Oliver Letwin – 2019 Speech on Brexit

Oliver Letwin

Below is the text of the speech made by Sir Oliver Letwin, the Conservative MP for West Dorset, in the House of Commons on 29 January 2019.

Unlike the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), I am a very easy man to please. I voted for the Prime Minister’s first deal, I shall vote for whatever she brings back and I am going to vote for the Brady amendment. I am past caring what deal we have, I will vote for it to get a smooth exit.

The fact is that tonight we are faced with a choice of huge significance for our country, but it is not about the deal we do or do not get eventually, which I suspect in ​the long run will have to be done through some kind of consensus we have not yet found in this House. We are not really voting about that tonight.

The 29th of March is not an abstract fact, it is going to happen. There is going to be a 29 March, which is a real day, and what we are really voting about tonight is the question whether, in the absence of this House taking action, we will leave the EU without a deal—in fact, in the absence of the House taking action tonight rather than two weeks from now, because I do not believe that vote is really going to happen. I am perfectly aware that some very old friends of mine, whose integrity and passion I respect and admire, believe that leaving without a deal is a perfectly tolerable outcome, or even a good outcome, for this country. I respect that opinion, but I do not share it.

I am also aware that many people think the Conservative party will suffer if it is seen in any way to do anything that delays the exit date. I accept that there is some suffering, and I have experienced some of it in my constituency. I have experienced some of it through the tirades of those who send me emails and the like. I accept that.

What my hon. Friends ignore is what will happen, first, to this country, which should be our first preoccupation, and, secondly, to our party if we leave on 29 March, taking the risks involved in not having a deal, and it goes wrong. Incidentally, I entirely accept that it might be perfectly all right, but it might not. If it is not, it will be Conservative Members and our Government—it will not be Opposition Members, some unseen force or the EU—to whom those difficulties will be attributed by the population of our country. When the people elect a Government, they expect that Government to look after them and not to impose risks and difficulties.

If those risks materialise, our party will not be forgiven for many years to come. It will be the first time that we have consciously taken a risk on behalf of our nation, and terrible things will happen to real people in our nation because of that risk, and we will not be able to argue that it was someone else’s fault. I beg those Conservative Members who are still in doubt—I know there are many who are not—to consider that issue when we go into the Lobbies tonight.

Finally, I will say one word on the question whether amendment (b) and the Bill proposed by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) is some kind of constitutional outrage. The Father of the House spoke about it, as did my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), and I will add a word.

It is a fine thing to debate constitutional process but, if one is going to do so, it is important to read the books. It is important to know what our constitution is. There is one pre-eminent authority on the law of our constitution, and the one thing that A. V. Dicey makes clearer than anything else in his very large book is that the House of Commons has undisputed control of its own procedures. The Standing Orders of the House of Commons, which Bagehot tells us are the nearest thing in this terrible constitutional melee to a constitution in our country, are under the control of this House. There is ​nothing improper, wrong or even unusual about changing Standing Orders by a majority of this House of Commons. Until 1906, the Government did not have control of the Order Paper. It was invented for a particular reason that the Government should have that control, but there is no need for them to have it in future.