The Oxford Union voted overwhelmingly in support of a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government. The motion passed with 228 votes in favour and 95 against.
The debate was the first to be held in the debating chamber since COVID-19 restrictions were imposed, and was held in a packed chamber with spectators crammed into the viewing gallery. It came in the wake of a cross-party parliamentary report on the failings in response to the COVID pandemic, and as the nation faces the prospect of shortages and rising prices.
The Union holds a no confidence debate at the beginning of each academic year, attracting high-profile speakers from both sides of the political divide.
Speakers in favour of the motion included Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds MP; Layla Moran MP, who is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for foreign affairs and international development; and Wes Streeting MP, who serves as the Shadow Secretary of State for Child Poverty. Amber Warner-Warr, Chair of the Consultative Committee at the Oxford Union also proposed the motion.
In opposition, three Conservative party MPs debated alongside Arjun Bhardwaj, Treasurer of the Oxford Union. They included the former Attorney General Sir Geoffery Cox QC MP; former Secretary of State for Justice Sir Robert Buckland; and the Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg MP. They were greeted with boos from some members of the audience as they entered the chamber.
After Union President Chengkai Xie opened proceedings, Ms Warner-Warr kicked off the debate by welcoming the audience and speakers to the chamber.
Ms Warner-Warr accused the government of “empty rhetoric”, using slogans like “build back better” and “get Brexit done” without any meaningful action.
Mr Bhardwaj began the case for the opposition by accusing the proposition of failing to come up with suitable alternatives to the Conservative government. He praised the government’s post-Brexit UK-Australia trade deal, and increase in funding for the NHS through raising national insurance contributions.
The Rt. Hon. Thomas-Symonds MP received cheers as he took to the dispatch box, before praising the standard of debate set by the student speakers. He drew the audience’s attention to the heavy death toll from the pandemic, and reminded them of Boris Johnson’s remark that his cinematic hero was the Mayor from Jaws, who kept the beaches open despite warnings to close it.
He also said Dominic Raab should be in court for “gross negligence” over his handling of the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan. Referring to Mr Raab’s infamous claim that “the sea was closed”, he said “ with nonsense like that, even Mr Cox and Buckland [who are both QCs] could not defend him”.
In response, The Rt. Hon. Sir Geoffrey Cox QC MP began by acknowledging that the task of defending a government in midterm was not an easy one, especially considering the applause and cheers which met Mr Thomas-Symonds’ speech. He assured Mr Xie “ that with not one but two experienced advocates, they could defend in front of this hostile court”.
His theatrical delivery, reminiscent of a Shakespearian actor, prompted frequent laughter and applause from the chamber. He said Mr Johnson understood the “pulse and beat of the nation”, pointing to his inclusion of criminalising pet theft in his conference speech.
Ms Moran MP began by praising Mr Cox’s sonorous tone, thanking him for telling the audience that this government consisted of “pluckers and pet theft”. She said the government had “neither compassion nor competence”.
A Liberal Democrat MP, Ms Moran focused her speech on the government’s handling of Brexit’. She described Mr Johnson’s decision to abandon the Northern Ireland Protocol as an “embarrassment”, asking whether he was “dim or disingenuous”. She said that food shortages in supermarkets were “foreseeable”, and described the proposed solution as “pitiful”.
The Rt. Hon. Buckland QC MP said the country was facing “the most existential questions it had ever faced in peacetime”. He accused the proposition of providing a “stream of whinges and complaints”, but that it failed to produce a case for this motion
He spoke about why he joined the Conservative party while living in Wales during the Miners’ Strike, saying he wanted to alleviate poverty. He warned the audience against accepting the proposition’s rhetoric that the “government doesn’t care”.He pointed to the furlough scheme, and falling unemployment as reasons to have confidence in the government. He said the country was “roaring back to life”, because the government had “saved the economy”.
Before the concluding speeches, the floor was opened for debate.
Afterwards, Mr Streeting MP concluded the proposition’s case by attracting boos for saying Oxford was the second best university in the country, before saying “jokes aside, because there’s enough joking from the Prime Minister”. He accused the government of leaving the country exposed to the pandemic, by underfunding public services, and denounced Mr Johnson’s past statements about gay men, black people, and muslim women who wear the niqab.
The Rt. Hon. Rees-Mogg MP closed the debate, attracting boos as he took to the dispatch box. He said the proposition painted a “rose-tinted” view of Labour’s record, announcing that it was “no Garden of Eden”.
When he defended fiscal conservatism, he was heckled by a member of the audience saying money for public services “should come from [him]”. He attracted loud heckles from Mr Thomas-Symonds MP and the floor after he accused the Labour party of being soft on crime. After Mr Thomas-Symonds took to the stand to say the Labour party proposed an amendment to raise the length of sentences for rape, which the Conservative
He defended the government’s delay in locking down, saying it was because Boris Johnson was reluctant to put restrictions in place on people’s lives.
He ended by saying: “We have a clear policy…And what are we opposed by? Nothing.”