Motion for an Humble Address

Queen’s Speech - Debate (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 19th December 2019.

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Lord Lamont of Lerwick:

Moved by Lord Lamont of Lerwick

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows:

“Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.”

Photo of Lord Lamont of Lerwick Lord Lamont of Lerwick Conservative

My Lords, it is my great privilege on behalf of the whole House to thank Her Majesty for delivering the gracious Speech from the Throne this morning. It is the second time that Her Majesty has done this service in a very short time. Her unstinting devotion to duty is an inspiration to all in public life and is admired all over the world. Over the decades she has been a rock of stability in times of great uncertainty, and we are profoundly grateful to our sovereign.

I also thank His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for his presence. I have had the privilege of being a trustee of one of his charities, closely connected with the Prince’s Trust and the Prince’s Foundation. I have been astonished and deeply impressed by his attention to detail and the work that he puts into those charities. I thank him, too, for his public service.

I also thank all the staff: the doorkeepers, caterers, police, cleaners and everyone who, under Black Rod, has worked so hard for this second State Opening in just a few months. It must have involved a lot of extra work, not just because it is the second but because it has had a slightly different format. Again, we are very grateful.

When the Chief Whip rang to ask me to propose this Motion, he must have been telepathic. I was about to phone him to ask whether, when speaking in the four-day Queen’s Speech debate, he could not allocate me the very last position, as is his usual habit. I little imagined that he would make me the first speaker, which is a very great honour.

Our Chief Whip is a very courteous man and certainly a true gentleman. He gives the lie to Sir Robert Peel’s view that the job of Chief Whip is one which requires all the qualities of a gentleman, but no gentleman would ever accept the post.

I understand that this speech is meant to be uncontroversial, but I hope people will understand that it is rather difficult to avoid all mention of a certain event a week ago today—the election—which indeed gave rise to the gracious Speech. I shall endeavour to be like the returning officer in an Irish election who declared that he was perfectly fair: he was half way between partiality and impartiality.

I will say only this about what the Prime Minister called his “stonking victory”: he picked his moment, he risked it all and he won. He reminded me in his boldness of the lines of the 17th century Covenanter, the Duke of Montrose, who wrote a poem about risk in politics and war. He wrote:

“He either fears his fate too much

Or his deserts are small

That puts it not unto the touch

To win or lose it all.”

Well, the Prime Minister put it to the test and he won.

Of course, everyone now says that they foresaw the result. I was certainly not so sure, but I have always been extremely bad at predicting elections. The only time I ever won a political bet was in 1997 when I bet Bob Worcester, the chairman of MORI polling, who did not believe his polls, that his polls were correct and the Conservative Party would be annihilated. I won £100. It was not a lot of consolation as I was also annihilated in the election, by the former Member for Harrogate, now the noble Lord, Lord Willis, with whom I must say I am on perfectly good terms today.

Of course, losing an election is a painful business. Many good, hard-working MPs lost their seats and will be missed. Being an MP is not an easy job these days and they should all be thanked for their public service.

Photo of Lord Lamont of Lerwick Lord Lamont of Lerwick Conservative

There were many remarkable results in the election. I spent my teenage years—as did my noble friend Lord Cormack—living in Grimsby, a town with dreadful social problems. I often fantasised, and still do today, that Grimsby Town Football Club, the Mariners, would one day win the FA Cup—but I never fantasised that Grimsby would ever have a Conservative MP. Of course, if you support a football team, you do so whether it is playing well or badly. Alas, that is no longer true of political parties.

My contribution to the election was extremely meagre: a little broadcasting and some canvassing, including some telephone canvassing. Most of my calls were replied to by a disembodied voice saying, “This number is no longer in use”. It was difficult to get any sense of public opinion; one moment one was calling Scunthorpe, the next moment Exeter, the next Hull and the next Tonbridge. Early on, when not very conscious of where I was phoning, a voice said, “You don’t sound very local. What’s the name of the local candidate?” Bowled middle stump, I am afraid.

We were told to give our names when phoning. I decided to discard that advice and remain anonymous. I still remember an incident that was many years ago but lives on in my memory. I got into a taxi at Westminster. The driver said, “It’s Norman Lamont, isn’t it?” I said, “No, no, nothing to do with me. I do look a little bit like him. We’re often confused.” “Go on,” he said, “I know it’s you.” “Okay,” I said, “it’s me.” He said, “I saved your life once.” “How is that?” I asked. He said, “I was driving up St James’s Street with a passenger in the back of the cab. You were crossing the road outside the Carlton Club and he said, ‘A thousand pounds if you run the bastard over’.”

That was a long time ago, but voters can always be challenging. Gyles Brandreth has told some of my colleagues about how he was canvassing for his daughter in Kingston, and a voter asked him about the candidate’s qualities. Gyles replied by saying, “She’s very bright, hard-working, honest and committed to the public good. She will be a very good MP. And, may I add, she’s also my daughter.” Back came the reply: “Are you sure she’s your daughter?”

The important measure in the gracious Speech arises from the election: namely, the withdrawal Bill to give effect to our exit from the EU on 31 January. I made my maiden speech in the House of Commons in 1972 supporting our joining the EEC, as it then was. I never imagined that 45 years later I should find myself standing in this House supporting measures to reverse that decision.

The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, once suggested that my own Euroscepticism came from the fact that I lived my early years in the Shetland Islands, which have close connections to Norway. Jo Grimond, the MP for Orkney and Shetland, once filled in a form that asked where his nearest railway station was, and wrote “Bergen”. Shetland was the only place that voted against membership of the European Economic Community in the 1975 referendum, but this had less to do with links to the Vikings and more to do with the fact that the Government distributed to every house a leaflet detailing the claimed advantages of the Common Market. The government leaflet had a map of the UK on the front but left Shetland off the map completely—not even in the usual insulting little box in the top right-hand corner. But, of course, Shetland was ahead of its time.

My own doubts about the EU arose when, as Chancellor, I was negotiating our opt-out from the single currency. I saw that the EU was morphing from being an economic association into an increasingly centralised political entity, and I did not believe that this would ever be acceptable to the British public when they finally understood what was happening. In 1994 I ruined the Tory party conference by saying that I personally doubted the claimed economic advantages of the European Union but one day we might have to consider leaving it because of the political direction in which it was going. However, I must say I never really expected to see that happen.

In my opinion, remainers in both the election and the referendum made a mistake in assuming that the argument could be won on economic grounds. Many people were never going to be convinced by arguments about the possibility of GDP being a few points lower after 10 years. For many more, this was an argument about accountability, democracy and, above all, identity. This election was the second people’s vote. My noble friend Lord Heseltine has said, very surprisingly, that the verdict should be accepted. Even Guy Verhofstadt, who once told an enraptured Liberal Democrat conference that the EU was an empire, said last week:

“Brexit will … happen. The British … have confirmed their referendum decision.”

Quite so. Indeed, the war is over. Grass should now be allowed to grow over the battlefield. It is time for the process of healing and reconciliation to begin. Of course, we all understand that there will be continuing arguments about the nature of our relationship with the EU, for example, the precise foreign policy relationship. Many noble Lords in this House who supported remain have much to contribute to that debate.

Apart from the legislation on Brexit, there is much in the gracious Speech that will be widely welcomed, most importantly the statement of the intention to ensure that every part of the UK can prosper and the emphasis on infrastructure—not just the money but giving more say over how it is spent back to communities. The intention to reach a consensus on care of the elderly is welcome as far as it goes, but I personally hope the Government will come up with a solution, because this is one of the most serious, pressing problems this country has—I am sure I carry all parts of the House on this. New sentencing laws to make sure that violent offenders spend longer in prison will be welcomed, as will the commitment to increase education spending per pupil. There will certainly be strong support on this side of the House for the repeal of the disastrous Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which caused such unintended, unforeseen chaos.

Commentators have wondered how the Government will satisfy two different constituencies: the blue collar one in the north and a very different one in the south. This Speech shows exactly how, combining a strong social programme, a programme of renewal, a commitment to the unity of the UK and the restoration of UK sovereignty. This is the agenda of a truly one-nation Government. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Finn Baroness Finn Conservative 3:52 pm, 19th December 2019

My Lords, I second my noble friend’s Motion. I am conscious of the great honour to do so and of the privilege to follow my noble friend Lord Lamont—a son of Shetland, a reforming Chancellor and a kind mentor to many, including me. While in office, my noble friend recruited a young special adviser called David Cameron, hired as his principal private secretary a fresh-faced civil servant called Jeremy Heywood and, during the referendum campaign of 2016, advised the new Back-Bench Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip on how to make his case. As a trainer of thoroughbreds, he is up there with the Earl of Carnarvon and Henry Cecil.

It is said that the key to success is to choose your predecessor carefully so that you are not outshone. The last humble Address was seconded just two months ago with a brilliant, witty speech by my noble friend Lord Dobbs—so I have clearly chosen my predecessor poorly. For the next leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, this is unlikely to be a problem.

It is also the custom for the Queen’s Speech seconder in either House to be an up-and-coming young Member. The definition is rather looser in your Lordships’ House. Contrary to his youthful appearance, my noble friend Lord Dobbs is in his eighth decade—admittedly only just—and was the architect of a previous landslide election victory in 1987, the year after I left my comprehensive school in South Wales. He is also of course the established author of the globally best-selling House of Cards novels, which outline how to succeed as a Chief Whip. I assume that my noble friend Lord Ashton will have read those novels—but, while I might think that, he could not possibly comment, ho ho.

Although none of us in this House had a vote in the election, many of us played a role. For some of the time, I was tasked with looking after Dilyn, the Downing Street Jack Russell. I had to control a headstrong beast who created upheaval wherever he went, was jealous of his territory and flustered civil servants, but who won hearts with his joie de vivre. It was a role for which I was well prepared, having previously worked as a government special adviser.

I became a special adviser in the coalition Government because I believed, as we all do here, in public service. As an accountant with a background in business, I wanted to put myself at the service of my country. The progress that our country made during the coalition years would not have been possible without the tireless work of other advisers, including my noble friend Lady Fall and the noble Lord, Lord Oates. In so doing, I came more deeply to appreciate the sense of public service which animates us all. In particular, as an adviser charged with overseeing the Government’s relationship with the trade unions, I came to admire the dedication of people such as Sir Brendan Barber, his predecessor the noble Lord, Lord Monks, and his successor Frances O’Grady, in standing up for working people. While we did not always agree, I was never in doubt that they sought to serve those whom they represented with passion and commitment.

As I have already noted, this is the second Queen’s Speech in as many months. As with London buses, you wait ages for one and then two come along at once. This gracious Speech sets out an ambitious programme for the nation which I wholeheartedly support. It reflects the energy and reforming passion of our Prime Minister, and I congratulate him on the scale and breadth of his success. He, more than anyone, will understand that a great mandate imposes an equally great responsibility to meet the country’s expectations.

What most people want of their Government is that they should be a moderate, pragmatic and competent Administration who get their business done and see to the well-being of the whole United Kingdom. Most voters are not driven in any way by ideology and do not run their lives according to great and complex political theories. They value above all else security, liberty and the rule of law, and the ability to get on with their lives and to do the best for themselves, their family and their community. They want to go to work and raise their family, and for their children to be taught in good schools. They want to take home as much as possible of what they work hard to earn, and they expect their public services to be decent, effective and accessible.

Most people do not think of themselves as Conservatives, but they voted Conservative in this election in extraordinary numbers. This new Government, with representatives elected from Bridgend—just down the road from where I grew up—to Bassetlaw, Bolsover, Burnley, Bishop Auckland and Banff and Buchan, have a responsibility to serve those working people who have placed their trust in them. That is why I am delighted to see in this Queen’s Speech measures designed to reflect the priorities of working people across our nations: support for the NHS, measures designed to level up economic opportunity, and investment in the infrastructure that promotes prosperity.

One thing that has held back Britain’s investment in infrastructure is an outdated Treasury methodology that too often gets wrong the economic costs and benefits. One casualty of this has been the Swansea tidal lagoon, a project close to my heart. This has the potential to be the prototype for world-leading exportable technology. We need to exploit every single one of Britain’s competitive advantages, and our uniquely powerful tidal flow is one that it would be a crime to ignore.

Of course, the Queen’s Speech will also allow us to give effect to the result of the referendum. Your Lordships’ House has many expert voices on Britain’s relations with Europe and, unlike some, I do not believe that the British people have had enough of experts, so the scrutiny that this House provides is vital. But the British people did signal in this election that they have had enough of delay. We in this House are here to serve the people and now we must move on.

Then there will be the hard yards of negotiating the most comprehensive agreement for Britain’s future relationship with our closest neighbours. It will need to cover the security and intelligence relationship as well as trade and economics, and the Government should insist that there is no cherry picking by the EU. The future relationship should be suffused with respect, generosity, fellowship, our deep shared values and the recognition that, for any kind of foreseeable future, the economies of the UK and the EU 27 will be deeply interlinked.

This is a time of change, a time of disruption. For many, this brings anxiety, but change also brings opportunity, and this is a time of great opportunity for Britain. Ours is a great country, with decency and tolerance running through it and an instinctive desire for fair play that should, and will, see us through these times. To take pride in what we are is not to look inward and backward; it is the foundation from which we can look outward and forward.

As the daughter of a Czech refugee father and a Welsh mother, I will always be grateful for the immense honour of being able to serve in this place, where voices from so many communities, traditions and backgrounds blend in the pursuit of democratic harmony, and I humbly beg to second the Motion.