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Personal Statement

Volume 672: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2020

I have granted leave to the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) to make a personal statement following her resignation from the Government. I remind the House that interventions are not allowed and that there can be no debate arising from such statements.

I want to use this personal statement to place on record what an incredible job this is, and to encourage others, particularly women, who are thinking about public service that they really can make a positive difference.

Since 2010, we have lived through three general elections and three referendums, and I have worked for three different Prime Ministers and even had two tilts at the top job myself. During that time, we have learned a lot. First, there is the value of a punchy catchphrase, from “long-term economic plan”—remember that?—to “take back control” and “get Brexit done”, or as we like to say, “got Brexit done.” But it is the action behind those words that has given us the highest employment there has ever been, a superb Conservative majority, and a free and independent United Kingdom.

I have also learned the value of knowing exactly what you are voting for. For example, colleagues, if your Whip tells you, as a newbie MP, to go through the Aye Lobby and vote for something called the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, just say no. The House has learned a lot about “Erskine May”, from the precise meaning of “forthwith” to the specific purpose of Standing Order No. 24, and even how a Speaker should vote in the event of a tie. But the key lesson for me has been the importance of focusing on your beliefs and behaving with honour whatever the cost. When I arrived in this place, bright eyed and bushy tailed if not strictly youthful after 25 years in finance, my ambitions were for what I called my three Bs: Brussels, banks and babies.

Brussels, or Brexit, started out as an enthusiastic attempt to reform the EU from inside. I set up the Fresh Start project with my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), with support from 200 colleagues. We set out the case for EU reform, but it soon became clear that that was not on offer, and the rest is history.

That time coincided with my first ever rebellion against a three-line Whip, as one of 81 Conservatives to vote for a referendum on EU membership, leading to media speculation that I had told the Chancellor, George Osborne, to—if you will forgive me, Mr Speaker—“eff off”. Well, I can assure you that there is only one person to whom I might be tempted to provide such frank advice, and that would not include any former or current Chancellor, and certainly not any current Speaker. [Laughter.]

My second B, banks, was a personal mission after seeing the damage done by the financial crisis and Labour’s lack of oversight. As a new MP elected to the Treasury Committee, I could hold the banks to account over LIBOR rigging, stop their plans to scrap chequebooks and challenge our brand new rock star Bank of England Governor, as he was described at the time, over quantitative easing and the euro crisis.

City Minister was my first job in David Cameron’s Government, working to introduce new pensions freedoms, setting out the ring-fence for banking groups, arranging for the Post Office to provide banking services on the high street, and recovering over £1 billion from the Icelandic Government after the bail-out of Icesave.

After David Cameron’s excellent win in 2015, I was moved to Energy. With my good friend Amber Rudd as Secretary of State, we rebalanced the needs of the fuel poor with speedy growth in renewables, we announced that coal would come off the grid entirely by 2025, and we kept the lights on through one of the tightest winter energy margins ever. And that was the year of Paris COP21. It is a real source of pride to have joined that global effort to tackle climate change. I wish my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy huge success as COP president when the UK plays host later this year.

The result of the EU referendum in June 2016 is right up there with England winning the rugby world cup 16 years ago and with the look on John Bercow’s face when I told him to apologise for calling me a stupid woman, but it is a bit behind the happiness of my wedding day. Not surprisingly, the leadership election that followed is also forever etched in my memory. My own part in Brexit was always about doing what I thought was best for the UK. Whatever has been said about it, my decision to withdraw from the final two was to give the country the urgent certainty it needed. I am tempted to say something about a mother, but I am just not going there.

As the new Environment Secretary in 2016, it was amazing to set up the huge Brexit project in the Department to deliver for farmers and fishing communities the bright future they were promised, to develop the 25-year environment plan, to ban the sale of modern ivory, to create the first ever litter strategy and to introduce CCTV in slaughterhouses. Those are just a few of the highlights.

Throughout the time I spent in her Cabinet, I fully supported my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) in her determination that Brexit should mean Brexit. During my two years as Leader of the House of Commons after the 2017 election, the challenges of a hung Parliament were so evident right from day one. Delivering pizza was hard enough; delivering Brexit proved nigh on impossible. In spite of that, amazingly we achieved Royal Assent on almost 60 Bills and passed more than 600 pieces of secondary legislation to prepare for Brexit. But like the proverbial swan, while we were gliding on the surface, the business managers were paddling furiously underneath. I pay tribute to each of them and to my superb private office.

When the harassment and bullying scandal hit Parliament in 2017, I was so proud to pull together the cross-party coalition that devised the independent complaints and grievance scheme, with the clear goals that everyone who works in or visits Parliament should be treated with dignity and respect, and that confidentiality should underpin everything.

As Leader of the House, I had one of the most beautiful offices in the Palace; its only limitation was the rat living in my waste paper basket. So when a legislative slot appeared for the restoration and renewal Bill, we grabbed it. Preserving this iconic Palace as the seat of our democracy for future generations will be a huge achievement for all those involved, and I wish them success.

A long-awaited change that I was so glad to introduce was to give all Members of this House the same right as workers across the country to spend time with their newborn or adopted babies, which we did via a new proxy voting system.

Which brings me to the third of my three Bs: babies. As many in this House know, better support for the early years is essential to levelling up, to solving health inequalities and to promoting lifelong emotional well- being. In 2011, I launched the “1,001 critical days” campaign with support from every party in the House, many Members of the other place and almost every early years stakeholder. Frank Field, the late Dame Tessa Jowell and the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) always worked on a cross-party basis, and I am grateful to them.

I set up PIP UK as a charity that would provide support across the country for families struggling with a new baby. I pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who took over my early years campaigns and charity responsibilities when I joined the Government. He has done a brilliant job for so many years.

As Leader of the House, the former Prime Minister asked me to chair an inter-ministerial group looking at early years and how the Government could provide better support. The team spent a year researching existing provision, from health visiting to breastfeeding advice and from talking therapies to parenting groups, and Select Committees held detailed inquiries into the impact of early years experiences on later outcomes. There is no doubt that a focus on this area could be life-changing for millions.

So resigning as the Leader of the House last summer was a tough decision, driven by my concern that the withdrawal agreement Bill as then proposed, with the potential for a second referendum, would not have delivered our exit from the EU. As Leader of the House, I would have had to bring that Bill forward and I could not in all conscience do so. I was sorry to see the resignation of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, the leadership of our country and party once again being challenged by the decision on the EU. No one could have worked harder than her and I feel sure that history will judge her kindly.

In the new leadership election, a number of candidates, myself included—supported by my great friends the hon. Members for Daventry and for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler)—sought to offer a way forward for the country, but after defeat in the first round, I gave my wholehearted support to the Prime Minister. I genuinely believe he is the right person to seize the opportunities that await us outside the EU, and it was an honour to serve as Business Secretary in his first Cabinet.

Brexit readiness was the urgent priority, but setting a new, clear direction for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was top of my agenda. With my ministerial team, we agreed our mission to build a stronger, greener United Kingdom and, to achieve that, our priorities—first, that the UK will lead the world in tackling global climate change; secondly, that we will solve the grand challenges facing our society; and thirdly, that we will quite simply make the UK the best place in the world to work and to grow a business. One key observation I would highlight from my six months in BEIS is that our climate change ambitions are not just about doing the right thing: I believe there is also a huge early mover advantage. UK science and innovation could make the UK green tech sector as big in years to come as UK financial services are today, and I am confident that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will seize this opportunity.

The last general election showed that when people said in 2016 that they wanted to leave the EU, they really did mean it, and I applaud the Prime Minister for his single-minded focus on getting Brexit done. For my own part, I will now focus my attention in Parliament on that third B—babies—and I look forward to renewing my passion for giving every baby the best start in life. When the Prime Minister asked me to step aside, he also gave me his word that he would enable me to take forward the early years work, and I am delighted that the wheels are in motion. I heartily congratulate him and Carrie on their decision to do their own bit of early years research—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister did not write it.

I will of course continue to work hard for my fabulous South Northamptonshire constituency, and I look forward to spending some more quality time with my family. It has been an incredible 10 years, and it ain’t over yet. There is no greater honour than to serve community and country, and I will continue to do so with pride.