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It is with honour, and humility, that I rise to respond to the Queen’s Speech today as the three-times-elected Member of Parliament for the Stalybridge and Hyde constituency. I would like to record my sincerest thanks to all those who showed their faith in me, and to the steadfast people of Greater Manchester for their solidarity and defiance in the face of the terror attack we experienced during the campaign.
This was not an election that was needed; it was an election that was, initially at least, not really wanted. It was an election called in the partisan interests of the Prime Minister rather than the national interest. Frankly, who could blame her given the poll lead she enjoyed on the eve of that election? But as is so often the case, the British public took a rather dim view of someone who appeared to put their own needs before theirs. It now seems inconceivable that this Prime Minister will stay in office for the full term of this Parliament. She has gone from honeymoon to lame duck, with nothing in between.
As ever, analysis of the Queen’s Speech should begin with a focus on the national interest. As yet, this Queen’s Speech has no majority in the House of Commons and so will require the support of the Democratic Unionist party in order to pass. I strongly disagree with the remarks of Sir Peter Bottomley, because I find it unconscionable that any British Government would even contemplate risking the Northern Irish peace process in order to prolong their own existence. Under the Good Friday agreement, the British and Irish Governments are the neutral arbitrators of Northern Irish power-sharing. It is simply not possible to breach that political neutrality and remain faithful to the terms of the agreement. The progress made in Northern Ireland in the past few decades is, for me, one of the greatest political achievements in this country in the post-war era, and we should pay tribute to the DUP for its role in that. However, the peace process cannot be taken for granted. The criticisms from Sir John Major were legitimate, serious and informed. They deserved an audience and they deserve a response, because the peace process is being taken for granted if the Government feel they can act in this way. The Prime Minister should be aware that the public would never forgive any Government, and particularly not her, if she again puts her own interests ahead of the national interest.
The irony is that the Queen’s Speech we have heard today is so meagre—so limited in vision and scope—that the Government will have almost no legislative agenda at all. They may as well continue as a minority Government on an issue-by-issue basis. All the decent stuff in the Queen’s Speech, such as the action on energy prices and the action on bad landlords that we have been promised, has been lifted from the last two Labour manifestos, so we will almost certainly be here voting for it, while all the unpleasant things that caused the Conservative party so much pain—austerity, the dementia tax, grammar schools, and scrapping of free school meals—will almost certainly get nowhere near a vote in this House. In that sense, while we may not have won this election, Labour Members can claim a significant victory from it.
This did not feel to me like an election about Brexit but an election about austerity, the state of the NHS and social care, the threatened cuts to school funding, and the desperate state of declining real wage levels. That is what people wanted to talk to me about. In my constituency, the fundamental economic premise of this Government, which is that prosperity lies in cutting public services and public spending to pay for cuts to corporation tax and other reliefs, has been soundly rejected. We need prosperity and competitiveness that is generated by improving our infrastructure and our education and skill levels, and a strategy therefore not just to generate jobs but to generate good jobs with good wages and good lives that can be led as a result. I am concerned to already hear SNP and Northern Irish colleagues compete over the additional resources they believe they will get as a result of this hung Parliament, because there is no policy justification, as a rule, for public services being funded more generously in those nations than in the north of England. The Government would be wise not to rouse the anger of northern MPs by compounding that unfairness. Public spending, wherever it is in the United Kingdom, should be determined by need, not by back-room deals based on Commons majorities.
Let me turn to the major issue we will be dealing with in this Parliament, which is of course Brexit. While the election was not dominated by it, this Parliament certainly will be. I agree with Sir William Cash on one aspect of his speech, which we have heard from him several times—that the language around “soft” and “hard” Brexit is not particularly helpful. The fact is that we are leaving, and the conversation has to be about the bespoke relationship we now need to negotiate. My constituents, in the main, tell me two things. First, they want the immigration system reformed to end freedom of movement as it is currently constituted. That does not mean that they are anti-immigration—it just means that they want to see greater control of immigration. Members of this House may disagree with that view and cite the underlying economic data, but that is the genuine view from my constituency in the north of England. I recognise that there are those who are motivated strongly by resolutely anti-immigrant sentiment, but I do not believe that the majority of leave voters in my constituency could be described in such a way.
Secondly, I believe that many people want the UK to have the ability to negotiate our own trade deals with the rest of the world. That is a difficult issue, because there is no doubt that the customs union has created significant benefits, especially in cross-border supply chains, which play a particular role in the automotive industry. It is a paradox; at times, I find the EU to be too protectionist, too bureaucratic and too unresponsive in how it allows ordinary citizens to express a view and change the impact of its policies. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee looked at the matter briefly while I was a member, and I was—even as a remain voter—fairly shocked at some of the genuine case studies brought to us by British business.
I would like the UK to negotiate a close relationship with the single market, particularly to avoid the loss of any jobs in financial services as a result of regulatory changes, but with a new immigration system and the ability to negotiate a more open and freer trading relationship with the rest of the world. That, to me, would implement the result of the referendum, bring new benefits to the UK and protect the best of what we have now.
Of course, some sort of interim deal and interim arrangement simply must be put in place as soon as possible while we negotiate this rather complex deal. An interim arrangement is no use if British businesses are only told about it several months or years down the line. They have to know now, so that they have the certainty that will enable them to plan how to deal with the next few years.
Given the fact that, based on what we have heard today, the Government have almost nothing else to negotiate apart from the Brexit deal, they should get serious and drop the platitudes. We should not be hearing about a red, white and blue Brexit, because that is not a serious response to a huge moment in British history. Instead, the Government should take responsibility for delivering a new deal for Britain, and they should work with all Members of this House to deliver it.