Does the Prime Minister agree that the forthcoming election will be won by the party that can best convince the British people that it can end the recession, reverse the catastrophic decline in investment, and modernise our industry? Does he agree that those issues cannot be debated by sound bites and photo opportunities, but require the party leaders to meet and debate intelligently? As the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are prepared to take part in that debate, is the Prime Minister also prepared to do so—or has he lost the confidence to defend his own economic record?
I agree with the hypothesis about leading the country out of recession. The Conservative party will lead the country out of recession and will sit on the Government Benches after the general election. As the hon. Gentleman knows, every party politician who expects to lose tries the debate trick, and every politician who expects to win says no.
Which does my right hon. Friend think will do more for low-paid people in Swindon—tax cuts, which will increase their earnings and their incentive to work, or a national minimum wage, which will soon strip them of their jobs?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Labour party now opposes measures to help the low paid and puts forward policies that would force low-paid people and others out of work. It is now official: the Labour party wants to put up taxes not only for those on high incomes, but for those with low incomes, too. It strikes oddly against Labour's proposals for a minimum wage, which was allegedly meant to help the low paid. We now know that Labour does not want to help them but wants to force them out of work and increase their tax by one quarter.
The Prime Minister has given a pathetic excuse for not engaging in a televised debate. Since he has been Prime Minister, 50,000 companies have gone out of business, 75,000 families have lost their homes and 800,000 people have lost their jobs. Why will he not debate that record? Is it because he is ashamed of it, or because he is afraid of it?
The right hon. Gentleman tries to whip a little fervour into this old chestnut. Bearing in mind how long it takes the right hon. Gentleman to answer a question, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and I would be lucky to get a word in edgeways. We have set in place the foundation for recovery, the Budget builds on them and, after the election, we shall carry through our policies.
I am grateful Mr. Speaker. This is obviously a day for novelties. Whipped chestnuts are a new one on me, but we heard it from the right hon. Gentleman. As he believes that his only difficulty would be getting a word in, I give him an undertaking that I would give him plenty of time. Why does he not join me and the leader of the Liberals and say to the broadcasting organisations, "We have nothing to fear from the British people. Let's have a debate. Let's fix a date. Let's get on with it"?
We have better than a debate—we have a general election, at which the case can be taken to the people. If I accurately recall my Shakespeare:
He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.
Appropriately, that quote comes from "Love's Labour's Lost"—and Labour will lose—[Interruption.]
The Prime Minister reads quotations from Shakespeare. Let me give him one from the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher): he is frit.
Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman of something else. Throughout this campaign, I shall be holding daily press conferences at which I shall face the national press. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will this year face the national press, unlike his action during the last general election, when he hid from them.
I congratulate my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor on their excellent, responsible and far-reaching Budget. I am pleased that maximum help has been concentrated on the low paid, low-income pensioners and small businesses. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, by resisting those changes, the Labour party has proved that it is the party of high taxation of the poor and is unfit to govern?
That is undoubtedly my view today, and it will be the country's view by 9 April. At least we now know what the Labour party stands for: tax rises for the rich and tax rises for the poor as well. On Tuesday, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) seemed to have doubts—until the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) prompted him with the answer that he was proposing to put taxes back up for the poor. The right hon. Gentleman would abolish the 20p tax band, tax savings more heavily, raise national insurance contributions, and raise tax for 25 million people. He has changed his mind on everything, but the public will not change their mind about him: the right hon. Gentleman sits on the Opposition Bench, and there he will stay.
Has the Prime Minister noted the reactions of the markets to Tuesday's Budget—the worst fall since the Soviet coup? If he will not tell us in a television debate, will he tell us now why the Prime Minister does not know what every business man knows —that to borrow to invest is the route to success, but that to borrow to spend is the road to ruin?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, no party in history has as good a fiscal record as ours has had in office. Nothing in my right hon. Friend's Budget will not bring the budget back to balance.
May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a letter that I received recently front the managing director of a major retail firm, Beale's, in my constituency, telling me that if a national minimum wage of £3·40 per hour were introduced he would be obliged to consider dismissing about 5 per cent. of his work force —27 of my constituents? Is that not further proof, on top of the disastrous experience of the last two Labour Governments, that the Labour party is no longer the party of the working man?
I believe that the Labour party has no solid basis of support anywhere in the country, and there is no doubt about the impact that the minimum wage would have. Everyone in this country knows that, except Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen. It would cost jobs —the jobs of people on low incomes—just as Labour's increased taxation policies would.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, interest rates have been reduced by 4½ per cent. in the past 16 months; as and when it is right to do so, we will reduce them further. For the first time in a generation, our interest rates are almost down to German levels because of the successful manner in which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has managed our affairs.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that my constituents will warmly welcome the remarkable cut in income tax and the resulting increase in money, particularly for the less well-off pensioners? Does he agree that our money increases will go to those who need the help most, while Labour's would be dissipated hypocritically, thinly spread and eliminated by inflation?
My hon. Friend is right about that. Once the increases announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor have been carried through, we shall be spending nearly £700 million a year more than in 1989, over and above inflation, on the less well-off pensioners. Pensioners, too, care about inflation. They know that we are in pursuit of stable prices; Labour would be in pursuit of higher inflation.
If neither the Prime Minister nor the Chancellor is responsible for the recession, and if the Secretary of State for Health is not responsible for the deterioration in our health services, the Secretary of State for Education and Science is not responsible for the underfunding of our schools, the Secretary of State for Transport is not responsible for the deplorable state of our public transport, and the Secretary of State for Employment is not responsible for high and rising unemployment, who is running the country?
In almost every area of endeavour in the past few years, there has been an improvement in services, an improvement in prosperity, an improvement in net disposable income, an improvement in educational opportunity and an improvement in the number of people treated in health care. If the hon. Gentleman has not noticed that, where has he been for the past 12 years?
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the people of Dover and Deal who fought alongside America in world war 2 share the view of President Bush that my right hon. Friend provides superb leadership in an uncertain and dangerous world? Will he also accept that my constituents are concerned that, in this general election, campaign, people should be aware that the Leader of the Opposition wanted to pull us out of NATO, to abandon our nuclear deterrent and to destroy—[Interruption.]
If we had followed the advice of the Labour party and the Leader of the Opposition, we would be out of Europe, out of NATO, and out of respect. We would be living in an underprotected, overtaxed socialist backwater on the edge of Europe. The Leader of the Opposition has been wrong on every substantial issue in recent years. Once upon a time he wanted to tax the rich to help the poor—now he proposes to tax the rich and tax the poor.
The hon. Gentleman knows my view on the voting system. The advocates of proportional representation should understand that it leads to weak Government and spawns faction and minority parties. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), with his international pretensions, knows the damage that it has caused overseas. For all his high mindedness, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) argues that case for his own partisan party advantage and not for the advantage of the constitution, and he knows that that is the case.