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5.55 pm

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon): If I had any doubts about whether this was the last Queen's Speech debate in which I would have the privilege of speaking before leaving the House at the next election, the Chancellor has removed them over the past 40 minutes or so. The Government have been generous in allowing six days to debate a Gracious Speech with so little in it. I now know that that was because they wanted to debate the Opposition's alleged programme rather than their own policies. As we come to the end of this Parliament, the Queen's Speech, which we should have been debating, is more of a shop window than a programme for action. It contains a small number of measures, most of which every hon. Member knows will not be enacted in this Parliament.

The Government took office with a large majority and an enormous amount of public goodwill. They faced a depleted Opposition who had suffered a painful election defeat. Given all that, it is extraordinary how little of real worth has been achieved in those remarkable circumstances. In addition to all that--I will return to this later--the Chancellor inherited an economy that was in better shape than that inherited by any incoming Chancellor for a long time. In similar, although not identical, circumstances, between 1945 and 1950 Mr. Attlee did so much more with his majority. We may not agree with what he did, but he made remarkable changes, out of any comparison with what has been achieved in this Parliament. The same can be said of my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher between 1979 and 1983 and perhaps even more so between 1983 and 1987. Although I voted positively against the Labour Government with great will, even I could see that there were attractive aspects to some of what they said they would do. They were going to think the unthinkable, but they have scarcely thought at all. The Minister who was going to think the unthinkable was soon out-thought and out of Government as well.

The Government's fondest boast is their management of the economy. With all the regularity of a man who has convinced himself and is seeking to convince everyone else, the Chancellor tells us that he has avoided boom and bust--and thus far he has--and has remained faithful to prudence. Prudence has become famous. In fact, in his last Budget he rather strayed from prudence and I suspect that, far from straying, he will be downright unfaithful to prudence when he delivers his new Budget and tells us of

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his plans to bribe the electorate with their own money. Poor old prudence has served her time adequately but is about to be ditched in favour of a hussy who is willing to distribute her assets in every conceivable direction.

To preserve the tattered reputation of prudence, and perhaps the Chancellor, the right hon. Gentleman has hinted at targeting tax cuts. We will have none of the crudeness of giving everybody their money back. He has said that they will be targeted, and I bet they will. They will be targeted on every voter who might be persuaded to put the Chancellor back into the Exchequer. As the Chancellor is keen to put matters on the record, let it be recorded that even he smiled at the prospect of what he might do.

I find it ironic, although perhaps not amusing, that if we believe what is said, the economy is to be at the centre of the Government's re-election campaign. That is disingenuous at best and downright dishonest at worst. Despite the earlier difficulties to which he alludes so frequently, the Chancellor knows that in 1997, he inherited a growing economy with low inflation, falling unemployment and a rapidly declining fiscal deficit.

The Government can claim accurately that, thus far, they have not yet wrecked that economy, although cause and effect in economics is often lengthy and the substantial tax increases that the Chancellor has levied will threaten our competitiveness, as will the Government's agreement to some of the anti-competitive measures from the European Union and their tendency to advocate regulation. It is difficult to get rid of regulation. I do not complain about some aspects of regulation. I acknowledge that we had great difficulty in getting rid of it, too.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Major: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall make a little progress.

The Chancellor, of course, knows all that. He does not openly admit it, but he is not foolish; he knows all that. That is why he talks regularly--he talked about it again today--of his economic achievements: so as to fix in the public mind the fact that he, and he alone, may be responsible for the benign economic circumstances that currently exist. That is why boom and bust in the 1980s--he almost invariably says the 1980s, although seeing me sitting here he added the early part of the 1990s--features so much in his vocabulary. However, even the Chancellor at his most slippery, and that--I mean it as a compliment, for he is a politician--is very slippery indeed, knows that the economy has been benign and growing for eight years, which is an almost unprecedented post-war record. When in opposition, he and his colleagues opposed many of the measures that brought that about. He now advocates many of those measures as prudent for the present and the future.

Perhaps I might remind the Chancellor, as it seems to have slipped his and the Prime Minister's mind, that it was the Conservative party that created the economy that he inherited in 1997. Masters of spin he and his colleagues

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may be, but attempting to air brush out of history economic growth from the early 1990s onwards is pushing their talent for obfuscation just a touch too far.

Liz Blackman (Erewash): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Major: Let me make a little progress. I shall then give way to the hon. Lady.

I remind the Chancellor of where we were on 1 May 1997, as opposed to the fiction of where we were. Interest rates were at 6 per cent. GDP growth was at 3.5 per cent. Inflation was at 2.6 per cent. and unemployment was on a very sharp downward track. Thank goodness it has remained on that downward track since then. The Chancellor can take some credit for that. Over the first 18 months, the impact of what had been done before kept it on a downward track. In the past 18 months, he can take some personal credit for that.

The tax burden in 1997--we heard about the 22 Tory tax rises time and again--was only marginally above that of 1990 and substantially below that which applies now. I shall not bandy figures about. There are various ways in which one can calculate them, but, whichever way one calculates them, the tax increases between 1997 and today are larger in total than the tax increases between 1990 and 1997. The talk of 22 tax increases was entirely bogus, for it utterly neglected the parallel tax reductions, which made a substantial difference to the net position.

Perhaps the Leader of the House, who will wind up the six-day debate, will tell us--I do not know the figure and I have not yet managed to obtain it--how many tax rises have been introduced since 1997. If she is in a frank mood, and I hope that she is--I greatly admire her leadership; she is a fine Leader of the House--perhaps she can add to her reputation by telling us how many of the tax increases since 1997 were announced by the Chancellor in the House in the Budget, as opposed to being slipped out in a post-Budget press release from the Treasury. I would thank her for that and welcome it.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Major: I think that the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) was first.

Liz Blackman: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, on record to the Select Committee on the Treasury, the Governor of the Bank of England clearly stated that interest rates should have risen well before the Government came into office in 1997, but for political reasons that did not happen? Does he recall that, in 1998, in the teeth of the Asian crisis, the Opposition forecast recession? It was the good management of the Government that steered the economy on a fair course.

Mr. Major: I have a feeling that the state of the world economy, notwithstanding the enormously good activities at Millbank, stretches a little further than the direct responsibilities of the Chancellor. I may be mistaken about that. It may be that Mr. Greenspan has very little to do with the American economy, that the American economy has very little to do with us and that the

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European economy does not affect us in the slightest, but I ask the hon. Lady to consider that it is just possible that world events interfere even with the activities of a Chancellor who inherits a benign economy.

I come a little closer to the tax point. I have said before and I repeat: we did put up taxes. We put up taxes in a recession to help to protect individuals and our national accounts from the economic downturn. I seem to recall that, at the time, the Chancellor and his colleagues demanded that the then Government did precisely that to protect people who were vulnerable in their constituencies. It was right. It was very painful. Conservative Governments do not like to put up taxes. They do not wish to. They did not intend to, but the social requirement of protecting people in that recession was necessary.

That is in some contrast to what has happened since the 1997 election. Since then, the Government, first, have increased taxes by more than we did and, secondly, have increased them in a benign economic climate rather than in a recession. That is a sharply different proposition.

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