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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

I understand the political background to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I get concerned that more and more Labour Members—perfectly reasonable ones—who represent constituencies in the north of England or the north midlands are now suddenly finding reasons for sounding rather anti-immigrant and putting forward that interpretation. We have a problem with immigration—I will address it—but we should not start feeding nonsense like the idea that EU nationals have lowered our living standards or are taking our jobs. The political temptation to start sounding a bit like the erstwhile UKIP opponent should be resisted, particularly by people in what used to be safe Labour seats in the north of England.

Let me turn to the question of the single market and the customs union. We are going to have to seek some compromise, so I start from the proposition that, as far as I am aware, there is not a single protectionist Member of Parliament sitting in this House. Everybody here declares their fervent belief in free trade. It was never always thus in this House. The only real protectionist on my side of the House was the late Alan Clark, which was rather odd as he was Minister for Trade at the beginning of the Uruguay round, although he was exceptional in many matters. The left wing of the Labour party in the days of Michael Foot was ferociously protectionist, as it was ferociously Eurosceptic—it was united with the old imperialist right in our party in opposing the European project.

I am never quite sure where the present Leader of the Opposition has gone to, because he and I have rather consistently stuck to the sort of views we both had when we entered this House many years ago—he a little later than me, but not much. He was one of the stoutest Bennite Eurosceptics in the House of Commons—it was a capitalist plot in those days. He has not exactly had a Pauline conversion. It is not bad, but I kept finding that he was speaking on the same side as me in the recent referendum, although he only seemed able to find arguments about resisting obscure threats to workers’ rights, which I could not see were remotely an issue in the referendum we were holding. But I will accept what he says and his party’s position, so I think that now he probably is in favour of free trade.

Particularly in the referendum, both sides in the campaign were united on the principles of free trade and open trading links with the rest of the EU. I think that everyone would agree that the leave side was led very robustly by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. He in particular was very anxious to dismiss the suggestion that the future of our trading relationships was remotely going to be affected by our leaving the EU—it was said that that was the politics of fear and scaremongering. He repeatedly explained that, as the Germans needed to sell us their Mercedes cars and as the Italians needed to sell us their Prosecco, our trading relationships were obviously going to remain completely unchanged. Indeed, at times, he and one or two others in the leave campaign seemed to imply that we did not really need trade agreements in order to trade in the modern world, as we would simply go out there and sell things. However, if we leave the European Union with no deal and we do not have all the EU trade deals that we have helped to negotiate over the years, we will for a time be the only country in the developed world that has absolutely no trade agreements with any other country. My right hon. Friend, with his usual breezy insouciance, seemed quite undisturbed by that spectacle, but I do not think that that is where we are now.

Let me begin by dealing precisely with the key issue that my hon. Friend Sir William Cash raised. I hope that I can take it as a given starting point across the House that we will seek to achieve no new customs barriers, regulatory barriers or tariffs between ourselves and the rest of the European Union. Tariffs are important, but they are not as important as the other two for quite a lot of aspects of a modern economy. I take it that all sides agree that we shall not seek to put any obstacles of that kind in the way of future relationships.

In the present circumstances, I am anxious to demonstrate my agreement with our friends in the Democratic Unionist party. I share all their fervour that we should have an open border in Ireland. It would be an absolute catastrophe if we found ourselves closing that border again, with all the threats to the stability of Ulster and the Irish Republic that that would entail. Given that no one would argue in principle with what I have just said about no new tariffs, regulatory barriers or customs barriers, I find it odd that those on the two Front Benches are ostensibly agreed that we are going to leave the single market—that is difficult to understand in the case of Labour—and perhaps the customs union as well. I can only assume that either that is mere semantics, or that we are going to see considerable ingenuity in how we achieve what is to people of common sense on both sides of the channel a desirable goal, while at the same time withdrawing from the single market and the customs union.

I repeat that when we received our instructions from the people—to use the kind of phrase that the Eurosceptics are fond of—in the referendum, I do not recall the question of leaving the single market and the customs union being even remotely seriously raised. Certainly in the rather good debates that I had with intelligent Eurosceptics in village halls and so on, none of them ever suggested that we would do that. This is in line with my experience throughout my time in this House, during which every Eurosceptic has argued that there is nothing wrong with the common market. Every right-wing Tory has always been totally in favour of having close and open trading relations with the rest of Europe. The sole basis of their opposition was the politics of Europe, or their version of what they thought that was.