Good afternoon my friends and fellow ConHomers. It is great to be here in Birmingham where so many thoroughfares in the city are already named after our superb Conservative mayor. I know this conference is going to be a staggering success because just in the last couple of days about a dozen far left Momentum activists have kindly pledged their loyalty by ringing my private mobile phone. I put them straight on to Brandon.
As Paul Goodman might confirm, I am not naturally of a timid disposition. It is not my way to confide my innermost fears. But since this is only a fringe meeting, unlikely to be widely reported, I will reveal that I have one overriding anxiety about the current political scene, both domestic and international. It isn’t global warming or terrorism or Rouhani’s Iran or Putin’s Russia – real though all those challenges are. It’s not the negotiating tactics of Jean-Claude Juncker – before or after lunch. It’s not even the economic and political catastrophe that would befall us in the event of a Corbyn government – horrifying though I find that idea.
My friends, there is only one thing I really worry about in this critical autumn of 2018, and that is that after 200 years this oldest and most successful of all political parties should somehow lose confidence in its basic belief in freedom. And that after 1000 years of independence this country might really lose confidence in its democratic institutions.
And that we should be so demoralised and so exhausted as to submit those institutions – forever – to foreign rule. If I have a function here today – it is to try, with all humility, to put some lead in the collective pencil, to stop what seems to me to be a ridiculous seeping away of our self-belief, and to invite you to feel realistic and justified confidence in what we can do.
Not in a spirit of jingo or glib partisanship, because I know that this is a time of trial. Indeed it is precisely because our position is so serious, and the decisions before us are so vital, that it is more necessary than ever that we feel a quiet and legitimate confidence in our country, that we believe in our basic Conservative ideas and values, and that we believe in our democracy.
That basic belief in conservatism ought to be a little easier, frankly, after the events of last week at the Labour conference. I know that we can’t use too many references from the 1970s or 1980s, but surely to goodness we can take this Tony Benn tribute act and wallop it for six.
Not by imitating them – not by capering insincerely on Labour turf: we won’t get anywhere by metaphorically acquiring beards and string vests and allotments – but by systematically pointing out the damage they would do.
They want to spend literally hundreds of billions re-nationalising the utilities. They want to clobber business with new taxes, with workers’ soviets on the board. They would wreck the economy. They would drive away investment. And they would consign the population to years of further tedium, rancour and uncertainty – as if the last three years were not enough – by promising another Brexit referendum. Another one! As Brenda from Bristol would put it.
We cannot must not and will not let this weaselly cabal of superannuated Marxists and Hugo Chavez-admiring anti-Semitism-condoning Kremlin apologists anywhere near the government of this country. And that means, instead of aping Corbyn, we have to take our basic Conservative ideas and fit them to the problems of today. It is true that the old Conservative buzzword of choice has a different resonance these days.
In some respects we have more choice than you can shake a stick at. We can watch anything anywhere any time. We can zoom off to Airbnb on cheapo flights. Our food is better, our cars are faster and safer, our life expectancy is certainly a lot longer. And yet there is one huge difference between a baby-boomer like me and all you ConHome millennials out there. One cardinal way in which opportunity has declined. And that is in the scope and power of the younger generation, with their own resources, to buy somewhere to live that they can call their own. It is a disgraceful fact that we now have lower rates of owner occupation – for under 40s – than the French or the Germans. That reflects the failure of governments for the last 30 years to build enough housing.
But it is also a massive opportunity for us Tories. If we rise to the challenge, if we get it right, it is an open goal, because this is one of those critical issues where, in the phrase of Chris Patten, the facts of life do always turn out to be Conservative. And Labour’s instincts actually clash in a fundamental way with the instincts of ordinary people.
Worse still, Labour’s political interests – which centre on the building and control of state-owned housing – are diametrically opposed to the interests of most families. I remember when I was first absolutely certain that we Tories were right about housing. I was a reporter on the Wolverhampton Express and Star, not far from here. And I went out to see a couple who were complaining about damp. It was a terrible scene. They were sitting there and with the heating on full blast and a baby crying, and the condensation dripping down the window, and there were these great black spores all over the wall. The chap was in his socks in an armchair and in a state of total despair. He was worried about the baby’s cough – which was getting worse.
The council wouldn’t do anything, and he felt he couldn’t do anything – because it was not his property, and I could see that he felt somehow unmanned by the situation. And I felt very sorry for them both – because they were total prisoners of the system. And I thought what a difference it would make to that family if they had been able to take back control – to coin a phrase. To buy that flat.
And since then I have lost count of the times – and I bet you have too – when I have been out campaigning, and someone has told me on the doorstep that they would vote Conservative forever out of sheer gratitude to us for letting them buy their own home. That is what people want – the pride of having a place they own.
A sense of excitement that has probably been common to humanity since the first couple took vacant possession of the first mud hut in Mohenjo Daro. And yet Labour hates that instinct. And Corbyn hates that instinct. Because although they live themselves in posh Islington townhouses they would much rather that the electorate stayed in social rented accommodation, passed by hereditary right – as, incredibly, these state-owned dwellings are – from one generation to the next.
They like it that way because they know that as soon as you get a mortgage, as soon as you have a stake in society, you are less likely to go on strike and you are more likely to vote Conservative.
And if you stay in social rented accommodation you are more likely to vote Labour. But I tell you something ConHomers.
The paradox is that the Conservative approach not only delivers more homes for private purchase, it delivers more affordable homes as well. And if you look at the record of the previous Mayor of London – something the Chancellor might care to consult – you will see that not only did crime come down by 20 per cent and the murder rate by 50 per cent. Deaths by fire down 50 per cent. Road KSIs down 50 per cent. Tube delays down 30 per cent. Beautiful new buses, beautiful bikes, millions of trees planted. Two new river crossings. Crossrail started. Record investment, new museums in East London. Council tax cut by 20 per cent – well, he did ask for it. You will see that we built more homes of all types than Ken Livingstone.
Precisely because we changed the constricting rules that stopped developments from going ahead. And you will see that now under #useless Khan the number of new builds is slumping, because Labour gets tangled in its cynical political objectives, and it is the Conservative approach that gets things done.
So let’s follow our Conservative instincts, and give millions more young people the chance to become owner-occupiers. Let’s encourage more small private builders as my colleague Richard Bacon has suggested for so long. Let’s take on the big eight home builders, some of whom are now frankly abusing their dominant position. Let’s crack down on land-bankers.
And let’s give councils the incentives they need to encourage growth, and give planning permissions – on those brownfield sites, with long overdue fiscal devolution. Give the councils the ability to retain stamp duty, council tax, business rates, and annual tax on enveloped dwellings, and they will have a motive to go for growth.
Of course you would need to prevent councils from hiking the business rate, and you would need an equalisation formula because the yields are so different across the country.
But fiscal devolution is not only Tory in principle. It is a way to help councils that are really feeling the squeeze – with the rising cost of services for the elderly. And at the same time it is the way to build the homes our children and grandchildren are going to need.
And when I champion the market economy you can see that I do not claim that it is perfect. It is a disgrace that no banker went to jail for the crash of 2008. I can see that the utilities have cunning ways of ripping off the consumer.
But this occasional failure of markets does not mean that state control is better.
I listened carefully to Corbyn last week, and it was astonishing that he had absolutely nothing to say about the wealth creating sector of the economy.
The people who get up at the crack of dawn to prepare their shops. The grafters and the grifters, the innovators, the entrepreneurs.
He didn’t mention any successes. He did not mention a single sector of the market economy. None of it interested him except in so far as he seems to want to nationalise 10 per cent of every company of more than 250 employees.
The only organisation whose output he singled out for praise was Preston Council. I am sure they are an estimable bunch, but Preston Council are not the locomotive of the UK economy.
We Conservatives know that it is only a strong private sector economy that can pay for superb public services. And that is the central symmetry of our one nation Toryism.
Because it is only by making sure that the streets are safer – and let’s bring back stop and search incidentally, and end this politically correct nonsense that has endangered the lives of young people in our capital – it is only by putting in the infrastructure that enables people to live near their place of work; it is only with a properly funded NHS – and let’s get that funding in now – that you can give people the peace of mind they need.
It is only by making sure that young people have the skills they need that you create the platform for businesses to grow, and you solve the UK productivity puzzle.
And it is that virtuous circle, that symmetry that means we must on no account follow Corbyn, and start to treat capitalism as a kind of boo word. We can’t lose our faith in competition and choice and markets.
Indeed we should restate the truth that there is simply no other system that is so miraculously successful in satisfying human wants and needs.
We should set our taxes at the optimum rate to stimulate investment and growth, and we should be constantly aiming not to increase but to cut taxes. Mindful of the insight of the great 14th century Tunisian sage Ibn Khaldoun – picked up by Arthur Laffer – that you can often cut taxes to increase yields. We should have as our objective – as soon as possible – to cut taxes for those on low and modest incomes, because it is Conservative to give people back control of their money.
And instead of treating business as if it were somehow morally dubious, we Conservatives should celebrate its power to do good, and the success of British business.
We are the only country in the world to have a trade surplus with America in music. And our manufacturing ingenuity gets daily more boggling. I think of the Uxbridge factory that makes bus stops in Las Vegas. Wake up with a hangover in Vegas and the chances are that a little piece of London is shielding you from the elements.
And the other Uxbridge factory that makes the futuristic wooden display cabinets for duty free Toblerones in every airport in Saudi Arabia. Think of that – the invisible hand of the market circling the earth in search of a Toblerone cabinet and pointing at Uxbridge.
And now is the time to turbo charge those exports, as Liam Fox has said.
Not long ago I became the first Foreign Secretary to visit Peru for 52 years. And as I stood in some glittering embassy soiree in Lima I remembered that one of my Labour predecessors, Lord George Brown, had been at a similar event in the same place and allegedly made a pass at a creature clad in gorgeous scarlet who turned out to be the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.
And I wondered why it had taken 52 years for a UK Foreign Secretary to visit this amazing place. It can’t have been the indiscretions of Lord George Brown.
Why was it 25 years since any of my predecessors had been to Argentina or Chile? It was because our entire global strategy has been focused on the EU. And while that may have been sensible in the 1970s, when we first joined the common market, it makes less sense in the globalised economy of today, when 95 per cent of the world’s growth is going to be outside the EU.
Of course the EU is and will always be colossally important. But the rest of the world is proportionally gaining ground. And I was thrilled to find that even though our trade with these Latin American countries is still relatively small, the UK is already the second biggest investor in Peru, and that we already drink the second biggest quota of Argentinian malbec.
And that, following the success of the 2012 Olympics – I forgot to mention that – there are british consultants helping with the Pan-American games in Lima.
And these are just the beginnings. Think what we could do with proper free trade deals. And that is why it is so sad, so desperately wrong, that we are preparing to agree terms with Brussels that would make it difficult if not impossible to do such deals.
And that is why it is such a mistake for us to leave on the Chequers terms, locked in the tractor beam of Brussels. We will not only be prevented from offering our tariff schedules. We will be unable to make our own laws – to vary our regulatory framework for goods, agrifoods and much much more besides.
This is politically humiliating for a £2 trillion economy.
And it occurs to me that the authors of the Chequers proposal risk prosecution under the 14th century statute of praemunire, which says that no foreign court or government shall have jurisdiction in this country.
It would mean that UK business and industry – the entire UK economy – would be exposed perpetually to regulations that might have been expressly designed, at the behest of foreign competitors, to do them down.
It would mean that whatever the EU came up with, banning the sale of eggs by the dozen, banning diabetics from driving, banning vaping, whatever – and all of those have been at least considered by Brussels in the last few years – all of this nonsense we would have to implement with no ability to change or resist.
This is not pragmatic, it is not a compromise. It is dangerous and unstable – politically and economically.
My fellow Conservatives, this is not democracy. This is not what we voted for. This is an outrage.
This is not taking back control: this is forfeiting control.
And they know it in Brussels. Do not be fooled by the suggestion that the EU will ultimately reject these proposals. Because what they want above all is to demonstrate above all – to any other country that might even dream of following suit – that you cannot leave the EU without suffering adverse political or economic consequences.
And what the Chequers proposals show is that the United Kingdom, for all its power and might and network of influences around the world, for all its venerable parliamentary history, was ultimately unable to take back control. And instead of reasserting our ability to make our own laws, the UK will be effectively paraded in manacles down the Rue de la Loi like Caractacus.
Do not believe that we can somehow get it wrong now and fix it later – get out properly next year, or the year after. Total fantasy. The opposite will happen. I have been watching the EU professionally for 30 years, and every time a referendum goes against the federalist movement, I have seen how the centripetal forces lock on and slowly slowly the offending country is winched back into place.
Indeed, by its manifest democratic injustice, Chequers provides the perfect logic and argument for those who want Britain to return to the EU, and is therefore a recipe for continued acrimony.
If Chequers is agreed, then it will only embolden those who are now calling for a second referendum. These are the same people, incidentally, who explicitly told the electorate that there was no going back, that voting leave meant leaving the customs union and the single market, and that there was no way they would be asked again. They are now cynically campaigning to do just that, in a way that would be disastrous for trust in politics. People would see that they would be simply being asked to vote again until they give the answer the Remainers want.
As Ruth Davidson has rightly pointed out, we cannot tell the Scots that they have made a decision to reject independence for a generation – and then ask the UK electorate to vote again on the EU.
So the idea of a second vote is infamous – but the obvious democratic fragility of Chequers will only intensify such calls.
Finally, do not believe them, when they say there is no other plan, no alternative. It is not my plan, or the ERG plan, or the IEA plan. All these models, which are substantially the same, a super-Canada trade deal at the heart of a deep and special partnership, are derived from the prime minister’s own vision at Lancaster House.
So now therefore is the time truly to take back control and make the elegant dignified and grateful exit the country voted for. This is the moment – and there is time – to chuck Chequers, to scrap the Commission’s constitutionally abominable Northern Ireland backstop, to use the otherwise redundant and miserable ‘implementation period’ to the end of 2020 to negotiate the super-Canada FTA, to invest in all the customs procedures that may be needed to ensure continued frictionless trade, and to prepare much more vigorously for a WTO deal.
And if we get it right, then the opportunities are immense. It is not just that we can do free trade deals. In so many growth areas of the economy this country is already light years ahead. Tech, data, bioscience, financial services, you name it. We can use our regulatory freedom to intensify those advantages.
And of course our European friends know that is possible – and that is exactly why they want to constrain us. Yet I would argue that it is actually in their interests too, to have the fifth biggest economy in the world, on their doorstep, acting as a continuing brake and caution to the over- regulatory instincts that have held the EU back for so long. Instead of being relentlessly homogenised, we can actually learn from each other again, in the spirit of friendly emulation that inspired the renaissance of European civilisation.
If we get this right, it can be win-win for both sides of the Channel.
If we get it wrong – if we bottle Brexit now – believe me, the people of this country will find it hard to forgive.
If we get it wrong, if we proceed with this undemocratic solution, if we remain half in half out, we will protract this toxic tedious business that is frankly so off-putting to sensible middle of the road people who want us to get on with their priorities.
If we cheat the electorate – and Chequers is a cheat – we will escalate the sense of mistrust. We will give credence to those who cry betrayal, and I am afraid we will make it more likely that the ultimate beneficiary of the chequers deal will be the far right in the form of UKIP.
And therefore the far left in the form of Jeremy Corbyn – a man who takes money from Iranian TV, who can barely bring himself to condemn the Russian state for the Salisbury atrocity, who indulges anti-Semitism, and who by opportunistically committing himself to the misery and farce of a second referendum, has finally revealed himself to be the patsy of the EU as well.
We cannot allow it to happen. We must not allow it to happen.
And so for one last time, I urge our friends in government to deliver what the people voted for, to back Theresa May in the best way possible, by softly, quietly, and sensibly backing her original plan. And in so doing to believe in conservatism and to believe in Britain.
Because if we get it wrong we will be punished. And if we get it right we can have a glorious future.
This government will then be remembered for having done something brave and right and remarkable and in accordance with the wishes of the people.