It seems strange to be sitting in the chamber of the House of Commons last week when the Brexit Bill completed its Third Reading (its last stage) and was officially sent to the House of Lords. After all, it was only a matter of weeks ago that we were unable to get any agreement on Brexit through the House of Commons. All those endless days when one was unable to leave the building waiting for one knife edge vote after another, most of which seemed to have been lost by the Government. Casting my eye over the Labour benches, as the result came in, I was struck by how empty they looked, the fight in them gone and so were they – back to their homes.
With the Labour Party descending into a virtual chat room, as they pick a new leader, the difference between the two parties couldn’t be starker. Noticeably the Labour leadership candidates – all remainers – still seem to have a difficulty accepting that they got the mood of the British people so wrong. I note that one of them has now accused those who voted for Brexit of racism. The Labour line, it seems, is that they won the debate, their manifesto was hugely popular,and yet somehow the British people let them down at the end – good luck with that.
By contrast, the effect on the Conservative Party is transformative. Every new MP knows that their victory wasn’t just to enable us to deliver Brexit but to govern, and vitally to govern for those who voted Conservative for the first time.
Clearly over the next year, the priority area remains Brexit. We must not only deliver our official departure at the end of January but we have to complete the trade negotiations with the EU as well. The clear position of the Government is that the negotiations with the EU will not be extended, which means we have to be serious about walking away without a deal with the EU.
Yet critically, I am not sure the Government so far fully grasps the vital point that we should, in parallel, be engaging in full trade talks with the USA. There is much we could do in the same window. After all, President Trump has made it clear he believes we could achieve a significant number of areas of agreement before the end of the summer. It is imperative we do this, not just to obtain leverage on the EU but more importantly because the USA is our largest trading partner beyond the EU and is as keen as us to get something done, sector by sector if necessary.
Beyond Brexit, we need to ensure we deliver to those ex-Labour supporters who decided that they would vote Conservative for the first time. They voted for change; they want themselves and their children to see dramatic improvements to the places they live in. First up are the main points about investing more in schools and the health service. We must deliver those but also re-invest the money taken out of the welfare system after the 2015 election.
Yet our new supporters voted for more than that. Delivering for them is also about understanding just how dangerously unbalanced our economy has become. One statistic exemplifies this domination by London and the South East. London and the SE have the highest productivity in the whole of the EU, yet in the rest of the UK, no other region meets the average productivity for the whole UK.
Resolving that is about understanding the lack of opportunity in too many of our towns and cities. London has excellent transport and communications links all around it and as such is a first choice destination for investment. Other cities need to do something similar. We need to create ‘cluster’ cities where local transport, communications and skills are interwoven. These clusters should then be linked up in the North and the Midlands enabling them to compete across the world without reference to London. This would give inward investors real choice when considering the UK. This should be a priority.
Finally, this year, the Government shouldn’t forget the pledge they made to soldiers who served in Northern Ireland that there would be an end to the vexatious pursuit of veterans over alleged crimes stretching back decades. The reason I mention this is because now that the Stormont House Agreement is in place, the historic cases review will engage in those cases. We cannot drag our feet over the promised legislation. Ex-soldiers fear of getting caught up in legal ‘fishing expeditions’ and I would urge the Government to act quickly to end those fears.
The future is bright but will only remain so if we as a party and a government remember who put us here and why.
This must be the year of delivery.