Queen's Speech Debate, House of Commons

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,

We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.

Mr Speaker, it is a great honour to propose the Loyal Address, but the invitation from the Chief Whip to do so means I must accept an uncomfortable truth: that, with 21 years of service, I fit all too easily into the traditional role of old buffer.

Way back in 1996, as I approached my first re-election, my son heard his 41-year-old father described in a BBC documentary as a “middle-aged politician”. That phrase resonated in his eight-year-old mind. For years after, his birthday cards came not to “Dad”, but to the three-letter acronym “MAP”. Children certainly keep you grounded. At the time, I thought it was a premature description; now, I have moved beyond it. So, with inevitable regrets, I have decided to leave this place at the next election.

[Hon. Members: “Shame!”]

As this is a re-announcement, I suspect the news of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement will attract rather more interest in the outside world.

Having just conducted my first rebellion in 21 years—an abstention—[Interruption.] As a former Whip, that is quite enough. Having done so, being invited by the Chief Whip to propose the Loyal Address was not really something I had anticipated. But it was good for a Windsor grammar school boy to get the invitation from such a distinguished old Etonian.

The opportunity to propose this motion is a great privilege for my constituency. It is only the second time in a century or more that a Member of Parliament for Worcestershire has done so. The last occasion was in 1991, when the late Lord Walker—Peter Walker—did so. He was my predecessor, my mentor and a strong influence on my own approach to politics, to which I will return later. Peter was fiercely proud to represent a Worcestershire constituency, as are all of us who do so now, and in particular, I am sure, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), Lord Walker’s son.

Worcestershire is one of those places that most foreigners cannot pronounce and that most British people probably know only as a sauce. The county is in fact just like Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce: vibrant, somewhat addictive, and with hidden spice. It is one of Britain’s best-kept secrets, with many picturesque villages, but as regular listeners to “The Archers” know, rural waters run deep. Britain’s longest running radio soap is set in Worcestershire—
[Interruption.]Well, Borchester, technically, but it is actually set in Worcestershire.

We are not exclusively rural, though—far from it. Mid Worcestershire encompasses most of south-east Worcestershire, from the celebrated Cotswold village of Broadway and the Vale of Evesham to Droitwich and the border with Kidderminster; from farming and growing to logistics and advanced engineering—literally, from asparagus to rocket science.

This is an area steeped in history but also deeply engaged in modern Britain. As you will know, Mr Speaker, in January 1265 Simon de Montfort called the knights of the shires to Westminster for the first representative English Parliament. In August 1265, the future King Edward I cornered the rebellious de Montfort and his army in the bend of the River Avon at Evesham. In victory, Edward exacted a heavy price. De Montfort’s body was dismembered and his head, with his most intimate organs stuffed into his mouth, delivered as a gift to the wife of Lord Mortimer, one of the architects of Edward’s victory. I do hope she liked it. His head severed, his intimate organs in his mouth—this is how Simon de Montfort really earned the title of the first parliamentarian, and Edward earned the title of the first Chief Whip.

Today is my 31st wedding anniversary. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Tempted as I was to offer Julia a gift inspired by the battle of Evesham, in the end I opted for the more traditional ring.

A local poem lists some of the delightful places you pass on the way to Droitwich from Evesham:

“Upton Snodsbury, Tibberton and Crowle,
Wyre Piddle, North Piddle, Piddle in the Hole.”

Piddle in the Hole, sad to say, is no longer on the map, but there is still a beer of that name. Try as you may, you cannot take the Piddle out of Mid Worcestershire.

In Evesham a reopened art deco cinema, the Regal, has shown the power of art and culture to regenerate and to inspire an area—a point my daughter would never have forgiven me for not making. In Droitwich Spa, a town literally built on salt, heritage has shown its transformative power. In both projects the combination of dedicated volunteers, enlightened councils and the Heritage Lottery Fund has been the key. The reopened Droitwich canals—the Barge and Junction canals—have given a new sense of optimism, new heart, to a fine community. And Worcestershire is the heart of England.

In representing the people of Worcestershire, I have always sought to give voice to that heart, but as one’s time in Parliament comes to an end, inevitably one begins to think about what one has achieved for one’s constituents and for the wider United Kingdom, and what one has stood for in all those years. The parliamentary fates, and we all know who they are, have been kind to me and I have held nearly all the roles I coveted.

The first debate I attended in this Chamber in 1992 was on the election of a new Speaker. One phrase struck me in particular. In the debate, the then right hon. Member for Chesterfield, Tony Benn, described the usual channels, the Whips, as

“the most polluted waterways in the world.”—[Official Report, 6 April 1992; Vol. 207, c. 6.]

Well, as I was able to say to that great parliamentarian at your lunchtime reception, Mr Speaker, I believe he was wrong. My five years of comradeship in the Opposition Whips Office certainly showed me the utility of those waterways.

I have had the pleasure of chairing two Select Committees—the Agriculture Committee and the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. I learned not to allow Committee reports just to gather dust on the shelf. If it is important and the Government do not listen, keep on trying. That is what we did with the BIS Committee’s work on trade with India, one of the UK’s most important strategic partners, and it led to the creation of a new body, the UK India Business Council, whose task is to increase the ludicrously low level of trade between our two countries. That is what the Committee, to its great credit, has just done again on pubcos.

Select Committees are at their most effective when they do not just condemn.

My time as Minister with responsibility for defence equipment, support and technology reminded me that real success in politics depends on the contributions of many. In this case, it is not just the officials, who wrestle with budgets, write contracts and advise on policy priorities, and not just the people developing, manufacturing and supporting the equipment that our armed forces rely on—equipment that represents the very best of British ingenuity and engineering.

No, in defence, our security relies above all else on the selfless commitment and professionalism of the men and women of our armed forces. It is they who crew the ships, fly the planes, drive the vehicles, and walk the dangerous roads. In that context we recall the sacrifices made only last week in Afghanistan.

As a Minister, it was always stimulating to work with my right hon. Friends the Members for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond). The skills, insights and energy they both brought to the Ministry of Defence have been crucial to the Department’s transformation. The process is not yet complete—far from it—so I am delighted to see a defence reform Bill take a prominent place in the Gracious Speech.

One of my heroes is Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was courageous of the Prime Minister to make such an admirer of Brunel the defence equipment Minister. All Brunel’s projects came in late and way over budget, and he treated his suppliers appallingly too. But he changed the world, and that is what engineers do. As Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and again at the MOD, I saw the nation’s desperate shortage of engineers. That shortage is one of the greatest avoidable threats to our prosperity and security.

The global race, of which the Prime Minister speaks so compellingly, will be won by nations with strong engineering skills. Not enough young people in the UK understand the range of opportunities in modern engineering or want to be engineers. As a non-executive director of a small advanced manufacturing business, I am more convinced than ever that Britain can and must regain its ambition to be a truly great engineering nation, raising the status of engineering careers and tackling the scandalous under-representation of women in engineering.

Perhaps the main political lesson I have learnt is this: success has many fathers, and only rarely can we say, “I did that”, so I say very gently to the Deputy Prime Minister that the coalition’s achievements, of which there are many, are coalition achievements. For example, we Conservatives too believe passionately in removing the least well-paid from income tax. There are always deep tensions in a coalition, even a wartime coalition, but, as Churchill said to Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke:

“There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies and that is fighting without them.”

We are living through a time of massive political change, of profound challenge to politicians, but I believe that the heart of this great nation, this one nation, this United Kingdom, beats in its centre. We are a radical people: yes, we want to improve things; we think big; we want to conserve the best and to do better. But we are not extremists, so we are not seduced by political extremes such as communism, fascism, or any other faddish “ism” for that matter. We understand the complexities of modern life. That is why I believe that this coalition will be seen historically as a sensible, mainstream response to the deep-seated problems the nation faces.

That is why I am so pleased that the programme for this Session contains commitments to strengthen Britain’s economy and small businesses, to build a society in which people who work hard are properly rewarded, to improve the quality of education for young people, to support those who have saved for their retirement and to reform our immigration system in order to attract people who will contribute and deter those who will not—in a word, to encourage aspiration.

I am sure that one of Worcestershire’s most celebrated politicians, Stanley Baldwin, would have approved. Three times Prime Minister, and a popular one, he built a moderate and inclusive conservatism for his age, part of a long one nation tradition. That one nation tradition inspired Peter Walker, as it has inspired me. It runs though the Conservative party like the lettering in seaside rock, and it is by holding fast to that tradition that my party will be trusted to serve the nation. Our response to other parties, particularly those with beguilingly simplistic agendas, must not be to appease or to trim, but to listen and understand and then to challenge and confront from the strength of that unique one nation perspective.

When Stanley Baldwin was leaving Downing street after his last premiership, it is said that he was stopped by a journalist who asked, “Will you be available to give your successor the benefit of your opinions?” Baldwin replied, “No, when I leave, I leave. I am not going to speak to the captain on the bridge and I have no intention of spitting on the deck.” With that, he walked off. That is sound advice for all of us who choose to move on, Mr Speaker—sound advice.

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