Ken Clarke – 2019 Speech on Brexit

Below is the text of the speech made by Ken Clarke, the Conservative MP for Rushcliffe and the Father of the House of Commons, on 29 January 2019.

None of us taking part in this debate is in any doubt that we are actually discussing an almost unique political crisis—one of a kind that has not happened for very many years. The crisis takes two forms: one is that we are trying to break a political deadlock over exactly what changes we will make to the great bulk of our political, security, intelligence, crime-fighting, trade and investment, and environmental relationships with the rest of the world, having turned away from the ones that we have put together over the past 47 years; the second is that we are also facing a constitutional crisis over the credibility of Government and Parliament in their ability to resolve these matters.

I rather agree with what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) said. I enjoy as much as any veteran parliamentarian the rowdiness of the House of Commons; it is a way of testing the arguments. However, we should also be aware that, at the moment, the public are looking on our political system with something rather near to contempt, as it seems to them that neither the Government nor the political parties, parliamentarians and politicians in general seem able to resolve a question that was first raised by a referendum. Referendums are designed by those who support them to bypass parliamentary decision making, parliamentary majorities and political parties deciding things. We really do need to settle down, and, perhaps if the Government get their way, we can do that in the next few weeks. We have fewer than 60 days to decide how we will come to conclusions about the way forward.

I want to concentrate on just a few issues. I have put forward most of my views on these amendments in the many debates that we have had already, and many other people want to speak. I suspect that a high proportion of this House can guess which way I will vote on the amendments that Mr Speaker has chosen. Probably far too many of them have had to listen to my arguments. To take some encouragement from this debate—

Frank Field

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr Clarke

I will in a second. I wish to take up this question of the relationship between Parliament and Government, because I took some encouragement from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who did seem to accept that the Government should give opportunities to the House to debate things that each Member regards as key matters of policy. Under our constitution, the Government have to pay regard to the views expressed by this House.​

Frank Field

I am very grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. He and I tabled an amendment that was not called. It was to give this House the chance to vote on the various options. The Prime Minister, when she was speaking, talked of taking other amendments away and working on them with the hope of bringing them back to act upon. Might I, through this intervention, ask him to push on his own side that she does precisely that with our amendment?

Mr Clarke

Well, unless I take too long, I hope to touch on the arguments behind the right hon. Gentleman’s excellent amendment, because that is one of the things that we should do in one way or another over the next few weeks.

Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP) rose—

Mr Clarke

Let me just deal with this question and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if his point is relevant.

The question is, what is the role of this House vis-à-vis the Government and what are our procedures? I must admit that, in the past month or two, I have listened to what I, as a fairly experienced Member here now, have regarded as the most extraordinary nonsense about sweeping away centuries of tradition and distorting our procedures because people have objected to the Speaker selecting amendments where they think they might not be on the winning side. There is a rather fundamental, underlying problem here. This Government did not start this, but Brexit brought it to its head. I think that it started with the Blair Government, because Tony Blair, with the greatest respect, never could quite understand why he had to submit to Parliament so often. He started timetabling all our business and so on, but that is now water under the bridge. I say with respect that, mistakenly, this Government began by saying that they were going to invoke the royal prerogative, and, as it was a treaty, they felt that Parliament would not be involved in invoking article 50 or any of the consequences because the monarch would act solely on the advice of her Prime Minister, trying to take us back several hundred years. That was swept away. Then we had to have defeats inflicted on the Government last summer in order to get a meaningful vote on the outcome of any negotiations. This has gone on all the way through the process. Today’s debate and the votes that we are having tonight are only taking place because the Government actually resisted the whole idea of coming back here with any alternative to the deal that they were telling us was done and fixed and the only way of going forward. That has worried me all the way through.

Now, I did take the Prime Minister today to be taking a totally different approach, and I hope that she will confirm that. It does now seem that, whatever course we decide on today, things are going to come back to this House. No deal of any kind is going to be ratified until we have had a vote in this House, approving whatever we are presented with. One problem is that we have not yet produced a consensus or a majority for any option, but if this House expresses a clear wish about the nature of the deal that it wants to see negotiated, the Government will consider—indeed, I believe that under our constitution, they are bound to follow—the wishes of the House of ​Commons, because British Governments have never been able to pursue these matters without the consent and support of a majority of the House of Commons.

Angus Brendan MacNeil

The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that the House must test the various options. Will he “join the (q)”, as it were? Amendment (q) aims to revoke article 50. Is that one of the ideas that he thinks should be tested in this House—even for nothing other than that the people of Scotland would at least know the folly of sticking with Westminster, which is taking them out of Europe against their will?

Mr Clarke

I do not wish to revoke article 50 for the same reasons as the hon. Gentleman, although I do share some of his views. If I was trying to exercise unfettered autocratic power in the government of the country, I would of course still believe that the best interests of the United Kingdom lie in remaining a member of the European Union. I do not share enthusiasm, however, for what the hon. Gentleman wants. After the pleasure of the first referendum and all that it has caused, he now thinks that we will automatically resolve things by having a second referendum, which could be even more chaotic in its effects than that the one we have had.

As I have said, the Government of the day have got to give this House a far bigger role, which therefore means a much bigger responsibility on this House to create the intraparty, cross-party majority that is the only majority of any kind that might be available here for any sensible way forward.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Clarke

Let me just finish my point. I will give way in a minute.

I heard all the stuff when the Clerks were invoked—the advice of the Clerks to the Government to resist this approach. Of course it is true that the law can only be changed by legislation. That is a perfectly straightforward legal point. But in our constitution, in my opinion, the Government are accountable politically to the non-legislative votes of Parliament. It is utterly absurd to say that Opposition Supply days and amendments to motions of the kind we are addressing today are just the resolutions of a debating society that have no effect upon the conduct of daily government. If we concede that point in the middle of this shambles of Brexit, with all the other things we have to resolve, we will have done great harm to future generations because it is difficult to see how the concept of parliamentary sovereignty will survive such an extraordinary definition.

Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con)

May I humbly suggest that the Prime Minister is actually following the will of Parliament, because she is remembering that, two years ago, two thirds of MPs in this Parliament voted to trigger article 50, which leads to the unconditional leaving of the European Union on 29 March? That was the instruction that she was given by Parliament that she is trying to deliver, and our duty is to assist her.​

Mr Clarke

With the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend, I think that my approach throughout the last two years has demonstrated that I am prepared to be pragmatic in response to these things. I did not regard myself as bound by a referendum. In the British constitution, referendums are advisory—they are described as such in official pronunciations—but politically most Members of this House bound themselves to obeying the result. That was brought home to me in a parliamentary way, consistent with what I have just been saying, by the massive majority of votes cast for invoking article 50. I opposed the invocation of article 50, but since that time I accept—I have to accept—that this House has willed that we are leaving the European Union.

With respect to my right hon. Friend, I do not concur that we agreed to leave unconditionally, whatever the circumstances, at a then arbitrary date two years ahead. We then wasted at least the first 18 months of the time, because nobody here had really thought through in any detailed way exactly what we were now going to seek as an alternative to our membership of the European Union, to safeguard our political and economic relationships with the world in the future. And we still have not decided that. It looks as though I am going to be remarkably brief by my own standards, but that is probably only in contrast with the frequently interrupted Front-Bench speeches, to which I have mercifully been only mildly, and perfectly pleasantly, exposed.

Where does this leave me, given that I believe I have a duty to make my mind up on the votes that we are going to have today? I am one of those who voted for withdrawal on the withdrawal agreement. That was the first time in my life that I have ever cast any kind of vote contemplating Britain leaving the European project and the European Union. I thought that the agreement was perfectly harmless and perfectly obvious, and could have been negotiated years before, with citizenship rights, legally owed debts that we are obviously going to honour and an arrangement that protected the Irish border—the treaty commitment to a permanently open border.

The independent hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is the only Irish Member we have who agrees with the majority of the Irish population, who would prefer to remain. Like me, I think that she accepts the reality, but I know that she thinks the backstop is an important defence of the interests of Ireland with an open border. It is quite absurd to reopen that question. I am glad to say that the Prime Minister is still very firmly committed to a permanent open border, and I congratulate her on that. She is not going to break our solemn treaty commitments and set back our relationship with the Republic of Ireland for another generation. I realise that the Prime Minister has been driven to this by the attitudes of quite a number of Government Members, but I personally cannot see what the vague alternative to a perfectly harmless backstop that we are now going to explore is; nor do I see what the outcome is going to be. Our partners—or previous partners—in the European Union cannot understand quite what we are arguing for either, so we move from having a deal to not having a deal.

Let me just say what I will vote for. I am not going to go through it amendment by amendment, because Members are waiting to move those amendments. I shall vote for anything that avoids leaving with no deal on 29 March. It is perfectly obvious that we are in a state of such ​chaos that we are not remotely going to answer these questions in the 60-odd—fewer than 60—days before then. We need more time. The Prime Minister says that there are only two alternatives: the deal we have got, which she is now wanting to alter and go back and reopen; or no deal on 29 March. That is not true. A further option—and my guess is that the other members of the European Union would be only too ready to hear it opened up as a possibility—is that we extend article 50 to give us time to actually reach some consensus. I think that it would create quite some time, and there are problems over the European Parliament and so on. I have always said that we can revoke it, while making it clear to the angry majority in the House of Commons that they can invoke it again, with their majorities, once we are in a position to settle these outstanding issues, which, as we sit here at the moment, we are nowhere near to resolving, and we are right at the end of the timetable. The alternative to no deal is to stay in the Union for as long as it takes to get near to a deal that we are likely all to be able to agree on and that the majority of us think is in the national interest.

Sir Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con)

I think that my right hon. and learned Friend will therefore be joining me in the Lobby in support of what is known as the Cooper amendment. Does he agree that in changing Standing Orders, the House of Commons, if it has a majority to do so, is doing something that the House of Commons has done since Standing Orders were created, and did before the Government took control of the Order Paper in 1906?

Mr Clarke

Absolutely. We will not debate the constitutional history, but people are trying to invoke the strictest interpretation of Standing Orders going back to attempts in the late 19th century to stop the Irish nationalists filibustering, which brought the whole thing grinding to a halt. Now we are saying that as this Parliament has the temerity to have a range of views, some of which are not acceptable to the Government, Standing Orders should be invoked against us to discipline us. Anyway, I will not go back to that, but I agree with my right hon. Friend.

The other thing that I shall vote for is another thing that supports the Prime Minister’s stated ambition for the long-term future of the country: open borders and free trade between ourselves and our markets in the EU, as demanded by our business leaders, our trade union leaders, and, I think, most people who have the economic wellbeing of future generations at heart. I think the only known way in the world in which we can do that is to stay in a customs union, and also to have sufficient regulatory alignment to eliminate the need for border barriers. I do not mind if some of my right hon. and hon. Friends prefer to call the customs union a “customs arrangement” or if they care to call the single market “regulatory alignment”. I do not feel any great distress at their use of gentler language to describe these things. Nevertheless, something very near to that is required to deliver our economic and political ambitions.

It is also the obvious and only way to protect the permanent open border in Ireland. We do not need to invent this ridiculous Irish backstop if the whole United Kingdom is going into a situation where it has an open border with the whole of the European Union in any event. The Irish backstop was only invented to appease ​those people who envisaged the rest of the British Isles suddenly deciding to leave with no deal before we had finished the negotiations in Europe. Well, let us forget that. Let us make it our aim—it will not be easy but it is perfectly possible—to negotiate, probably successfully, with the other 27 an open trading economic and investment relationship through the single market and the customs union.

Lady Hermon

I am very grateful to the Father of the House for allowing me to intervene. I just want to say ever so gently that in his very nice tribute to the hon. Member for North Down, I think he might have accidentally referred to the lady as an Irish Member of this House. No, I am very much a British Member of this House. However, he is absolutely right that I feel passionate about protecting the Belfast agreement—the Good Friday agreement—and the peace that it has delivered in the past 20 years across Northern Ireland and across the whole of the United Kingdom. The backstop was there to protect that peace, and I am very sorry that the Prime Minister has moved away from that today.

Mr Clarke

I apologise to the hon. Lady, but I must explain to her that I refer to her and her colleagues as Irish Members of Parliament in the same way that I would refer to myself as an English Member of Parliament, or perhaps to a colleague as a Welsh or Scottish Member of Parliament. [Hon. Members: “Northern Irish.”] She is Northern Irish. I can assure her that not only do I agree entirely with the views she just expressed about what we are seeking here, but I am as keen a Unionist as she is, and I do not wish to see the break-up of the present United Kingdom. I think that she and I are in total agreement.

The other thing I would support, which arises in the context of one of the amendments we are talking about, is that the Government obviously should no longer resist this House having indicative votes. It is absurd that we have been trying to get a debate and a vote on some of the more obvious things for months now, and as time goes on, the Government are still trying to make it difficult to have a vote on them. When we have the votes, no doubt the Government and the Opposition will start imposing three-line Whips on everybody to take a narrow focus, trying to take us all back towards the failed withdrawal agreement or the rather confused Labour party policy and ensuring that we shoot down every other sensible proposition. There are quite a lot of sensible propositions flying around the House that are superior to the policy of the Government so far and certainly superior to the policy of the Leader of the Opposition. Indicative votes enable us in the time available—to shorten delay further—to give an expression of will and an instruction to the Government about the nature of the long-term arrangements that we want.

To go back to where I started, the circumstances at the moment mean that we have to strive to restore confidence in our political system, our political institutions and, above all, this House of Commons and ensure that an outcome of that kind emerges, because if this shambles goes on much longer, I hate to think where populism and extremism will take us next in British democracy.