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[1st Day]

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 4:57 pm on 21st June 2017.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Father of the House of Commons 4:57 pm, 21st June 2017

It is a pleasure to follow Ian Blackford. I congratulate him on his elevation to the leadership of his somewhat diminished party, and congratulate him particularly on his fortitude in the face of the rather clear setback that his party suffered in the recent general election. I think I share some of his feelings, as my party has also lost some good colleagues. Scotland seemed to have a slightly different election campaign. I took the results in Scotland as a serious rebuff to the Scottish National party’s one central cause of holding another referendum in an attempt to break up the Union of the United Kingdom, and I hope that it is terminal on this occasion. I assure my very welcome new friends from Scotland on this side of the House—[Interruption.] They are secure in my support. I assure them, and our friends in the Democratic Unionist party, that I am a stalwart supporter of the Union, and that, whatever happens in this Parliament, I shall certainly be unswerving in that support.

In England, however, this was a Brexit election. In fact, the public are slightly losing interest in the political bubble’s debate about Brexit, and lots of other issues came into the election, but it was designed as a Brexit election, and I think that history will see it, and this Parliament, as such.

As I am entitled to somewhat less of the House’s time than the leaders of the political parties—quite rightly—I shall confine my speech to the issue of Brexit. I should have liked more time in which to welcome the aspects of the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that reflected, yet again, the liberal social conscience which I know she has, and her deep feeling for those who have not prospered enough during the periods of prosperity that we have experienced in this country recently. She recaptured the spirit of her Downing Street address.

I would also like to debate the national economy. I welcomed the sound principles—in my opinion the only possible principles—that she set out in describing how to tackle and get through the present uncertainties and get back to proper growth in a modern and competitive economy. However, I propose to confine my remarks to what history will regard, whatever happens in this Parliament, as the great, lasting work of this Parliament: what kind of deal we achieve as we leave the European Union.

In case anyone immediately starts to disagree with me on the basis that I am challenging the referendum, I point out that I never accepted that a referendum was a sensible way to proceed on such a huge and complex question. I regard the idea of having a second referendum, in case my side might win on this occasion, as a particularly foolish proposal. I thought this was a parliamentary matter. I spoke and voted against the invocation of article 50. I accept that the majority in favour of invoking it was overwhelming on both sides of the House. For this Parliament, I accept that the matter is settled: we are definitely going to leave the European Union.

We now have to debate what we all agree in principle is the best deal we can obtain for the future special partnership with Europe and our new relationships—political and economic—with the rest of the world. The subject that we will have to consider as the Parliament proceeds was scarcely debated in any sensible way by the national leadership of either side in the referendum, as reported in the national media. Nor, I regret to say, was any particular debate in the general election devoted in any sensible way to the content of a new arrangement.

I could make a very long speech if I addressed every question—again, I have to be selective. We are right to concentrate at this moment, as the debate is beginning to do, on our economic relationships with the European Union, and the prospects for trade, investment and jobs. That is obviously most compelling. We must leave for a later stage the dozens of important questions that will arise on security, international crime, environmental standards and so on. At this moment, we are interested in how we will trade with Europe and what the relationships will be.

It is important that we do that because Brexit is already, through its short-term effects, making many people in this country, particularly the less well off, considerably poorer. The immediate effect of the vote was to cause a significant devaluation of sterling. International investors decided that the attractiveness of sterling assets was much less and that the prospects of the British economy were seriously damaged. The pound has fallen and stayed low, and that is feeding its way into inflation, which is exceeding the low wage growth in the economy. Investment is also stalling, so we are seeing a serious slowdown in growth and a drop in living standards, particularly among vulnerable communities. If there are those who believe that eventually we can get a deal that can reverse those things, the sooner we reach a sensible agreement on that and my right hon. Friend the Brexit Secretary pursues and achieves it, the better.