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[1st Day]

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 5:58 pm on 21st June 2017.

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Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield 5:58 pm, 21st June 2017

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. As somebody who was accused during the election campaign of being a red Tory—I think my late father would have found that a strange and vile epithet to be hurled at me—I must say that I was greatly reassured by listening to the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke. As he touched on many of the subjects that I wanted to talk about, I immediately tried to identify areas of disagreement that I might have with him, and I rather failed to do so. In contrast, I listened very carefully to Tim Farron, but notwithstanding the fact that I rather hoped I would find myself in agreement with him, much of the tone that he adopted—it was of a rather carping and sanctimonious kind—emphasised to me why I am in the Conservative party and not somewhere else.

There is much to welcome in the Queen’s Speech. It has rightly been pointed out that it was the speech of a liberal Conservative; it encompasses liberal Conservative values. Among the key issues that we will be addressing are counter-extremism, dealing with personal data, trying to improve community cohesion by introducing special advocates and public advocates to act in cases of disasters, and working to improve general community relations and the way in which our communities operate. Those are all matters that I greatly welcome and in which I hope to participate. Recently, I have been chairing a commission for Citizens UK on Muslim participation in public life in this country and the report is due to be published on 3 July. I hope that that will make a sensible contribution to a key issue for our wellbeing and our future.

The Government were absolutely right to highlight at the start of the Queen’s Speech that the priority has to be the careful management of Brexit because, contrary to the views expressed by a few of my colleagues to whom I have spoken since the election, it seems to me that Brexit was, without the slightest doubt, the single key issue in how the election was conducted, the reasons behind it and, indeed, the inconclusive outcome, which was in one sense unsatisfactory. It is the elephant in the room; it is the man on the stair who wasn’t there. Even when people sought to discuss other issues, in truth it all came back to the anxieties and concerns, whether in the business community or for individuals, about our collective future precipitated by this single revolutionary act.

I appreciate that revolutionary acts can be conducted by people who believe profoundly that they are acting in the name of traditional values, but revolutionary it undoubtedly is. One only has to look at the Queen’s Speech and see that by the third paragraph we are into the lawyerly detail that will have to be crunched through to achieve even the legal formalities of departure to appreciate the mammoth task we have taken on. Lurking behind it is the key issue of whether our economic wellbeing survives the process and whether the promises that have been made by some in this House of a better tomorrow because of the liberation it will give us are capable of being delivered. Nearly 12 months since Brexit was voted on, I am afraid that I have no greater confidence that we will achieve such a satisfactory outcome than I had at the time the referendum took place. Indeed, on the economic indicators that are developing, which are the direct result of Brexit, it seems to me, speaking bluntly, that the omens are not particularly good.

All of us in this House have a responsibility—it is one of the reasons I was elected—to provide quiet government. Obviously, quiet government does not mean rolling over and doing nothing in the face of challenge. There may be times when we ought to ask people to make sacrifices. However, it troubles me that the one thing that came out of this election was the unquiet state of the country and the extent to which politics generally, including the electorate’s participation in it, had clearly failed to deliver outcomes over the course of the past 12 months that were satisfactory to people, whether it was the young turning out in force to vote at the last minute as a protest because they had not bothered to vote at all in the referendum last year, according to the available evidence, or the willingness to embrace radical policies and solutions that, frankly, do not stand close scrutiny.

The economic package offered by the Labour party in this election was economically illiterate and would have faced this country with financial ruin. Its attractiveness, in my view, was the direct result of the fact that people could no longer see that there was any plan to end austerity and bring a better future to this country, because we compromised that by landing ourselves with massive problems as a result of the way we voted in the referendum last year.

How, then, do we get ourselves out of that problem? First, to agree entirely with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, I accept the verdict of the electorate—it cannot be undone. As I have said consistently in this place, we have to implement Brexit. However, what we do will determine whether our economic wellbeing is maintained and, with it, our ability to deal with all those other legitimate subjects of debate, such as whether we can provide better public services. Our public services have undoubtedly been under massive pressure for a very long time, precisely because this country finds great difficulty in paying its way—a conundrum that no political party has ever succeeded in resolving.

When I look at all this, it is not the starting point of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech that I question. If she can achieve the Lancaster House speech and if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union can succeed in the negotiations and bring about the package that was identified, we will all have good occasion to rejoice. However, the fact of the matter is that at some point in the next two years, this House will have to start thinking about what happens if we cannot achieve that package. In the lovely way that we do in this country, we push that issue further and further down the road and hope it will go away, but it will not. I am not optimistic that the entirety of the package is obtainable. In fact, I think much less than the totality of it will be available because of the way in which the EU works and because the preservation of its identity means that it cannot give us the special status that we are asking for.

Then, Mr Speaker, we will have to make choices. In that matter, particularly in view of the inconclusive result of the election, the totality of opinion in this House will start to matter very much. We will have to determine whether, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe said, it is better to maintain the best free trade arrangement we can have with our closest partners, on whom we are economically massively interdependent, or to sacrifice that for potentially attractive restorations of control that, in my view, amount to very little indeed when subjected to rational analysis. Even if they are successful, we will still need migrants if we are economically successful. The separate issue of global population increase and our ability to grapple on that front internationally is the key question. I think that we could have lovely trade agreements with large numbers of countries, but they would not be a substitute for losing the trade agreements with the countries with which we are most intimately associated.