May I start by thanking the Chancellor for his gracious words about me in his speech? It is an achievement to survive five years as Chancellor of the Exchequer and, indeed, to be reappointed, and I congratulate him on that.
I rise to speak from the Back Benches for the first time in nine years. I do so obviously deeply disappointed at Labour’s election defeat, for which I take full responsibility. I believe it is right that my party comprehensively examines the reasons for that defeat and does the hard and painful thinking necessary. On the day after the general election I rang the Prime Minister to congratulate him. I said, as the Chancellor said in his speech, that he had defied the pollsters and the pundits—and indeed that is true. I repeat those congratulations to the Conservative party.
In the time since the general election, I can report to the House that I have found some small consolations of losing, including spending time with my two boys, who feel that they have their dad back. However, I confess that my eldest, who has just turned six, did bring me further down to earth last week. He suddenly turned to me out of the blue and said, “Dad, if there is a fire in our house, I think we’ll be okay.” I said, “Why’s that, Daniel?” He said, “Because if we ring the fire brigade they’ll recognise your name because you used to be famous.” “Thanks very much,” I said. From my used-to-be-famous position on the Back Benches, I look forward to helping to play my part in holding the Government to account, as it is the job of the Opposition to do, and the occasion of the Queen’s Speech is the right place to start.
Whatever our profound differences over the years, I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment in the days after the election, and repeated in the Gracious Speech, to govern for one nation. I welcome this because it speaks in historical terms to what I see as an admirable side of Conservatism, represented by Disraeli and Macmillan. It is worth reminding ourselves of the historical lineage that suggests. This is what Disraeli said in his novel “Sybil, or The Two Nations”, published 170 years ago this year, about what he was fighting against:
“Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets”.
For many people, that will sound like the description, in old-fashioned language, of some of what afflicts our country today: a divide between the top 1%, or even the top 0.1%, and everyone else. Facing up to that is a challenge for any Government of any colour, but particularly, if I may suggest, for one claiming the mantle of one nation.
A huge question facing all western democracies in the next five, 10, 20 years is whether we are comfortable with the huge disparities that exist, whether we are fated to have them and whether we want to even try to confront them. Personally, I believe we will have to, and I believe this is an issue for right and left.
What has changed in the debate about inequality is that, internationally and across the political spectrum, there is growing recognition that these gaps are not just bad for the poor, as we always used to believe, but bad—