Debate on the Address — [First Day]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:03 pm on 20th June 2001.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party 3:03 pm, 20th June 2001

It is the custom of the House for the Leader of the Opposition to congratulate the proposer and seconder of the Loyal Address on their speeches and to comment on them, and it is a great pleasure to do so this afternoon. I should like to begin by sincerely congratulating Mr. Lammy on his entertaining, enlightening and charming speech. I have a lot in common with him--I did not go to public school either. At the beginning of his speech, he referred to reading The Guardian. I do not know whether he knows that, next to the words "sitting MP", the pre-election profile of his constituency, supplied very authoritatively by The Guardian, stated:

"David Lammy, 2001 election: Not Standing."

I hope that he will join me in my resolve in saying, "The Guardian 2001: Not Reading."

The hon. Gentleman and I have other things in common. We were both elected to the House at by-elections, and at the time of our elections we were the youngest Members sitting on the Government Benches--so he had better be careful; strange things can happen to him. I shall give him some advice. Following his victory in the Tottenham by-election, he was quoted as saying that the Prime Minister tried to speak to him to congratulate him, but he had been too busy to return the Prime Minister's call. He had been elected for only a matter of minutes and was already behaving like the Chancellor. That is not a good idea. Given that we enjoyed his speech and that he started out as a chorister at Peterborough cathedral, I hope, as he speaks so well and straightforwardly, that he will not merely sing other people's tunes in the coming years.

It is also a pleasure to congratulate Mr. Sheerman. He is the author of a book, a fact that is not widely known. It is quite substantial. Indeed, I was torn between his speech and his book. He is co-author of a biography of Harold Laski. No doubt he will be flattered to know that I went to the Library last night and took out the book. However, he will not be too flattered to know that according to the inside cover, I am the first Member in eight and half years to do that. I got well advanced into it last night and reached the end of the acknowledgements, where it says:

"The original idea for this book was Barry Sheerman's in 1986 . . . By 1991 most of the burden fell to the co-author and it was also he who wrote the manuscript. We see it in the general sense as jointly authored".

He wrote the book in the sense that Her Majesty wrote the Queen's Speech.

I shall be a bit nicer about the hon. Gentleman now. He has many other achievements to his name, one of which was to windsurf from Majorca to France. However, he sailed closest to the wind when he urged restrictions on drinking in the Palace of Westminster. His career never really recovered from that. He also said other things that he might regret. In 1999, he said that the

"Opposition has lost the battle to discredit the dome, it is on track to being a huge success".

The hon. Gentleman referred to Huddersfield Town. I know that he will be deeply distressed--as we are in Yorkshire--at the current performance of the Huddersfield Giants rugby league team, especially as they have the longest run of defeats in English rugby league, including all of the first 14 games this season. Will he tell the players from me that I know how they feel?

The hon. Gentleman proved even more far sighted than in his other predictions by keeping his seat. Despite the huge majority that he mentioned, the House will be surprised to hear that in one way he held on only by the skin of his teeth. As the New Statesman reported in May this year:

"Stranger's Bar gossip identifies Huddersfield as the next likely target for Shaun and his butler".

May we congratulate the hon. Gentleman on resisting all the considerable temptations that were no doubt placed in his way?

It is a delight to congratulate both hon. Members on their speeches, all the more so because they have refused to use the script set out in the wonderful "New Labour, new Britain" briefing on the Queen's Speech for Labour Members that was so helpfully faxed to my office earlier today. It has an extremely useful model speech insert for hon. Members to use. We all look forward to seeing who makes that speech. I am happy to place a copy of it in the Library for my hon. Friends to judge speeches as the debate progresses in the next week. The speech does, however, require hon. Members to insert the right name of their constituency--so look out for that pitfall. It also refers to

"Real improvements to our schools in ANYPLACE. Real improvements to our hospitals in ANYPLACE . . . Here in ANYPLACE . . . unemployment is going down by XXXXXX".

Finally, it says:

"Our ambitions for ANYPLACE."

That could have been the briefing for the Queen's Speech or the selection speech of Mr. Woodward as he went around the country. There may have been a mistake.

Obviously, there are measures in the Queen's Speech that we welcome, such as those to reform our adoption laws. We welcome the commitment to give legislative backing to the conclusions on rail safety that Lord Cullen is likely to reach in the second part of his report. It is time to learn the lessons of the Paddington rail crash and to make travelling by rail as safe as travelling by any other form of transport. We support an early, comprehensive world trade round, which was mentioned in the Queen's Speech. We strongly back the commitment to the observance of human rights, including throughout the Commonwealth, which we hope will lead to stronger action to put pressure on the Government of Zimbabwe.

We would have given a general welcome to other measures that are not in the Queen's Speech had they been included. Only this morning, Mr. O'Brien, sacked as a Minister after the election, accused the Government of breaking their promise to every pub-goer in the country--a group with whom I am happy to declare a joint interest. It is no wonder that young people are so disillusioned when at 10 pm on the Saturday before the election, they receive a text message on their mobile phones, saying,

"CLDNT GVE A xxxx 4 LST ORDRS? VTE LBR ON THRSDAY 4 XTRA TIME", only to discover a week on Wednesday that the Bill is not included in the Queen's Speech.

Of course, there are other aspects of the Queen's Speech that Conservative Members and, I hope, Members of other parties can support. We welcome especially the commitment to build on the progress made by successive Governments in Northern Ireland. We continue to believe that the Belfast agreement offers the best hope for a peaceful, secure and stable Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, and we wish the current negotiations well. However, as the elections have shown, among mainstream moderate Unionists confidence in the agreement is in dangerously short supply.

The terrorists have been released; their political allies are now in government; the RUC has undergone painful change; yet not a single gun or ounce of Semtex has been given up. If the agreement is to realise the hopes that so many of us throughout the House have invested in it, it must be implemented in full and by all sides. I believe that Mr. Trimble and his party have been stretched as far as they can go, and it is now up to others to deliver. Unless that process begins shortly, we will face another serious crisis and the Government will face the first major test of their second term. I wish them well in dealing with it.

More generally, the Prime Minister always regarded winning a second term as the most important goal of his first term, and it would be churlish of me if I did not now congratulate him on achieving his prized objective. He has taken the opportunity to carry out a large reorganisation of the Government, including Ministers who days earlier were said to be doing a fantastic job. I, too, have been doing a bit of reorganising. In fact, since I announced my resignation even the Prime Minister has been nice about me. The experience of resigning has been so pleasant that I am thinking of recommending it more widely. The trouble is that for members of the Government, praise comes immediately before they leave their job, rather than immediately afterwards as in my case.

When we said that the former Foreign Secretary was not doing his job properly, the Prime Minister said that he had every confidence in him and that he

"is one of the most respected foreign ministers Britain has had for years and years and years".

When we called for the former Minister for Europe to be sacked, the Prime Minister said that

"it would have been grossly unjust to have dismissed him", while his official spokesman said that he had

"the full support of the Prime Minister--end of story".

So when the Deputy Prime Minister hears the Prime Minister describe him as "loyal, true and decent", he ought to regard it as a deeply worrying development.

The Deputy Prime Minister has now been promoted to what was the first rung on the ministerial ladder occupied by his very close friend Mr. Mandelson. After three failed attempts to appoint a Cabinet enforcer, the Government finally settled on a Cabinet bouncer. However, we congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on the fact that whatever the Prime Minister does to him, he will always be one of the Cabinet's big hitters.