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Queen’s Speech

Andrew Mitchell speaks in the debate on the Queen’s Speech about Syria, Brexit and the General Election.

Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who always speaks a good deal of sense on these occasions. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I should like to thank my constituents for so generously returning me to represent them in this place for a fifth time.

This is clearly going to be an unusual Parliament, as the Gracious Speech demonstrates. In a hung Parliament, political power tends to pass from the Cabinet Room to the Floor of this House, and I hope that there are issues on which we can work together across the House. I hope that we can lift our eyes from the obvious party political domestic preoccupations. We did so over Syria in the last Parliament, when I had the great good fortune to work closely with Jo Cox. We were co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on Syria. Syria remains the defining catastrophe of our age, with 11 million Syrians—half the population—displaced from their homes. I am glad that the Gracious Speech supports an intensification of Britain’s efforts in the middle east. There is international consensus on the need to defeat and destroy ISIL, and this should be prosecuted with ​much greater vigour. However, defeating ISIL militarily is just a small part of our task. The much greater part is to defeat a nihilist death cult that has attracted young people to its cause.

We need to address Britain’s role in the world after Brexit. Britain stands for certain values—not so much British values as international values. We are the fourth largest military power, and one of the very few countries that can undertake expeditionary military activity. We have one of only three diplomatic services that span the world, and it is deeply respected, not least at the United Nations. Our international development work is saving millions of lives and transforms the way in which millions of the world’s poorest live. This British leadership is respected throughout the world, if not in certain quarters of the British press. I urge Ministers to stand up for the brilliant work being done by Britain, and not to cower under the table in the face of the onslaught of the Daily Mail. Of course Britain does not give bilateral money to North Korea, but as part of the United Nations we do try to stop North Korean children starving to death.

There is some concern in the development community about the apparent double-hatting of Foreign Office Ministers to cover the Department for International Development. If I may use a swashbuckling analogy that might appeal to the Foreign Secretary, there is some fear that his eye has alighted on a plump galleon loaded with bullion and that he wishes to board that galleon and plunder her cargo. The rules governing the spending of British aid are clearly laid down by the OECD development assistance committee. I think that those rules can be improved, but I do not believe that this House would agree to their being unilaterally abandoned by the United Kingdom.

Similarly, the Government have a duty to address the terrorist acts that horrified us all during the election. The whole House will also condemn the dreadful anti-Muslim hate crime that surged after the appalling atrocities in Manchester and London. Getting the balance right between collective security and individual liberty will not be easy, but many of us in the House are wary of tampering with ancient liberties and of giving additional power to the state unless it is absolutely necessary. If the terrorists alter our way of life, they win.

I am glad that the ill-advised idea of leaving the ECHR has been dropped. It would never have got through the House anyway. It might be possible to improve the Human Rights Act 1998, but we should not seek to repeal it just because it was drafted by Tony Blair. That brings me to the central issue in British politics today: our departure from the EU. I sometimes think that, when it comes to Europe, my party is the victim of a biblical curse. I hear the arguments eloquently put, by friends and colleagues I greatly respect, in favour of both a soft and a hard Brexit, but what virtually all my constituents want is the best possible deal. They care deeply not only about their living standards and quality of life but about those of their children and grandchildren. They want the best possible deal for Britain.

Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con)

Would my right hon. Friend like to reflect on the utility of the terms “soft Brexit” and “hard Brexit”? I do not consider them to be of very much use in this discussion. They serve to confuse rather than to enlighten.

Mr Mitchell

My hon. Friend has got that absolutely right. Indeed, that is very much the point I am trying to make. My suggestion to my right hon. and hon. Friends is that we let our negotiator get on with this task without undue noises off. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union clearly has the skills and experience to deliver the best deal. I am sure that we should try to work across the political parties on this and perhaps also widen the scope for business to contribute its expertise more broadly as part of the negotiations, but let us let my right hon. Friend get on with it. I want to warn my right hon. Friends that we as a party own this process. If it goes wrong and is seen to be an economic cost to Britain, the eyes of the electorate will narrow, regardless of how our constituents voted in the referendum, and the revenge that will be wrought on our party at the subsequent polls will be hideous to behold.

Finally, I want to make a party political point. I suspect that I was not alone in being deeply dismayed, during the election campaign, by the almost total failure to contest Labour’s assertion that austerity was somehow a voluntary measure and the infliction by the Conservative Government of some sort of Tory vice. It is a myth that we can abandon austerity and indefinitely run a significant annual deficit and ballooning debt. We have been able to maintain the deficit only because the markets have trusted Conservative Ministers to deliver fiscal discipline. In Britain today, we have a serious intergenerational problem. Far from helping young people, failure to address the deficit would be a betrayal of the young because they will have to pay in due course for the overspending of their parents’ generation. As it happens, I do not think I know any young people who voted Conservative at this election, although my own two daughters assured me that they would have done so, had they voted in Sutton Coldfield.

This message of fiscal discipline—fiscal reality, as it seems to me—needs to be explained and amplified once again. Our generation cannot go on spending money we do not have and have not earned. We can resile from hard spending decisions but it is our children and grandchildren who will pay. We need to explain once again how sky-high tax levels bring in less revenue and how raising corporation tax costs jobs, deters business and drives investment away. We heard precious little about the economy during the election, yet unemployment in Britain is lower today than at any time since I was at school. We need to engage with and revisit these vital arguments.

There are other issues on which we can work together across the parties. The issue of how we fund and organise the NHS and social care is urgently in need of a full-scale review. My personal view is that the extent of the problems in the NHS has been marked by the extremely skilful handling of this matter by the Health Secretary. However, we simply cannot go on with this sticking plaster approach. This nettle must be grasped, and if the concept had not been so discredited by the television programme “Yes, Minister”, I would have thought that some sort of royal commission structure would be appropriate. Some mechanism for inclusive national debate about the way forward must be found. We cannot continue to coax a quart out of a pint pot. Staff morale has been stretched to its limits. We all know that that is true and we must therefore do something about it. I am particularly pleased to see the announcement of a consultation on mental health services in the Gracious Speech.

Alex Chalk

Has my right hon. Friend had the experience I have had in my constituency of speaking to doctors and other medical professionals and hearing that they are crying out for a cross-party approach that will take the political heat out of these matters, which affect their lives and their patients’ lives? They want to see the politics taken out of something that is so very important for our society.

Mr Mitchell

My hon. Friend is making, with great eloquence, the point I am trying to make: we need to have a national debate. We cannot continue with this sticking plaster approach on all these matters.

Let me conclude my remarks, so that others can get in, by ending on a consensual note. It would be churlish of this House not to recognise the effective election campaign waged by the Leader of the Opposition, with whom I have had many dealings during our long period together in this House. The whole House will want to pay a special tribute to him in this respect: we salute his extraordinary qualities of mercy and forgiveness as those in his party who have bad-mouthed him in public and in private over the two years since he became leader now flock back to his standard and slink back into his shadow Administration.

This is a good Queen’s Speech and I look forward to supporting it in the Lobby.

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