Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): The central question since the financial crash has been how to secure recovery in tough economic times. When the election took place, economic growth had been restored and unemployment was falling, but since then we have seen precious little growth, and unemployment is rising once again. Dealing with that should have been the central purpose of this Queen’s Speech and this debate.
There are measures in the Queen’s Speech—some worthwhile—to help small businesses to recruit new employees, which we called for, and to extend apprenticeships, which were significantly expanded during our time in government. However, one is left with the impression that although some of the measures may be worthwhile, as a whole they are not equal to the depth and durability of our economic problems. In fact, the Government seem to have given up and are waiting desperately for the new Governor of the Bank of England to secure the economic growth that they have so signally failed to secure.
The Queen’s Speech seems to be more about positioning and fear of the UK Independence party than about genuinely dealing with the country’s economic problems. UKIP, however, is a movement against the political establishment as a whole. It is based on a vision of the United Kingdom as it used to be, not as it is or how it will be. I have to say to Government Members that they cannot fight nostalgia with policy or positioning; the only way to answer nostalgia is to offer a better tomorrow, rather than having an argument about a better yesterday.
The Queen’s Speech has been completely overtaken by the argument about Europe. The amendment has attracted more and more signatures, and as it has done so, the Prime Minister’s professed relaxation has become greater and greater—presumably, by 7 o’clock tonight he will be completely asleep. His relaxation is not strength but weakness, and it fools no one. It is not only about the Back Benchers; while he is in the United States arguing for a European-American trade agreement, his own Cabinet Ministers are touring the studios to say that they would vote to come out of the European Union. It all feels very familiar, and it is little wonder that John Major’s former press secretary said this week that
“there are some parallels with the back end of John Major’s premiership.
One of the differences is, that was when the Conservatives had been in power for 17 or 18 years. Now the Conservatives have only been in power in coalition for two or three years.”
No wonder President Obama had to warn the Prime Minister this week that the UK’s influence is greater when we are engaged with and in the European Union. The notion that we can swap membership of the European Union for some other transatlantic embrace is confounded by that warning, which I hope is heard on the Government Benches.
Mr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP):Is it not about time that we asked the British people—that the people of the United Kingdom made the decision, rather than politicians dictating to them the future relationship with Europe?
Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): We then come to the draft Bill. There was no talk of that beforehand, no suggestion of it in the Queen’s Speech. It is a panic response to the amendment, a failed attempt to buy off tonight’s rebels. This tells us so much about how the Government operate—short-term tactics, not long-term strategy. However, the tactics fail to buy off the rebels, who are simply emboldened and come back for more. Even this afternoon we have heard people saying, “2017 is not soon enough. We need the referendum now.”
The truth is that whether the Bill is a private Member’s Bill or a Government Bill in this Parliament, no Parliament can bind the next Parliament. The time to put legislation forward to have a referendum is before the Government want the referendum, not four or five years in advance. The tactics will not work in the short term; they will simply increase the Government’s pain. Instead of stopping banging on about Europe, the Tories are back to doing little else. That is because too many people on the Government Benches care more about this than about the country’s economic problems or about being in government.
The centrepiece of the Prime Minister’s strategy is renegotiation. We have been here before, too. Harold Wilson had exactly the same strategy in the 1970s—renegotiate, then hold a referendum. He put the conclusions to the House in March 1975. To those who have not read them, I recommend that they do so. They will find plenty about beef, butter and sugar, but nothing about fundamentally altered terms of membership.
When today’s Prime Minister is asked what he wants from the renegotiation, the only specific he mentions is the working time directive. The working time directive was already renegotiated in the previous Parliament. We dealt with the on-call issue and the preservation of the UK’s opt-out. The important thing about that is that it was done without threatening to leave the European Union. If that is all that the Prime Minister can come up with, no one will believe it. Of course the European Union needs reform. It needs to be more flexible and less rigid and it needs to concentrate more on growth and jobs. The Prime Minister has a far greater chance of achieving those goals if he is not threatening to leave at the same time. This is a broader argument about our vision of the UK. Is it to be engaged or is it to retreat into nostalgia? I know which I prefer.
First published on Hansard 15th May 2013