Early Parliamentary General Election Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
John BercowMain Page: John Bercow (Speaker) - Buckingham)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is now a week since Parliament voted to delay Brexit yet again. It is a week since this Parliament voted yet again to force Brussels to keep this country in the European Union for at least another three months, at a cost of £1 billion a month. In the days since then, the Government have tried to be reasonable and to ascribe the best possible motives to our friends and colleagues around the House. [Interruption.] I have twice offered more time for debate. I offered more time last week and I made the same offer last night. I said that we were prepared to debate this Bill—[Interruption.] I said we were prepared to debate the withdrawal Bill around the clock to allow Parliament time to scrutinise it, to the point of intellectual exhaustion. We must bear in mind that not only has this House been considering this issue for three and a half years, but last week when this Bill was being debated there was not a single new idea and not a single new suggestion. All they wanted was more time, more weeks, more months, when they could not even provide the speakers to fill the time allotted.
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Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I want to make the point that we want any election to involve as many people as possible. It is meant to be a big exercise in democracy, and I hope the amendments—
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I will not give way for a very simple reason, which is that both hon. Gentlemen have consistently tried to obstruct Brexit for the most specious and completely unacceptable reasons.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). I have to say that I think he has just written the SNP’s leaflets for our election campaign. He says that we have tried to obstruct Brexit. Well, I would say to the House: guilty as charged. Let me explain exactly why we have done so.
We are used to referendums in Scotland. We have had two: one in 2014 and another in 2016. Crucially, we were told in 2014 that, if Scotland stayed in the United Kingdom, we would be staying in Europe. But more than that—we were told that this was going to be a Union of equals and that Scotland was going to be respected. And what has happened? In the European referendum, Scotland voted to remain in Europe by 62%, and our Parliament and Government have sought to give voice to that. We have published document after document under the title “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, in which we have sought to compromise with the United Kingdom Government, but at every step of the way—whether it was the previous Prime Minister or this one— we have been ignored.
I have repeatedly made the point—I make no apology for making it again today—that SNP Members are simply not prepared to sit back and allow Scotland to be taken out of the European Union against its will. On that basis, I welcome the opportunity of an election. Make no mistake, the coming election will be for the right of Scotland to determine its own future. We will reflect on everything that has happened since 2017, when 13 Scottish Conservatives were temporarily elected to this House. I say “temporarily” because they have voted against Scotland’s interests every step of the way, and have given no consideration to the fact that every single local authority area in Scotland voted to remain.
Just think about what Brexit would do to Scotland. Just think about the challenge we face in growing our population—a challenge that we have had for decades, but one that we have risen to on the basis of the free movement of people. Our economy is growing and European citizens have made a contribution to that economy. We have collectively benefited from the right to live, work and travel in 28 EU member states. We voted to retain those rights, yet the Conservatives want to take us out, so I really look forward to the election, when we can reinforce the mandate that we already have from the Scottish election in 2016, when the people of Scotland yet again voted the SNP into power. We have a mandate for an independence referendum, and it ill behoves this House to frustrate the legitimate demands of our Parliament and our Government. If the people of Scotland back the SNP again in the coming election, it has to be the case that we have the right to determine our future.
I am grateful that the European Union has granted us an extension to the end of January, and we must use the time wisely. But I say to our friends in Europe: please remember to stand by Scotland in our hour of need; and, as our dear friend Alyn Smith said in the European Parliament, keep a light on for Scotland because we are coming back. And that is because we are ambitious for our country. We want to grow our economy, to continue to benefit from the single market and the customs union, to make Scotland a destination in Europe, and to complete the journey that Scotland embarked on with devolution 20 years ago. We have a Parliament that has delivered for the people of Scotland and that is pushing on with addressing the challenge of climate change. We have a Parliament that is doing its job and has delivered education free at the point of need, not based on people’s ability to pay. I could go on about the differences between the way in which the Scottish Government and the UK Government have delivered for our people, and about the growing self-confidence that we see in Scotland.
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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I listened closely to the comments made by the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). She alluded to the Lib Dems not being present last night. That is not the case. Our spokesperson for the environment—my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Jane Dodds)—was here for the entirety of the debate, as I understand it from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), so I would like that to be amended in the record.
I apologise if one Liberal Democrat Member was here last night, but as I see it, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion represents the Green party.
The question that we are grappling with in this House and, indeed, in the wider country is not just a narrow matter of our relationship with the European Union, although this debate on Brexit has exposed significant differences in how people feel about that. People’s identities of remain or leave run deep, because this is not only about whether we remain in the EU or leave; it is about who we are as a country. It is about our values. It is about whether we are open, inclusive and internationalist in our outlook, facing the future, or whether we are closed and insular, wanting to pull up the drawbridge and look to the past. That is the key question that we, as a country, need to resolve.
The Prime Minister talked about “one whole United Kingdom”. I thought he had a cheek, because he has not been acting in a way that protects our whole United Kingdom. He has sold out the people of Northern Ireland with the deal he has done with the EU. This is a man who said that no Conservative Prime Minister should ever accept a border in the Irish Sea, yet that is exactly what he has done. My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I think that our United Kingdom is something precious that is worth protecting, and that Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are stronger together.
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I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. The question was not framed in pejorative terms: are you voting for Britain to be greater, Britain to be smaller, Britain to be richer, Britain to be poorer? The question was a simple one: do you want Britain to leave the European Union?
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I think I have been slightly thrown by taking so many interventions, so I am saying “you”. I know I should not and I apologise.
If I may continue with the points that I was making—
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Mr Speaker, I cannot work out whether you are eating popcorn as you watch this extraordinary spectacle of a great debate between two of our great parliamentarians play out across the Chamber.
Does my hon. Friend not agree with me that this election provides a fantastic opportunity for each of the main parties to set out in principle what they want to see from Brexit, and to finally address the point that the public voted to leave the European Union but are leaving it to parliamentarians to decide the best way of delivering Brexit? It is therefore incumbent on both main parties to set out their Brexit proposals. We can at least unite in this fractious Chamber by agreeing that no deal is not an option and that those who voted to stop no deal are the real heroes of Parliament.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what I think was a friendly intervention. I am certainly learning to appreciate the benefit of friendly interventions.
I have just been refuelled, Mr Speaker.
We were talking about the need for a new Parliament. There are many things that I would like a Parliament to spend much more time talking about instead of being so focused on Brexit. The rise of autocracies is a very serious issue. On Huawei, do we allow the use in this country of high tech from a communist party state, especially if its stated aim is to dominate global 5G in the years to come? I am wary of making the world safe for autocracies and one-party states. We need time to debate that.
Another issue is the ongoing disaster of Syria and the clear mistakes made by President Trump. There is also the need for integration of overseas foreign policy. We also have an exciting domestic agenda and I want us to talk more about that.
Finally, I want an Isle of Wight deal so that our public services are of the same standard as those on the mainland, or the north island, as we call it. Most parts of the United Kingdom that are isolated by water—in other words, islands—either have a fixed link, which we are never going to have because it would cost £3 billion, or more money through increased public expenditure, but the Island has neither, and that has been a structural flaw for many years.
The best way to deal with all of those problems is for us to agree to an election and to listen to our constituents, the folks in the places that we care for and love—
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To return to the Second Reading of this Bill, my hon. Friend faces a challenge from the Liberal Democrats in St Albans. Does she agree that, during the referendum, every household in the country received a letter saying
“The Government will implement what you decide”?
Does she remember the previous leader of the Liberal Democrats saying that, even if it were by one vote, the result should still stand? And did she hear the other day—
You are absolutely right, Mr Speaker. My inquiry was reaching its climax. I finish by asking my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) whether she also recalls the current leader of the Liberal Democrats saying that, if there were to be a people’s vote and the result were to go, in her view, the wrong way—in other words, if the people were to vote again to leave the European Union—she would not recognise it as valid. Is that not a most extraordinary position for any party of democrats to take?
I take your instruction, Mr Speaker, and I will not be diverted.
A general election allows us to ask which party is prepared to honour democracy, and I will be asking that question every day in St Albans. A general election also reminds people that a strong Government is needed, and I mean a strong Government with a majority.
The current situation is the worst of all governance. It is governance by horse-trading. The Conservative party did not quite have the majority it needed at the 2010 election, so the Liberal Democrats came into power with us. [Interruption.] It worked so well, as someone says from a sedentary position. The horse-trading began straightaway. Horse-trading is exactly what happens in weak Governments. The lack of numbers means people suddenly start putting forward different agendas.
In St Albans, many students and young people were seduced by the thought of free tuition fees. I heard that being promised time and again across the land, and young people, potentially facing large debts being wiped away, suddenly found they might want to nail their colours to tuition fees at a general election. Tuition fees were an issue that attracted many young people for obvious reasons, and young people nailed their colours to that mast in largish numbers.
However, when we got into government with the Liberal Democrats, tuition fees were the first thing to be horse-traded. Tuition fees were horse-traded for a vote on the alternative vote system. The Liberal Democrats felt that changing the voting system was more important than tuition fees. As a result, hundreds of thousands of young people found themselves being duped and the horse-trading continued.
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On Brenda of Bristol, I shall give way.
Mr Speaker, I rise as the unrecognised Liberal Democrat in this place and I apologise to the Chamber. Let me get back to the issue of the election itself. I represent the coldest and most northerly constituency in the British mainland. It is going to get dark a hell of a lot earlier where I come from than it does in St Albans, and the streets and roads are going to be an awful lot icier. This is perhaps an appeal for the Leader of the House, who is not with us at this precise moment, but may I ask the Government to co-ordinate as closely as possible with the Scottish Government to make sure that the streets and roads are safe for the people who want to come out to exercise their democratic right?
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I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already.
This is a question of trust. The British people trust us to deliver on our promises, and if we do not deliver on our promises we undermine the basis of democracy. The leaflet that came out during the European referendum said: “We will implement what you decide.” Many people, some of whom had never voted for the whole of their lives because they felt it did not make anything change, went and voted in the European referendum because they thought it would make a difference. It was the biggest democratic exercise in our country’s history and a majority voted to leave—and leave we must.
The Opposition are playing party politics, because their only determination is to try to make sure that Brexit cannot happen by the 31st. That is because they think the public are stupid. They think the public will say, “Ah—the Prime Minister did not deliver Brexit by the 31st, so we can go to the country and say that he did not keep his promise.” But actually the public are not stupid. They can see that the reason we have not delivered it by the 31st is that the Opposition voted to institute the European Union (Withdrawal) No. 2 Bill, which surrendered control of when we leave to the European Union.
I want to deal with the issues in the amendments. The first amendment would allow all EU voters living in this country to vote. Quite apart from the fact that this has not been properly debated, it is very difficult to add 3 million voters to the register at very short notice. It would also have—
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that guidance. I did notice that many other speakers mentioned the amendments during their orations.
Absolutely, Mr Speaker
I would like to discuss the issue of European citizens, which has already been mentioned during the debate. It would be very difficult to add 3 million voters to the electoral register at short notice, and the relative size of constituencies would be affected. It is notable that some, like my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely), who was here earlier, have constituencies of more than 100,000 people, while others have constituencies of just 20,000 people. I know that there has been an effort by the Boundary Commission to introduce changes that would even those up, but suddenly adding European voters would have an impact on the relative value of an individual’s vote. It is also notable that none of the EU27 member states allows citizens not from their country to vote in a general election, and with free movement and elections at different times one can rather see why that might be.
Other speakers have discussed votes at 16. As a paediatrician, I have over time seen and treated a number of young people at 16. I have met some very, very mature 16-year-olds with great life experience who no doubt have the knowledge and maturity to vote, but I have also met 16-year-olds who do not. It is worth looking at the international—
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I am reminded of the fact that when people start to get personal towards the Prime Minister or others, it is because they do not have a political argument to make.
It is useful to look at international norms. The United Nations, which we are part of, sees 18-year-olds as adults. Internationally, refugees are seen as children if they are less than 18 years old. We are part of the Five Eyes group, along with Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada, all of which allow votes only from 18. All EU member states, apart from Austria, allow votes only from 18. As a children’s doctor—
Thank you, Mr Speaker; I appreciate your guidance on this matter. I hope you will not mind my responding to the comments made by the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who said that our children should have a vote because it matters to their future. This will affect my four, eight and 12-year-olds’ futures even more, but that is not a rational argument for them to vote.
I am concerned that the amendments that have been tabled are wrecking amendments, because they are trying to change the franchise just before an election. Were that to happen against the Electoral Commission’s advice, we would not be able to have an election in December.
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention; he is right.
We need to deliver Brexit and get on with the priorities of the British people. People in my constituency want more police, more money for schools, better broadband and a strong economy—all the things that were promised in the Queen’s Speech. This Parliament needs to be honest with the people. If Members do not want to deliver Brexit, they should be honest about that and say to voters that they do not want to deliver Brexit, then see whether they are returned. We are at an impasse where the only solution to get Brexit done, whether we want one or not, is to have a general election now.
I agree. I plan to say a number of things, but I want to follow up on some of the things that have been said during the debate. There has been a huge amount of talk about being honest with the public, political expediency and turning the referendum into a party political thing. The hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) seemed very concerned that the referendum and how we vote on Bills has been used for political expediency. I would like to gently remind everybody of the time that the Prime Minister got a camera crew to come and take a picture of him as he signed his little resignation letter to Theresa May—sorry, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). Some might say that it had been politically expedient and, lo and behold, he is now the Prime Minister. Gosh forbid that anybody should use things for political expediency or that Conservative Members have always voted for the Bill.
The trouble with the arguments we are having is that the Government have continued to behave like a Government who have a majority, regardless of the fact that they do not. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead suffered exactly the same problem after the referendum, which was not won decisively by one side—it was a marginal win—and after the 2017 election, when again the country was split, and the idea of bringing forward a Bill that we could all sit down and work on was literally never ever taken forward.
I have listened to Conservative Members saying today, “Well, you shouldn’t be allowed to amend the Bill”, or “You only want time to amend it”. Er, yes—that is absolutely right, because that is the job of this House. Different people come here from different backgrounds and make laws that are not just for one sort of person, but that represent this country. I seem to be in a twilight zone where the Government and the Executive seem to think that they just write a line and then go, “Er, well, it’s my way or the highway”. Welcome to parliamentary democracy!
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I am grateful to have been called when I was not able to be present for the whole debate. I will try to keep my remarks brief, because I know that other colleagues want to speak.
It is an example of the journey I have made in my 14 years in this House that my maiden speech was a Eurosceptic speech that followed a speech by a Labour Eurosceptic, the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins). I will now make a resolutely pro-remain, pro-European speech following the excellent speech by one of the Members whom I most admire in this House, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips).
I have to say, Mr Speaker, that the minute you rose I realised the error I had made in speaking injudiciously and inaccurately. From now on, I will take a forensic approach. The point I was going to make was that I support the call for an election. It is quite right that we try to break the deadlock that exists in Parliament by having an election as soon as possible. I am also mindful—I have listened to every word you have said in this Chamber, Mr Speaker—that I am not going to speak about any of the amendments. All I will say is that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley raised important points and the amendments, if they are called, will also raise important points.
There are important debates to be had in this Chamber about the shape and form of elections. I am open to the idea, for example, of 16-year-olds voting. I am open to the idea of our European friends who live here and contribute their taxes voting. In particular, I take on board the point the hon. Lady made about money and lies. We know that in a digital age the propaganda pumped out on tech platforms will be a huge issue in this election and in future elections. When this House returns after the election, I hope that that will be one of the issues that is addressed.
Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), who made an excellent speech, have focused on the fact that people in the country are yearning for us to talk about something other than Brexit and about the issues that matter to them. I am extremely fortunate to represent the wonderful constituency of Wantage and Didcot, which contributes an enormous amount to the British economy. It is a centre for scientific research, space companies and life sciences, and it has a Formula 1 team, Williams Formula 1. Understandably, the constituency voted to remain because those companies rely on the expertise of a workforce who are spread throughout Europe and who are able to come to this country to work. It is clear, therefore, that when we have this election—and we must have it—Brexit and the issues that emerge from it will be an important factor in the debate.
It is also right that when we call this election—I am speaking in support of the Bill—people should have the chance to debate issues such as who provides the best stewardship of the economy, healthcare and education as well as the importance of culture and the creative industries in our society, a subject very close to my heart.
I echo what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said—I hope this is in order, Mr Speaker—about the tone of any forthcoming general election campaign. You will be pleased to know that the insight I am about to deliver represents the conclusion of my remarks. When you quite rightly ruled me out of order for saying that I was going to make a pro-remain speech when in fact I am making a pro-election speech, the point I wanted to make was that, with a little bit of Brexit inside me—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans has perked up. Obviously, I do not want to be part of a European superstate. I often say to my remain friends that if at any point the European Union told us, “You can stay in the European Union only if you join the single currency,” I would be the first to man the barricades and call for Brexit—even, dare I say it, a no-deal Brexit.
What was left behind after the referendum, and what I hope we get back if we call an election, is an understanding of the role of this incredible institution of Parliament. We know that the people voted to leave the European Union, but the paranoid hard-right Brexiteers decided that any version of Brexit apart from their own would somehow snatch away their hard-won victory. However, you know, Mr Speaker, that the role of this place, as the Chamber of a representative democracy, is to take that instruction and to interpret it as best we can.
My rebellious streak emerged when a hard-line Brexit was proposed—the proposal to leave the customs union and the single market while maintaining an open border in Ireland is an impossible circle to square—and there were attacks on our judges, who were called “enemies of the people” for interpreting the law; attacks on business, which pays taxes and employs people; attacks on our civil servants, who worked day and night to deliver the instructions of their political masters; and, dare I say it, Mr Speaker, attacks on you for allowing us in this Chamber to have our say on important matters. What really drove me mad was the attempt by some people in this House to own the result of the referendum and say, to echo the words of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, “My way or the highway,” trashing in the process every single institution that they purported to be campaigning for when they campaigned for Brexit. That is utterly shameful. I hope they realise that everyone in this House has done their best to deliver on the referendum result.
It is not our fault that there was a hung Parliament. We can blame various people for the reason that we came back with a hung Parliament—[Interruption.] No, I blame the politicians. I blame the person who was leading our party at the last election when we could have come back with a majority, and this party can perhaps reflect on how long it took to react. Nobody knows how this election will turn out. I have simply taken a consistent position—as I have watched the carnage and the wreckage, and the ratcheting up of the rhetoric to “traitor” and “treason”—and said, “We should respect the referendum result, but we should leave with a deal.”
I do not know whether you and I will ever meet again in our respective positions, Mr Speaker. I simply want to say to you, as one man of average height—to echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois)—but of substantial girth: thank you for everything that you have done to stand up for the rights of this Chamber. Thank you as well to all my colleagues, who I look forward to seeing on the election beat, reasonably exchanging sensible and intelligent views on the best way forward—
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I am very grateful; my hon. Friend has been a wonderful colleague to me over many years. This place at its best is one of the best places to be—and at its worst, it is absolutely awful.
I will not be supporting a general election because I do not think that a general election will resolve Brexit. The clue is partly in the name: a “general” election is about general issues. It is impossible to extrapolate from the result what people think about a very specific issue—in this case, Brexit. If we want a specific answer on Brexit, we have to ask a specific question, and the best way of doing that is through a people’s vote. That is even more the case with an electoral system that is as undemocratic and antiquated as ours, because first past the post regularly delivers majority Governments on a minority of votes.
A million people did not march through the streets of London a few weeks ago demanding a general election; they wanted a people’s vote because they know that that is the best way—indeed, the only way—to get to the bottom of this crisis and resolve it. All that a general election will do, frankly, is put Nigel Farage and the Prime Minister back in their comfort zones, giving them a stage—political insiders dressed up as rebels, whose agenda, frankly, is chaos—so that division will thrive.
I want to take on the idea that this Parliament has run its course. The Prime Minister has won votes on both his Queen’s Speech and the Second Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill. The only person who is blocking progress in this Parliament is the Prime Minister. The reason for that is very clear: he has an agenda that is all about a general election—about installing an even harder Vote Leave contingent of MPs in Parliament—but let us not allow him to get away with telling us as Parliament that somehow we have not been doing a good job of holding him to account. This is not a zombie Parliament; it is a Parliament that has got its head around parliamentary procedures in a way that any new Parliament will take months to do. It is precisely because we have been able to keep the Prime Minister in his box that he is not very happy with the fact that we are trying to continue on our way forward.
One of the reasons I do not want a general election right now is that the thing that should be front and centre of it—the climate emergency, which is what we should be debating in a general election—will be overshadowed by yet more fights about Brexit, which it will not resolve. We know that the next 18 months will be crucial in terms of whether we have a chance of getting off the collision course we are on with the climate catastrophe. The Committee on Climate Change said in its report to Parliament a few months ago that the next Parliament will be absolutely vital, so it is crucial that the next general election is about the climate crisis. This existential crisis is facing all of us and if we fritter the time away with more debates about Brexit, which they are not even going to resolve, we will be responsible for the greatest irresponsibility—that does not quite make sense, but you know what I mean. We will be responsible for the greatest betrayal of young people and their futures, because this is a massive wasted opportunity, and I cannot bear the fact that we are going to spend it talking about Brexit in a way that is not going to resolve it.
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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Many excellent speeches species were curtailed at three minutes this evening. Why is this awful, repetitious performance being allowed to go on for so long?
Thank you for that opportunity, Mr Speaker, but I think I will be able to do so in slightly shorter order, so I hope that I can bring pleasure to the hon. Gentleman.
In the election, we will deliver on a one nation agenda: delivering for our schools and our hospitals, safer communities, more police, massive investment in our infrastructure, keeping our streets safe and tackling the cost of living. The alternative will be the nightmare advanced by the Leader of the Opposition, who wants to make 2020 the year of two referendums: one on Brexit and another on Scottish independence—more energy-sapping, mind-numbing stagnation and more pointless delay, so I urge right hon. and hon. Members to back this Bill and back the general election. Let the Government get Brexit done and allow the country to move on.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).
This has been a fractious, challenging, controversial and difficult debate at times. Do you agree, Mr Speaker, that in the context of this debate, it is extraordinarily important that all Members agree that their behaviour, whether in this House or in the potential general election to come, should be exemplary, whatever others do?