Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (1st Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:25 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Heseltine Lord Heseltine Conservative 4:25 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, this debate has repeated arguments that most of us have used over many years but I do not intend to go back over any arguments that I have expressed. They remain in my mind as convincing as they have been throughout my political life.

I have to say that, of the many speeches and moments of memory in this debate, my noble friend Lord Howard proclaiming that he is not a rebel will long live in my memory. He provided the explanation that he had rebelled against his party on only three occasions. If I had risen in my place to say that I am not a rebel the place would have dissolved into hysterical laughter, but I have rebelled against my party on only three occasions.

The first was when they wanted to resist the race relations legislation of the former Prime Minister, Mr Callaghan. I revolted and the Tory party changed its mind. I revolted against the poll tax. I brought the poll tax to an end. The poll tax went and the Tory party won a subsequent general election. It is perfectly true that I defied a three-line Whip in this House over the issue of a meaningful vote. I was hauled out of my dinner with my wife in Wiltons in Jermyn Street for the poor old Chief Whip to axe me from the job that I was doing in government at the time. I say to my noble friend Lord Howard: “Be careful where you go tonight”.

I wish to come very briefly to three points. The first of them was referred to very eloquently by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith. I agree with him that the Attorney-General put up a bravura performance in another place yesterday. He made it clear that he felt that he had delivered the facts and the truth and a proper reflection of his private advice to government. I am sympathetic to the argument that Governments should not be expected to publish all their private advice. It could be seriously damaging if information in it is of help to people who do not share the national interest of this country.

I faced exactly this dilemma when I had to deal with the censure Motion from the then Opposition over the sinking of the “Belgrano”. One of the prime arguments was that the House of Commons wanted to see the papers. They were secure, classified papers and not publishable. I dealt with the issue by inviting the Select Committee for Defence to come to my office in the Ministry of Defence to read the papers. There were no problems, no questions and no leaks and the issue was successfully resolved.

I believe that the Government, in losing on three amendments over the course of yesterday, could easily have circumnavigated at least that one by saying to a committee of privy counsellors from all sides of the House, “Come and look at the advice and affirm to the House of Commons that what the Attorney-General has said to the House in public actually reflects in whole the contents of the private advice”. Although I hear what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, says, the truth is that it has proved to be a damp squib. The document itself has not supported any of the hysterical abuse that would have been justified if, in fact, it had differed significantly on the two occasions.

Secondly, I want to go back to a point made most eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. In 1973 I was faced by a classic ministerial submission: “Minister of State, would you give us £6 million in order to catch up with the cheating French and Germans on their space programmes?” It was phrased more eloquently than that but the thrust of the argument was broadly along those lines. I said to the officials, “Well, of course, I’m dead keen on catching up with anybody who is cheating on the British national interest, but before we get carried away with this £6 million, would you be kind enough to just tell me how much Europe is spending on space, and will you then tell me what the United States is spending on space?” I shall never forget the figures. The European figure—for all of Europe at that time—was £200 million a year and the American figure was £1.2 billion, and I was being asked to provide £6 million to compete with the French and the Germans.

I played a formative role in creating the European Space Agency. British industry told me that it wanted satellite leadership. I got it satellite leadership, and that fast-forwards to the Galileo project. Here, we find that we are not to be trusted on defence matters that are secret to Europe. What secrecy is there in Europe that, in defence terms, does not affect us? However, that is the argument and it is the tip of the argument that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, was talking about.

What have we done in response? We have provided £90 million for a feasibility study on whether we can compete with the Galileo project. It will take 18 months, and at the end of that there will be a six-month consideration. So in two years’ time we will come to a view about the feasibility and the cost. The noble Lord asks whether the Minister will provide an answer about the cost but the Minister has no idea and it is likely that no one else does. However, let us assume that it is rather more than the £90 million cost of the feasibility study and let us put the figures in context.

The UK space programme at the moment costs £300 million. If you take the £90 million over 18 months, that is £60 million a year, so one-fifth of the cost of our programme is going into a feasibility study. Currently, £5 billion is spent on the European programme and £16 billion is spent on the American programme. The only moral of this story is that we cannot afford to act on our own, and that is why the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, speaks with such eloquence on the panic sweeping through research institutions, universities and academia in this country about this being the beginning of the unravelling of 40 years of recognising the indissoluble self-interest of this country in working with European people, most of whom have an identity of interest with us.

I have one last point to make, and perhaps I may apologise to many of my noble friends, because my point is really directed at my colleagues behind me. I have fought many battles with them against the elected mandates of Governments of which we disapproved. We did not deny the mandates; we simply set out to change them. I now listen to the arguments being deployed, many of them behind closed doors: “Vote for us, old boy”; “Don’t rock the boat, old boy”; “Do you want an election, old boy?”; or “Aren’t you frightened of who might be there, old boy?”. Well, I do not believe that there is going to be an election—I do not believe that the House of Commons will vote for one—but I do believe that the underlying issue behind Brexit was the frozen living standards in 2008 after the economic crash. I have heard from one noble friend after another and from the right reverend Prelate that we are voting in this legislation to make this country poorer.

Most of us in this House will not be affected—certainly I will not—but much has been made about the poorer people. While, on theology, I would not dream of locking horns with the right reverend Prelate, when it comes to the urban poor, I have some experience of the politics of urban poverty. There are no solutions that help the fortunes of the least privileged in the most stressful circumstances that are dissociable from public expenditure. If this House is going to vote solemnly and knowingly, as we have heard here today, for a slower economy, for lower tax revenues and for lower public expenditure, those who will suffer most are those least able to bear the strain.

When the election comes, it will have been a Tory who led the referendum campaign, it will have been a Tory Government who perpetuated the frozen living standards, and it will be a Tory Government who are blamed for what we are talking about today. I will have no part of it.