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Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 8:57 pm on 25th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls , Teignbridge 8:57 pm, 25th June 1996

In one narrow sense, I agree with the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). He talked about the need for us to make friends in Europe. The lesson of this whole unhappy affair is that, when push came to shove, after 25 years in Europe we did not have sufficient friends. We can have a debate, perhaps on another occasion, about how that came about; I have my own views.

In the most extreme crisis we have faced in our membership of the European Community, we had to resort to tactics that were nearly illegal because we did not have any friends. However we got into that position, that is where we are. Can one imagine that the hon. Member for East Lothian, faced with a situation in which no progress was being made, would say, "We must not upset anybody; we must wait for our friends to rally round"? Even the hon. Gentleman, although he may have been speaking in a hurry, should realise that, when push came to shove, we did not have those friends.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) concentrated on two points. First, there was the attack-whatever language we use, it was a personal attack—on the conduct and character of the Minister of Agriculture. There is nothing wrong with political dispute about means and ends on the Floor of the House; that is perfectly understandable. With BSE as with everything else, there will obviously be different views and different conclusions.

The hon. Gentleman and I accept the relevance of friends; we draw a different conclusion about what follows. We can usually conduct our debates without saying that a particular Minister is personally at fault and to blame. However, that is the territory on which the Liberal Democrats chose to conduct the debate— [Interruption.] They cannot now get huffy about that.

I cannot see that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture has done anything wrong. He has conducted himself with dignity, with calmness and with rationality. The only real allegation that seems to be made against him is that people in Brussels do not like him. I find it more encouraging to be told that Brussels does not like one of my Ministers, when my country is being treated disgracefully, than to listen to the Chancellor of Germany saying that he looks forward to the time when, as he sees it, the Leader of the Opposition may become Prime Minister of this country. He seems to believe—he is probably right—that the Leader of the Opposition would be more accommodating.

I do not like the idea of a Leader of the Opposition acting as a bookie's runner for the Chancellor of Germany. I prefer it if one of my Ministers, battling for this country, does not get the approval of Brussels. If that is the basis on which my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister is accused, it is not a bad position from which to start. His behaviour has been absolutely unimpeachable, and I would have liked to think that, whatever political controversy there may be between us, the motion could have been framed differently.

I was saddened by the speech of the hon. Member for North Cornwall. I hope that it does not embarrass him too much for me to say that I have always had a high regard for his talent. Outside the House, I have enjoyed many interesting conversations with him, and I can think of odd occasions when he has virtually outflanked me on the right. There we are; life is a curious thing.

I have a high regard for the hon. Gentleman. His speeches are normally a great deal better than those of his colleagues; to some extent, that is a reflection on the political company he keeps. Even if the political company were better, I believe that his speeches are usually worth listening to, well measured and well structured. I pay tribute to his work on organo-phosphorous compounds and in moving that debate forward.

Having said all that, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's speech this evening was his finest hour. I am sorry to have to say that I thought that it was a shoddy, shabby speech which was unworthy of him. What he was saying was, "I am against this deal; this deal is entirely wrong." When I asked him whether he was saying that he did not approve of the cull, he said that he would deal with that point later on. He did not.

When the hon. Gentleman was asked what, if he did not like the Government's policy, his policy was, he came up with the sort of reply that brings politics into disrepute. He said, "It is my job to criticise. It is not my job to come up with any solutions."