‘MR Michael Heseltine, opposition front bench spokesman on industry, seized the mace and behind the Bar of the House blows were exchanged,’ reported The Times on May 28, 1976.
I have deeply regretted this incident was not televised. If it had been, such sensational reporting would never have gained credibility. The reality is I picked up the mace and offered it to those who were at the time standing on the green benches singing The Red Flag.
They had just secured the passage of a highly controversial legislation to nationalise aircraft and shipbuilding industry by cheating. They broke the ‘pair’. The unwritten rule which states that when a team member cannot make a vote, the other side stands one of theirs down too. They broke the trust on which Parliament is founded. And we lost the vote by one.
I am sharing this story for two reasons: because it contrasts a very different politics to what we have now where politicians defended values like trust. And secondly to highlight that whilst important at the time, it feels almost incidental in context of what I would call real incidents of grave disorder in the House of Commons in recent times.
Without mandate or moral fortitude our infected government, driven wild by the unelected advisor Dominic Cummings, has sought to advance No Deal by impeding our Parliamentary democracy through extended prorogation. It is a constitutional outrage like no other I can recall.
A government frightened of parliament is frightened of democracy. And a government willing to kick MPs out of its party on an issue of such monumental importance is a government without leadership, frightened of the truth.
Because I learnt first hand when I walked the streets of Liverpool in the early 1980s that you do not solve a problem by blaming others or casting them aside. You build a team of rivals hellbent on achieving what is in the best interest of this country. And this is the crux of the issue.
What is in the best interest of this country is not compatible with what this Government is trying to achieve. There is no rational for no deal. Brexit cannot be justified. Which is why some 20 plus MPs have left the Conservative party.
It will not have been an easy decision to take. I can tell you. I know all too well the agony of wrenched loyalties, stretched friendships and of a threatened career. And whilst not all had the stomach for it, those that did, from David Gauke to Justine Greening and Sir Nicholas Soames to Rory Stewart, were on the right side of history.
Yet it was not just those members of the House who raised Parliament up from her knees. It was the hundreds and thousands of people who came together in peaceful protest across the length and breadth of our country – including here in Yorkshire. It demonstrates what this Government has failed to realise: to overcome a challenge people must unite.
Had I become Prime Minister some three decades ago, I would have got rid of the poll tax and called a general election, the campaign for which I had called The Forgotten People. It is a phrase all too familiar these days. And my intent was to criss-cross the country away from the highly engaged centres of London, to remote areas possibly starting in Yorkshire, listening to those who felt unheard.
Decades later and still we find ourselves dealing with the consequences of over centralised power. Most recently I wrote a report, Empowering English Cities, in which I talk about transferring day-to-day responsibility to metro mayors for affordable housing, schools’ performance, unemployment and employment programmes.
Yet, away from the cities, there is a forgotten industry of particular importance to Yorkshire and Humber which is only just coming to the forefront of people’s attention in light of no deal: farming. More than 70 per cent of land in Yorkshire is managed by agriculture. It is one of the UK’s most important agricultural regions, producing 12 per cent of England’s output.
Michael Gove as Environment Secretary described the impact of No Deal on farming as ‘considerable turbulence’. I call it catastrophic.
A recent People’s Vote report suggested some 50 per cent of farms could go out of business for two reasons: firstly, some 40 per cent of farmers will have no net income if basic payment is reduced; and, secondly, because competitiveness will be significantly reduced if tariffs and non-tariff barriers are erected to our exports, whilst the UK Government largely removes tariffs on imports from third country farmers.
And for what? Decades more debate? Because whilst I talk of forgotten people and forgotten places there could be no talk of forgotten Brexit. A no deal would see it dominating politics for years to come meaning issues like devolution and farming are underfunded or ignored.
Which is why we need a short extension to settle this issue once and for all with a new vote – a People’s Vote. And why I am speaking at the Leeds For Europe Stop Brexit conference on Saturday.
Michael Heseltine is a former deputy prime minister, prominent peer and anti-Brexit campaigner.