A most moving SSAFA Service of Remembrance at Salisbury Cathedral last Friday reminded us of the 260,000 British soldiers killed at the Battle of Passchendaele, many of them from the Wiltshire Regiment and the Wiltshire Yeomanry exactly 100 years ago. (A similar number of Germans were also killed in the battle.) There was a curious poignancy about the lone piper playing the old Scottish lament, Flo’ers o’ the Forest (which laments the defeat of the Scots by the English at Flodden Field in 1513) as he disappeared down the central aisle. It reminded me that I was there when the coffin of the late Sir Edward Heath was borne up the same aisle with full military honours in 2005. (He took part in the Normandy landings, and thereafter commanded my own regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company.)
The results of Wiltshire Police's investigation into the ludicrous allegations against him were announced last week. 118 people responded to their disgraceful call for ‘victims’ at the gates of Sir Edward’s house. 111 of them have been dismissed out of hand. The seven remaining allegations which would have been sufficiently credible, apparently, to warrant Sir Edward’s questioning ‘under caution’ if he were still alive, are a pretty mixed lot. The most serious allegation - of a male rape in 1961 - was investigated by the Met Police 2 years ago and dismissed. How odd that Chief Constable Veale did not mention that. There is not a shred of evidence that Sir Edward was a paedophile, and I have written to the Prime Minister to ask her to initiate a judge-led inquiry into the remaining allegations. Genuine allegations of abuse must be treated very seriously and fully investigated. But they are diminished by bogus cases such as Ted Heath’s. Chief Constable Veale may have saved his skin for now over the £1.5 million, 20 officers’ investigation into Sir Edward. But there are a great many more questions to ask about his handling of Operation Conifer, most particularly about the way he seems to have allowed a presumption of guilt to hang over the head of this distinguished elder statesman. I thought that a presumption of innocence unless proved otherwise was one of the most basic of our rights? However, I do support him for now because of his office - he is after all the Chief Constable.
Equally, I have never been one of Theresa May’s cheerleaders. But I thought that she handled the catastrophic Conference speech with dignity and courage. What’s more, she is Prime Minister and deserves our support and respect just for that reason if none other. Our country is at a most difficult cross-roads in our history, and one thing we do not need is the chaos of a leadership battle. That could have grave consequences for the Brexit negotiations (which may well be what a few from the remain camp are in fact seeking. Who is Grant Shapps anyhow?)
Stable law-abiding society depends on such things as respect for our institutions – the Armed Forces, Government, Prime Minister; the rule of law and presumption of innocence. Of course there will be changes from time to time, but especially at times of national turbulence we need certainty and stability amongst those institutions.
I return to Parliament determined to support Theresa May, and to seek justice for the late Sir Edward Heath.
The Party Conferences - all of them - just ain’t what they used to be. The days of blue rinses at the Tories jostling for a glimpse of the PM, of motions ‘congratulating the Government, yet urging them to go even further’, and of a pleasant few days at the Seaside, have been replaced by PR-driven Ministerial appearances, thousands of journalists and lobbyists jostling for a glimpse of Boris and Jacob, and wholly ignoring the motions for discussion. I used to go to them religiously, stay in some pleasant seaside B and B off-season, and entertain the members of the North Wiltshire Conservative Association to a fish and chip supper. But with my members, I more or less stopped attending 5 or 10 years ago as they became more and more professional, urban (and hence expensive), and just generally less and less fun.
The almost messianic welcome for Mr Corbyn at the Labour Party Conference was very reminiscent of so many hero-worshipping fads from the world of pop music, or populist politics of the worst kind. That won’t last any longer than last year’s general hatred of him, which must be a relief for all of us. And that grim-faced no-hope septuagenarian, Sir Vince Cable’s bold claim that he too could be PM, was a cheery reminded of David Steel’s exhortation to his conference “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for Government,” all those years ago.
All three Party Conferences have been overshadowed by the appalling gun outrage in Las Vegas, (when will they ever end?) and by the absurd mishandling of the Catalonian Independence Referendum. Sending in the shock troops with mild overtones of the Spanish Civil War must rank as one of the stupidest actions of any government ever. A condescending dismissal of the referendum as “unbinding and unofficial, and therefore an absurd waste of money” would have ensured a low turn-out, and a general lack of interest. The storm troopers have almost forced an outraged pro-independence vote. 110,000 passengers being repatriated by the Government in the aftermath of the collapse of Monarch Airlines (the biggest civilian airlift since the Second World War) is actually probably of more interest than most of the deliberations in Manchester.
My own view is that Party Conferences have more than outlived their usefulness, and I would much rather that Parliament sat through them. There is too much happening in the world of a grave and alarming nature for us to waste time navel-gazing in front of the TV cameras. Our job is to govern and to do the best for the people of Britain- all of the people. Perhaps the least said about the Tory Party Conference the better it will be.
Boris has an unerring instinct for putting the cat amongst the pigeons. Yet he does so, in my view for the best of all possible reasons- namely to advance matters in which he believes. He argues that we must not be brow- beaten by the EU negotiators into paying £10 Billion a year after we leave in order to secure access to the Single Market. The fact is that the UK’s visible trade deficit with the EU was £89 Billion in 2015. (i.e. we imported £89 Billion more from them than we exported to them). The trade deficit with Germany alone was £31 Billion. So why should we be forced to buy our way into a trading deal which so massively benefits the people from whom we are buying goods? It would be more logical if they paid us £10 billion rather than vice-versa.
Boris’s article was about more than that, though. He is right to believe that we must get away from our insistently negative approach to Brexit. You hear it from the BBC all the time. “Record low unemployment figures announced this morning DESPITE Brexit.” Those who love the EU have relied on Project Fear from the start. Do you remember their threats to have an Emergency Budget, and their gloomy prognostications that the Stock Exchange would collapse, every family would have to pay thousands extras, and there would be general disaster all round?
Well, I am sorry to disappoint them, but the fact is that the economy has never been stronger. The Stock Exchange is trading at a record high, inward investment is booming, unemployment is close to its lowest in real terms since records began. Since 2010, 3 million more people have got jobs, and more young people and more women are employed than ever before. There are 32.14 million of us employed, or 75.3% of the population; unemployment is at 4.3%. Here in North Wiltshire there were 510 people unemployed (mainly between jobs), at 1.1% of the economically active population one of the best of any constituency in Britain.
It is high time that we stopped approaching Brexit in such a negative way, and as Boris enjoined us start to look forward to the great economic and other advantages which it will bring to our country. I hope that the Prime Minister’s speech tomorrow will do just that, and that it will be reported positively by the media.
Boris, of course, is just back from a mission to the British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean devastated by Hurricane Irma. He joins me in paying special tribute to the volunteers, many of them from this area who have, through a Yate, South Gloucestershire organisation called SARAID (Search and Rescue Assistance in Disasters) been helping out in all sorts of ways. It is that spirit of volunteering, of concern for our former colonies, of determination to play a bigger role in the world which is so typical of we Brits, and we should venerate it, and thank and congratulate those brave people giving up their time and risking their safety to help out people in greater need than us. Britain can play a great role in the wider world. SARAID shows us one way we can do that.
The mark of a good business deal is that it leaves both parties a little unhappy. If my post-bag after Theresa May’s Brexit speech in Florence is anything to go by, that makes it hugely successful. There are those who would like to have told the EU to get stuffed a year ago, who view the Implementation period as a sell-out. They do not want to pay a penny of any kind now or in the future no matter what our legal obligations may be. And there are those who hoped that the speech would have marked the beginning of the end of Brexit and they too are disappointed that our three main ‘redlines’ – over the European Court of Justice, Immigration and the Single Market/Customs Union - have held firm.
The speech has enabled the negotiations to resume, and offered a mildly conciliatory note to the Messrs Juncker and Barnier, while keeping all bar the most rabid of Brexiteers on side. There are of course details to be clarified.
First, I am quite content that there should be an Implementation period- to ensure our relatively seamless departure. But I am uneasy that it might last ‘about two years’. It must be two years to the day. And surely we cannot be subject to any new rules and regulations which the EU create during that period, when, after all, we will no longer be members and therefore unable to influence decisions. We must be subject to the EU rule book as it is in March 2019 and not thereafter. And surely we must be allowed to deregulate and sign our own trade deals during that period?
Second, I do not mind paying our dues during that period, but am uneasy about Mrs May’s commitment that we should ‘honour our obligations’. What are they? And what do we get in return for that commitment?
Third, I am happy with the notion that we ‘Register’ immigrants during the Implementation period (which we are perfectly entitled to do anyhow under existing EU immigration rules.) And a mutually convenient arrangement for residents in the EU and Britain thereafter seems fair. But that mutual agreement must be subject to British Law and British Courts, and the ECJ must have no say in it (even if British judges continue to ‘take note’ of its views).
So it strikes me as being a reasonable offer both from the point of view of we Brexiteers, and also those who are seeking a ‘softer’ Brexit than some of us would like. It is quite a business-like compromise. Of course we have no idea whether or not- or to what extent the EU will accept what she has proposed. This must not be an ‘opening offer’ which then slips under negotiation. We should know more within the next week or two how the EU reacts. But if they do not do so, then we should in my view still ready ourselves for departure with’ no deal’ (which remains in my view much better than a ‘bad deal’.)
Overall it’s a good step forward, and I broadly welcome the Florence terms, but I will be scrutinising events from here like a hawk.
The Brexit Bill, whose Second Reading we agreed on Monday will transpose all of the EU laws and rules and regulations onto the UK Statute Book on the day we leave. That will ensure the greatest possible degree of continuity, and will, I hope, assuage the concerns of all of those people who argue that Brexit will mean the end of their favourite EU rules - for workers’ rights, environmental protection and so on. Those things will be identical the day after we leave to the day beforehand, after which the UK Parliament can at its leisure, delete, amend or improve the corpus of EU law we have inherited. That process is an absolutely essential part of Brexit, and of ensuring a seamless handover to UK control, and so I strongly supported it in Parliament.
One aspect of the Bill has, however, caused a degree of angst both amongst we supporters of Parliamentary democracy vis-a-vis the Executive; and also amongst those who would like to scupper the Brexit process as a whole. It’s the so-called Henry Vlll Clause in the Bill which will thereafter allow Minsters to amend or repeal the EU legislation not by primary legislation- heard on the floor of the House; but by Statutory Instruments, which at most are debated ‘in committee’ upstairs. In normal times, I would be the first to squawk about any such clause, since it allows the Government too much power, and apparently lessens the scrutiny powers of the Parliament.
Yet if we were to treat all 20,000 or so EU Acts which are to be brought across as Primary Legislation (of which we have room for perhaps 20 per year), it would take us hundreds of years to consider it. And anyhow, do we really need to spend weeks discussing the EU labelling regulations when there are so many much more important things that we will have to be doing. Not only that, but the Henry Vlll clause will allow the Government to repeal or amend the EU legislation, but it will of course not create any new law; and there is a 2 year ‘sunset ‘ clause, which says that if it has not been implemented within 2 years it will fail. What’s more, of the 20,000 acts, 8000 were originally considered in our Parliament under Secondary Legislation procedures, the other 12000 became law without being considered at all. So why should it now be necessary to bog ourselves down by using Primary Legislation procedures to consider it?
So while I understand the concerns both of the pure libertarians, and of the Remainers, allowing Henry Vlll on this occasion makes very good practical sense. The people voted for us to leave the EU, and so it must now be. Those who disagree with the majority must not be allowed to use abstruse Parliamentary procedures to prevent it.
© 2017 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA