I will shortly update the House on this country’s fantastic progress in tackling covid-19, including through our booster programme, which is enabling us to ease plan B measures and restore the ancient liberties of this country.
I know that the whole House will be delighted that Her Majesty the Queen has given permission for a special medal to be awarded to all those who were deployed to Kabul. Operation Pitting saw our servicemen and women deliver the largest British evacuation since the second world war. The whole country can be immensely proud of their service.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Last year, we were told by the Prime Minister that there were no Downing Street parties. Then it turned out that there were parties, but we were assured that no rules were broken. Last week, we heard that rules may have been broken, but that he thought it was a work event. Yesterday, from the man who wrote the rules, we heard, “Well, nobody told me what those rules were.” Five weeks ago, the people of North Shropshire were clear, and the people of North East Fife are being clear to me now: no matter the excuse, there is no excuse for taking the British people for fools. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is now time for him to resign?
I entirely share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for the British Council, which is a wonderful institution that we all love. That is why, through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, we are providing £189 million of funding this year—a 27% increase on the previous financial year—in spite of all the difficulties this country is facing. We have also provided a loan facility of up to £145 million to support all the wonderful work the British Council does.
I am not bothered, Mr Speaker. I assumed it was directed at the Prime Minister. [Laughter.]
Can I start by warmly welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) to his new place in the House and to the parliamentary Labour party? Like so many people up and down the country, he has concluded that the Prime Minister and the Conservative party have shown themselves incapable of offering the leadership and Government this country deserves, whereas the Labour party stands ready to provide an alternative Government that the country can be proud of. The Labour party has changed and so has the Conservative party. He, and anyone else who wants to build a new Britain built on decency, security, prosperity and respect, is welcome in my Labour party.
Every week, the Prime Minister offers absurd and frankly unbelievable defences to the Downing Street parties, and each week it unravels. [Interruption.]
First, the Prime Minister said there were no parties. Then the video landed, blowing that defence out of the water. Next, he said he was sickened and furious when he found out about the parties, until it turned out that he himself was at the Downing Street garden party. Then, last week, he said he did not realise he was at a party and—surprise, surprise—no one believed him. So this week he has a new defence: “Nobody warned me that it was against the rules.” That is it—nobody told him! Since the Prime Minister wrote the rules, why on earth does he think his new defence is going to work for him?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the rules. Let me repeat what I said to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) across the aisle earlier on. Of course, we must wait for the outcome of the inquiry, but I renew what I have said. When it comes to his view—[Interruption.]
If we had listened to the right hon. and learned Gentleman about covid restrictions, which is the substance of his question, then we would have been in lockdown after July. This is the truth. If we had listened to the Labour Front Bench in the run-up to Christmas and new year, we would have stayed in restrictions, with huge damage to the economy. It is because of the judgments I have taken and we have taken in Downing Street that we now have the fastest-growing economy in the G7 and GDP is now back up above pre-pandemic levels.
As for Bury South—[Interruption.] As for Bury South, let me say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Conservative party won Bury South for the first time in generations under this Prime Minister, with an agenda of uniting, levelling up and delivering for the people of Bury South, and we will win again in Bury South at the next election under this Prime Minister.
Order. Look, it is important that I hear, and I want to hear both sides. I do not want this continuous chant. If it continues, there will be fewer people on the Conservative Benches, and the same on the Labour side. I expect both sides to be heard with courtesy. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Not only did the Prime Minister write the rules, but some of his staff say they did warn him about attending the party on 20 May 2020. I have heard the Prime Minister’s very carefully crafted response to that accusation; it almost sounds like a lawyer wrote it, so I will be equally careful with my question. When did the Prime Minister first become aware that any of his staff had concerns about the 20 May party?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for repeating the question that he has already asked. We have answered that: it is for the inquiry to come forward with an explanation of what happened, and I am afraid that he simply must wait. He asks about my staff and what they were doing and what they have told me. I can tell him that they have taken decisions throughout this pandemic—that he has opposed—to open up in July, as I have said, to mount the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe and to double the speed of the booster roll-out, with the result that we have the most open economy in Europe, and we have more people in employment and more employees on the payroll now than there were before the pandemic began. That is what my staff have been working on in Downing Street, and I am proud of them.
So apparently Sue Gray is going to tell the Prime Minister when he first became aware that his staff had concerns about 20 May. His account gets more extraordinary with each version of his defence. If the Prime Minister’s new defence were true, it requires him to suggest that his staff are not being truthful when they say they warned him about the party. It requires the Prime Minister to expect us to believe that, while every other person who was invited on 20 May to the party was told it was a social occasion, he alone was told it was a work meeting. It also requires the Prime Minister to ask us to accept that, as he waded through the empty bottles and platters of sandwiches, he did not realise it was a party. Does the Prime Minister realise how ridiculous that sounds?
I have said what I have said about the events in No. 10 and the right hon. and learned Gentleman will have to wait for the report. He asks for further clarification. I think lots of people are interested—I say this entirely in passing—in the exact legal justification from m’learned Leader of the Opposition for the picture of him drinking a bottle of beer. Perhaps he can tell the House about that in a minute. What I can tell the House is that, throughout the pandemic, people across Government have been working flat out to protect the British public with huge quantities of personal protective equipment, so we can now make 80% of it in this country, with the biggest and most generous furlough scheme virtually anywhere in the world, and with the fastest—and by the way, if we had listened to the Opposition, we would have stayed in the European Medicines Agency and we would never have been able to deliver the vaccine roll-out at the speed that we did.
Let us be absolutely clear: the right hon. and learned Gentleman is continuing to ask a series of questions which he knows will be fully addressed by the inquiry. He is wasting this House’s time. He is wasting the people’s time. He continues to be completely irrelevant to the—[Interruption.] We have an inquiry, and I am not going to anticipate that inquiry any further. What I can tell him is that because of the judgments that were taken in Downing Street, because of the willingness of the British people to put trust, by the way, in those judgments and to come forward in huge numbers to get vaccinated, which people did—and I thank them for it from the bottom of my heart—and because they listened to our messages, we now have the fastest growing economy in the G7 and youth unemployment, which the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) ought to care about, at a record low.
I know it is not going well, Prime Minister, but look on the bright side: at least the staff at No. 10 know how to pack a suitcase.
Last year, Her Majesty the Queen sat alone when she marked the passing of the man she had been married to for 73 years. She followed the rules of the country that she leads. On the eve of that funeral, a suitcase was filled with booze and wheeled into Downing Street. A DJ played, and staff partied late into the night. The Prime Minister has been forced to hand an apology to Her Majesty the Queen. Is he not ashamed that he did not hand in his resignation at the same time?
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
While the Prime Minister wastes energy defending the indefensible, people’s energy bills are rocketing. Labour has a plan to deal with it: axe VAT for everyone, provide extra support for the hardest hit, and pay for it with a one-off tax on oil and gas companies—a serious plan for a serious problem. What are the Government offering? Nothing. They are too distracted by their own chaos to do their job. While Labour was setting out plans to heat homes, the Prime Minister was buying a fridge to keep the party wine chilled. While we were setting out plans to keep bills down, he was planning parties. While we were setting out plans to save jobs in the steel industry, he was trying to save just one job: his own. Does not the country deserve so much better than this out-of-touch, out-of-control, out-of-ideas and soon to be out-of-office Prime Minister?
I will tell you what this Government have been doing to look after the people of this country throughout this pandemic and beyond. We have been cutting the cost of living and helping them with the living wage. We have been cutting taxes for people on low pay. We have been increasing payments for people suffering the costs of fuel—
We will continue to look after people throughout this pandemic and beyond, but we have also been cutting crime by 10% and putting 11,000 more police officers out on the streets. There was record home building last year—more homes that at any time in the last 30 years. We are building 40 new hospitals. Gigabit broadband has gone up from 9% coverage in our country to 65% already. As I said already—I think three or four times today—we have more employees on the payroll now than before the pandemic began, and youth unemployment is at a record low.
When the history of this pandemic comes to be written and the history of the Labour party comes to be written—believe me, it is history and will remain history—it will show that we delivered while they dithered, and that we vaccinated while they vacillated. The reason we have been able to lift restrictions faster than any other country in Europe, and we have the most open economy and the most open society in Europe, is thanks to the booster roll-out and thanks to the work of staff up and down Whitehall, across Government and throughout the NHS, and I am intensely proud of what this Government have done.
I thank my hon. Friend for campaigning for this wonderful project. We are supporting the electric vehicle industry. We made another £350 million available through the automotive transformation fund, on top of the commitment of half a billion pounds we have already made in a 10-point plan. I know that the campaign for Coventry airport is an excellent one, and I look forward to seeing how it develops.
This week was supposed to be Operation Save Big Dog, but it has quickly become Operation Dog’s Dinner. Over the past two days, we have had more damaging revelations about Downing Street rule breaking, more evidence that Parliament has been misled, and an even longer list of ludicrous—absolutely ludicrous—excuses from the Prime Minister. First he claimed there were no parties, then that he was not present; then he admitted he was at them but he did not know it was a party, and the latest sorry excuse is really the most pathetic of them all: “Nobody told me.” Nobody told the Prime Minister he was breaking his own rules—absolutely pathetic. [Interruption.] What a look—the Prime Minister laughing once again. He is laughing at the British public, taking the public for fools. Nobody believes him. Will the Prime Minister finally take responsibility and resign? Go, Prime Minister.
No, but I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question again. I remind him that there is an inquiry, which is due to conclude. I believe he is wrong in what he asserts, but we have to wait and see what the inquiry says. The most important thing from the point of view of the UK Government is that we are coming out of the restrictions—I am delighted to see that that is happening in Scotland as well—which is largely thanks to the wonderful co-operation that we continue to see across the whole of the UK, although you would not think it to hear him.
Nobody is buying this act any more. There ought to be some respect and dignity from the Prime Minister. Let us remind ourselves: more than 150,000 of our citizens died and he is partying, he is laughing. It simply is not acceptable—the fake contrition, the endless excuses, the empty promises that it will be different if only we give him one last chance. This is a Prime Minister who arrogantly believes that he is above the rules; a Prime Minister who brazenly twists the truth; a Prime Minister who simply is not fit for office.
The Prime Minister’s former chief adviser says that he lied to Parliament, breaking the ministerial code—a resignation offence, Prime Minister. Public trust is haemorrhaging. With every day that passes, this Tory Government lose even more credibility. When will the Tory MPs finally do the right thing? Show the Prime Minister the door.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, but I must say that I disagree with him. When we look at the levels of trust that the British people—people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and across the whole country—have shown in the Government, the single biggest index of that trust has been their willingness to come forward voluntarily, unlike in many other countries in the world, to get vaccinated on a scale not seen anywhere else in Europe. That is because of our ability, and the NHS’s ability, to persuade people that it is the right thing. It is a fantastic thing, and by the way, it is also a tribute to the United Kingdom, because that vaccine roll-out was a UK effort.
I thank my hon. Friend for all he is doing to champion trade with Latin America. I have no doubt that small businesses such as Squire Hair are eager to get into those new markets, and we will do everything we can to help and support him in his efforts.
As the cost of living crisis deepens, this Government’s priorities get ever more remote from my constituents. Only this week, I learned that a veteran in my constituency, James Scott, took his own life as a result of his struggle with mounting financial pressures. This is a Government who have been found to have acted unlawfully by the High Court over covid contracts and who are now preparing to write off £4.3 billion that had been allocated to those covid schemes. Why can the UK Government find billions of pounds for profiteers and fraudsters but not find the compassion to treat the people with dignity by lifting the benefits cap and reinstating the cut to universal credit?
First, I want to say how sorry I am for what the hon. Gentleman has had to say about James Scott. This Government do as much as we can to support veterans, and that is why we published the veterans action plan only the other day. We are also ensuring that we support people throughout this crisis. In my answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), I mentioned many of the steps we are taking to protect people on low incomes, and we will continue to do more. The hon. Gentleman attacks the contracts for PPE, but actually I think it was an astonishing thing to be able, at great speed, to give this country 17 billion items of PPE. Thanks to the efforts of people across Whitehall, this country is now capable of producing 80% of our own PPE.
I am very sad to hear the news of the loss of my hon. Friend’s constituent, Oliver. As is the case with so many victims of violent crime, the answer is not just policing, though that is vitally important and it is why we are investing so massively in 20,000 more police officers and supporting them with toughening the law. But it is also, as she rightly says, important to get all the institutions of the state to work together: schools, colleges, social services, the health service and mental health service as well.
I entirely understand people’s feelings and I entirely support what the hon. Lady says about someone obeying the rules when they make the rules. She is completely right. On the other hand, I urge her to wait, as I have said to Opposition Members, until next week.
We will certainly be legislating to expand the dormant assets scheme to include new financial assets, which would unlock an estimated £880 million. We will be considering how to spend the English portion of that. The community wealth fund that my hon. Friend proposes is certainly an option and I thank him very much.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I want to repeat that I understand the feelings that the hon. Gentleman has relayed to me, as I said last week. I sympathise very deeply with the feelings and I understand why people feel as they do. I thank people very much for everything that they have done. I recognise the enormous sacrifice that people have made. I apologise for the misjudgments that may have been made in No. 10 by me and anybody else, but please can I ask him to wait for the inquiry to conclude?
I will certainly do what I can to support it, although of course, as my hon. Friend knows, such memorials are a matter for local authorities. What the House and the Government can certainly do is ensure that memorials are not desecrated, as they have been across the country, and that we support legislation that penalises those who indulge in such desecration.
Mr Speaker, I think that was a question for you rather than me. Look, I have made my point. I think that the British public have responded to what the Government have had to say in the most eloquent way possible. They have beaten covid so far. They have helped to defeat covid so far with the steps that they have taken by getting vaccinated and implementing plan B, and I thank them.
The vast majority of people, and indeed the vast majority of politicians, across Northern Ireland believe that whatever the question, double-jobbing is not the answer. May I urge my right hon. Friend to listen to the majority and ensure that the Government amendment is not moved in the other place later today?
No, I really do not agree with the hon. Lady, and I do not think that she can have been following anything that has been said this afternoon. We have unemployment falling to near-record lows, and we have job vacancies at record highs. That is what Conservative Governments do: they create jobs and get the economy moving.
Like many on the Government Benches, I have spent weeks and months defending the Prime Minister against often angry constituents. I have reminded them of his success in delivering Brexit and the vaccines, and many other things. But I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take. Yesterday the Prime Minister did the opposite of that, so I will remind him of a quotation that will be altogether too familiar to him. Leo Amery said to Neville Chamberlain:
“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing… In the name of God, go.”—[Official Report, 7 May 1940; Vol. 360, c. 1150.]—[Interruption.]
I must say to my right hon. Friend that I do not know what he is talking about. I do not know what quotation he is alluding to. What I can tell him, as I have told the House repeatedly throughout the pandemic, is that I take full responsibility for everything done in this Government, and throughout the pandemic.
The Conservative approach to the Union is one that I think is right for our country. We want to keep it together. Conservatives in Scotland do an excellent job, which is why their stout defence of the Union was repaid at the last election. Labour is increasingly endangering our Union in Scotland.
Last week many people welcomed the five-year moratorium on smart motorways. However, the M27 is due to be opened as a smart motorway in a couple of months. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give my constituents, and others in the rest of south Hampshire, that the M27 will be safe, to give them confidence to use it?