Anne Main backs December General Election

29th October 2019

Anne Main recalls the cross-party support for the referendum and backs a December General Election to elect a Parliament that will respect the referendum result.

Anne Main MP speaking in the House of Commons, October 2019

It is important that we have a general election. When the question about Brexit was asked in 2016, it was a matter of which side of the argument people supported. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who looks as if she is about to leave her seat, says she looks forward to being in my constituency more often. I say to her: thank you—we have had the magazine with your name all over it. The hon. Lady, who is now leaving the debate, is promoting herself in my constituency as the next Prime Minister, so it is important that we look at what is being heralded by parties such as the Liberal Democrats in the next election.

When we had that 2016 question, it was not a tribal question; the question for us on the doorstep was not: “Is yours a party of remain or leave?” We were empowered to campaign for whichever side of the argument suited us best, and we all pledged to respect the result, whether we knocked on the door and said “I’d prefer to leave” or “I’d prefer to remain”. I stood in the marketplace in St Albans behind a market stall manned by Conservatives, some supporting remain and some supporting leave, showing that our party respected the right of people to determine that question, not along party lines but having lived the European project for 40-odd years. Some, including me, had never had the opportunity to vote on the matter; others were being asked a second time.

As I said in an intervention on the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who has now gone, along with all her colleagues—[Interruption.] Oh, sorry. I did not recognise the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) back there. He is a worthy stalwart, staying for the debate, which is not something the Liberal Democrats do very often. I am pleased he is here for my remarks.

As I said, the parties were free to campaign, and as I said to the hon. Lady, in 2008, for purposes of electoral expediency, seeing that David Cameron and the Conservatives—I was serving here at the time—were uncertain whether to offer a debate on the Lisbon treaty, which was being passed by the then Labour Government, the Liberal Democrats campaigned with a great big photograph of Nick Clegg all over a leaflet saying: “We are the party to offer a referendum.”

My hon. Friend articulately expresses how the EU referendum result was not based on what parties campaigned for. Does she agree that it was not a country-by-country or constituency-by-constituency vote, but that it came down to every individual vote by every citizen across the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that we go back and look at how we got to where we are in order to understand where we are going next. I am sorry about the history lesson, but it was in 2008 that the campaign started gathering momentum, simply because the Liberal Democrats were saying, “Only we will give you the choice.” I do not remember then or any time in between, until now, when it seems politically expedient, that any party campaigned to revoke. All of us, on whichever side of the in/out binary argument we stood, were free to campaign, hence the divide and the fact that there are Members with firmly held views, either for remain or leave, on each side of the House. Now the House and the political groupings have turned it into a party political campaign, and that is the problem.

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady’s attack on the Liberal Democrats. I did not vote for the referendum legislation, and I did not vote to trigger article 50, so I am certainly not going to vote for an early general election, which is opportunism from the Prime Minister and opportunism from the Liberal Democrats. However, the hon. Lady has a chance today to agree with the Liberal Democrats, because an amendment, if selected, could change the date to 9 December. If the Conservatives want an election as soon as possible, given the chronology—the 9th comes before the 12th—why are you sticking to the 12th?

I assume that the word “you” was directed not at you, Mr Speaker, but at me, so I do not expect you to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question and tell us why you are not changing the date to the 9th, but I will answer it and say that I do not think the public will care one way or another. We have a tradition in this country of holding elections on Thursdays, but as for the guff and nonsense that we have heard in this place about people going to Christmas parties and school plays and all the rest of it, the public will think that that is a pretty trivial argument. I do not think it amounts to a hill of beans now: I think that the public are absolutely fed up.

Does my hon. Friend not think it bizarre that some people are arguing for a people’s vote 2019 when we have not yet implemented the people’s vote 2016?

My right hon. Friend tempts me, and since there are no time limits, I may well wax lyrical on that point. However, it is important for us to get to the nub of the matter, which is that we have moved this away from being a choice for the people. I knocked on doors, and people said, “I am for leave” or “I am for remain”—

Will the hon. Lady give way?

May I finish this point first? Otherwise I could be speaking for hours, and I am sure the House would rather I did not detain it for that long.

People came up to that market stall and said that they were for leave or for remain. I did not ask them, “Do you vote Liberal Democrat, do you vote Green, do you vote Labour?” Indeed, members of the Labour party have suggested that they agree with my views, while members of the Conservative party, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), probably disagreed with my views at the time. All of us, at the time—well, I believe that the Liberal Democrats said that they would respect the vote—gave the impression that it was a once-in-a-lifetime choice, and a once-in-a-lifetime decision on which we would not renege and which we would not revoke: it would be delivered. It then came to a Parliament whose members were subsequently elected on the basis of their own political tribes.


On political tribes, I shall give way.

Will the hon. Lady please explain to me why the Government have not got Brexit through when they have had a majority for three years?

Perhaps the arithmetic in the hon. Gentleman’s particular tribe is not as good as it might be. The Conservatives have not had a working majority for three years; there have been difficulties. However, the hon. Gentleman has fallen into the trap of seeing Brexit as a “political tribe” decision.

Just about everyone in the Chamber said that they respected the result of the 2016 referendum and stood on manifestos in 2017 saying that they would honour that result. Why does my hon. Friend think they have backtracked and are retreating into their political tribes in respect of this very important issue?

I can only hazard a guess that certain parties saw it as politically expedient to suggest or imply, in 2008 in the case of the Liberal Democrats or in 2017 in the case of the Conservatives and the Labour party, that they would indeed offer, or respect, a referendum. Now too many of the parties are finding it politically difficult.

This is not about us. It is not about individual parts of the United Kingdom and individual constituencies. That is not how the referendum campaign went. Nobody came and asked us questions on a constituency-by-constituency, country-by-country or region-by-region basis. We are in this mess now because we have turned the issue into a political football.

Will the hon. Lady give way, on that point?

On political footballs? The hon. Gentleman plays the game very well, so I shall hand over to him.

On the subject of football, if the hon. Lady would like to buy my new book on football, she is very welcome—and I thank her for allowing me to plug it.

The hon. Lady talks about manifestos; I stood on that manifesto in 2017 and was the director of Scottish Labour for the single market and the customs union, which would have taken us out of the European Union, but, given that the Conservative party decided not to try to seek a consensus and instead turned to its own tribes with the Prime Minister pandering to the extreme right, that was no longer on the table and therefore I moved to a position that if it is not on the table the best deal is to put it back to the people and let them decide.

On a scintilla of that argument I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, I am going to go back to the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) about referendums, and the result the hon. Gentleman said he was not happy with is what he would now like to see not delivered in that particular way. His Front Bench, unfortunately, wishes to have the perverse situation of going back to the European Union, shredding the deal that has been agreed by 27 countries and that seems perfectly fit for purpose, if not perfect, and coming back with a better deal—because they are bound to offer the hon. Gentleman’s Front Bench a better deal!—in the full knowledge that the deal that would be better will then be campaigned against. It is a nonsense. To back—

I will not give way now as I want to respond to the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire about honouring referendums.

Will my hon. Friend give way?

I will give way in a moment; I am in great demand. First, however, I will respond to my right hon. Friend’s intervention on referendums. It is important that we recognise that people voted in that referendum who had never voted before. I spoke to people in St Albans—and I am sure that this experience was replicated across the House—and they had a fixed view; it was not a political view, but it was a fixed view on whether they wanted in or out. Some people wanted help in making their minds up, and some changed their mind, but they had a fixed view, and I had numerous people say to me, “Politicians are all the same,” but on this matter all the political parties came together to ask the same question.

Will the hon. Lady give way?

I hope the intervention is on this particular point of asking the same question, because I do wish to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean).

My area, Newcastle-under-Lyme, voted 60% to 40%, some say 62% to 38%, to leave. During the last election I was re-elected—some thought it was a surprise. When I was asked about Brexit on the doorstep, I said that, first, it was for this House to determine how, but I was quite honest with the constituents that I thought our future would be better if we remained, and that was my straight answer. In St Albans, where 62% of people voted to remain, what is the hon. Lady’s answer to her constituents?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman asked me that because my answer to my constituents then, now and in the future is that I completely respect democracy, and whatever democratic outcome was delivered I would respect. I am not here to argue against it or for it; I am here to argue to deliver it. And I hope, since the political make-up of the hon. Gentleman’s seat is very like mine—I do not dispute that in any way whatsoever—that he will be arguing, as I do, that the British public, as we need to heal—

Will the hon. Lady give way?

No, I am not going to have a two-way debate with the hon. Gentleman on this particular matter.


No; I said no, and I say no twice. Mr Speaker made a ruling on this earlier on, so the answer is no.

What I will be arguing, as indeed we are arguing, is that we gave the in/out choice, regardless of political parties, and the in/out choice was delivered. Some people did not like it, and some constituencies did not match up with what their MP wanted, but that is not what it is about; what it is about—


I will take my hon. Friend’s intervention before I get to that point.

I thank my hon. Friend very much for allowing me to intervene on her fantastic speech. She is making a number of points that I agree with extremely strongly. I voted remain in the original referendum, but my very strong feeling the day after the referendum, when we saw that overwhelming desire to leave the European Union, was that I should passionately support democracy in this country. Ever since that day I have supported that vote, even though I am a remainer, because I think we have one thing to do in this House, which is keep our promises to the electorate. Does my hon. Friend agree with that, and does she find that people who voted remain in her constituency share this desire to honour democracy above all else?

I absolutely accept my hon. Friend’s point. I accept that there are people in my constituency, as there will be in others, who fervently wish to overturn the result and to back remain. However, most people I speak to, when asked, feel that revoking would be a step too far. Most of them say, “I just want it over and done with. I want a deal.” I believe that this Government have tried to deliver exactly that. The last Prime Minister tried to deliver exactly that. She, like my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean), made it clear that she was a remainer, but like me she vowed to respect democracy. The fact that I am mismatched with my seat might be something that political opponents wish to capitalise on, but the fundamental question we need to ask ourselves is whether we value political self-interest more than the trust, the pledge and the contract that we all made when that referendum was called.

Will the hon. Lady give way on that point?

On the point about honouring contracts, I shall take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

Honouring contracts: an excellent input. I should like to draw the hon. Lady slightly back towards the Bill that is before us today, which she no doubt fully supports—quite rightly, in her own mind. Does she agree that the accompanying notes to the Bill confirm that it deals with the franchise for the election and the date of the election, as discussed? The notes state:

“The Parliament of the United Kingdom and parliamentary elections, including the franchise and disqualifications for membership of that Parliament, are an excepted matter under paragraph 2 of Schedule 2 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998.”

I ask this specifically with regard to the importance of the Bill, which is addressing a general election.

Yes, we are discussing a Bill about having a general election. My point is that we need a general election because we have moved so far away from the original concept of the referendum, which was a choice between in and out, not a party political choice. Now, we are in a sclerotic position. We cannot move forward in here, and the only obvious answer is to ask the public to decide.


Can I just answer the previous intervention before I take any more?

If it is somehow politically expedient for some people to vote tonight for an election, I would say that they are putting their own considerations before those of the country. This should not be about us. This should not be about us looking at poll ratings and saying, “Does it suit me and my campaign to go to the country now?” This should be about us remembering what we said in 2016 or—as I said in my intervention on the Liberal Democrats—remembering what we tempted the public with in 2008. I will stand corrected if I am wrong, but I do not believe that any party ever said, “We will offer you a referendum, but if we don’t like the result we will frustrate it and campaign against it to try to get a different one”, or worse, “We will ignore the result.”

I am waiting for the “Ooh!” and the jumping up and down from the Scot Nats when I say this, but I believe that they are hoping against hope that they can have a referendum and—hopefully, according to their agenda—deliver an independent Scotland. I hope that before this House grants any such independence referendum, they will have a full deal to put on the table, very much like they are saying we should do on the European Union. I hope that they would first have an answer on the fisheries policy, the euro, the border and all the other hard concerns they have about the Northern Ireland question. The reality is that a referendum is never formed in those terms. The previous one was not, and a future one would not be. The reality is that we asked the question: in or out? [Interruption.]

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend’s articulate flow once again. I could not help but hear the chuntering from a sedentary position on the SNP Benches. I believe that there were 617 pages in the White Paper on Scotland’s future that was published in advance of the 2014 independence referendum. On page 217 of that document, it clearly told the people of Scotland—[Interruption.] Page 217—do Members know where I am going with this? It told the people of Scotland that if they voted against independence, there was a risk of Scotland remaining in the UK and the UK then holding a referendum on EU membership, as that referendum had been announced by that time. Despite that warning, Scotland still voted to remain in the UK.

My hon. Friend knows the minutiae of the 600-page White Paper produced by the Scots Nats. I am sure it was his bedtime reading.

On the sclerotic nature of this Parliament and whether a general election will somehow change that, will it ever? Brexit has been a virus in a vial in a nightstand by the Tory party bed for 40 years. Occasionally, it would break and infect the Conservative party, which would catch a cold, and maybe the Labour party would win an election. You unleashed a referendum and broke the vial across the whole country, and we have all caught the cold. Churchill said that fanatics were people who will not change their mind and could not change the subject. Brexit will not be solved by a general election.

I do not blame you at all for unleashing a vial across anybody, Mr Speaker. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the point is that the people were asked. We cannot now say we should not have asked the question. Plenty of colleagues went around the country framing the arguments—plenty of colleagues framed the arguments for, and plenty of colleagues framed the argument against.

I come back to the point that the only reason we need a general election now is that the public have seen how we have behaved in here. The public have seen which party is the most likely to honour its pledges made to the British people in 2017, which party came out with a deal that this House found favour with, and which party remembers that we are only here to carry out the referendum, not to ignore it or to change it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is also about ending uncertainty? Only with a general election and a Conservative victory can we show the path of certainty.

I agree, but we also need to get on and discuss all the other issues. For example—this is not the most important thing for me, but it is important— St Albans has what claims to be the oldest public school in the world. It is right slap bang next to the cathedral. It is iconic. I have been in contact with parents—I am meeting another group on Friday—who are extremely concerned that the Labour party will remove the school’s charitable status if it is elected. They are extremely concerned that the Lib Dems will charge the school VAT. Businesses are extremely concerned that they do not have certainty about what to do next. People are pleased to hear about the £400 million investment in hospitals in St Albans and Hertfordshire, and they are extremely pleased that St Albans schools have received above-average cash injections. They want to hear about all these other topics. My hon. Friend is right that Brexit is drowning out the scrutiny of all these other things.

I want to remind the people in St Albans that the Labour Government left a little note when they left office saying that there was no money left. I want to remind St Albans that we now have the lowest number of unemployed young people since records began. I want to remind people in St Albans that there have been 500,000 new apprenticeships. I want to remind people in St Albans that we have lifted loads of people and families out of paying income tax at all, and that came from a Conservative Government. I want to be discussing those topics. The interminable vial of Brexit to which the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) referred is being kept active in here.

It is dangerous to continue this “people versus Parliament” narrative, saying that Parliament is somehow frustrating the process. The reason we have not been able to coalesce around a deal is that the two deals that have been on the table have been terrible for this country. Diligence and integrity are required to ensure that we make the right decision. Has the hon. Lady read the impact assessment? If so, what does she make of the value of the trade deal to Northern Ireland? What does she make of the impact of this deal?

I have, and the worst impact is the absolute uncertainty surrounding investment in our jobs and businesses. People do not know whether they can trade, whether they have to stockpile goods or what the arrangements will be because the dates keep moving. That is the worst thing.

All this flummery about Brexit is hiding the fact that we are not getting the business of this House done. Almost no one was here to talk about the Environment Bill, yet people are marching against plastic.

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—

Order. I say very gently to the hon. Gentleman that there is a difference between a brief intervention and what one might call leisurely musing. I fear that what should be a brief intervention has elided, surely inadvertently, into leisurely musing and therefore his triple-hatted inquiry is, I feel sure, reaching its zenith.

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?

It is always a pleasure to oblige the hon. Gentleman because his naughtiness is mitigated by his charm, but the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) should not be diverted from the path of virtuous debate by his intervention, no matter how sedulously he propagates his case.

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.

I have enjoyed every second of my hon. Friend’s 29-minute speech, and I am grateful to get in just before the end of her remarks, because I know that she is going to give way soon to others who want to contribute to this debate. Given the seat she represents, I know that she agrees that one issue we will want to talk about in the election, apart from Brexit, is culture and heritage. That issue is close to my heart and hers, so in the last couple of minutes of her speech I would like her just to acknowledge that.

The right hon. Gentleman tempts me, because the culture and heritage goes back to the Romans in St Albans and I could talk about it for a very long time. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have a wonderful picture of the new St Albans museum, in the centre of my beautiful city; before he was Prime Minister, he came to St Albans and congratulated the Conservative-led council on delivering a fabulous museum, which is to the absolute enhancement of my constituency.

I will move on to the general election—[Interruption.] Is shouting down democracy something we agree with in this House? As far as I can see, this House says it wants more time to debate things, but when an hon. Member stands on her hind legs and starts debating things, they do not want her to have that amount of time—they want to run on to other Opposition groups or to other Members in the House. On something as important as this, the people need to know, even if it is Brenda of Bristol, why on earth we are troubling them yet again with another election.

On Brenda of Bristol, I shall give way.

Has the hon. Lady completed her oration?

indicated dissent.

No, she is taking an intervention from none other than the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone)

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?

I am not sure how that related to Brenda of Bristol, but the point I wish to make, before I start concluding my remarks, is that in 2017 the public were sick of the idea of having an election but they turned out and they mostly elected the two biggest parties, on a mandate to deliver. This House, for whatever reasons it wishes to conclude, has been letting the public down. The binary choice of in or out has been turned into a political football. Now the parties need to draft their manifestos. They need to firm up their pledges and be honest about what they wish to do. They need to tell the public that if a party is elected with a strong mandate, the horse-trading will stop, the deals will stop and the taking over of the agenda by the Opposition or other individual groups with their own little axe to grind will stop. The parties need to say that a Government will be able to deliver on all the additional funding pledged in the Queen’s Speech and on Brexit, and that the next Government, unless they are a Government who are asked to oppose Brexit, will be delivering on the pledge to deliver to the people.

I hope that today there will be a vote for a general election, and not for political expediency. All of us should be saying sorry to the public for putting them through it again. We should be saying sorry for the dark streets, the cold nights, and the cancelled Christmas decorations or whatever else was going on in halls that are now going to be having election proceedings. All of us need to apologise to the public and say, “Sorry, when you told us to leave, we weren’t actually sure you meant it.”

I believe the public meant it. I know that other Members wish to speak today, including the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who was not here for the whole debate—

Right honourable.

He has risen to right. hon—I am so sorry and I apologise. He wishes to speak. When we are going out on the doorstep, we should remember that that person who voted in or out did not vote Conservative, Green, Labour or Liberal—they voted in or out. We need to respect that. We gave them a choice. It is insulting the public to say that we should not have given them the choice, as someone on the Opposition Benches has said, that they were too stupid to make the choice, as some have said, or that some of them are dead now and so we will ask people again. So may I make the plea that tonight we go for a general election, even though it or the timing may not suit all of us? What it should do is resolve this issue of a zombie Parliament incapable of action and deliver a Conservative Government who will deliver on their promise, their mandate and their pledge to uphold democracy.




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