any comment in this House or in the media—of the distinction, or non-distinction sometimes, between guidance and law. We were critical of that, and critical also of the use of fixed penalty notices for what were specifically described—it is worth putting this on the record—as criminal offences.
I took the trouble to look again at the regulations. The original regulations, the Health Protection (Corona-virus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020, which were amended shortly before the incident with which we were concerned, specifically set out in terms that a failure to comply with a restriction under the regulations creates an offence, and the word “offence” is specifically used in the regulation.
We should not minimise that. We should not say, “This is a civil matter. This is equivalent to a parking ticket.” It is not. That is a simple question of fact. The Ministry of Justice accepted that in the statement it made when the regulations were brought in, and the Justice Committee, in carrying out that inquiry, heard that from the noble Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Sir Jonathan Jones QC, the former Treasury Solicitor when they gave evidence to us. That is common ground.
I will equally accept, as I am sure anyone else with experience in legal matters would, that within the range of fixed penalties, a fixed penalty notice of £50 is at the lower end of the scale of available penalties. The Select Committee raised the question whether the level of fixed penalty notices imposed were appropriate to be dealt with via fixed penalty rather than fine, but that is by way of background. That is all very well. We are dealing with something that was an offence. Accepting the fixed penalty discharges and deals with a criminal matter, but it does not change its nature, so we should not try to minimise it, and I do not.
I will say, without having come to a final decision about the Prime Minister’s position, that I am profoundly disappointed in what happened at No. 10 Downing Street. People were badly let down. My constituents feel badly let down. I feel personally badly let down by what happened. There must be consequences that follow from that. I think anyone would accept, in fairness, that what that consequence is depends on an ultimate assessment of the measure of culpability. That is why I would prefer, both in making my personal decision and ultimately in the House’s making a decision, to wait until we have the full evidence and information before us.
Had the amendment in the Government’s name been moved, I would happily have voted for it, because I think that full evidence includes not just the conclusion of the police investigations and the issuance or otherwise of any other fixed penalty notices, but the content of the Sue Gray report. As anyone will appreciate, the Sue Gray report is likely to include material that gives background and context beyond the strict requirements of the statement of facts that go with a fixed penalty notice. It is important to have that.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. Does he appreciate that what he has just said about the Sue Gray report explains why some of us at least have asked time and again for it to be published in full, unredacted, immediately?
Yes, and I agree with my right hon. Friend in that respect. It was unfortunate—I say no more than that—that the way the police investigation has been handled has led to a delay that may not have been needed in terms of prejudicing any ongoing investigations. As a matter of fact, I believe the report should be published in full at the earliest possible opportunity.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very sound legal argument, and I acknowledge where he is coming from. Does he agree that, in politics as in life, very often there comes a point where one needs one’s closest friends, one’s strongest allies, one’s wisest counsel, to put a hand on one’s shoulder and say, “Enough. What you’re doing now is going too far. It’s damaging yourself, in this case your party, and potentially the country. Stop. That is what is in the best interest.”?
That was a little more of a mini speech than an intervention. I will simply say this: I will speak for myself and the advice I give to my friends, my constituents and this Chamber. As I have made clear, I would have preferred to have the Sue Gray report as well as all other material before taking a decision on reference to the Committee, but I will not stand in the way of this unamended motion, because matters of important public interest arise.
Personally, I will withhold my final decision until I have all that material. You will understand, Mr Speaker, an obvious reason for that: a course of conduct may very properly attract a different judgment and different consequences from an isolated incident, particularly if it were one that were immediately admitted to and no more occurred. That context will be really important to me, and ultimately I think it will be important to this House, to the broader community and to the country as a whole.
That is my word of caution. That is why I would have supported the amendment and I understand and appreciate the spirit in which the Treasury Bench brought it forward, but I will not stand in the way of this motion’s proceeding, because there are important issues at hand. I will then, in due course, reach my final conclusion, and when I do, I will not be backwards in coming forwards about it. However, I hope I will manage to do so loyally, but, in the way I have tried to do politics, in a spirit of genuine calmness, based on the facts and the evidence. At the end of the day, the country deserves an assessment based calmly upon the evidence and the facts, applied to the relevant tests of this House or the other appropriate bodies.
I will start by going back to the excellent speech by Chris Bryant. In his concluding remarks, he talked about the economic crisis facing our country and our constituents. He is right to bring that context to the debate today, because it speaks about the need to have a Government with a leader who can command respect.
With inflation at 7%—its highest rate for 30 years—and rising still, with families facing the deepest fall in their living standards since the 1950s, with the pain of energy bills and rising food prices compounded by the Government’s unfair tax rises, we know that our constituents are facing real hardship. It is not just a cost of living crisis; it is a cost of living emergency. At such a time, the country needs a Government that will be focused on tackling that economic emergency. Crucially, it needs a Government that it can trust—with, as the hon. Gentleman said, moral authority.
I do not believe this Prime Minister and this Government have that. I believe that the Prime Minister’s behaviour has been profoundly damaging to that trust. He broke the very laws he himself introduced: laws he was telling everyone else to follow, laws that he rightly said were essential to save lives and protect our NHS, laws that forced countless families to make enormous sacrifices.
I believe it is time that Conservative MPs listened to the British people, the people who kept to the rules and made those sacrifices. For example, a small business owner in Bramhall said:
“Whilst I had to sit and watch the business I had built up for thirty-five years collapse because my customers and I obeyed the rules, the Prime Minister decided he would ignore them. My family and I will never forgive him and those that treated us like fools.”
Mary Robinson would do well to reflect on her constituent’s words when she continues to support this lawbreaking Prime Minister. Or there is this message to Caroline Ansell from a constituent of hers, who attended his father’s funeral just four days after the Prime Minister’s birthday party:
“We sat apart. We didn’t hug each other. We weren’t allowed to have a wake to celebrate his life. I just came home and cried that he was gone... When the next election comes around, I will remember.”
A constituent of Maria Caulfield said:
“My parents were unable to attend my uncle’s funeral. This pain will remain with them. The conduct and subsequent untruths of the Prime Minister are disgraceful and only add insult to their hurt.”
That is the key point. It is not just the fact that the Prime Minister broke his own laws, but that he thought he could get away with it by taking the British people for fools. He stood at the Dispatch Box and told this House and the country, repeatedly, that there was no party—that all guidance and rules were followed at all times in No. 10. The fact that he thought he could get away with such absurd claims—claims that, let us be honest, we all knew were false at the time, and that the police have now confirmed were false—speaks volumes. It says clearly that this Prime Minister takes the British people for granted. He thinks the rules that apply to the rest of us simply do not apply to him.
As a constituent of Stephen Hammond says:
“The Prime Minister seems a man without shame and devoted to one principle only: staying in Number Ten. He is a disgrace to the office of Prime Minister and an insult to the millions of the electorate who played by the book.”
If he has not written to the hon. Gentleman, I will make sure that he does.
The fact that Conservative MPs have let the Prime Minister get away with all this until now speaks volumes about them. They could have kicked this Prime Minister out of Downing Street 10 months ago and begun to restore the public’s trust and confidence in the Government and in our democracy. Instead, Conservative MPs have so far—
Order. He says he did not, so that clears that mess up.
Instead, Conservative MPs have so far ducked their responsibility, only eroding that public trust and confidence even further.
The Solicitor General, for example, once said that his red line for resignation from the Government was if there was a “scintilla of a suggestion” of unlawful action. Well, the Prime Minister has been fined by the police, yet Alex Chalk is still drawing his Government salary. By keeping the Prime Minister in his job, Conservative MPs have made themselves guilty by association. They should know that if they vote to kick the can down the road again, if they vote to bend the rules to let one of their own off the hook again, if they do not hold this Prime Minister to account for his law-breaking and lies by voting him out, their constituents will hold them to account at the ballot box.
“If I broke the rules and lied about it, I would get struck off. So why hasn’t the Prime Minister been?”
Lifelong Conservative voters in Guildford are saying they cannot vote for the Conservatives any more. Conservative Members complain about elections; the problem is that if they will not hold this Prime Minister to account, the electorate will have to hold this Prime Minister to account.
A constituent of John Redwood tells me that his MP—
Order. We are mentioning a load of Members and Members’ constituents. I hope the Members were notified that they were going to be namechecked.
Shh. So I would suggest that we do not name any more unless the Members are aware of it. It is only fair that we do that.
I take your ruling, Mr Speaker. I was quoting from their constituents. That was the point, so that their voices could be heard in this House.
The past 24 hours have shown that the Government are in total disarray. Conservative MPs are clearly too ashamed to back the Prime Minister but still too complicit to sack him. The people each of us represent know the truth. They know the Prime Minister deliberately misled them and deliberately misled this House. It is an insult to their constituents, especially bereaved families in their seats, and it will be another Conservative stain on our democracy. If Conservative Members fail to sack this Prime Minister, they will leave the British people no choice. In the council elections on
The whole House can now see that this matter has moved far, far beyond law into matters of deep politics and fundamental values. As we consider both the motion and the issue at hand, every last Member of this House might remember some very old wisdom: if anyone ever says that they never fall short, never break a rule or never harm someone else, they deceive themselves and truth is not within them.
I am very grateful that we live in a society where there is the possibility of redemption and the possibility of mercy—where if somebody fulsomely apologises in a spirit of humility, going on for some hours, there is a possibility of redemption. That, of course, is not to excuse what has been done; it is not to defend it or condone it, or in any way to say that what went on was okay. It is to accept that it was wrong and nevertheless forgive—and forgiveness is difficult; no one should pretend otherwise.
The hon. Gentleman talks about redemption and forgiveness, but should not things be done at the earliest point possible rather than drawing them out like the Prime Minister has done? This is his main problem. Had he come here immediately and at least expressed his doubt about maybe being at something that he did not consider to be a party, it would have been better, but the fact that he denied everything is the main problem that we in this House find so difficult to swallow.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I think she will recognise the spirit and inspiration of what I am saying, as people did on Tuesday, but I do not wish to be drawn excessively into theology about the timing of one’s repentance, and I will move on.
Many Members of this House—I can see some of them on the Opposition Benches—choose to live their lives under certain commands: to love even their enemies, to bless those who curse them and, yes, to forgive as they are forgiven, sometimes for grave matters. So when I sat here and listened to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister say the words he said in the House of Commons—which I will not put back on the record, because people know what he said—and when I read them again in Hansard, I think that is an apology worthy of consideration of forgiveness for what went on, because this has moved beyond law. As far as I know, no one else in this country is being investigated by the police for retrospective offences—it is gone, it is behind them, it is past—but those in No. 10 Downing Street are being held to a higher standard in ways that other members of the public are not. [Interruption.] I can hear Members barracking, but that is right.
When we imposed these not merely draconian but barbaric rules on other people, everybody in the centre of power should have understood that they had to obey not merely the letter but the spirit of those rules. There should have been no cake in No. 10 and no booze in No. 10; these things should not have happened. I do not defend or condone in any way what happened.
I am mesmerised by the hon. Gentleman’s psychic powers if he does not understand that all offences are retrospective—unless he knows someone who is going to commit an offence. To err is human and to forgive divine, but to transgress repeatedly, as the report already shows us, is something else. Is it not important that we have this inquiry now to understand whether that has happened and there has been a repeated offence against the House? In the past year, half of the public have lost what little trust they had in politicians. The longer this goes on and the more repetition there is, the more all of us are besmirched. Is it not right, in the spirit of forgiveness and redemption, that we are all given the opportunity for salvation?
Not for the first time, the hon. Lady tempts me to give her references. On the point about repeated offences and forgiveness, I would encourage her to look at Romans 7. She invites me to clarify what I said. Of course all offences are retrospective. My point is that the police are treating Downing Street staff especially harshly in a way that the rest of the public are not being treated. [Interruption.] If Andy McDonald wants to say that is not true, I will take his intervention.
There are people up and down this country who have received fines way beyond what was imposed on those in Downing Street. The hon. Gentleman has to get his facts straight before he stands up and says they have been treated more harshly. That is simply not accurate.
Of course people up and down the country have been fined, punished and all the rest of it, and the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I have stood here and complained about those things far more than he or any Opposition Member has. The point I am making is that the police are going back some months to offences committed some time ago in a way that they are not doing for other people. I think that that is accurate and that my hon. Friend the Minister was nodding along earlier.
Indeed, she nods again.
When I sat here and listened to the Prime Minister’s words, I was deeply moved. For all that I have said that if he broke the law, acquiesced in breaking the law or lied at the Dispatch Box, he must go, I still felt moved to forgive. But I want to be honest to the House, and to my voters, and say that that spirit of earnest willingness to forgive lasted about 90 seconds of the 1922 Committee meeting, which I am sorry to say was its usual orgy of adulation. It was a great festival of bombast, and I am afraid that I cannot bear such things. This level of transgression and this level of demand for forgiveness requires more than an apology in order to draw a line under it and move on in the way that the Prime Minister sought to do overnight with his interviews.
I am sorry to be saying that on the record like this, but I am afraid that the Prime Minister and those who advise him need to understand that this is a permanent stone in his shoe. Those of us who want to forgive him have to see permanent contrition, a permanent change of attitude and permanent acknowledgement of people such as my constituent who did not get to see his wife in a care home on their 50th wedding anniversary. I think he saw her only through a window on her 75th birthday. I have been married for only 25 years, but I know what that would mean to me. What am I to say to that man, who did not see his wife before she died? I could say, “You and I are Christian men, and forgiveness is hard.”
I do not like forgiving the Prime Minister. My spirit is much more full of wrath and vengeance. I feel much more Ezekiel 7:3 about this issue, and I invite everybody to look that up. I do not want to forgive our Prime Minister. The trouble is that I like him and helped him to get where he is—I will come back to that in a moment—and the problem is that I am under a command to forgive.
I will talk about what Ian Blackford said. When I and others went out of our way not only to make my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but to do our bit—in my case, systematically—to help get an 80-seat majority, of course we did not think that he would exhibit a meticulous grasp of tedious and boring minute rules. But we did know that he had two jobs: he had to get us out of the European Union, which he was fully committed to doing, and he had to defeat the radical leaders of the Labour party. He had to do so in an environment in which everyone was exhausted, we were testing our constitution to destruction, and the internal stability of the United Kingdom was at stake. That is the job we gave him to do, and by goodness he did it. For that I am thankful, and he will live with my thanks forever. He deserves to be lauded in the history books.
The problem that I now have, having watched what I would say was beautiful, marvellous contrition, is that the Prime Minister’s apology lasted only as long as it took to get out of the headmaster’s study. That is not good enough for me, and it is not good enough for my voters—I am sorry, but it is not. I am afraid that I now have to acknowledge that if the Prime Minister occupied any other office of senior responsibility—if he were a Secretary of State, a Minister of State, a Parliamentary Under-Secretary, a permanent secretary, a director general, a chief executive of a private company or a board director—he would be long gone. The reason that he is not long gone is that it is an extremely grave matter to remove a sitting Prime Minister, and goodness knows I have had something to do with that too. It is an extremely grave matter and an extremely big decision, and it tends to untether history. All of us should approach such things with reverence, awe and an awareness of the difficulty of doing it and the potential consequences.
That is why I have been tempted to forgive, but I have to say that the possibility of that has now gone. I am sorry, but for not obeying the letter and the spirit of the law—we have heard that the Prime Minister knew what the letter was—the Prime Minister should now be long gone. I will certainly vote for the motion but, really, the Prime Minister should just know that the gig is up.
The House will be aware that a great many people wish to speak this afternoon. If we are to continue in the spirit of fairness to one another, I hope that we will manage without a time limit. I am testing the integrity of hon. Members: please stick to around five minutes. That way, everybody will have the chance to participate more or less equally. If it does not work, I will put on a time limit, as usual.
I intend to speak for less than five minutes. This is probably the most unusual debate that I have had the privilege of speaking in since I was elected to this House in 2010. It is unusual because when I suggested on Tuesday that the electorate had already concluded that the Prime Minister was either a liar or an idiot, I was called to order by Mr Speaker, who was perhaps right to do so; but the truth is that we have good reason to suggest that we have been misled by the Prime Minister, because he repeatedly said that no rules were broken and that no parties had taken place. He then suggested that he did not understand the terribly complex rules that had been written by him and his Government, and that he could not get his head around them.
Contemptuously, the spin men and women of Downing Street then suggested that the Prime Minister’s fine was a bit like a speeding offence. As Sir Robert Neill said, it is nothing like a speeding offence; it is a criminal sanction. In fact, if we want to talk about speeding offences, there is something called the totting-up procedure. If someone gets one speeding offence, they receive three penalty points. If they manage to end up with four offences in three years, they are disqualified from driving for a minimum of 12 months. If a newly qualified driver does not understand the rules and gets two speeding penalties, they are disqualified from driving. In fact, they have their driving licence revoked.
I had rehearsed a speech that I was intending to make today, but I have binned it because my constituent Wendy Phillips contacted me while I was waiting to be called. She is watching the debate and said:
“Your constituent Lily Camm, Tory voter for over 50 years, fell ill with Covid exactly 2 years ago—4 weeks later died in care home whilst PM partied. Family feel so guilty as she was only in care home for her safety for 5 months. We let her down.
Am watching this in tears—I let her down, I was her voice &
I persuaded her to enter this care home for her own good. I carry the guilt daily.”
I pray in aid Conservative Members, who should think very carefully about the decision that they take on behalf of their constituencies. They should look in the mirror and see who is looking back. Is it someone who is honourable, and who is not prepared to put up with a Prime Minister misleading the country? If they do not, I am afraid to tell them that the electorate, who have already decided, will make their anger known at the next election.
I want to put on the record that many of my constituents are angry, upset and hurt by the activities in Downing Street. I have heard many harrowing tales of the sacrifices my constituents have made.
I want to address one point. The Leader of the Opposition refused to take my intervention; I want to say what I was going to say. He implied that he wanted to rise above party politics. That is a noble sentiment, but I dispute that that was what was happening, for two reasons. First, I understand that last night a Labour party spokesman was briefing that Conservative MPs who did not vote for the option in the motion would “pay a price”, and have individual campaigns launched against them in their constituency. That is threatening, bullying, toxic talk, and I sincerely hope that that does not happen. The second reason why I think that this is not entirely above party politics is that Wes Streeting trailed the studios today, talking about local elections and the superior leadership shown by the Leader of the Opposition. I remind the House that the Leader of the Opposition twice campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn to be put into the highest office in the land—a man who was later censured by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for antisemitism. Think what would have happened had he been leader when the situation in Ukraine arose. Let me tell you: that is leadership that I can do without.
We often see the worst of Parliament—we certainly have in recent weeks and months—but this afternoon, particularly in the speeches by the hon. Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), we have seen at least some of the best of Parliament.
I want to be clear about what is at stake in today’s debate. This is not just about parties, cake or a fixed penalty notice akin to a parking ticket. What is up for debate today is our most profound democratic principles, and the very concept of decency in public life—leading by example versus hypocrisy; truth versus lies; and respect versus contempt. That is because the Prime Minister has sealed his place in history as the first lawbreaker to have been fined while occupying our premiership, proving beyond doubt that he misled this House when he told us repeatedly that no rules were broken. We now know that they were broken, and broken by him.
Our democracy depends on the truth being told by Ministers. That is why resignation is expected when this basic and fundamental standard is not met. This is not about cake in a box, or the number of minutes spent at a gathering. This is about a Prime Minister failing to hold himself to the highest standards at a time of unprecedented national sacrifice and then covering it up. This is about a Prime Minister holding both Parliament and the public in contempt, a Prime Minister trashing decency in public life and undermining the foundations of our democracy.
When last night the Prime Minister tried to brush off the importance of today’s debate by saying that
“you’re better off talking and focusing on the things that matter”, he could not have been more misguided. Being able to trust our Ministers and, above all, the Prime Minister matters in this place more than anything, because without it the whole edifice collapses. Parliament has many roles, but surely its most important is the role we play in providing a check on Executive power through our ability to scrutinise the actions of Government Ministers. Without that, they would be free to exercise their powers as arbitrarily as they pleased. Our ability to play that role is totally undermined if we cannot trust what Ministers tell us—if we cannot rely on the accuracy of the information that Ministers give to Parliament. If Ministers can get away with misleading answers, what is the point of asking the questions? If we hollow out the scrutiny process because the answers could be lies, we hollow out this whole place.
If MPs do not launch an investigation when the Prime Minister has been found to have personally broken a law that he repeatedly told this House had not been broken, it is not just the Prime Minister’s credibility that is damaged; it is the credibility of Parliament, and indeed the credibility on which our entire system of democratic governance is built.
This whole sorry episode has demonstrated that Parliament’s governance structures—our systems of checks and balances—are in urgent need of reform. It cannot be right that if the Prime Minister makes a misleading statement and commits a contempt against Parliament, it is up to the Prime Minister to determine any consequences. It is beyond ludicrous that the arbiter of whether the ministerial code has been broken is the person accused of breaking it, the Prime Minister. It is preposterous that if MPs want to recall Parliament to discuss a matter such as this, only the Prime Minister can initiate that. MPs are unable to require Ministers to correct the record if they mislead the House. We cannot compel an investigation into such actions or impose sanctions. Old boys’ club rules that simply assume honour are manifestly not adequate, and as a result a rogue Prime Minister is running rings around us.
Surely this is a moment when we must review those archaic procedures, which have been so clearly demonstrated to be unfit for purpose. We need independent oversight of the ministerial code. We need new mechanisms to call to account a Prime Minister who deliberately misleads the House—a Prime Minister who, in the words of the respected constitutional historian Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, has
“shredded the ministerial code, which is a crucial part of the spinal cord of the constitution.”
That code includes an overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law, and if they have broken their overarching duty, it is clear that they have an overarching responsibility to go.
Our system is broken. The glaring flaws in how the ministerial code functions were investigated recently by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Lord Evans of Weardale. It reported on the importance of high ethical standards just one month before we found out about the rule-breaking in No. 10. The chair made it clear that
“a system of standards regulation which relies on convention is no longer satisfactory.”
The report is quietly damning and on point. The House must urgently act on the committee’s key recommendations that
“ethics regulators and the codes they enforce should have a basis in primary legislation, and that government has a more thorough and rigorous compliance function.”
In other words, we can no longer leave this in the Prime Minister’s hands.
On the ministerial code, the committee found that meaningful independence for the independent adviser
“is the benchmark for any effective form of standards regulation and current arrangements for the Adviser still fall below this bar.”
That must urgently change if we are to restore any respect for this place. In particular, we urgently need to implement the call for the independent adviser on the code to be appointed by an independent panel, rather than by the Prime Minister. It is vital that it be able to initiate its own investigations and have the authority to determine breaches of the code. We must also grapple with the question of who should decide and issue sanctions in the event of a breach by the Prime Minister. The vested interest of a rule-breaker who is deciding their own sanction cannot be discounted any longer.
Finally, I want to say a few words about the war on Ukraine. It is the centrality of truthfulness to our democracy that makes it such a serious misjudgment to seek to put our democratic standards on hold because of the brutal war on Ukraine, as some hon. Members have suggested we should. Attempts to corrode democracy and promote the politics of division are exactly what run through Putin’s war strategy, which means that it is more urgent than ever that we have a Prime Minister with unquestionable moral authority.
“credibly defend democratic norms abroad, especially at a time of war in Europe…if we are, and are seen to be, resolutely committed both to the observance of the law and also to the rule of law.”
Putting decency on pause and bending our rules plays into Putin’s hands, because his brutal war on Ukraine is not just a battle for territory, but about democracy and the rule of law. We have a long tradition, as other Members have said, of removing war leaders and the ability to change a leader during a crisis is a strength of our system.
Order. Before the hon. Lady gives way, I did ask for five minutes and she has taken nine. She may wish to consider whether she is giving way or might be concluding soon.
I want to open by acknowledging what I thought was the fair, measured spirit in which the Leader of the Opposition opened this debate. I thought he spoke in a fair-minded way, as have many other hon. and right hon. Members on all sides, including those friends of mine who have, sadly, decided that they can no longer support the Prime Minister, but I want to speak in his defence today, because somebody has to.
I acknowledge, in all seriousness, how big a mistake the Prime Minister made. Of course, he should apologise for it, take responsibility and accept the verdict of the police, whether or not he was surprised by that verdict. If he lied to this House, of course he should resign, but he did not—patently he did not. Patently he did not break the law deliberately, so patently he did not deliberately mislead this House, any more than the Leader of the Opposition deliberately misled the House when he said that the PM had slandered the BBC. I welcome the sort of apology that he made earlier. We can now all move on from that mistake and remember that only those who are without sin should be casting stones.
I do not minimise the importance of this scandal. Many people are outraged by what has gone on and have written to me to that effect. Many are just the usual haters who always despised the Prime Minister, but many are the respectable tendency of our country—often Conservative voters—who just want a steady, decent, respectable Government. I think particularly of my councillors in Devizes and party members who have written to me in despair at what the Prime Minister has done. They are right to want a steady, decent, responsible Government; we do not have to have a soap opera in Downing Street. But we do need a Government and a Prime Minister who can see the big picture and make the big calls—one who does not always play for safety, does not always do the conventional thing that officials suggest and does not always think, “What would John Major do?”
Let me finish with a word about the character of the Prime Minister, who I have known a little for many years, and with whom I had the privilege of working closely in Downing Street in those crazy months in the second half of 2019, when he and my other old friend Dominic Cummings drove through the strategy that finally got Brexit done. There was a lot of smoke and noise in those months, but in the midst of it all I saw the Prime Minister in relentless pursuit of the mission, with total flexibility about the methods to be used, including a proportionate response to the tactics taken by the other side in its attempts to subvert the democratic process. The European Union saw how serious he was at that time, and it is because of that that it finally accepted a deal that we could also accept. The country saw it, and it responded with a landslide election victory for our party, and I do not believe that any other leader would have done it.
None of this would justify lying to this House, but I do not believe that the Prime Minister did lie, and those are the reasons I follow him in spite of everything—in spite of his accepting a slice of birthday cake when he should not have, in spite of overseeing a No. 10 operation that let the country down, in spite of some policies that I am unhappy with. I support him because he was anointed by the people in 2019 to deliver a great mission to unite and level up the country, and because he can make the big calls that are needed at this time.
It is a pleasure to follow Danny Kruger, but may I politely and respectfully point out the difference between the approach of the Prime Minister and that of the Leader of the Opposition? When the Leader of the Opposition erred, he came straight to the Dispatch Box and amended the record, and that is what we are asking the Prime Minister to do. There is a huge distinction between the two cases.
We are at a crisis point for our democracy. The Nolan principles provide clear guidance as to conduct in public office, but they are being honoured more in the breach than in the observance. We know that, when the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and told this House that there had been no parties and that all guidance was followed at all times, neither of those statements were true. They were palpably untrue, and this matters. It is beyond the realms of credibility that the Prime Minister could possibly have thought that either of those things were truthful when he said them. He has gone through his life with the rules not applying to him, but the public have made their mind up. In opinion poll after opinion poll, the public have said very clearly that the Prime Minister of our country has lied, and this sorry issue has to be resolved.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this boils down to trust, and that the motion refers to trust within this House, trusting a Committee that reflects the proportional balance of the House to deal with the matter in a proportionate way once all the evidence is in?
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. It all comes down to trust in this place. As other Members have pointed out, it is trust that we need if leaders are going to make important decisions about the cost of living crisis and interventions that may be demanded of us in Ukraine as we go forward. That is why trust matters.
It is bad enough that a serving Prime Minister has broken the law, but the public are certain that he lied when he denied that he had broken the law, and his lame defences as to what he believed are now in tatters. It is therefore imperative that the appropriate mechanisms of this House are engaged, as so expertly described by colleagues and as on the Order Paper, and that this behaviour be referred to the Committee of Privileges to see whether the Prime Minister is in contempt of this place and, indeed, in contempt of the country.
To go back to the hon. Gentleman’s point about this sorry issue having to be resolved, he knows I had the privilege of serving as the cancer Minister in this House. Right now this House should be discussing childhood cancers. If one were a parent of a child with cancer, I suggest one would rather the House were discussing that than this. That is not to minimise this. This issue needs to be resolved and we need to move on. For that reason, I will be supporting the motion—with him, I suspect—this evening.
I am grateful to the hon. Member, who speaks so wisely. He is right that we all want to move on from this, but we will find that, unless this issue is resolved, we will be back to it forever until such time as the Prime Minister accepts the consequences of his actions. We need that leadership, and we are robbed of it at the moment. That is the entire point. Of course, cancer in children is critically more important and we want to get on to that, but we cannot have this issue hanging over us.
Sadly, this wanton disregard for the principles of public office is part of a wider malaise and we see it in many of our public offices. I will not stray to recite them, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I plead with Conservative Members to actively vote for the motion. I am pleased that the Government have made the movement they have thus far today, but we have heard so eloquently described how the people need to have trust in this place and democracy is at stake. It is therefore imperative that people come forward and actively support the motion.
I will finish with this, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not know whether you heard it, but on LBC there was a heartbreaking interview with a veteran. That man could not contain his emotions as he spoke not only of his own service, but of the loss of his son serving this country in Afghanistan, and his anger at the lying of the Prime Minister overwhelmed him. He wrongly criticised himself for sacrificing so much for his country and felt that it had all been for nothing.
In the excellent speeches of Mr Wragg, my hon. Friend Chris Bryant and, indeed, Mr Baker, who spoke so courageously, we have heard that people in this place care deeply about this nation and its democracy. We all do. For that reason, we should stand up for its integrity and reputation, which, I regret to say, is trashed on a daily basis by this disreputable Prime Minister. I urge Members across the House to vote for the motion.
As I indicated in my response to the Prime Minister’s statement on Tuesday, the entire issue, the legal status of fixed penalty notices and what the law really is remain on the table. It is, unfortunately and regrettably, an extremely complex matter, which is charged with political and understandable emotional underpinning.
For example, the Justice Committee has had a great deal of importance to say in seeking clarification of those matters of law and the rule of law itself in this context. Even now, the legal situation remains immensely unclear and inconsistent. Despite the presumption that one Opposition speaker after another makes that the Prime Minister has lied, there is lack of clarity and inconsistency between different police authorities, different circumstances and different locations.
The Counsel for Domestic Legislation to this House said in evidence to the Justice Committee that
“there has been a lack of clarity as to what regulations applied to specific situations at what times, there is evidence that local authorities and police forces have on some occasions misunderstood” the circumstances and so forth. It is even arguable that, under section 73 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, the regulations did not apply to No. 10, as part of the Crown Estate, anyway. Resolving that issue will be a massive test, even before a court of law.
On contempt and the role of the Committee itself and the current procedures whereby privileges or contempts are referred to it, the great constitutional authority, “Bradley and Ewing”, states that the Committee’s procedures have “been criticised” in the Nicholls report of 1999. As I have said in previous debates on the Committee on Standards, and again today, all that is currently under review, here in this House, with Sir Ernest Ryder’s important report relating to the principles of natural justice and fair trials before that Committee. Indeed, it will need some very good legal advice.
In 1999, it was concluded that the Committee on Standards should devise an appropriate procedure to ensure natural justice and fairness. As I said in my exchanges with the current Chair, all that is being undertaken by Sir Ernest Ryder’s report. How the Committee of Privileges will cope with the situation is one thing, but it is crystal clear that not waiting until the Sue Gray report has been delivered, as well as the conclusion of the Metropolitan police’s investigations, will lead only to further confusion and the need for the Committee to suspend its proceedings before they have begun.
The question remains: has there been a contempt? What is the proper procedure that should be applied? Are the proposed procedures fair as a matter of natural justice? That depends on the evidence, the facts and an understanding of the law. The Committee will have to address all that before it can even sit and draw conclusions with any degree of competence.
Before I start my main points, I want to mention a couple of things that I have been listening to. First, many of us on this side were aware that the Government were trying to kick the issue down the road with their abandoned amendment. We are two weeks away from the local elections, and their action begs the question of whether desperation to ensure that the way their MPs voted was not on the record was their motivator.
Secondly, the Government’s approach is that they live in hope that the public’s memory is ruled by the news cycle and that the public interest will move on. I believe that they are fundamentally wrong in that assumption. Everybody who made a personal sacrifice during covid will remember their loss, pain and grief for the rest of their lives. It is engraved on our hearts. We are not going to forget. The Government may kick this down the road, but they are wrong if they assume that their safety is tied up with the news cycle. The Prime Minister’s behaviour will not be forgotten.
Today we have a chance to correct the record, to reinstate credibility in our system and hold Conservative Members—and, indeed, all of us—to account, not only for their or our misdeeds but for our preparedness on occasion to defend the indefensible. Today is a chance for all Members, of all parties, to do the right thing, and our names should be on record when we want to do the right thing.
Public trust in our democratic system is plummeting as we careen from one scandal to another, and the very reputation of our democracy, ourselves and the function that we are honoured with here is seemingly at stake.
Some 73% of the British public are in favour of a Bill that would criminalise politicians who willingly lie to the British public. Plaid Cymru has been calling for stronger measures to ban politicians from lying in their public role, not just in the past few months, but for 15 years.
We all know that we live in an age of public disenchantment. From that same poll, conducted by Compassion in Politics, we learnt that 47% of people have lost trust in UK politicians during the past 12 months. If we look back at the momentous events over the period, from the fall of Kabul to the pandemic to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the cost of living crisis, what other conclusion can we draw than that we have failed in our duty to uphold the public’s trust?
That sense of failure is not just a rhetorical gambit, a professional nicety or an optional extra for us here. From anti-vaxxers to the Putin regime, when we fail to confront mistruths, we create a truth vacuum in which division takes hold. When any “truth” is as good as any other, division along political lines comes to matter more than agreement on the common ground of facts. That matters.
We work in an institution where we cannot call out the lies of another Member, regardless of their position of responsibility—lies that are broadcast around the country, recorded for posterity and therefore impressed on the memories of millions of people. We have no way of addressing that effectively.
Although I defer to the Speaker’s judgment in this matter, partygate has demonstrated conclusively that our self-regulating system is no longer fit for purpose. The ministerial code has been proven not worth the paper it was written on. Gentlemen’s honourable agreements depend on the existence of honour. We must do better. If we cannot do better, because we make a mockery of the public’s concerns by shrugging our shoulders and accepting that it is merely part and parcel of modern politics, we must be compelled to do better.
We as legislators must legislate to uphold our good names, and, by extension, the good name and efficacy of democracy itself. A first step would be a Bill; a second would be rebuilding our political model, much as Wales and our Co-operation Agreement has done, so that politics is built around what we share, rather than that which divides us. Honesty is the most important currency in politics. We have to restore it before we here are responsible in part for bankrupting our society.
Much has already been said about the police’s investigation, as a result of which the Prime Minister was issued with a civil penalty. He paid it immediately and came to this House at the earliest opportunity to give a heartfelt apology. Not only that: it is clear that he and the Government do not oppose moving the matter to the Privileges Committee, which shows that his contrition is right and true.
Let me be clear that the Prime Minister’s apology was the right thing to do. Each and every single Briton across the length and breadth of our beautiful country has made sacrifices during the pandemic. When my first daughter was born, my wife was seriously ill and, because of that, I could not see my daughter for five days. I made sacrifices. All my residents made sacrifices. Even the Prime Minister made sacrifices when he almost died from covid and, as we know, when his family members died, he could not attend their funerals.
All politicians should be held to the highest standards, be that the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn or the Scottish First Minister, and all of them have been caught and photographed in covid-compromising positions. They should all be referred to the Privileges Committee to be investigated.
The Prime Minister paid the fine, and rightly so. He has been unequivocal that he respects the outcome of the police’s investigation and that he will always take the appropriate steps. The central issue is whether he intentionally or knowingly—those are the vital words—misled the House. I point to an article published in The Times on Saturday
“Boris Johnson celebrated his 56th birthday yesterday with a small gathering in the cabinet room. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, and a group of aides sang him Happy Birthday before they tucked into a Union Jack cake. The celebrations provided a brief respite after another gruelling week”.
The Prime Minister has said that it did not occur to him then or subsequently that a gathering in the Cabinet room just before a vital meeting on covid strategy—to save lives—could amount to a breach of the rules. That event in No. 10 was reported the next day in a national newspaper and did not then prove controversial. It is unfathomable that the Prime Minister’s team would have alerted journalists to the event and incriminated him if he believed that it was against the rules. That does not make sense. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister apologised and has been punished. Further, for transparency, he has welcomed the matter being moved to the Privileges Committee.
I also want to briefly address an article yesterday in The Times, which reported that
“Sir Keir Starmer had warned Tory backbenchers that they would pay a price for blocking an investigation” including personal attacks for supporting the Prime Minister. It is outrageous that the Leader of the Opposition came here on a day on which we talked about tolerance in politics to lay out such a threat of bullying against Members of this House. We all have our own minds. We may all disagree, but I and many colleagues have had death threats and to threaten people and to try to stoke that is incredibly dangerous.
There were no threats of bullying made. What we are talking about is an electoral threat. I have had to take two death threats to the police that directly quoted words said in this place by the Prime Minister of our country. People have attacked my office on the basis of the words of our Prime Minister and, when that was raised with him, he said, “humbug”.
We must be honest that we face death threats on both sides of the House—[Interruption.]. No, this is an important point. No one should get abuse in their job. My point is that only yesterday—a day when we were talking about debates—the article said:
“Tory backbenchers…would pay a price” through personalised attacks. I am sorry that the hon. Member received death threats; she should not have done.
Is not the point that we all face abuse from being in this place—as one of the youngest Members in the Chamber, I fear every day for the bullying and harassment that I will receive—and that all targeted attacks do is stoke the flames so that we receive more abuse?
Indeed, they do. We should all rise above that and treat each other with the courtesy that everyone needs in a place of work. Sadly, we have witnessed the violence that colleagues have been exposed to and, ultimately, the deaths of two colleagues.
Going forward, the Prime Minister has clearly taken significant measures to improve how things are working in No. 10, and there are more changes to come. We have talked about Christian forgiveness. I am a Christian—a Catholic—and this is a Christian country. Forgiveness is at the core of what we believe. The Prime Minister has offered a heartfelt apology and his contrition. He has come to the House, and he is happy for the matter to go to the Privileges Committee; he does not oppose that. He has apologised. We need to look at that.
It is now time to crack on with the priorities for our country. We have an obligation to deliver on our election promises, and I look forward to the Government focusing on important issues for my constituents in Rother Valley, including getting the Rwanda illegal immigration scheme up and running as soon as possible and winning the war against the fascist Putin. The Rwanda scheme will save lives, defeating Putin will save lives and, through covid, the Government have saved many lives in this country.
There has been a lot of talk about apologies. I remind the House that the motion is not about whether the Prime Minister has apologised but whether he knowingly lied to the House. He has not apologised for that—he has not even admitted it. In fact, he has persistently and consistently said that “there was no party”, that there was no cake and that there was a party but there was no cake—I could go on. I welcome those apologies, but let us be clear about what the motion says.
Earlier, the leader of the SNP, Ian Blackford, reflected the words of my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer about the Prime Minister’s modus operandi: he leaves a trail of chaos in his wake and lets other people pick up and take responsibility for the problems that he has caused. The latest victim of that—I told him that I would mention this—is Mr Speaker and the office of the chair. Recently, when he had to chuck out the leader of the SNP for calling the Prime Minister a liar, he got huge amounts of public opprobrium, saying, “What on earth is Speaker Hoyle doing? Why is he chucking out the leader of the SNP when we know what the Prime Minister is up to?” The Prime Minister does not mind because somebody else takes the criticism for that. He is undermining not simply Mr Speaker but this House and, as hon. Members have said, our democratic system. The public cannot understand what on earth is going on when one person gets thrown out and the person who is the root of the problem is happy to stay there smirking on the Front Bench. That is his modus operandi, and it is dragging our democratic system down.
We all make mistakes. I make mistakes, and I have had to correct the record. We have heard about apologies and about the Prime Minister being contrite, but I do not recall one occasion on which he has come back to the House and corrected the record. Not one. I think that there is an outstanding letter to him from the UK Statistics Authority about a misleading claim that he has yet to come back to correct. The bottom line is that the Prime Minister will say whatever is necessary at one point to get out of whatever situation he is in, with no sense of obligation to the truth or to whatever promise he has just made. I have scribbled down a list of five or 10 promises he has made and broken, but, as I do not want you to call me up, Madam Deputy Speaker, as we are talking specifically about the occasions when he denied there was a party, that list will have to wait for another occasion—but there will be another occasion.
As I have said, the Prime Minister is damaging the UK’s reputation abroad. Outside this Chamber, our partners abroad—as well as our adversaries and enemies—can see that he is losing credibility and they cannot necessarily work with him because his word cannot be trusted. That damages the UK, and that is serious at a time of international crisis.
I finish by quoting an article from The Guardian by Simon Kuper about the Oxford Union and a younger version of the Prime Minister who wrote an essay on Oxford politics for his sister’s book, “The Oxford Myth”:
“His essay tackles the great question: how to set about becoming the next prime minister? Johnson advises student politicians to assemble ‘a disciplined and deluded collection of stooges’ to get out the vote.”
Remember that this was just after he left university. The quote from the Prime Minister in his earlier days continues:
“The tragedy of the stooge is that…he wants so much to believe that his relationship with the candidate is special that he shuts out the truth. The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of the stooge.”
Those were the Prime Minister’s views then. They are apparently still the Prime Minister’s views today. The British people have made up their mind and for them the penny has dropped. I say to hon. Members on the Conservative Benches that it is time for the penny to drop for them as well. They need to search their feelings. They know it to be true. This is the manner of the Prime Minister and today is the time finally to put a line underneath that.
I would like to make three brief observations.
First, Mr Speaker was quite right to decide that there was an arguable case to be examined by the Committee of Privileges. That is the issue in front of us today, not whether the Prime Minister intentionally misled the House. That is for the Committee to decide. While in many respects this situation is completely unprecedented, there have been similar cases which confirm that such a referral is the right course to pursue: the 1947 case of Mr Garry Allighan; the 1977 case involving Reginald Maudling, John Cordle and Albert Roberts; and the 2005 case of Stephen Byers, which I shall comment on further shortly.
The second point to decide is the timing of the consideration by the Committee of Privileges. The motion states that that should not begin in a substantive way until the inquiries conducted by the Metropolitan Police have been concluded. The amendment, which will not be moved, states that any vote should wait until the police investigations have been completed and Sue Gray’s report has been concluded. In many respects, we could go round and round in circles as to which of those courses is the right one to pursue. Thus, it is welcome that the amendment is not being moved.
Finally, I return to the case of Mr Stephen Byers and the manner in which that equivalent debate, on
“The Government support the motion because it is necessary for the House to refer possible breaches of the rules to the Standards and Privileges Committee for investigation. The Government respect the privileges of the House and we will uphold them. They are crucial to the independence of Parliament and the strength of our democracy.”
He concluded by saying:
“I urge Members to refrain from treating the matter as a party political question.”—[Official Report,
The motion was passed without Division.
I acknowledge that in this instance the stakes are much, much higher and that hon. Members from right across the Chamber quite rightly, as we have heard this morning, hold passionate views on this matter. But that approach, I would suggest, is the right one for us to pursue.
I want to start my remarks by paying tribute to the powerful contributions by the hon. Members for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). One thing that has come out of recent events is that, owing to the Prime Minister and Richard Thomson, we now have a name for the post-truth movement: Pinocchio politics.
If this matter was only about parties, the motion would stand very clearly. Actually, however, it is about much more than the parties; it is about the environment in which they happened. Every choice we make in life has consequences. I know more than many that we have to live with the consequences of the choices we make. Some Members seem to want to make me feel as uncomfortable as possible, but I am quite happy with that consequence because I did not come here to feel comfortable. I came here for a very different purpose. The compelling and central part of the argument is around the honorific titles we bandy about in this room, whether right honourable or honourable, and whether they actually mean anything of substance. There needs to be congruence to the use of those titles and the actions of the Members of this place. That congruence is absolutely essential.
When it comes to leadership, I could talk about lots of leadership theories, emotional intelligence and all that stuff, but there are two fundamental standards of leadership: where the buck stops and from where the tone is set. The tone set from the Prime Minister is woefully inadequate. It has sullied the good name of his office, it has tarnished the Members of this House and it has distorted the importance of truth across the countries of the United Kingdom.
I made some notes during the Easter break and I headed them up. As I started to add to them, my list became clear. The heading of that list was, “What an absolute mess.” It is an absolute mess that people are suffering a cost of living crisis driven by 10 years of Tory austerity, cuts to welfare, rising taxes and changes to the energy price cap when in Scotland we are energy-rich but fuel-poor. Pensioners have to survive on the lowest pension in the developed world. Most of us, certainly myself, can speak very clearly about being left on hold for up to seven hours a day waiting to get through to the Home Office to deal with urgent visa applications for people fleeing war in Ukraine. The same is true for people trying to leave the UK because they cannot get their passport application sorted.
This is a Government without conscience, compassion or courage. They have absolutely lost the moral authority to lead. This Prime Minister’s demands and commands are built on sand. Defending him is complicity in all those failings.
I want to return, before I conclude, to the leadership of the Prime Minister. No one in my constituency is surprised by his behaviour. In fact, the greatest insult in my inbox is that on the back of partygate the Government made a ham-fisted attempt to distract people, which has driven a new vein of rage across my constituency: the costly people-trafficking scheme that is supposed to stop people trafficking, which is the reintroduction of transportation from the UK in 2022. We are sending some of the most vulnerable people in the world across to Rwanda to be processed. That is an absolute disgrace. The only thing the Prime Minister is delivering is misery.
The Prime Minister might pull the wool over the eyes of right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches and he may be able to use the Whip to save his bacon on this occasion, but his mealy-mouthed apology only damages his office and this House. It is simply not to be believed. It is, as has been said, not going to cut the ice.
When there are questions about the conduct of any Member in this place, it is right for the Committee of Privileges to take a look at that case. It is right for it to investigate, it is right for it to make a judgment and it is right for that to happen whoever the Member is. That is the correct procedure for our House, and has been the case for a significant time. If any matters of privilege come to the House for a decision to trigger an investigation, it is right for that to happen. I support privileges investigations. It is our due process.
I want to see more focus on standards across Parliament. Since I became a Member of Parliament, seven—I think—current or former Labour MPs have been given a custodial sentence, as have one Conservative Member, one Liberal Democrat Member and one SNP Member. One political party is having its accounts investigated by the police. Chris Bryant gave a very good speech in which he detailed suspensions and other issues that have happened because of bullying or harassment. Given all that, it is hard to argue that there are no problems with standards in our politics. Higher standards would benefit all parliamentarians.
Let me comment on my support for the privileges investigations. Those investigations require facts and evidence. The motion and the amendment both recognise that and state that the police must conclude their inquiries before a Privileges Committee investigation. I had hoped that some consensus might break out on that across the Chamber, because that is obviously fair and right. The amendment also stated that the Gray report should be published before an inquiry takes place. That also seems right and fair, but now that that amendment will not be moved, attention moves to the Privileges Committee investigation. The Committee must have all the evidence on any issue that it investigates.
I have called for the Gray report to be published in full and as soon as possible. That is still my view. I recognise that the Met needs time and space to complete its work, but every effort must be made to bring this matter to a conclusion as fast as possible. Colleagues are making comments when we have not seen all the evidence. I can understand that, because I have done so, too, but the Privileges Committee must be allowed time and space to conclude its investigation and colleagues should not prejudge that.
The hon. Member for Rhondda, who chairs the Privileges Committee and who spoke with great eloquence about its work on previous occasions, has had to recuse himself from any investigation after having made public comments. I do not want to see the Committee’s work compromised. I am also not absolutely sure that all the Members who have spoken in this debate have lived up to some of the claims and values of its purpose. For example, some said that the debate was nothing to do with the local elections but then spent their time talking about the local elections.
In summary—I am conscious of time—the Privileges Committee does valuable work in upholding standards, and there is a problem with standards in our politics. The Committee’s work is evidence-based, which is why we should have the evidence published first. I want to see that evidence published fully, as soon as possible, because, frankly, upholding standards benefits absolutely everyone.
Several hon. Members have referred to the collateral damage that the Prime Minister leaves in his wake, as he has done throughout his career. For example, the Paymaster General, who is on the Front Bench today, said on
“The Prime Minister has been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no covid rules were broken.”—[Official Report,
We now know that there were several parties, not just one, and that the rules were broken, because fines have been issued, one of which the Prime Minister has received. Part of the collateral damage, therefore, is that the Paymaster General came here to make a statement, based on the same information that allegedly was given to the Prime Minister, and misled the House. I accept that the Paymaster General did so inadvertently, but what has he done about that? The record needs correcting. Surely he should be investigating how he came to be misinformed and to misinform the House.
This has happened on too many occasions for ignorance to be the defence. There is this idea that, throughout lockdown and all the occasions on which these parties took place and the rules were broken, none of the bright young things who had been invited ever thought that any one of those events might break covid rules. Is it conceivable that no one raised a single question about whether they might be breaking the rules? Some of those events were drinks events for people who were leaving. In our constituencies, people missed funerals and cancelled weddings and birthday parties. However, the people in No. 10 thought that it was okay to have leaving drinks. Where are they? What were they thinking? How out of touch with our constituents can they be to think that they can have a leaving drinks party and are more important than our constituents?
My hon. Friend is making a good speech, and that is a good point. I want to make a point about the impact of breaking the law, and how it hurt people and continues to do so. My constituent told me:
“Boris Johnson broke the law partying with his colleagues while I watched my father die through a care home window. My father gave up on life because he could not have any proper connection with much-needed family during recovery from a stroke. I think he could still be alive today if I was able to break the law by having a close connection with him”, but, they say, they were not in the privileged position of the Prime Minister.
What my hon. Friend read out speaks for itself. She has demonstrated, as have many others, through the cases they mentioned, that the problem starts at the top. The workers who organised the parties would not have done so if they thought that their bosses would be upset, would come down on them and say, “You are breaking the rules. Stop it.” We now know that on at least six occasions, the Prime Minister was present at these parties, so this problem comes right from the top.
The Prime Minister’s defence has been different on many occasions. He started by saying that no rules were broken. He then said that there was a party, but that he was not present—but then he was. Then he said, “I wasn’t warned that it wasn’t a work do.” I did not see anything about a work do in the rules, but perhaps I missed that. The person who writes the rules cannot misunderstand them so fundamentally.
Setting that aside, if the Prime Minister’s defence is, “I didn’t understand the rules; I needed them explained to me” and “I was misled at the outset about there having been a party, because people told me that there wasn’t one,” who misled him? What has happened to them? Are they still in their posts? Have they moved on? Have they signed non-disclosure agreements? Where are those people who misled the Prime Minister, which led him to him inadvertently misleading the House? We cannot have this both ways: either the Prime Minister knowingly came to this House and lied, or other people lied to him, which led to him misleading the House. Either way, we need to identify those people.
The worst crime of all, however, is failing to feel the pain that our constituents felt throughout lockdown. No one who felt the agony and understood the pain that people were going through, as in the example that my hon. Friend read out, could have attended the events that happened in No. 10 Downing Street and other places. The question for Tory MPs today is this: do you stand by the people who felt that pain and vote today for—
This applies to you too, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will Tory MPs stand by the people who felt that pain throughout the past two years? They deserve answers. As others have pointed out, this is about fundamental trust in our politics. When Tory MPs vote today, they should think about the damage that they are doing to the trust in our political process, because the public deserve better. They should think about that before they vote. This matter should go before the Privileges Committee. They know that, so they should vote for that.
It is rather unsettling to speak from what might now be known as rebel row. I am perhaps the wrong Member to follow Clive Efford, as I happen to believe that we should support the motion, but I am desperately sorry that we are here. I am desperately sorry because, as my hon. Friend Steve Brine said, we need to be talking about the need to deal with cancer backlogs. Chris Bryant talked about the need for us to address the cost of living.
I am a new Member in this place, relatively speaking, and I have probably made a perfect pain of myself to the Government over the past two and a half years, voting against them on a number of issues, but I love this place and I love being a Member of Parliament. I have seen some of the best things happen when Members of this House work together cross-party. When we do that out of lens shot, in the back rooms of this place, on a range of issues that matter in every one of our constituencies, that does not reach the public, which is a shame.
My hon. Friend Mr Wragg made an extraordinary speech, one that I could not possibly hope to top, but I am afraid that I am not one of those Members of Parliament who dislikes being here or being an MP. Every day that I see issues and rules broken in this place, it reaffirms my belief that we need to stand up and make it clear that dishonesty, inaction and misleading the House cannot be tolerated from anyone.
When I put that letter in, I asked for changes to how No. 10 was organised, and to how the whipping system works. I am pleased to say that some of those changes—but, unfortunately, not enough of them—have come in. My hon. Friend Mr Baker, who has a religious zeal that I do not, made a point about forgiveness. I forgive the Prime Minister for making those mistakes, but I do not forgive him for misleading the House, as I see it.
I am pleased that the Government have worked with the Opposition and those of us on the Government Benches who disagree with them on the motion. I am disappointed that the motion kicks the can down the round. I welcome it and I will support it, but I think it will be a hook for people to say, “Not yet”. When do people decide to act—on fine two, three, four or five? Deciding when to act is for each individual’s good conscience; it is not for me to persuade them.
I have to say that I welcome the motion. I will support it, and I look forward to the findings. I know that the Opposition will support the findings, whatever they may be, and I look forward to ensuring that those who come after the Prime Minister for many years to come will learn from this that the conventions of the House must be respected.
When we entered the pandemic, the Government, led by the Prime Minister, rightly called on the British people to do the right thing and protect each other by following the law and the rules. That is why this affair has been so devastating for so many of us, including my constituents. We all, in different ways, have had to make sacrifices. Some of us lost loved ones and have not been able to mourn them properly because of the restrictions. That applies to many of our constituents up and down the country. I know that from first-hand experience. In my family, we lost friends and relatives and were not able to see their family members or to attend services and support the bereaved.
I want to highlight a few of the many cases raised by those who wrote to me about this affair. Craig wrote to me about his grandmother. He said:
“My grandmother was my best friend. She was admitted to hospital on the day the first cases of Covid were identified in the UK. She died in hospital in early June 2020.
She spent the vast majority of her time in hospital alone, confused, with no visitors. It was terrible for us all and the first Covid lockdown will be forever remembered as one of the worst times of my life.
I and the rest of my family closely adhered to all lockdown advice and the new laws put in place. My nan’s funeral took place the week of the Prime Minister’s birthday party. We were only allowed a handful of people in the service, most of our family and friends forced to line the street outside the crematorium...I cried while writing this email to you, reliving these memories. I cannot allow the Prime Minister and this government to re-write the history of the pandemic and dismiss our collective trauma as ‘just a slice of cake’ or ‘no worse than a speeding ticket’. The nation should not be gaslit into thinking that the pandemic was not so bad.”
Another constituent said:
“My mother was taken to…hospital…for a blood test in April 2020, a week after lockdown began. The test showed that she needed treatment before she could come home, but…we were given the totally unexpected news that she only had days to live.
This devastating news was made worse because my father (who was then almost 90 years of age) and my three sisters and I knew that the lockdown rules meant that we would not be able to see my mother again and that she would die (as she did, two days later) with no-one from her family with her.
So, how do you think my father, my sisters and I felt when the news broke of the partying in No 10, whilst we were adhering to the rules so strictly? I now feel even more angry when I hear government ministers, who I would hope would have some standards of integrity, coming forward on an almost daily basis to say that it’s not an important matter, that the Prime Minister is not to blame, that he has apologised so that makes it all right…I hadn’t intended to write to you. What has led me to do so is Ministers comparing ‘Partygate’ to parking and speeding fines, and the fact that the Prime Minister is going to issue another full apology as though that will make it all right. For me, it doesn’t!”
Another constituent said:
“I just wanted to add my voice to those asking for the Prime Minister’s resignation. I buried my mum about a week before he attended that party that broke the law. We couldn’t even hug at the funeral, which was only allowed ten attendees. No political story has ever made me this furious. I feel like I’ve been scammed by my own government, taken for an absolute fool for obeying the very laws they set...If the Prime Minister can’t even uphold a standard so basic as the rule of law, what are we as a country?”
The final story I want to share is of a health and social care worker. She said:
“I know first-hand the impact Covid has had on vulnerable people and the front line…We should not be living in a country where there is one rule for the PM and government ministers and another one for everyone else.”
Those are voices of pain amid so many messages, emails, cards and letters I received. They are voices of agony and sacrifice—so many cries of pain from the British people, who deserve better. The public rose magnificently to the task of tackling the pandemic. We need to ensure that the motion is supported today. I will support it, and I am glad that some Government Members will. I hope that others will hear the voices of people up and down the country, and will support it, too.
We are all human. We are all fallible. We all make mistakes, but how we deal with those mistakes is a measure of our integrity and character. The British people have overwhelmingly judged the Prime Minister to have dealt with his mistakes disastrously. They overwhelmingly believe him to be a liar, and they have lost trust and confidence in him. That is a problem not just for this Government but for the British political system, and I caution some Conservative colleagues to be less cavalier in trying to dismiss those public concerns.
The narrative coming from the Government seems to be that these breaches were just a consequence of living with the regulations. They were bound to happen, part of normal life, and they were happening in all sorts of places. “They have paid the fine; let’s move on—nothing to see here.” That will not wash. First, the overwhelming majority of people in this country did not breach the rules. They accepted the mandation put on their behaviour, often at great cost and personal consequence. I have hundreds of emails from constituents; I wanted to read some out, but there is not time. People were unable to be present when their children were born or when their parents were buried. They know, and are angry about, what was happening in No. 10 Downing Street while that was being done to them.
The other reason why that will not wash is that many people have paid for their actions with much greater consequences than this Prime Minister. Many people have written to me asking why he has only been given a 50 quid fine while others are being fined up to £10,000 for breaches of the rules. Many in public office have already lost their jobs because of their transgressions, and they are right to sit back and wonder why the holder of this one office should be immune from that consequence.
These people are suggesting that they did not really know that the rules were being broken at the time. That really does beggar belief. We heard from Mr Baker earlier. We know that he and his colleagues within the parliamentary Conservative party were waging a fierce and vicious argument about the consequences of these restrictions. The idea that people sitting in Government offices drinking and socialising after hours did not think that they were in breach of the rules that they themselves were making is risible and we should dismiss it.
I think there is a simpler explanation for all of this. I genuinely believe that we have a Prime Minister whose conceit of himself is so great, and whose sense of entitlement so profound, that he genuinely did not think that the rules applied to him. That is why, when exposed—when found out at the end of last year—he did not come to the House and offer contrition; he did not come and say sorry. He came and he dissembled, and he misled, and he tried to do everything to cover up the breaches that had happened. That, to my mind, more than the attendance at a party, is what he stands charged with today. It is not the fact; it is what he tried to do to conceal his actions. That, in my view, is unforgivable.
The hon. Member is making an excellent speech, and I agree with everything he is saying. More than 170,000 people have died from covid in the United Kingdom. That means that it has affected so many friends and so many families, and there has been a devastating sense of remorse for people’s loss. If the Prime Minister were really showing his own great remorse for breaking rules that he had set, surely his actions would speak louder than his words and he would resign. Does the hon. Member agree?
I could not agree more. I think that the Prime Minister would have resigned if he had any integrity. I consider it remarkable that rather than his giving an apology and any demonstration of contrition when these events came to light, it was not until he was dragged kicking and screaming into the light of truth by the criminal justice system and the forces of law enforcement that we actually received the apology that we heard this week, and that is not enough.
I want to spend one minute talking about the situation in Scotland. Douglas Ross leads the Scottish Conservatives. At the start of this year in the Scottish Parliament, he and his colleagues took, I believe, the right decision—they called on the Prime Minister to go—but somehow, miraculously, they have now been whipped into line by Central Office and changed their minds on that question. In commenting on that, I can do no better than quote Professor Adam Tomkins, a very senior Conservative and, until recently, a Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament. He says that the hon. Member and his colleagues
“have now reduced themselves—and made their former position of principle look not only empty but risible—by insisting that the prime minister is now somehow fit for office and that being fined by the police makes no difference… The Scottish Conservatives are in terminal decline, again. And, this time, it is their own fault.”
That comes from within the Conservative party in Scotland itself.
I know that many people throughout Britain will look with horror at the way in which this Government have traduced public service and denigrated many of the democratic institutions in their country, but people in Scotland look at it too and see it as further evidence of a British state that is in decline and does not represent their interests. They are increasingly attracted by the opportunity to create a new country, an independent country with a different constitution.
Let me end by saying that I will vote for the motion, and I caution Conservative Members to do so as well. They are right—there is no room for personal attacks in this place or in politics—but let them understand this: actions do have consequences, and what goes around will come around. If the parliamentary Conservative party tries to sweep this under the carpet and tries to acquiesce in the actions of this Prime Minister any further, it will pay a very heavy political price.
Order. I must reiterate that it is important to think of others in this debate and try to stick to five minutes. It is possible, and I know that every Member present is capable of it. If you could all do that, everyone will get in.
I am sad that Anthony Mangnall is not present, because I want to heap praise on his speech. Oh, there he is; he is not in his usual place.
Before I was elected, I had been in this building twice. When my husband came down with me on the day of my election, it was only the second time he had been to London. I was raised by rebellious people—people who would make some of those in the House who are considered to be rebellious look very, very tame—and I came here with a chip on my shoulder about what this place was and what it could achieve. I came here with an “I’m going to rip up the rulebook” attitude. My hon. Friend Stella Creasy once described me as the “Rizzo of Parliament”.
What happened then was that I fell in love with this place and with what it can achieve. I fell in love with the job of being a Member of Parliament, and watching as people came into my surgeries, and saying to them, “Together, you and I can try to change this law.” I have never once changed a law in this place without doing so in concert with people in every part of the Chamber. I have never changed a law on my own. Every single thing that I have ever achieved in this place I have achieved with members of the Conservative party, and with members of the Scottish National party, and indeed with members of all the parties represented today. That does not get a view, but it deeply, deeply matters.
It is considerably more popular for us to talk about how we are friends than about how much we hate each other. It is much more popular with the public than we give it credit for. So that is what I want people to see more of. I spend a lot of my time trying to talk to the public about that element of politics, and to explain why 99% of people in this building came here. Whether or not we agree on the means by which the journey is travelled, we all wish to change the world for the better, and I think that that is deeply important. I am afraid to say, however, that it is the very rare 1% who we are discussing today, because I do not believe that that is true of the Prime Minister.
Nine months have passed since any of this came to light. I could have had a baby in the time it has taken for the apology to come, and it would have been less painful. In those nine months, what we have seen is someone taking actions not in a desperate attempt to preserve the thing that we all came here to do, but in a desperate attempt to preserve his own position. That, to me, is unforgivable. It does not matter how many times someone says sorry in those circumstances, and you can bet your bottom dollar that should this have been any one of us it would have been different.
I have made mistakes, and no doubt I will make mistakes, and I accept people’s apologies. However, there is no way that what the Prime Minister has done in trying to stick a pin in things—we are on something like the 700th pin in this particular case—has ever been about trying to make the country better, or to make the lives of his Members of Parliament better, or even to make them more electable. I do not know why people have undermined elections today, talking about them as though they were not a route to democracy. I find that quite weird. I like elections. That is the game that we play—it is the thing that we do here. We ask the people what they think, and that is ok. But all along the way, everything he has sought to do has been about him. He cannot answer a simple question. He did not have to wait for the police investigation. I asked him about four months ago whether he went to a party in his flat on that date. He said he could not answer because there was a police investigation. Well, I could say that I did not go to a party at his house on that date and it would not affect the police investigation. What he has done shows a lack of contrition because it was not up front. It has never been up front, and it has never been about anyone in this building or without this building; it has always been about him. He would not do the same for a single person in this room, so I ask all Members to vote for the motion.
I say at the outset that apologies are one thing, but apologies that are made in the wholesale absence of any evidence of repentance are not worth a button. I am pleased to stand and speak for the many Angus constituents—almost 100 now—who have written to articulate their outrage at this debacle of accountability at the feet of this Prime Minister. He was always a questionable choice to lead the Conservative party because he would inevitably have become—indeed, he immediately became—Prime Minister under the politics of that time. He was the indiscreet, verbose showman that the Conservatives seemingly required to unlock the Brexit impasse in this place. It was always going to be a high-risk strategy, and the chickens have now come home to roost. If the Tories claim to have got Brexit done—which in itself is a questionable assertion that rests uncomfortably with the truth—why are they so reluctant to dispose of their one-trick-pony leader?
I say this in all candour: with this train crash of a Prime Minister, it was always going to be a question of when, not if. If the reputational capital and parliamentary respect that the Prime Minister is furiously feeding off to keep himself on political life support is a function of a zero-sum game, that which he is gorging upon is coming at a direct and equal cost to all Conservative Members, because they have the ability to stand up for what is right and remove him. More seriously, it is also coming at a cost to the public’s faith in political leadership, such as it is, except, I am pleased to say, in Scotland, where Scottish Tory voters—including in my Angus constituency—needed to take only one look at this Prime Minister for Tory seats in Scotland to fall by 55% at the 2019 election. Only two Scottish Tory MPs were present for this debate today. They are not in their place now, and the Scottish Tory leader never showed up at all.
The Prime Minister’s vacuous claim that he must stay in office to help with the cost of living crisis and the crisis in Ukraine is a grotesque contortion of reality and history. In reality, the UK Government under this Prime Minister are adding to the cost of living crisis with tax increases heaped upon soaring fuel and food prices. In France they are in the final throes of a presidential election while supporting Ukraine. Politics is not displaced by conflict; quite the opposite, in fact. In historical terms, the UK and other nations wasted no time in changing leaders ahead of or during two world wars, so this charade is little more than a disgraced Prime Minister desperately seeking to attach himself to a convenient cause to distract from his now trademark injudicious character.
I know that Conservative Members get this. We heard earlier from Mr Wragg, who is no longer in his place. His excellent speech highlighted the risks to the parliamentary and democratic reputation if the Prime Minister does not take responsibility. Similarly, Mr Harper made his position on the Prime Minister clear earlier this week. The public have not forgotten the nature and letter of the rules or the immeasurable constraints on their lives and freedoms during lockdown. As other hon. and right hon. Members have said, it is inconceivable that there was any grey area over these parties and bring-your-own-booze-ups.
The Prime Minister’s refusal to go is beyond acceptable. These views are shared by constituents up and down these isles, not just in Angus. My constituent Nicola Livingstone has pointed out:
“The Prime Minister’s refusal to go and the Conservative party’s acquiescence undermine the rule of law and any trust in political institutions. The Conservative party’s tawdry self-preservation is an insult to the nation and to the behaviours we expect from our leaders. It will be profoundly damaging to our faith in Government at a time when it is already dangerously low.”
I deeply regret that the Government have weakly withdrawn their amendment. I look forward to ensuring that we can put on record our position on this matter in the voting Lobby today.
In our arcane system, the Prime Minister can sit as judge and jury on himself. As other Members have pointed out, this is a ridiculous system. I am willing to bet that the Prime Minister will not find himself guilty, even though the Metropolitan police have found him guilty of at least one breach of the covid rules, and my guess is that there are more crimes to come. This is a breach of rules that his own Government wrote, and that he then took to the airwaves to defend.
“sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility. I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”.
Those are not my words, but those of his former classics master at Eton. It is not hard to draw the conclusion that those words still stand, so it is natural that we have had no proper apology to the British people for his multiple breaches of covid rules. This Prime Minister is both capable of multiple lawbreaking and incapable of genuine contrition. This attitude to the rules has marked his entire career, both in journalism and in this House. For him to say “I am sorry for any offence caused” is not an apology for repeated wrongdoing. For him to say, “I was not aware of my own rules” is the defence of the ignorant, which does not stand in law. And for him to claim, “I have not misled the House”, “All the rules were obeyed” and “No rules were broken” is a serious cover-up. I could use another word, but I will refrain out of respect to you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
For the Prime Minister to say there were no parties at No. 10 when 50 financial penalties have been handed out, when he attended many of those parties and stood barman for at least one of them, insults the intelligence of the people of Britain. The issue with the Prime Minister is that he clearly believes there is one set of rules for him and his cronies, and another set of rules for the rest of us, including the electorate. These were not just rules but orders from the Prime Minister and his cronies, who consider themselves to be better than the ordinary people of this country.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, while the Prime Minister was organising parties in No. 10 and showing complete contempt for his own rules, working-class communities and young people in overcrowded flats all over Britain were in lockdown? The mental health crisis that we still have around us was intensified by the very strict operation of those rules, and many young people faced massive £10,000 fines for organising parties. Is it not just one law for Boris Johnson and his mates, and a different one for everybody else?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. We are told that we must rely on the integrity of the Government if the rule of law, the principle that no one is above the law and, even more importantly, people’s respect for the political system are to be upheld in this country. Well, we shall see.
Conservative Members have complained that the Opposition are engaging in politics, and of course there is a political dimension. My email inbox has been deluged with complaints about this matter, and I am sure I am not alone. I am sure many Conservative Members, if they dared admit it, could say the same. The Prime Minister has to accept that this is not just a Westminster row that nobody outside SW1 is concerned about.
The public—Tory voters, Labour voters and those who have never voted at all—have had to endure untold misery during the Prime Minister’s premiership. No fewer than 190,000 people have died from covid, and more than 1 million people have long covid. Because of the rules, as we have heard, so many people were unable to be with their loved ones as they were dying. These are the people the Prime Minister is scorning. These are the people to whom the Prime Minister thinks he can get away with making a manifestly ingenuine and mealy mouthed apology. It did not have to be that way.
The background of this issue is that living standards are plummeting, the NHS is in crisis and the spring statement rubbed salt into the wounds, making tens of millions of people worse off. I do not believe the public are in a mood to forgive and forget. The Prime Minister and his acolytes like to say he was at the party for only nine minutes. Many people would have liked to have been with their loved ones for nine minutes when they were dying.
The country wants the Prime Minister gone and these Benches want the Prime Minister gone. He broke the law. The question for Conservative members is very clear: are you just going to do nothing, today and in the future, while Boris Johnson sacrifices you to save himself, as he has done throughout his life and career?
Two quick reminders: we do not use the word “you” when speaking through the Chair; and colleagues should not refer to other hon. Members by name.
The motion refers to the Prime Minister’s comments in this place on 1 and
The Prime Minister has form. First, there were the early warning signs way back in 2019 and earlier, such as when he refused the invitation from my hon. Friend Maria Eagle to apologise for his dreadful Spectator article arguing that people affected by the Hillsborough disaster were wallowing in their “victim status”.
Secondly, what about the Prime Minister’s absurd claim in this place on
Fourthly, he said on
Order. I remind hon. Members of what Mr Speaker said at the beginning of the debate:
“While it is perfectly in order for hon. Members to question the veracity of the Prime Minister’s responses to the House cited in the motion, it is not in order to challenge more generally the truthfulness of the Prime Minister or any other hon. or right hon. Member.”
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will adjust his speech accordingly.
In September 2020, the Prime Minister stated in relation to covid guidance:
“There is nothing more frustrating for the vast majority who do comply…than the sight of a few brazenly defying the rules, so these rules will be enforced by tighter penalties.”—[Official Report,
Those were his words. On
“This Christmas it’s vital that everyone exercises the greatest possible personal responsibility.”
That was on the same day that London went into tier 3 restrictions. Two days later, there was a party at No. 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister promised the House that he would publish all his personal exchanges with Sir James Dyson in relation to covid-19 contracts, but those have never appeared.
This list goes on. Those at Downing Street tell us that he “follows the ministerial code” and principles to the letter. The Prime Minister then told the House that it is “common sense” for people to wear a mask “in confined spaces”, but, surprisingly, he was photographed later the same day at Wembley stadium without a mask on. He stated in relation to covid that
“all guidance was followed completely in No.10.”—[Official Report,
Was it? He then said at Prime Minister’s Question Time:
“I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no covid rules were broken.”—[Official Report,
As hon. Members have said, either the Prime Minister was not being candid or his staff were not. So who was not? Possibly, it was both. He said he was “furious” to see the clip of his own staff discussing No. 10 parties, as though somehow he did not live there—he did! On
“I follow the rules. Everybody across politics should follow the rules.”
Indeed, they should, but the Prime Minister did not. And so it goes on.
What we are trying to do today is set in train a process whereby this House really does need to look into the concerns of so many Members and, more importantly, of the many constituents who have written to each of us about their concerns. They deserve answers. They are not that interested in parliamentary protocols often; they just want answers to their deeply held concerns and questions. This House, and surely Members opposite, cannot allow allegations of the Prime Minister’s insouciant and nonchalant attitude—allegedly—towards the truth to go unchallenged. We need to send a message to the country that when all the police inquires have been completed, this House will through its own processes, the very ones that have protected the Prime Minister from blunt assertions on the Floor of this Chamber, and consider those allegations thoroughly and openly. Finally, let me say that the mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa approach from the Prime Minister does not wash with my constituents.
A few people have said today that this has been a curious debate, and indeed it has been. It has been variously sombre, angry, reflective and even at times quasi-religious. Most of all, it has been necessary. When a sitting Prime Minister has been served with a fine for breaking a law that he himself set, particularly when that same Prime Minister had come to this House and said that no law had been broken, it could not possibly be ignored by this place. This House could have chosen to do a number of things in response to what it has been presented with. It could have done what the Government hoped: another apology could have been made and it could have hoped everybody would move on. But Conservative Members know there is real anger out there and that was never going to be enough for our constituents. At the other end of the scale, they could have replaced the Prime Minister and ended this with him having taken full responsibility and gone off into the embers and ether; that would be the end of it, he would go down with this incident and then we could fully move on. But that is going to be a matter for Conservative Members, and I have seen no indication that they are prepared to do that just now. We have instead chosen, as inevitably we will this evening, as it now looks as though this motion will be passed overwhelmingly, to refer this matter to the Privileges Committee. Although I personally find that a bit meh, it will do as a reasonable start in order that we deal with some of the issues around all of this.
I do not think the House will ever fully move on from this matter until we fully appreciate the sheer significance of what has happened and its profound impact on our constituents. Our constituents are genuinely upset and sincerely believe that the Prime Minister has lied—in fact, YouGov has just published an opinion poll that shows that 78% of the public think he has. My right hon. Friend Ian Blackford was absolutely right in his speech to reach for the L-word. After 20 years of sitting on the green Benches in this House, I still find it shocking to hear the L-word in this place, but no other word is appropriate. No other word could be used in the context of what the Prime Minister has said and done. Our constituents would be bewildered if we were not using the word that they now most commonly associate with his behaviour. We will never move on before the Government accept that.
I made my maiden speech on the same day as the Prime Minister back in 2001—in fact, I spoke after him. I remember his speech quite clearly: he compared himself to little Simba putting his paw into the huge footprint left by Michael Heseltine’s Mufasa. I should perhaps leave that reference there, because after the Pinocchio incident I do not want to mention the title of the feature film that features Simba.
Conservative Members know what the Prime Minister is like: they have known him for 20 years—for as long as I have. I found him a curious, dishevelling, odd type of character, but they must have known him better than me and they went and elected him as their Prime Minister. They knew what they were doing. This is no ordinary Prime Minister; this is somebody who profoundly believes that the law is for someone else and not for him. No other Prime Minister in history would have thought for a minute that they could possibly survive having been given a fine for breaking a law that they themselves set.
The main question is: did the Prime Minister mislead the House? I think the answer to that, on both sides of the House, is yes, he did mislead the House. The next question, therefore, is whether it was inadvertent: did he mean to mislead the House? Let us look at the evidence for that. First, he said there was no rule breaking. Then he claimed he was not aware of any parties. Then he said he was outraged by the parties he was not aware of. Then he said he was aware of “events” but believed they were not against the rules. Then he admitted he was at these events but did not know what they were. He was then fined for attending these events that he variously did not know anything about, was outraged over and did not realise were illegal. Then he apologised, a lot—again and again—but the time for that apology has passed.
I am not going to be reticent about the elections. The police have just put out a statement saying that no more fines will be issued and there will be no more comment until after the council elections, so they are now definitely in the mix. The elections are a feature of all this because of that police statement. I say to my Conservative colleagues: “You are going to get absolutely hammered in May.” The public are outraged. My local authority in Perthshire is Conservative, and we have one message on our leaflet: “As you obeyed the rules, the Tories partied. Kick them out.” I suspect that will go on most leaflets in subsequent elections until the Prime Minister is replaced or removed—
Absolutely, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would never dare move away from the motion before the House, and I find even the suggestion that I would quite shocking!
Let me conclude. This is a pivotal moment. Conservative Members can decide to resolve this issue and move on, for their own good as well as for themselves. Surely they are not going to go down with somebody who is now so full of the contempt of everybody across this nation. This motion will not be the end of it, but it could be the beginning of the end. I believe that this will truly end only when the Prime Minister goes, but that is all up to them.
I remind colleagues from all parties that I stand in this place today, in this privileged position, representing the wonderful people of North Shropshire, partly because the great British public, whom we are here to represent, really do care about standards in British politics.
I ask colleagues on the Conservative Benches to cast their minds back to Tuesday
The motion before the House is that the Prime Minister may have deliberately misled the House and, as such, should be referred to the Committee of Privileges. We all know that it is not credible that the Prime Minister told the truth to the House when he said that the rules had been followed at all times. The only possible explanation for the claim was that he had been unable to understand the detail of the rules that he himself had written. I will touch briefly on some of the other reasons that have been given to let him off the hook.
The first is that a fixed penalty notice is no more serious than a speeding ticket. We all know, I think, that that is rubbish, and that was pointed out by a colleague in an earlier contribution. The Prime Minister, members of his Cabinet and the country’s most senior public health officials appeared live on TV almost every night to remind us of the gravity of these laws. Reminders of the importance of following these laws from the Prime Minister’s own social media accounts were repeatedly posted. Suggesting that these laws were trivial is beyond disrespectful to all those who got us through those dark days of the pandemic—whether they were key workers, community volunteers or just ordinary members of the public making huge sacrifices to save other people’s lives.
A second argument that we have heard today is that the country needs stable leadership to tackle the cost of living crisis at home and the desperately needed support for Ukraine abroad. I think that a change of approach is needed for the cost of living crisis. We need an approach that protects those in need, not the super profits of companies extracting oil and gas, and an approach that gives a VAT cut to struggling families rather than a tax hike on hard working people. To suggest that the Prime Minister is focusing on the cost of living is ridiculous, because he is focusing his behaviour on escaping from a trap that he has laid for himself.
Let us consider for a moment the grave situation in Ukraine. We are largely united across this House on the need to support the brave Ukrainian people, to sanction those who prop up Putin’s murderous invasion force, and to welcome those fleeing the tragedy of war. We also all know that it is possible that, in the coming months, our leader will be required to make decisions of the most serious nature—decisions that none of us would want to be forced to make. Should that happen, this House and the British public will need to have the utmost confidence that the Prime Minister is telling the truth, but he has irrevocably damaged that confidence. No-one believes that he has told the truth, because he has become entangled in a web of lies.
I will not repeat the timeline of events; we have heard it enough in this Chamber. None the less, it makes a mockery of all of us to suggest that he did not understand his own rules, and that the rules that he set were not broken when the police have concluded that they were.
That brings me to the third argument, which is that the public have just moved on and that they do not care, and here I return to my opening remarks. The public of this country understand the importance of a code of conduct. They understand that, if a Prime Minister breaks that code of conduct, that code says that he should resign—resign to uphold those fundamental basic standards in public life. They become really angry when the Prime Minister tries to bend those rules to save himself or indeed his friends.
The police may still have a hand in the twists and turns of this story. Given the events that have taken place, the House would look very stupid indeed if it did not refer the Prime Minister to the Committee of Privileges. The party won the vote on the Member for North Shropshire, Owen Paterson, but it very quickly regretted winning that vote. It might want to learn its lesson, because it does not want to regret its actions again; as the hon. Lady knows, that vote on Owen Paterson ultimately ended up with her taking her place in the House of Commons.
Indeed, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. My seat in this House is proof that the British public really do care. If colleagues on both sides of the House also cared about the importance of conserving the valued institutions that underpin this mother of all democracies, they would certainly back the motion.
It is often said that people are the products of their environment. Where I come from, empathy, tolerance and a sense of decency and fairness are all characteristics that many of our people in Liverpool hold dear. We struggle with the concepts of self-entitlement, haughtiness or selfishness. We pride ourselves on looking out for one another—our family, our friends and our communities—above all else.
By and large it is our commonality as human beings that has seen the British people come through difficult years. Contrary to the words of Margaret Thatcher, there is such a thing as society, and it has been on show each and every day of the pandemic. It is the food bank volunteer, the supermarket assistant, the care worker, the nurses and doctors who held the hands of the dying, and those who did the right thing and played by the rules as their mental health plummeted, who bit the bullet of loneliness and separation because the Prime Minister said that was what we had to do. However, what he meant to say was, “Do as I say, not as I do.”, because he was ripping up the rules and partying.
The pain endured by our people over the past two years has left a deep emotional scar on our collective psyche. The British people are now struggling to overcome the fact that their Prime Minister is incapable of the very sacrifices that they made for their loved ones and for the loves ones of people they had never met. No person like that is fit to be Prime Minister of this country. The Teflon has come off.
I am sure the Prime Minister will attempt to reinvent himself, for he covets power above all else. Before I entered this place, I asked myself why, as I suspect many hon. Members across the House did—“Why do I want to do this? What difference can I make?” I am still asking those questions today, hoping to leave a small mark on this place and on my constituency. I do not believe the Prime Minister has ever asked himself those fundamental questions. The “Why?” and the “Who for?” were never important to him. He has spent his whole life chasing power for power’s sake, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. He has no interest in my Liverpool, Wavertree constituents, and the people of Uxbridge and South Ruislip will decide whether he has any interest in them.
The Prime Minister could fall on his sword, but of course he will not. The choice for Conservative Members is simple. Will they do the right thing today, in the interests of this country and of the office of the Prime Minister, or will they stick with the rotten apple? As the Prime Minister is so fond of a party, the right and proper thing for this House to do today is to give him a party he will never forget—a leaving party. Anything less simply undermines our democracy, and that is not good enough.
I had intended, as I am sure had many other hon. Members, to be in the Chamber this afternoon for the scheduled debate on childhood cancer, particularly because of a very moving story of some constituents of mine and the long, hard road they have been on with a child with very serious cancer.
I emailed the family last night to tell them that that debate would not now take place and this one would instead. I do not know them personally; I did not know their politics or whether they would be annoyed that such an important attempt to discuss cancer research and care was to be disrupted by this attempt at accountability.
Bella’s dad replied to me saying that he hoped the PM,
“can take some ownership for his actions. For context, in the same period the parties took place we were held to a strict one-parent bedside rule, and were only allowed to swap every 5 nights.”
That meant that for six weeks that family, as they managed a child with very serious cancer and a baby at home, saw each other for only five minutes every five days as they swapped over at the bedside. That reminded me of all the things that people across our countries and regions were going through.
There have been many very powerful and effective speeches from Members from across the House. I particularly welcome those from the Conservative Benches that show that this is not a partisan issue. I do not want to repeat all the points about the timeline, leadership, the distorting and degrading effect of dodging accountability, and this Prime Minister’s unfitness to lead at any time, but particularly in these turbulent times. However, I want to put on record the views of the many people from across South Belfast, and indeed Northern Ireland, who have expressed to me their revulsion at and rejection of the mendaciousness and lack of integrity displayed over the past couple of years by the Prime Minister, and by the praetorian guard of MPs and Ministers who debase themselves and their constituents every time they repeat the wild excuses put before them.
As hon. Members have pointed out, politics does not work without trust, integrity and confidence in good faith, and we have heard outlined the corrosive effect of this saga on politics. There is also the impact that the Prime Minister has had on relationships in Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations, as we scramble to manage the carnival of reaction that has followed the Prime Minister’s decisions and pronouncements on Northern Ireland, and the gap between those decisions and those pronouncements. By promising one thing and doing another day after day, and by threatening every few days to pull the pin on article 16, he has regressed the region I represent by many, many years, and he has been untruthful to us and about us. Whatever people’s views on the politics and the constitutional issues of the past five years—
Order. I remind the hon. Lady that we are talking about the Prime Minister’s conduct with regard to the motion before us, rather than going into much wider issues.
I know where I was on
This is an inflection point. Hon. Members have an opportunity to put down a marker about the long-term and increasingly irreparable damage that is happening to the public conversation, trust in democracy, and relationships within these islands. I hope that we will all be able to put down that marker today.
I will not speak for long, as I do not want to delay the House. I will merely give a perspective on both the principle of the motion and the standing of the House in relation to the motion. The motion hinges on whether there should be due consideration by the Committee of Privileges of whether the Prime Minister’s conduct amounted to contempt of this House. The gravity of the charge is great. Although the hard power of this House is to legislate, it also has a great deal of soft power at its disposal, but that entirely rests on its standing with the public—not just in the United Kingdom but, as my hon. Friend Christian Matheson said, right around the international community. Once the public no longer believe that the House is a place where honest answers are given, the credibility of its role in public life will continue to diminish—and it has taken an awful battering over the past two years. The hard power of the House is also undermined, as people take less notice of the rules we make if we break them, and then, worse, deny knowledge of breaking them.
The public rely on many different services for our society to function, and all those services’ ability to function emanates from the writs given to them by this place. During covid, that was doubly important, as we needed the consent of people to stop the spread of infection. The fire service did an incredible job in supporting people during the pandemic, as did the magistrates courts. Both had to enact the rules that we made, and both were central in that task.
I will briefly mention my friend Jules, who served for nearly 30 years as a firefighter and 20 years as a magistrate. Julian Jenkins was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2019. He was making good progress with his recovery and was in good spirits when I saw him during last year’s May recess with his partner Helen, with whom I attended university, and who has been a lifelong friend. However, he contracted covid in August 2021 and tragically passed away. Jules was only beginning to enjoy his retirement after a lifetime of public service, but that was snatched away from him.
I will now directly quote Helen, so I will make use of Members’ names, but these are her words, not mine. Helen said:
“I always feel sadness at the loss of my partner but at the moment my overriding emotion is anger and frustration. Anger at what Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and other government officials have done and frustration that they still won’t accept responsibility. If you make the laws, then immediately break the laws you made and are then found guilty and fined, you have no credibility to govern. Johnson and Sunak lack any moral authority, which is essential when making future legislation, not just Covid-related but in general.”
We need to restore credibility to this House, and sunshine is the best disinfectant, so we must vote in favour of the motion for Jules, Helen and all the families affected by covid. If rule makers become rule breakers, they must be held accountable, which is what the House must do. That is why we must pass the motion today.
I was made an hon. Member of this place on
My constituents had a hard time over covid, and so did I, as I lived mainly by myself, but I was most struck by a constituent who wrote to me because she knew that I was returning to this place last June. She asked me to visit the covid memorial wall, where there was a heart for her mother. She was not able to travel from my constituency of Motherwell and Wishaw to London. That had a profound effect on me. It also reminded me that a number of constituents had emailed me during lockdown, when they missed births and deaths, marriages were postponed and people lived a bleak existence. Many of them had to go out and work in very low-paid jobs, because they had absolutely no other way to support their families. Many people suffered, and are still suffering, because of the lockdown.
It is hard for people with privilege to understand how many of my constituents lived. It is hard for such people to understand the impact of missing a funeral when nothing has happened to any of their family, and it is hard for them to understand how people eke out an existence on benefits. When people then find out that the Prime Minister of this country broke his own laws and went to parties, which they were not allowed to do, it is really hard, so I was not surprised by the flood of emails in my inbox asking for his resignation.
For those who are non-Scots, a menage is a savings scheme for people who are usually extremely poor and save on a weekly basis, and if someone is first in the menage, they get the total amount contributed. I was in many a menage before I came here. I totally agree with my hon. Friend.
I said that I did not care about this place. In some ways I do not, but there is one thing that I do care about. I care about truth. As a councillor, I was subject to the Nolan principles, and I am still subject to them. I am not fantastic—I have made mistakes in my life—and I do not have the memory to lie, but I think that truth, especially from the Prime Minister, is absolutely one of the most important things. If we cannot trust the word of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—much as I want not to be part of that Union—all is lost. I therefore urge Members on both sides of the House to vote for the motion.
Listening to this debate, I am reminded of the Conservative party leadership election during the summer of 2019. I was surprised that a number of my constituents approached me to ask who I thought should become leader. I said, in all honesty, that I really hoped that it would be Jeremy Hunt, because I feared what might otherwise happen, and I believe that our country must always come first.
Whether we are Back Benchers or Front Benchers, and whether we are Government or Opposition Members, we must be steadfast in our commitment to the truth and the principles of the law. That is certainly the case for the person occupying the most powerful elected position in the land—that of Prime Minister, a great public office that has been respected for centuries, but which is, we fear, in danger of being debased. The position of Prime Minister is the most elevated of all. The public always has and always will look up to it for leadership, and throughout the pandemic we have seen how important the roles of the Government and the Prime Minister are. The public looked to them not just for leadership, but for how to behave. The public have reacted to what has happened with ridicule. We have seen the memes online, and we have seen and heard children talking online about the Boris parties.
This is a question of the Government’s credibility. Virtually every night, the public watched their screens or listened to their radios to hear the Prime Minister tell them—he implored them—how to behave. They also saw the advertisements telling them to obey the rules. Then for months we had rumours and speculation about how the Prime Minister had behaved, but the Government’s counterpoint was that he had not misled Parliament or the public. That resulted in a corrosion of public trust and a change in behaviour. It became almost impossible to reverse what was happening in society because, given the behaviour of the Prime Minister and the Government, people did not trust or believe what was being said.
The issue of trust is the important point that we have to consider today. The public have made their mind up. We have seen the opinion polls, and it is overwhelmingly clear that the public do not trust the Prime Minister in these affairs. This is also about trust in this House. If we are not able to police our own rules and bring to task those who break them, whoever they are, the resulting lack of public trust will damage not just the holder of the office of Prime Minister but all of us.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. This notion of trust is so fragile and so precious. For those who were around in the 2000s, in the run-up to the expenses scandal and other issues that have affected this House, the primacy of trust in this place is critical to how it operates.
If we are to restore faith and trust in this place, we cannot defend the indefensible. The Government tried that with the Owen Paterson affair. I really felt for Conservative Members, the Back Benchers particularly, who were humiliated by what they were led through by the Prime Minister. We must restore the standards and principles of this place and we must have adhesion to the ministerial code, which has to be brought on to a different legal setting.
I appreciate the point made by the Father of the House, but surely the issue here is the persistent breaches of the rules that seem to have taken place, the fact that that contrasts in such an appalling way with the sacrifices made by the British people, and that we all expect so much better.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am actually going to come on to that point. The first offence was in summer 2020, and by then in Warwickshire alone we had already had 436 excess deaths in Warwickshire care homes, 347 due to covid. Thousands of people were unable to visit their relatives. Of those many cases, perhaps I could just cite one—that of Jill. Her dad, who had been a naval commander in world war two, was a very proud serviceman, and she was unable to visit him between March and his death in July.
The Government claim that the Prime Minister was under exceptional pressure. I think we can say that about all the frontline services—all the people working in healthcare, our teachers; it was across the piece—working to keep us safe. I am sure many people here would not have celebrated their birthdays, did not have parties and did not have office parties. I certainly did not, and I do not believe the Prime Minister should have at all.
The Prime Minister was certainly not under pressure in December on those matters when he did mislead the House. As Claire Hanna highlighted earlier, this is not the only time. The entirety of Northern Ireland was misled on paper, or a lack of paper, on the borders and the protocol, so there is a pattern going on here. The House has to take this one seriously: it was in here it happened.
I think the hon. Member may be deviating from the subject and I do want to keep to the motion itself, but I understand the point he is making.
The defences being used to defend the Prime Minister are not really worthy of this place or those who espouse them—ambushed by cake; a work event, not a party; or the comparison with a speeding ticket. This is really all indefensible stuff, and then they talk about Ukraine. Of course, we are all concerned by the situation in Ukraine, but I do not believe that should be used as a smokescreen for the failings of this Prime Minister.
In referring this to the Committee of Privileges, it is vital—and I really hope—that there will be great support on the far side, because it is essential for every one of us that we restore public confidence in this place. That is why, of course, I will be voting for the motion.
Much has been said about the Prime Minister’s character, but I shall not go there today, other than perhaps to reflect on the comments of my hon. Friend Pete Wishart and suggest that he is less like Simba and more like Scar, if we are making comparisons with that film. However, we are where we are. Having reached out to people across Midlothian and sought their views, it has been interesting to see some of the words they have suggested for this situation. One person simply said, “I have no words”. Another said, “The word I would use, you would be thrown out of Parliament for trying to use—and it’s not the ‘l’ word.”
The Prime Minister has broken the law. He was dragged kicking and screaming to make an apology of sorts. While that has happened, he has continued to go about his business, undermining every single one of us in this place. His actions have an impact on every one of us. The public look at what happens in this place and every one of us is tarred with the same brush. It is critical that we have the opportunity to hold those in the highest offices to account.
All the lawbreaking, criminality and evasiveness have been able to go unpunished, not because of a glitch in the system, but because the system is inherently unfit for purpose. If a Prime Minister were to lie, they would be untouchable for as long as they had their party on their side and a healthy majority—although, given the lack of movement on the amendment today, perhaps “a healthy majority” could be called into question by some.
If a Prime Minister breaks the law, the people are powerless to remove them and we on the Opposition Benches are largely powerless to do anything about it. It is absurd that a tiny minority of Members in this place have all the say over who holds that position. Our system—the whole way in which this place works—needs to change. The situation illustrates that the system of governance is broken to its core.
At the end of the day, it does not matter who the Prime Minister is. Whoever is in charge has unfettered power. If they do not have integrity, honesty and the ability to follow the laws that they set, Parliament cannot do a thing about it. If the Government have a majority and they continue to support that Prime Minister, that is all that matters to them. Some would use another word to describe that, but perhaps that is for another day.
Conservative Members absolutely have to find a backbone and remove the current Prime Minister. Many names have been suggested for him, but we need to recognise that there is nothing stopping whoever comes next from doing exactly the same, unless we do something about it.
I do not want future generations of Scottish politicians to be sitting here—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I do not want Scottish politicians to be here at all, full stop, but I do not want them to be sitting here in a few decades’ time, having the same arguments over and over again about yet another scandal in the British system. That is what a future in the UK holds—scandal after scandal, and never any justice.
The chaos has been non-stop for a decade under the Tory Government. For as long as Scotland is tied to this system, the chaos will continue. My constituents deserve much better than that. While other democracies have matured and moved forward, this whole saga simply shows that in many ways we have done nothing but move backwards.
At times today, the Chamber has been furious. My constituents in Midlothian are absolutely furious.
I think that everyone in the Chamber has heard from so many constituents who feel that way. I have had emails from innumerable constituents. One that I received overnight pointed out the unbearable sacrifices that people have made. That constituent had lost her mother to covid and, because there is a big family, and only one of them was able to be with the mother, they cannot get beyond this. That is what we need to focus on when we look at the situation.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. So many people in so many constituencies across our countries have made huge sacrifices to help and support those around them to look after loved ones and do what they can, because they all wanted to follow the rules, which were in place to help all of us to get through the pandemic. While so many followed the rules, we had a Prime Minister who simply laughed in our faces.
I have yet to meet a single person who thinks the Prime Minister’s actions were in any way justifiable. There is one word that persistently comes from their lips. Thirty-four constituents have gone so far as to email me about the matter, some in anger and some in despair. For every one who has written to me, thousands are discussing it with their families, friends and neighbours. One email simply says:
“I fear for democracy and our futures if this Prime Minister is not held to account”.
“I ask you to do everything in your power to challenge this and convey my disgust at the actions of his office at a time of huge sacrifice for everyone, not least the nurses and the teachers who have been dragged through the muck.”
That is before we even start to consider the countless other workers in jobs across our countries who had to keep working and get on with it while the Prime Minister partied.
With less than 2% of the Conservative parliamentary party in the Chamber, it must be beyond debate that the Prime Minister will be investigated by the Privileges Committee.
I agree. It has to be now the case that the Privileges Committee will have that opportunity.
I agree with the comments of so many here today and so many who have contacted me in Midlothian to express their disgust about the events of the past few months, which have done nothing but undermine the key principles of our democracy. The motion is perhaps an opportunity for us to start to move forward from this and to put right the wrongs of the recent past.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate, but I would like to begin by wishing Her Majesty a very happy birthday—96 years of service and commitment to our country and the Commonwealth. It is my birthday on Saturday. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I thank Members. I very much welcome and acknowledge the birthday spirit—of course, all the best people are born in April—but we are here to talk not about birthdays but about a Prime Minister who broke his own laws—the laws that he expected the British people to follow to the letter, but that he had no regard for himself.
I am speaking on behalf of the many people who have written to me about the latest scandal caused by the Prime Minister. Will Foley, a former constituent of mine, also wrote to the Prime Minister to express his outrage and disgust. He feels that he has been misled by the Prime Minister and taken for a fool.
The people of this country, including Will Foley, know that the Prime Minister is not above the law. He made them follow those laws—directly, as residents in England, or indirectly, like many in Newport West—but he did not follow them himself. We all remember how, at 5 pm every day, he stood before us to recite the rules and plead that we should follow them, but when he walked back through those wooden doors, he was partying. I do not care whether it was 9 minutes or 9 hours—it was a blatant and unacceptable way to behave and totally unbecoming of a Prime Minister. I would like the Minister to explain to the House and the British people how on earth we can expect the Prime Minister to govern this country if he feels no consequences for his actions.
Consequences for the Prime Minister’s actions—his lawbreaking—are so important, as is the truth, because the truth is absolutely vital to what we do in this place and what we were sent here to do. Without the truth, we are merely men and women in a big green room shouting at each other—some louder than others. It is imperative that we preserve, defend and protect the truth. By proposing the amendment, the Prime Minister was forcing his hon. Members to stand in the way of us finding the truth, so I am glad to hear that the Government have changed their mind and withdrawn it.
The motion is not about partisan games. It is about doing the right thing, leadership and right and wrong. It is about decency and respect, democracy and following the law that we set. It is about good government and setting an example to our children and grandchildren. That is why the motion, tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, is supported by the leaders of the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Social Democratic and Labour party and the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for North Down (Stephen Farry). Their support tells us everything that we need to know.
Our country is tired of a Prime Minister who will not take responsibility for breaking his own laws—the laws of this land. When we say it out loud, it beggars belief: the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has been fined for breaking the law. He is a disgrace to his office and must be forced to face the consequences. I say to Conservative Members: let us help you to help yourselves. The motion allows them to be objective, to ensure that the rule of law is respected by those of us who set the laws and to set an example.
Ministers are trotted out to repeatedly refer to the Sue Gray report. In her report—I pay tribute to Sue Gray for her hard work and patience—Ms Gray says directly:
“There is significant learning to be drawn from these events which must be addressed immediately across Government. This does not need to wait for the police investigations to be concluded.”
It follows, therefore, that we do not have to wait for further evidence to refer the Prime Minister to the Committee of Privileges, as the motion states. We can just get on and do it.
Let me be clear: I genuinely wish we were discussing issues of importance to people in Newport West and across the world, such as, to name a few, the war in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis and the climate emergency, but we cannot focus on those issues until this lawbreaking Prime Minister shows the courage, the decency and the respect for all those who died in Newport West and across the United Kingdom, and just goes. It is important for all of us that he goes, because as things stand he is spending each day focusing on keeping his job rather than actually doing it. That is why my constituents in Newport West are paying more than in living memory. That is why they are struggling to pay their bills, feed their families and heat their homes. It is not rocket science. It is simple: we have a Prime Minister focused on his job rather than theirs. We need a Government free of the partygate scandal, free of lawlessness and free of arrogance, so the Prime Minister must go now.
I will be voting for this motion today. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend, the Leader of the Opposition for tabling it and for holding the Prime Minister to account.
As a relatively new Member of this House, I often get asked what it is like to be an MP. I tell people that this place is steeped in tradition and that we are often having to drag it into the 21st century, and at times it can become a little bit challenging, tiring and, I am sorry to say, a little bit boring as well. With no disrespect to the Clerks, it can feel a bit dysfunctional at times too. But there is one word that I always use and people are so surprised when I use it: collegiate. I find this House to be at its very best when it is collegiate. The stark reality, however, is that this lawbreaking Prime Minister does not help how parliamentarians are viewed. We know that MPs—most of us—work incredibly hard on behalf of our constituents, but the reality is that the actions of the lawbreaking Prime Minister further push the false narrative that all politicians are the same.
My inbox is full of inquiries from my constituents in Airdrie and Shotts, and some of them have asked me to share their stories. This one came anonymously: “At 72, my dad was the life and soul of the family, with 13 grandchildren whom he adored. He was young and fit, with a heart of gold. Dad was put on a ventilator on
Arran from Airdrie also wrote to me. He said: “A week before his 94th birthday, my papa, Frank Bell, died alone in a care home. His memory was frail and he remarked to his carers that nobody came to see him any more. He couldn’t understand why none of us would come to see him in his final hours. My papa, having lived his entire life with the love of his life, was forced to die lonely, sad and, from his view, forgotten by his family. Of course I am upset that I didn’t get to say goodbye. However, I feel Frank’s story runs much deeper. A man who lived his life with family died alone while the Prime Minister and his pals lived with parties in disobedience. It sickens my stomach that people try to pass off what the Prime Minister did, when people like my papa sacrificed so much. I would be grateful if you could speak of him tomorrow, not for my own pain but for the fact that he died alone while the lawmakers did as they pleased.”
When I joined the House, one of the first things I was told about was the mannerisms of this place and that I have to refer to everyone as an “honourable” Member or Friend. However, I am not sure that I am seeing much honour now. I will vote for this motion, and I say to Government Members that they should think very carefully, because the public and their constituents are watching.
It is a great privilege to speak in what must be one of the most momentous occasions in the House’s recent history, because one of the most fundamental principles of any democracy is at stake today: does honesty and integrity in public office matter and are our leaders accountable to the people who put them there? The answer from Members on both sides of the House must be a loud and resounding, “Yes”.
Throughout this whole sorry saga, the Prime Minister has stood at the Dispatch Box time and again to deny breaking the lockdown rules that he set. He has happily dispatched political advisers, civil servants and Cabinet colleagues who confessed to breaking lockdown restrictions, all while thinking that he is above them. Even when he was challenged with photographic evidence of him partying away while millions were stuck at home, he absurdly pleaded his innocence.
Not even the stories of the families who were torn apart or of the parents, spouses and children who died alone could stir in him the decency to come forward and tell the truth. We are today forced to face the fact that our Prime Minister, the most powerful man in our country, thought that he was above the law. We now know the truth: the parties happened and the Prime Minister was there. He will forever be judged by history as the first holder of his office to be found guilty of breaking the law while serving in No. 10.
We are here to decide whether the Prime Minister’s conduct in this place should be referred to the Privileges Committee to examine whether he is guilty of contempt of Parliament. I believe that the argument for doing so is overwhelming. The time has come for Conservative Members to decide where their loyalties lie: to the Prime Minister or to the constituents who put them here.
For two long years, we have been subjected to the tawdry spectacle of Conservative Members scrambling to defend the Government as they lurched from scandal to scandal, whether that was the billions handed out to Ministers’ friends for dodgy covid contracts, the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal or the Chancellor’s questionable tax affairs. Although we pledge allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen and not to our constituents when we first enter this place, it is our constituents to whom we are ultimately responsible and by whom we are ultimately held to account. It is time to put the national interest first.
My constituents can count on me to do the right thing by them today. I ask Conservative Members: can yours?
I start by wishing Her Majesty a very happy birthday, not just because it is the right thing for us to do, but because we reflect on a lifetime of service and the kind of leadership that we all aspire to emulate, putting duty and self-sacrifice before everything else for the country that she so obviously loves and has served so well for many decades.
It looks as though the motion will go through today, as it should. What a shame we are even having this debate; as some Members have mentioned, it feels like a waste of time. We should be talking about the cost of living and how we can help our constituents to make ends meet and to afford the rent, mortgage, bills and to put food on the table. We should be talking about the outrageous onslaught on Ukraine by the evil, murderous tyrant Putin and how we can support the Ukrainian people. So many other issues are equally important to each of our communities, yet here we are talking about this issue because we have a Prime Minister who will not take responsibility. That is deeply sad.
We have heard many offensive things over the past few months. The most offensive is, “People have moved on. Can’t you just get over it?” I had Easter Sunday off. I went to church in the morning and then a few of us went for a beer at a café at Levens Hall in my patch. It was very sunny, as it always is in the Lake district, as Members all know—that might be knowingly misleading the House, actually. Anyway, it was a lovely day and we sat outside. An elderly couple came up to me, and the gentleman said to me, “My wife’s sister died in June of 2020. She died alone, we could not visit her. Please don’t let him get away with it.” That is a reminder that what we are talking about, as much as anything else, is justice being done.
Earlier on, the Father of the House was the first of a number of people to say that we should not be talking about this as a local election issue as somehow that diminishes it.
I am grateful to the Father of the House for that clarification. My point absolutely stands: this is only a local election issue—and it is—because the Conservative party has not delivered the justice that it was in its hands to deliver.
My patch has an interesting history. It was Conservative for 100 years until we won it in 2005. We had some great wins and some narrow wins, and there is one ward that we have never won, even in my best years—although perhaps they are ahead of me, who knows? I was knocking on doors in that ward and met a couple who had sometimes voted Conservative, had normally voted UK Independence party and had voted Brexit party but had never voted for us. They told me that they were going to vote for us in the local elections because it was the only way they could think of to deliver justice. They felt weak and powerless because of a man with whom they agreed on many issues who they felt could no longer lead the country because of that lack of integrity.
We are two years on from when many of those things took place. Our memories can play tricks on us, we move on and we do not live in the moment of those times. They were not pleasant, and we choose to forget them to a degree, don’t we? However, it is important that we do not forget what that meant, not just for the elderly couple I spoke to on Sunday, but for many others—for hundreds of people that we know. For weeks on end, I wrote letters of commiseration to people who had lost loved ones. We all did that. There were people who could not be with a dying parent or a dying child. There were people who spent Christmas alone, and for many of them it was their last Christmas. It was so hard to explain to young children why their birthday parties could not take place. We went through all sorts of privations.
Gill Haigh, the chief exec of Cumbria Tourism, and I argued to stop people visiting the Lake district, even though we knew it was ruining our economy, because we believed in the health, safety and wellbeing of the people who would have come and of those who work in the community. Sacrifices were made and the Prime Minister made laws that we agreed with and that were important. Why? To save lives, to protect the NHS, to do the right British thing and look after one another, and to love our neighbour. Yet within hours, it appears, the ink drying on his edicts, he was habitually breaking them. There is no question but that this was and is a resignation matter.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. Does he agree that some of the defences offered for the Prime Minister have been hugely insulting to the other people who worked throughout the pandemic? A dentist in my constituency said that,
“we did not have drinks after work because this would have been unprofessional and irresponsible.”
Does he agree that the fury that health professionals feel because of the sacrifices they made during the pandemic is entirely understandable?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. It is deeply offensive. One reason why the story has not gone away is that some of the defences are even more offensive. Some Government Members—a minority, I will absolutely state—have said that teachers were up to it, nurses were up to it, and that everybody broke the rules. I did not, I am pretty sure that most people in the Chamber did not, I know that most of my constituents did not and I know that those in the caring professions, in particular, absolutely did not. In one sense, they did it gladly because we were loving our neighbour and doing the right thing by protecting people, not because of slavish obedience to authoritarianism. I am a liberal; I do not like these laws or rules, but I knew that they were necessary to protect lives. So did the Prime Minister, yet he broke them.
As I think we have a little bit of time—I will not go on for long, I promise—I want to address the issues of forgiveness that have been discussed. As a Christian, I want to reflect on those. I was deeply affected by the speech made by Mr Baker, and by the comments of some other Members, about the extent to which we should be seeking to forgive the Prime Minister.
I do not know how contrite the Prime Minister is. I do not know how sincere his repentance, or his apology. Only two beings know the answer to that question, and I will not make any assumption that I know it, because I am definitely not one of them. I will say this, however. I believe—and this is one of the most radical and offensive things about Christianity—that forgiveness is available for everything and for everyone. However, even forgiven sins bear consequences. My reading from The Bible last night was Luke 6:27—“Love your enemies.” I am careful not to think of Members on the other side of the House, or members of any other party, as enemies. They are sometimes a colleague and sometimes an opponent, but they are not my enemy. There are times, though, when you disagree with someone so very much—as I do with the Prime Minister on so many issues—that you can, in your mind, make them an enemy, and I need to repent of that. Am I bitter, and seeking my vengeance on the Prime Minister? No, and it would be wrong if I did.
What I think we need to remember is this: in forgiving somebody, we must not let them stain the reputation of this place and of our politics. To say sorry is one thing, but we should remember the story of Zacchaeus. As Jesus comes into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Zacchaeus, a tax collector who has ripped off his kith and kin for many years and is a great sinner, repents—great—but then he also makes recompense. He does more than just say sorry; he gives back four times what he has taken.
I think we need to remember that accepting an apology does not mean that there is not a consequence. The Prime Minister has not borne the consequence. What does not bearing that consequence mean? It sets the bar for what is acceptable in our public life at a subterranean level. What a shocking example this is for all of us here, for all those who might follow us, and for everyone else in the country. It tells us that it is possible to do things that are not honest, and to set rules for others and choose not to follow them, because you are somehow better than the people whom you lead. That is not acceptable, and it is not right.
What is also not right is to hide behind the suffering of the people in Ukraine as an excuse not to take action now. It is fundamentally weak for some Conservative Members to say that we must wait until some indeterminate time when that suffering might be over to take the action that needs to be taken. The simple fact is that Ukraine is a reason why the Prime Minister should go, and should go now, because we are in a state of paralysis. We know that every decision he takes is coloured by his desire to survive, and affects our own position as a country. We are diverted by this ongoing soap opera, this saga, this sorry state of affairs.
The sad conclusion I have reached is that we now have a Conservative party that is too ashamed of the Prime Minister to defend him, but too weak to remove him. Today is the day when the Conservatives need to discover their backbone.
In my maiden speech, I said that it was an absolute honour to be elected to this place, because never in my wildest dreams had I thought that a working-class girl from a council estate in Brixton would sit on these green Benches. To be honest, I still pinch myself.
One of the things I am most humble about is the fact that it is a privilege to be in this place. It is a privilege to serve as the Member of Parliament for Vauxhall, an area in which I grew up and went to school. It is a privilege to be able to represent my constituents. However, I also know, in the context of that word “privilege”, that some things are not afforded to me, as a female black MP, because of the scrutiny that I face. I am very careful in debates, making sure that I state the truth and the facts, because—as a result of being a woman, sometimes—I am not afforded the privilege of doing otherwise. We are not allowed to make mistakes; we are not allowed to mislead people. It is that privilege, unfortunately, that our Prime Minister wants to continue to use to defend the indefensible.
One of the best bits about my role is going out and meeting the young people in my constituency, because I see myself in so many of them. They ask me what it is like and how I got involved in politics. They ask me if politics matters. Politics matters because we have to continue to uphold the rule of law. Politics matters because we can make a difference for our constituents. Politics matters because being honest and truthful about what we are doing as parliamentarians is a privilege. Politics matters because when we work together we can address some of the key issues. But many of my constituents who contacted me throughout the pandemic and the lockdowns, and who continue to contact me, feel that politics does not matter, because they are seeing our Prime Minister demean the role and office that he holds.
Many Members have mentioned cases of constituents who have written to them, and I want quickly to reference two of mine. One of them is my constituent Jan O’Malley, whose husband John O’Malley died of covid on
“While the Prime Minister partied, we made unbearable sacrifices to protect others. I wasn’t able to accompany John when he went to hospital or visit him there. I couldn’t comfort my daughters at his funeral…and we were only able to have 10 people there. While the Prime Minister continues to lie about breaking the law, he undermines respect for Parliament. More importantly, he undermined the public health message”.
Another constituent, John Cormican, wrote:
“I am a 61 year old, immunosuppressed single parent with an 18 year old daughter. We rigidly followed all the rules, including my mum’s funeral in 2020 with just 6 people…I lost my sister last year, to a late diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer. All whilst following and often going beyond the rules…But Florence it’s the blatant deceit from Boris Johnson that I just can’t get close to not being incandescent with anger about. I feel that the government have brought a culture where lying, breaking the law and division rule the day. And I look on in utter dismay and hurt. How did we get to this?”
Restoring faith in our politics matters if we want people to engage in the political process. Restoring faith in our politics matters if we want people to do the right things if, God forbid, we should ever have another pandemic. Restoring faith in our politics matters because every person who died in the pandemic and whose heart is painted on the covid memorial wall in my consistency—I wear my badge with pride—reminds us of the sacrifices that people make. This motion today is important because it reminds us that no one, including our Prime Minister, is above the law. It reminds us that the rules are there for us to follow, and that when people inadvertently mislead the House, they have to be held to account. I hope that Members will remember that and support the motion today.
It is a pleasure, if not repetitive, for me to stand opposite the Paymaster General. I welcome him here today but I hope this is the last time he is wheeled out to defend the indefensible. Hon. and right hon. Members across the House have spoken at length about the heart-wrenching sacrifices that their constituents have made throughout the pandemic. They have spoken about the principles of integrity, honesty and dignity, which are all at stake. My hon. Friend Chris Bryant spoke about the special responsibility of every MP to uphold and defend the reputation of this House for all future generations. I welcome the similarly important speech of my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali, who spoke of her constituents’ and her own family’s painful experiences and how they felt that they had been taken for fools.
I value the typically forensic contribution from my hon. Friend Clive Efford and the typically passionate and heartfelt contribution from my hon. Friend Jess Phillips. I also welcome the brave words of my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi, who we have just heard, and Mr Wragg. They made powerful and moving speeches stating that, as parliamentarians, we all have a responsibility to uphold the democratic principles of trust and integrity, no matter what party we are from.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition laid out, the motion seeks to uphold the pillars of British democracy: honesty, integrity and truth. Politicians, political parties and Prime Ministers come and go, but the basic principle that elected representatives must tell the truth and act with integrity remains the very foundation of our democracy. The Prime Minister and his supporters have tested that principle to its limit.
Actions speak louder than words. If Conservative Members choose to stand by this lawbreaking Prime Minister, they will send a very clear message that they do not care about their duty to uphold the rule of law. They will be failing to respect the privilege it is to serve as a Member of Parliament in this great country of ours.
As Mr Baker said, the Prime Minister would be long gone by now if he occupied any other office of senior responsibility. Those who continue to defend him are defending the indefensible and weakening the pillars of our democracy.
This is a historic moment, and today we face a choice. This motion is about the crucial question of whether the Prime Minister intentionally misled the House. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition stated, the processes by which we uphold the rules and ensure honesty in Parliament are crucial. Our conventions and traditions are not an accident. They have been handed down to us as tools that protect Britain from extremism and decline, but the Prime Minister has abused those tools, as many hon. Members have outlined today. He has broken the rules while expecting everyone around him to follow them.
When Allegra Stratton joked about the Downing Street parties, the Prime Minister accepted her resignation. Professor Neil Ferguson broke the rules, so he resigned, which the Prime Minister said was the right thing for him to do. The former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, broke the rules. He, too, resigned, and the Prime Minister tried to claim he sacked him. Why does the Prime Minister think everyone’s actions have consequences except his own?
Over the last 24 hours we have seen desperate attempts by the Government to delay, distract and duck scrutiny. They have pulled every trick in the book to kick this down the road, but they have run out of road. It is now decision time. Actions do speak louder than words, so the question is: what action will Conservative Members choose to take? Will they continue to defend the indefensible, or will they choose to recognise this historic moment and do the right thing?
Although the Ukraine situation is of huge importance, as the hon. Member for Hazel Grove said, the invasion of a sovereign nation by a dictatorial power is no reason for us to accept lower standards here. We expect better, and Britain deserves better.
Our key workers have sacrificed so much through this pandemic, in the name of keeping us all safe. As my hon. Friend Paula Barker outlined, they stuck to the letter of the rules. They had no other choice. For our care workers, breaking the rules for just 15 minutes would have risked lives, so they confined themselves to care homes up and down the country, unable to see their loved ones, and unable to attend weddings, funerals and births. This was all to protect those they looked after. They care deeply for the people they care for. They value their work, and take great pride in it—I know that because I used to do it myself—but the Prime Minister’s actions have mocked their sacrifice.
Rightly, the majority of the nation feel that the Prime Minister disregarded and belittled their sacrifice. As a care worker, I know the sacrifices care workers made in the pandemic on the frontline, putting themselves at risk to care for others. We have all heard stories today of how people did that. The least they deserve is for the Prime Minister to be held to account for his conduct. While the Prime Minister was partying, they, because they were following the rules, were unable to be with their loved ones in their dying moments, or unable to attend miserable funerals at which only a handful of people were present. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, after all the Prime Minister’s rule-breaking, those people have been left with an empty feeling of guilt—guilt because they stuck to the law and did not bend the rules, and so missed some of the most precious moments, from births to funerals. But all those people the length and breadth of the country had no reason to feel guilty; it is the Prime Minister of this country who has broken the law and dishonoured their sacrifice.
Many of us will recall seven-year-old Josephine, who sent a handwritten letter to the Prime Minister on her birthday in March 2020 to let him know that her mummy and daddy had cancelled her birthday party. She said she would be
“staying at home because you asked us to”.
She did not mind cancelling her birthday because she wanted “everybody to be ok”. The next day, the Prime Minister replied to Josephine, saying:
“We have all got to do our bit to protect the NHS and save lives, and that is exactly what you are doing”, but clearly it was one rule for him, and another for Josephine and the rest of us. What message does that send to Josephine and all the rest of her generation? Now we know that the Prime Minister did not shut down his own birthday party just a few months later; he spent it breaking the law. We have a Prime Minister who is sorry only that he has been found out.
Today is our chance to protect the institution of Parliament, at the heart of our democracy. Patriots cherish our great institutions, but this week the Prime Minister has degraded them. He wrote the rules, and he broke the rules. He flouted his own law. He thinks the rules apply to everyone except him. He thinks actions have consequences for everyone except him. Today, he will be shown that the rules apply to him, too, and that his actions have consequences. Honesty, integrity and the truth matter in politics—they are British principles. Today, all Members have the opportunity to defend those principles and to vote to uphold our democracy. If they do not, I fear that they will not be forgiven. I urge all Members across the House to do the right thing: to respect the sacrifices that their constituents made during the pandemic; to say that the public were right to follow the rules; and to vote to defend our parliamentary democracy.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove gave a powerful, brave and honest speech and has shown great integrity. I have known him for—I think we go back two decades. He told us he was no longer willing to defend the indefensible, and drew a line in the sand. He is a man who embodies the principles of public service.
I urge Conservative Members to follow the lead of the hon. Members for Hazel Grove, and for Wycombe, today. The Prime Minister is leading the Conservative party into the sewer. It is now up to Conservative Members to decide whether they follow him. It is up to Members to decide whether it is a red line for the Prime Minister of this country to break the ministerial code, break the trust of the British public, and get away with it.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda said, the only way to get to the bottom of this issue and regain public confidence in our democracy is by respecting the processes that have been created to enshrine the rules of our Parliament. I point out that the process we are following today is in place only because the Prime Minister has failed to do the decent thing and resign. I repeat: honesty, integrity and the truth matter in our politics. Today, MPs across the House have the opportunity to defend those principles and to vote to support our democracy. I commend the motion to the House.
May I start by saying that today is, of course, Her Majesty the Queen’s 96th birthday? I know that the whole House will wish to join me in wishing Her Majesty many happy returns.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important issue on the Floor of the House, and it is a pleasure to appear opposite Angela Rayner. The Government recognise the seriousness of the issues under consideration. Let me say at the outset that the Prime Minister has always been clear that he is happy to face whatever inquiries Parliament sees fit to hold. He is happy for the House to decide how it wishes to proceed today, and therefore will not be whipping Conservative Members of Parliament. They are free to vote according to how they believe we should move forward on this issue.
Last night, we tabled an amendment to the motion because we wanted to be explicit that Sue Gray should be able to complete and publish her report without any further delay, and because we wanted to allow the Metropolitan police to conclude their investigations. We now recognise that in practice those things are almost certainly likely to happen, so we are happy for the Labour motion to go through, if that is the will of the House.
The Prime Minister has apologised repeatedly for what has happened. He is mortified by it. He wishes he could have done things differently, and that the clock could be turned back. He has apologised—as this House has heard him do this week—repeatedly for what has happened. He has asked for the House’s forgiveness, and to be able to get on and serve the people of this country by delivering the opportunities brought about by his getting Brexit done, by our leading the world on covid vaccines and the vaccine roll-out, and by his clear leadership on Ukraine.
I wish to make it clear to the House that while the Metropolitan police investigation is ongoing, it is right that neither I nor this House speculates on the detail of matters that are still under investigation. It is of the utmost importance that police processes can continue without the risk of prejudice from this place or elsewhere. I acknowledge the points made by many Members, but it is important that the House understands that we cannot pre-empt the outcome of an investigation that must be allowed to finish.
As the motion before the House acknowledges, the proper time for the Privileges Committee to consider this matter is after the police have completed their work, when all the facts have been made clear. That is in accordance with the principles of natural justice, an ancient principle that the Leader of the Opposition understands full well. Natural justice includes the principles that allegations have to be known to the person accused, that there must be an unbiased tribunal, and that no one should be a judge in their own cause.
Chris Bryant said that he did not believe the Prime Minister. He has made a judgment and that is fine, but let us be clear that this is not a neutral, objective viewpoint. It is in the interests of natural justice that its principles be followed by all. That is in the interests of the House, too. The Leader of the Opposition spoke of principles, and of how consideration of them should affect the tempo of this debate, but his party spoke of drafting personalised attack ads against Conservative Members of Parliament in their constituencies. Moreover, before he opened the debate, he apologised for unwittingly misleading the House during Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, and in his next breath moved a motion against the Prime Minister for misleading the House. The truth is that there is a political tempo to this matter.
As the House knows, the Prime Minister is on his pre-planned visit to India, in order to deepen our long-term partnership for peace and prosperity with a fellow leading democracy in the face of global economic challenges and threats from autocratic states. Tomorrow, he will meet Prime Minister Modi for in-depth talks on the United Kingdom and India’s strategic defence, diplomatic and economic partnership, because the visit is aimed at bolstering our close partnership and stepping up security co-operation in the Indo-Pacific. Many Members in this House will understand that given events in Ukraine, it was of the utmost importance that this important visit went ahead. At no time, though, has the Prime Minister said that the issue that we are debating is not important; it is important. Other things are also important.
At all times, the Prime Minister has set out his understanding of events, just as he did again in the House on Tuesday. He has no concerns with this issue being considered by the Privileges Committee, if that is what the House decides should happen. Nevertheless, Members of this House will be aware that, as I have said, the Government tabled an amendment last night, setting out specifically that consideration of this matter should take place after both the conclusion of the police investigation and the publication of Sue Gray’s report, because Members should have all the facts before taking a decision. We are, however, now content that, in practice, any parliamentary process would take place after both the Met’s investigation has concluded and the report from Sue Gray has been published. As a result, Members of Parliament will be able to vote as they see fit on the motion, as the Government remain committed to publishing Sue Gray’s report as soon as possible after the Met police investigation has concluded.
Yet again, I have sympathy with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, given the Back-Bench duties he finds himself having to fulfil. He talks about us having all the facts before us. Will he reassure the House that all the photographs taken by the official photographers will be available to us to peruse as these judgments are made, so that we can make sure that we have all the facts before us?
I cannot comment on the particulars that the hon. Lady mentions because, of course, the matter is under police investigation, so she presupposes a state of affairs that I cannot speak to.
That is not part of this debate, and it is not part of my function here. The hon. Gentleman wishes to make political points, but this is a matter of principle, as the House knows.
While the Prime Minister is not here, he has already addressed the issue in the House earlier this week. I reiterate what the Prime Minister came to this House to say on Tuesday. As he said then, we understand the strength of feeling that we have heard and the expectation from the public for more from their elected representatives. That is why the Prime Minister has apologised wholeheartedly and unreservedly to this House. Again, I refer the House to his statement on Tuesday on specific matters relating to the notice issued to the Prime Minister, but he has already committed to making public any outcome of the investigation into his own attendance at any event, including any further fixed penalty notices. The Prime Minister has said that once the Metropolitan police have concluded their investigation he will immediately ask the second permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office, Sue Gray, to update the findings of her report. The Prime Minister will, of course, come back to this House to address the outcome of the investigation once we reach that point.
As the Prime Minister said on the issue of whether he misled the House, his comments made to the House were in good faith. He has responded to the event for which he has received a fixed penalty notice. He made clear that he did not think at that time that the event was in contravention of covid rules. However, he has apologised for his mistake, paid his fine and accepted the findings of the Metropolitan police. There is a difference between a deliberate and an inadvertent situation and I think most people would accept that.
I understand the strength of feeling in the House, but the Metropolitan police investigation is ongoing. Once that investigation is complete, the Prime Minister has made it clear that he will return to the House.
The hon. Gentleman’s question is not worthy of a response. He knows full well the difference between a deliberate and an inadvertent situation—it happens every day of the week. When talking about inadvertence, I will say this, which my hon. Friend Alexander Stafford pointed out in this House: no one made an issue of the report in The Times of the birthday party at that time. That is powerful evidence that no one believed it was a crime or an offence. That supports the assertion—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks, and I am telling him—that supports the assertion that the Prime Minister did not knowingly mislead the House. If he is asking for evidence, that is some of it.
No, I do not think so.
I will close my speech by reiterating what the Prime Minister said yesterday: this Government’s focus is and always will be
“to deliver on the priorities of the British people”.
We will continue our efforts to work with our allies
“to face down Putin’s aggression abroad”.
We will address
“the toughest problems at home,” as we have been doing,
“helping millions of families with the cost of living, making our streets safer and funding the NHS to clear the covid backlog.”
The Prime Minister is focused every day on making
“the British people safer, more secure and more prosperous”.—[Official Report,
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
(1) notes that, given the issue of fixed penalty notices by the police in relation to events in 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, assertions the Rt hon Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip has made on the floor of the House about the legality of activities in 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office under Covid regulations, including but not limited to the following answers given at Prime Minister’s Questions:
(2) orders that this matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges to consider whether the Rt hon Member’s conduct amounted to a contempt of the House, but that the Committee shall not begin substantive consideration of the matter until the inquiries currently being conducted by the Metropolitan Police have been concluded.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, Yulia and her daughter Daria fled Ukraine as it was being bombed. They managed to get to Poland and applied for a visa to come to the UK on
I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order and her notice of it. Clearly this is a very important matter. Those on the Treasury Bench will have heard what has been said, and I implore that the message gets put through to the Home Secretary in order that this can be immediately looked at.