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New Channel Link

Volume 636: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2018

3. Whether he has had discussions with his French counterpart on the construction of a new fixed link across the channel. (903891)

At the conclusion of the highly successful Anglo-French summit, it was indeed agreed that a committee of wise people, or “comité des sages”, should be established to look at reviving the great tradition of UK-France collaboration in such matters as security, defence, space, genomics, infrastructure, and indeed, infrastructure projects, such as the idea of a new connection between our two countries—an idea, I can tell the House, that was warmly welcomed both by my counterpart, Mr Jean-Yves Le Drian, and by President Macron himself.

I note that the Foreign Secretary did not say whether he would be on this committee of wise people. He will be aware of the warning from Maritime UK and many others that the channel ports face gridlock if a transition arrangement for Brexit is not put in place urgently. What is the point of a 20-mile bridge if there is going to be a 20-mile queue waiting to get on to it?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on crowbarring Brexit into that question. Most people appreciate that the existing channel tunnel is likely, at the current rate, to be full within the next seven years, which is a very short time in the lifetime of a great infrastructure project. It is a curiosity that two of the most powerful economies in the world, separated by barely 21 miles of water, are connected by only one railway line. I think that is a matter for legitimate reflection by our two countries on the way forward.

With regard to links across the channel with France and many other European partners, yesterday the Exiting the European Union Committee heard evidence from Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt and many others, and it is absolutely clear that the deep partnership we are seeking with the European Union will be a unique and specific agreement that will benefit those on both sides of the channel enormously. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that that should be the outcome of the talks that will be starting again soon?

Order. On the subject of crowbarring, or indeed shoehorning, I remind the Foreign Secretary—I am sure that he requires no reminding—that the question is not about Brexit; it is about a fixed link across the channel. That is the pertinent matter upon which he will focus.

If I may say so, I think that my hon. Friend has hit upon the notion of a metaphorical fixed link: a great, swollen, throbbing umbilicus of trade—I will not say which way it is going—with each side mutually nourishing the other. I very much approve of the note of optimism that he strikes.

I am generally in favour of building bridges rather than walls, but may I urge the Foreign Secretary, instead of indulging in fantasy engineering projects, to focus on the important work, which he just mentioned, of building metaphorical bridges with nations that share our values, such as France and other European neighbours, in order to prevent Brexit Britain from becoming isolated and increasingly reliant for trade and influence on regimes that have dubious human rights records?

The hon. Lady makes an important point, but she will recognise that we are beefing up our diplomatic representation in the EU and seizing the opportunity to build new links and revive old partnerships around the world. Nobody could have been more eloquent about our unconditional commitment to our friends and partners in the EU than the Prime Minister was in Munich last week.

In 1971, when French and English counterparts starting talking about the channel tunnel, they were mocked. Can we have more vision and less mockery about ideas on how we can take forward our future relationships?

I remind those Opposition Members who have been jeering from a sedentary position about great infrastructure projects that it has invariably been Conservative Administrations who have come forward with these schemes. It was the Conservatives who revived the east end of London with the Canary Wharf project, and it was Margaret Thatcher who green-lighted the first channel tunnel.

It is estimated that the Foreign Secretary’s channel bridge could be built at a cost of £120 billion. He wants to build bridges, but at the same time he is pushing for a hard Brexit, pushing us further away from the European Union. Does he think that that money could instead be better spent over the next six and a half years by giving the national health service £350 million a week? Which would he prefer?

The hon. Gentleman is possibly too young to remember, but when the first channel tunnel was commissioned it was the vision of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, that it should be entirely privately financed, and there is no reason why we should not have the same ambition this time. As for his point about the Brexit dividend, as the Prime Minister has herself said, there will unquestionably be substantial sums of money available for spending in this country on the priorities of the British people, including the NHS. If Labour Members are opposed to that, let them stand up and say so now.

Can the Foreign Secretary tell us about any economic analysis that he has had done on the infrastructure that he is talking about, and tell us where it sits in relation to the Government’s new Mad Max dystopian barometer?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I defer the economic analysis to the comité—the committee of wise people. However, the first channel tunnel will be full within the next few years, by the middle of the next decade. I think it incumbent on us to be responsible enough to reflect on the future development of our economies, and I look forward to the committee’s findings.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree with me about the importance of evidence from impartial civil servants? Does he agree with me that evidence in terms of our relationship with France and the rest of Europe is important, and, in that context, does he agree with the former First Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), about the

“problem of politicians who won’t accept evidence”?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have nothing but admiration for the hard work and dedication of the Whitehall civil servants who are preparing the Brexit negotiations. Believe me, they are doing a superb job.