I visited Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital yesterday to see the first clinically approved vaccine being given to people in London, as it is now across the country. This is a fantastic moment for all of us in this House, and I know that everybody will want to join me in thanking the NHS, the vaccine taskforce, the scientists and all the volunteers who have made this possible.
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.
When I was a spear carrier in the Brexit referendum campaign, led by my right hon. Friend, we assured the British people that a trade deal was entirely achievable, so may I urge him to make one last effort? Surely that deal is achievable, because we have no intention of lowering our standards, but the EU should know this: if, consistent with national security, he cannot secure that deal for us, this parliamentary party will back him to the hilt, because strength comes with unity.
I thank my right hon. Friend. He is entirely right: a good deal is still there to be done, and I look forward to discussing it with Commissioner von der Leyen tonight, but I must tell the House that our friends in the EU are currently insisting that, if they pass a new law in the future with which we in this country do not comply or do not follow suit, they should have the automatic right to punish us and to retaliate. Secondly, they are saying that the UK should be the only country in the world not to have sovereign control over its fishing waters. I do not believe that those are terms that any Prime Minister of this country should accept. I must tell the House and reassure my right hon. Friend that, whether our new trading arrangements resemble those of Australia’s with the EU or whether they are like those of Canada with the EU, I have absolutely no doubt that, from 1 January, this country is going to prosper mightily.
I join the Prime Minister in his comments about the vaccine roll-out. It was fantastic to see the first person, Margaret Keenan, receive the vaccine yesterday. It is a huge national effort, and I want to thank everybody who has been involved with it. Mr Speaker, I also want to thank you and the House authorities for enabling me to participate today, notwithstanding the fact that I am self-isolating.
A year ago, the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and promised the country
“a permanent break from talking about Brexit”.
Can the Prime Minister tell us: how is that going?
I am delighted to welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman here, from his vantage point of exile in Islington, his spiritual home, and wish him all the best in his self-isolation. His own silence on this matter has been sphinx-like. I wonder quite what it is that has kept him from asking this question for so long. We delivered Brexit on 31 January, in case he failed to notice.
It is Camden, not Islington. The Prime Minister starts straightaway by deflecting—it is the same old, same old, whether on covid or Brexit. Twelve months ago, he told the British people that he had an “oven-ready deal”. He did not say he had half a deal or that the next stage would be very, very difficult. In fact, he faced the British people and told them, before the election, that the chances of no deal were “absolutely zero”. The Chancellor, as he is now, obviously took him at his word, because the Chancellor said in the run-up to the election:
“We won’t need to plan for no-deal because we…have a deal.”
So a year on, why should anyone who trusted the Prime Minister when he said he had a deal, including his Chancellor, apparently, believe a word he says now?
I hesitate to accuse the right hon. and learned Gentleman of deliberately trying to mislead people, but let us be in no doubt that we had an oven-ready deal, which was the withdrawal agreement, which the people voted for, as he rightly points out, and by which this country left the customs union and the single market, and delivered on our promises. I can tell him, although he must know this, that whatever happens from 1 January this country will be able to get on with our points-based immigration system, which we have put into law, in fulfilment of our manifesto commitment. We will be able to get on with instituting low-tax free ports, in places where jobs and growth are most needed around the country. We will be able to honour our promise to the British people and institute higher animal welfare standards; we will be able to do free trade deals; and we will get our money back as well. I do not know what else he wants to see from 1 January, but all those things will be delivered.
Oh, I see. Apparently, “Get Brexit done” just meant the first part of it—the easy bit. I do not remember that being written on the bulldozer at the time. Last September, the Prime Minister actually hit the nail on the head when he said that leaving without a deal would be a “failure of statecraft”. It would be—it would be a total failure—and it will be the British people who pay the price. Does the Prime Minister agree with his own spending watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, that the cost of that failure—of leaving the EU with no deal—would be higher unemployment, higher inflation and a smaller economy?
The more the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about Brexit, the more I can see why he tried to avoid the subject for the past year. We did leave with a very good deal, and in any circumstances this country will prosper mightily. He talks about the possible adverse consequences for this country of a deal on Australian terms—I think that is what he is talking about—but we have yet to hear from Labour party members what their view is of that matter. Would they vote for it, yes or no? He remained totally Delphic last week about his policy on fighting coronavirus and he is totally Delphic about what to do on Brexit as well.
The Prime Minister talks about indecision; he is absolutely stuck—this is the truth of it—and dithering between the deal that he knows we need and the compromise that he knows his Back Benchers will not let him make. I genuinely hope that this is the usual Prime Minister’s bluster and that, like one of his newspaper columns, a deal arrives at the last minute. But for some people, and their jobs, it is already too late.
Yesterday, INEOS, a major employer in this country, announced that it will not now build the new Grenadier car in Bridgend and will move production to France instead. This is a project that just two months ago the Prime Minister said was “a vote of confidence”. Hundreds of skilled jobs now will not go to Bridgend. Can the Prime Minister tell us how many more British jobs have to go overseas before he gets on with delivering the Brexit deal that he promised?
I think it is a bit much of the Leader of the Opposition to criticise the Government for failure to come up with a policy on Brexit and to attack the putative consequences of coming out on Australian terms when he cannot even say whether he would vote for that deal—yes or no. If he cannot say whether he would vote for our deal—yes or no—he simply cannot attack the Government’s policy. Until he is able to come up with a position of his own, wrap a towel round his head and decide what he actually thinks, I find it very difficult to take his criticisms seriously. What I can say is that this country will be ready for whether we have a Canadian or an Australian solution, and there will be jobs created in this country—throughout the whole of the UK—not just in spite of Brexit but because of Brexit, because this country is going to become a magnet for overseas investment. Indeed, it already is and will remain so.
The Prime Minister asked me how I will vote on a deal that he has not even secured. Secure the deal, Prime Minister; you promised it. I can say this: if there is a deal—and I hope there is a deal—my party will vote in the national interest, not on party political lines, as he is doing. This is about leadership. The Prime Minister has done 15 U-turns, he has had five different plans on covid, and last week 53 of his own MPs voted against him, so if I were him I would not talk about leadership.
The Prime Minister has not always wanted to listen to business—we know what his message to business is —but he should. Let me quote the CBI, which says that the message from business is this: “get a deal…quickly”. The National Farmers Union says:
“Time is really running out and…it’s very hard to get final preparations in.”
These are the people the Prime Minister should be listening to, not his Back Benchers.
On the question of preparation, the Government knew months ago that they needed 50,000 customs agents trained and ready to go from 1 January—deal or no deal—so can the Prime Minister tell the House how many of the 50,000 agents will be in place on 1 January? That is in 23 days’ time.
It is wonderful to get to the end of that question. I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we have already invested £1 billion in getting this country ready for whatever the trading relationship is that we have on 1 January. We have invested £84 million into supporting customs agents across the UK and £200 million into supporting our ports, and they are doing an amazing job. I want to thank business for the incredible job it is doing to get ready. We have all got to get ready, because under any view there is going to be change from 1 January—there will be change in the way we do business and there will be more opportunities for this country around the world. I am delighted by what I take is the increasing signalling from Camden, because the message from Camden seems to be that, given the choice, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would vote for a deal rather than not. Did my Back-Bench colleagues get that impression? I think I did.
I take it that the answer is the Prime Minister has no idea whether the 50,000 customs agents will be in place on 1 January. He either does not know or he does not care. The Prime Minister said he had a deal. He did not. He said he would protect jobs. He did not. He said he would prepare for any outcome. He has not. Whatever may happen in the next few days, there is no doubting that his incompetence has held Britain back. Will he end this charade? In that uncertainty, will he get the deal that he promised and allow the country to move on?
I want to thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his final baffling question. Last week, as I have said, he sphinx-like avoided any pronouncement on how this country was going to fight covid. He refused to support the measures that we have put in place. This week, he remains deafeningly silent on what he really thinks about a Brexit deal. While he puts a cold towel round his head, lost in thought, and tries to work out what his position is, we are getting on—[Interruption.]
Mr Speaker, you should summon him back—he seems to have vanished.
While the right hon. and learned Gentleman tries to work out what his position is, we are getting on with the work of government. As he says, it is a year since this people’s Government were elected and I am very proud that we are delivering on the people’s priorities: 6,000 of the 20,000 police officers; 14,800 of the 50,000 nurses already; and we are getting on with building every one of the 40 hospitals—it is about 48 hospitals—that we are going to deliver, along with the biggest programme of infrastructure investment in this country for a century. We are uniting and levelling up across the whole of the UK. Whether the outcome is Canada or Australia, we will be taking back control—we have already taken back control—of our money, our borders and our laws and we will seize all the opportunities that Brexit brings.
I was saying, Mr Speaker, that my hon. Friend is completely right about the power of great infrastructure projects to deliver jobs, which is why we are getting on with both the eastern leg of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. What I have asked the National Infrastructure Commission and Network Rail to look at is how those two projects can best be integrated to boost the economy of the whole of the north of the country.
Yesterday, by this Government’s own admission, it was confirmed that Northern Ireland is getting the best of both worlds: access to the EU single market and customs union. This is great news for businesses in Northern Ireland, but it leaves Scotland, which also voted to remain, dealing with the hardest of Brexits. What is good for Northern Ireland is surely good enough for Scotland. Why is Scotland being shafted by this double dealing? Can the Prime Minister explain to Scottish businesses why this is fair?
In common with the whole of the rest of the United Kingdom, Scotland will benefit. It will benefit from substantial access to devolved powers, it will benefit from the regaining of money, borders and laws, and, as I never tire of telling my friend, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), that, in spite of all his jeering, Scotland will take back control of colossal quantities of fish, which is something that the people of Scotland deserve to be able to exploit for the advantage of those communities.
The Prime Minister can spin all he likes, but everybody can now see the total contempt that this UK Government have for Scottish interests. Northern Ireland gets the single market and customs union; we get nothing. Members of his Scottish branch office told him how unfair and damaging it would be to deny Scotland’s access to the EU single market and customs union while at the same time delivering it for Northern Ireland. Ruth Davidson even said that such an act would “undermine the integrity” of the United Kingdom. The former Scottish Tory constitution spokesperson said that it would be the end of the Union. They, along with the former Secretary of State for Scotland, said that if this were to happen, they would all resign. Since the Prime Minister is ready to sell out Scotland’s interests with his Brexit deal, does he expect to receive these resignation letters from Baroness Davidson and her cohort before or after her travels to Brussels tonight?
The only reasonable answer to that question is that I think it is highly unlikely that those letters will arrive. The right hon. Gentleman does a gross injustice to Scotland and the future of Scotland, which will be assured within the single market of the United Kingdom. In spite of the slight negativity that I detect from him, I believe that Scotland, along with the rest of the UK, will benefit from a very strong trading relationship with our friends and partners across the channel, whatever the circumstances, whatever the terms we reach tonight.
I am sure that I speak for many hon. Members when I say that I am a massive supporter of subtitles myself—particularly with some of these crime dramas from America. The campaign that my hon. Friend mentions is excellent. All the Departments that have a stake in this will be working with her to see what we can do to take the matter further.
Last week, we learned that UK Export Finance has been approached to back the east African crude oil pipeline. This is a climate catastrophe that will produce emissions equivalent to all the UK’s annual flights. Not only that, but a recent response to one of my written parliamentary questions confirmed that UKEF has six more fossil fuel projects under consideration. Ahead of the climate ambition summit this weekend, how can the Prime Minister claim any climate credibility while ploughing public money into dirty fossil fuel projects overseas? Are these the actions of a rogue, out of control Government Department—or, worse, does the Prime Minister actually approve of them?
I hope the hon. Lady knows that we are moving away dramatically and at speed from UK Export Finance supporting fossil fuel exploration around the world, but, of course, hydrocarbons remain a significant industry in Scotland and many other places. In so far as there are legitimate contracts that are at risk of being frustrated, we cannot do that. I really think that her criticism of the Government is absurd. Look at the overall record and ambition of this Government; this is the first country in the developed world to set a target of net zero by 2050. I know that when she is being less polemical, she has had some kind words to say about the Government’s programme, and I certainly support her in that.
The people of Scotland, as the hon. Gentleman knows very well, voted in 2014, by a substantial majority, to remain in the UK. I believe that was the right decision, and I believe that were they ever to be asked the same question again in the future, it would be the same answer. But has he has said, and as his hon. Friends have said, many times, it was a once-in-a-generation event.
I thank my hon. Friend. No. 1, yes of course we will do everything we can with NHS Test and Trace, plus our armed forces, to roll out community testing in Stafford; and No. 2, of course we want to support Stafford and the people of Stafford with a massive programme of business support, including nearly £1.4 million in bounce back loans, grants, rate relief and VAT deferrals.
The Government of this country have done everything we can to support business and support lives and livelihoods throughout this pandemic, with now, I think, more than £260 billion of support, and that remains the case. The hon. Gentleman mentions France and Germany. He should know that unemployment, in spite of all the difficulties this country has faced, remains lower in this country than in France, Italy, Spain and the United States. Yes, it is tough, but we are going to get through it and we are going to get through it together.
I thank my hon. Friend and congratulate him on his achievement and on his anniversary. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is looking very seriously at the project that he mentions. I know that the Department is going to be assessing that application very carefully and will keep him informed.
I am delighted to accept the thanks of the hon. Gentleman. I have to say that it is really thanks to him and the Scottish National party that we have been able to keep our wonderful United Kingdom together, because it was the sheer incoherence of their position, their refusal to address the tough questions of what breaking up the UK really means—the impact on our budgets and our economy and the impacts on Scotland and on our whole country—and their manifest inability to explain what they actually mean that meant that the people of Scotland voted in 2014 to remain part of the UK. They were right then, and they will be right in the future to stay.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to this injustice and what is happening with leaseholders at the moment. That is why we have put £1.6 billion into removing unsafe cladding. I do not want to see leaseholders being forced to pay for the remediation, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we are looking now urgently—before the expiry of the current arrangements—at what we can do to take them forward and support leaseholders, who are in a very unfair position.
Is the Prime Minister aware that his Government risk failing a generation of children in my constituency of Enfield North and across the country, as analysis shows this week that only one in six pupils on free school meals—those who are most likely to fall behind their peers—will benefit from the programmes to help them catch up on learning lost as a result of covid? Does the Prime Minister agree that is simply not good enough, and can he explain why we are in this dire situation nine months on?
I share the hon. Lady’s anxiety about the impact of differential learning on kids in our schools across the country, because there is no doubt that different groups have been affected in different ways by the pandemic. That is why we have put a billion pounds or more into the catch-up funds, but it is also why it is so important to ensure that kids go to school and stay in school. That is why we have put all the emphasis, as we have throughout this pandemic, on maintaining kids in school, even if that has put pressure on the hospitality sector and other parts of our economy.
I am thrilled that the Black Country Living Museum is in line to be a covid vaccination centre. I have had many happy meetings with my hon. Friend in the Black Country, and as a proud former resident of Bilston, I look forward to returning before too long.
Mr Speaker, I know you are a strong supporter of the Falkland Islands. The Falkland Islands face the prospect of their fisheries exports to the European Union being subject to tariffs of between 6% and 18% from 1 January. Fisheries exports to the European Union account for more than 40% of the islands’ gross domestic product, and up to 60% of their Government’s revenue. This poses a serious challenge to the Falkland Islands. Will the Prime Minister raise this matter when he meets with the President of the European Commission later?
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of the Falkland Islands and, indeed, other Crown territories and overseas dependencies around the world, whose future and future trading arrangements must be secured. That is indeed something that we have raised and will continue to raise on their behalf to make sure that they get the satisfactory assurances they need.
I will indeed. I think everybody in the House recognises the distress that unauthorised camps and encampments can cause to local communities, and my right hon. and learned Friend is right to draw attention to this. He is also right to call attention to the new powers we are giving both to the police and to councils to tackle the matter, and I am glad to have his support.
Could the Prime Minister kindly explain to the people of tier 3 Birmingham, with a population of over 1 million and where almost 2,000 have lost their life, why he has not considered them a priority for receipt of the vaccine?
I really must respectfully disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has set out very clear criteria for the groups, starting with those over 80, care home workers, NHS workers and those in care homes, and he knows the criteria very well. Birmingham, of course, will be among them, and of course that is right. I am afraid that I simply cannot accept the premise of his question.
Yes, and just this morning I was discussing Derbyshire’s bid for a big community testing programme. We will obviously do everything we can to support them, and I thank my hon. Friend and local leaders for what they are doing to promote community testing.
Real-terms pay cuts for millions of public sector workers, an insulting 37p increase in benefit levels and broken promises on minimum wage increases show that the Prime Minister wants to pay for this crisis on the backs of the working class. Would it not be fairer to impose a windfall tax on the wealth of the super-rich and on those who have made super-profits out of the covid crisis, including those who won contracts because of their links to top Tories?
I must, again, strongly disagree with what the hon. Gentleman says. Everybody on this side of the House is proud not just of the living wage but of record increases in the living wage, of above inflation pay rises across the board and, of course, of what we have done to support nurses and the NHS with record investment. I do not think anybody who looks at the investment this Government have made in the public sector could doubt our commitment. We will continue to do that, but what we want to see is our economy recovering and our strong and dynamic private sector, which the hon. Gentleman disparages, enabling the country to forge forward as it should.
It is crucial to understand that the 10-point plan for the green industrial revolution is about jobs, jobs, jobs. This plan, whether it is retrofitting homes or making wind turbines, will generate 250,000 jobs across the country in just the first few years.
Many constituents, especially those emanating from the Punjab and other parts of India, were horrified, as I was, to see footage of water cannon, tear gas and brute force being used against peacefully protesting farmers. However, it was heart-warming to see those very farmers feeding those forces who had been ordered to beat or suppress them. What indomitable spirit—it takes a special kind of people to do that. Will the Prime Minister convey to the Indian Prime Minister our heartfelt anxieties and our hopes for a speedy resolution to the current deadlock? Does he agree that everyone has a fundamental right to peaceful protest?
Of course. Our view, as the hon. Gentleman knows well, is that we have serious concerns about what is happening between India and Pakistan, but these are pre-eminently matters for those two Governments to settle. I know that he appreciates that point.
I thank my hon. Friend for his campaign and for everything he does for his constituents. I can tell him that the bid process for the remaining eight hospitals, on top of the 40, is currently being designed. The Department of Health and Social Care is working with a variety of trusts, including the Queen Elizabeth Hospital King’s Lynn NHS Trust, as that work continues.