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Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): I begin by welcoming the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir   Peter Soulsby), and congratulating him on his excellent maiden speech. He has taken a rather tortuous path to get here and his arrival has been a little delayed, but I am sure that we welcome him to our midst. I certainly look forward to his joining in the politics of the east midlands, a region of which I too am one of the representatives.

The hon. Gentleman made a passing reference to my home city of Nottingham. There is a little rivalry between the two cities. Three Nottinghamshire Members were listening to the hon. Gentleman—the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) and me. It would be quite easy to reply to him, because the inhabitants of Nottingham sometimes regard Leicester as a slightly duller city than ours, and personally I thought it was smaller. In a serious forum of this kind, however, it should be said that it is a very fine city.

The hon. Gentleman has played a prominent part in the politics of his city for many years. We welcome his transition to the national stage and the effective way in which he made his maiden speech, and look forward to his taking part in our deliberations from now on.

I expect I will not be the only Back-Bench speaker who, like the hon. Gentleman, does not confine himself to the subject of foreign affairs and defence, because the debate gives us an opportunity to consider the Queen's Speech as a whole—although I can reassure the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir    Menzies Campbell) that I shall not resist the temptation to touch on one or two aspects of foreign affairs that will concern us over the next 18 months. I shall begin by reflecting on the rather curious background to this particular Queen's Speech, the first of the new Parliament after the recent election. I think that it was presented by a significantly weakened Government and a much weakened Prime Minister. It was really the valedictory address to the nation's politics of a Prime Minister who we all know will depart from his great office some time in the not too distant future.

It is odd that that should be so, because in fighting the election the Prime Minister won a third successive victory, which is historic for his party, and he has returned here with a political majority that many earlier Prime Ministers would have envied. I think, however, that he has done so against a background and in circumstances that have diminished his authority, and should bring home to him that the time will soon come for him to end a very long period of premiership of which, in my opinion, he has so far not made very effective or valuable use.

I agree with the hon. Member for Leicester, South that Iraq did not dominate the recent election as it dominated his by-election, but I believe that the strange result that we saw was due more to Iraq than to anything else. Iraq itself did not feature greatly in my conversations with my constituents and others, and I do not think that the public became too immersed in the
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minutiae of the legal opinions given by the Attorney-General. I think they reinforced the impression that the public already had of the way in which the war had been embarked on. I also think, however, that the repercussions of the Iraq war for the reputation of the Prime Minister and the reputation of the Government's handling of events had a marked effect on the way in which people voted.

It seemed to me that the apparent national campaign did not interest the public greatly, and no strong theme emerged from it. The public are always bored and occasionally repelled by national campaigns, and I think that this campaign matched up to any I can recall on both fronts. Most of those among whom I campaigned would agree. However, the unpopularity of the Prime Minister, and the loss of any reputation he had had for trustworthiness and inspiring leadership, were very marked. The effect, in a very complicated scene across the country, was a significant shift of votes from the Labour party to the Liberal Democrats; and the electoral system ensured that my party obtained more seats than the Liberal Democrats as a result of that shift, giving us the majority that we now have.

I believe that the Prime Minister's reputation has been irretrievably damaged. As we saw yesterday, he is still a charismatic campaigner, but he is a campaigner who no longer comes across as a young Lochinvar leading his country to some distant destination. The techniques are there, but the trust is gone. It is not a question of whether he will hand over to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but a question of when he will do so, and that may well coincide with the end of this first parliamentary Session.

The Prime Minister's reaction in the presentation of the Queen's Speech is rather curious. Like all Prime Ministers approaching the end, he is plainly anxious to make his peace with destiny and try to ensure that history marks down whatever achievements he can accrue to his name in the 10 years or so for which he will have held office. He has therefore presented us with 45 Bills. He is clearly trying to resume the campaign of radical reform of public services on which he wanted to fight the election but was dissuaded by his Chancellor. He sent back to Darlington the person who was meant to be the messenger for the campaign. Now he has returned to the issue on which he wanted to fight the election, with a radical and crowded manifesto.

It is rather ironic that the Prime Minister should do that. It is ironic that he should wish to bow out with reforms that seem to me to have been taken largely from the third term of the Thatcher Government. Those are the ideas to which he has returned, and which he now wishes to pursue. It is ironic because of the contrast with the situation when he arrived here in 1997. It seems to me, when I look at the Labour Government's history, that in 1997 they had all the power that any democratically elected Government of this country could ever have had if they wanted to change the country. This really was an elected dictatorship, with a huge majority, a very troubled Opposition and the world at their feet—with a public whose expectations of them had been raised to amazing levels.

It seems to me, looking back, that the Prime Minister and his Government did practically nothing with that, certainly in the first four years. They were elected against the background of a lot of waffle about the third
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way, but very few practical proposals for doing anything. They mainly dedicated themselves to gaining a second election victory while they thought of something to do on the domestic front. Here we are, eight years later, and the power is gone, or diminished. The Prime Minister is experiencing his last days, and is trying to set about a whirlwind process of reform which I doubt he will achieve without considerable difficulty.

The leader of my party has said that where that reform coincides with the social reform started by the third term of the Thatcher Government we will quite properly support the Prime Minister, and I welcome that. I do not think this is a time when we should be too opportunistic, in the first 18 months of a Government. I shall not discuss the health reforms at length because this is a foreign affairs debate, but I admire the Government's efforts to develop the internal market, and their involvement of the private sector to give patients more diversity of provision and wider choice—on a scale that we could not have dared to attempt ourselves when we were being denounced for thinking such thoughts and embarking on health reform 10 years ago.

I see that the hon. Member for Leicester, South has doubts about the city academies. The city academies are merely the city technology colleges under another name. They are based, I think, on the same legislation. I remember—he is consistent—how fantastically hostile the Labour Government were. The very successful Djanogly college in Nottingham was faced with such hostility that they would not provide lolly-pop ladies for the school crossings, let alone allow the pupils to play football against any of the other schools in the city. It is now one of the most successful schools in Nottingham. I hope that the city academies achieve great success as the campaign is brought forward, and my party should support that.

Great things have to be done on pensions. It is astonishing that the Government fought the election on a platform where they had no policy whatever on pensions. They were waiting for Mr. Adair Turner to inform them of what it might be. In 2002, they were going to adjust public sector pensions, but they backed down immediately when faced with the threat of industrial action from the trade unions. The then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that we should look forward to no great reform in this Parliament. I hope that we will have great reform in the first Session of the Parliament, and I hope that my party will be constructive and help us to take some of the difficult decisions that have to be taken. However, where we support the Government, I hope that we will also—this will be the main point of my speech at the end—insist that reform be done properly and scrutinized. The problem, as the Labour party has piled into some of the things that we would always support ourselves, is that reform under this Government so far has constantly been undertaken in a breathless, ill thought out way, dominated by one initiative after another, led usually by press releases, sometimes by statements to the House, which then get forgotten and overtaken six months later.

Reform has been over-centralised, over-directed and based on too many targets, some of them with perverse effects. There has been too much statistic chasing to try to persuade a doubtful public that results have been
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achieved. If the Prime Minister is a man in a hurry, realising he is reaching the end of his term of office, it becomes all the more important that, although we should support him when he does valuable things for the long-term good of our public services, we insist that they be properly scrutinized and done in a honest and transparent way. We should give some more constructive thought to the practicalities of many of these things, particularly for those who work in the public services, who are getting shell shocked by the constant change and adjustment and the confused accountability.

Again, it may be a worry that the Prime Minister, if he is in a hurry and has an 18-month or two-year agenda, has big foreign policy issues that he has to bring to an end. He should feel an obligation to his successor to do something to get near to resolving the questions of Iraq and Europe before the Chancellor takes over and gets out from the mess that he has left behind for someone else in economic policy.

As the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife said in a speech with which I almost entirely agreed, the problem with Iraq is that we still do not have a clear policy to bring to an end our tragic involvement with the problems of that country. The question of withdrawal and the policy between now and withdrawal remains something that worries me considerably. We get too much optimistic briefing. Too many false dawns are offered as stages go on. It looks as though the history of that tragic country will be very difficult over the next few years.

I do not agree with those who say that we should withdraw our troops when the present UN mandate expires. I was totally opposed to our taking part in the invasion, but it would be absolutely irresponsible to pull out at the termination of the mandate, leaving behind possibly anarchy, civil war and chaos, for which we will bear a share of the responsibility. However, I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we seem to be on a slightly timeless course where we are not quite sure when we are going to get out. The idea that we will stay there for as long as the Iraqi Government ask us to stay, and until such time as Iraqi forces are completely able to guarantee security themselves for a legitimate and stable Iraqi Government, puts us on a timetable, which I can only guess could be three, four, five or six years. We already face a serious problem. There is a very narrow dividing line where the foreign troops are absolutely essential for the maintenance of security but are in constant danger of providing, as a foreign occupying power, a focus for insurgency, recruitment to insurgency and the fomenting of dissent by those who want to foment dissent inside the country.

The next few months will be very difficult. If the new Government can achieve a life of any length, they will have immense difficulty in producing a constitution that is acceptable to the bulk of people who want to live in a law-abiding Iraq. We have to concentrate on the stage at which—it will not be a perfect stage—we will withdraw, either at the end of that process or shortly after they get there.

The Government's reactions remain opaque. There has been no clear guidance from them on where they think they are going. My fear is that, as too often
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throughout the whole experience, it will be the American Government who determine when we withdraw. It will be an American political decision as to when their public have grown exhausted with the effort. Meanwhile, far too much time will be spent trying to influence the nature of political evolution in Iraq without concentrating on putting security in place and letting people solve their own problems.

I do not intend to dilate on Europe at length. although I will not disappoint the right hon. and learned Gentleman entirely. I spoke on Second Reading of the European Union Bill. I agree with my hon. Friends who say that there should have been two Bills, because the votes that hon. Members cast on that Bill in the previous Parliament were totally ambiguous. I am in favour of the treaty but I am against the idea of having a referendum. Most of my party were against the treaty but in favour of having a referendum. We all at least agreed that we would vote on the treaty, so I voted for the Bill and they voted against it, but it would have been much more sensible to have two separate Bills. We will no doubt argue that at length if the issue takes off in this Parliament, but I merely refer to my view that the constitutional treaty is an essential way of making the newly enlarged Union work. It does not involve any significant new transfers of powers. It puts in place a more workable arrangement for making a Union of nation states work in co-operation with each other, and it seems that no clear alternatives have been presented.

I make one point relevant to today's debate—my usual note of dissent. The whole European debate in this country is in limbo. At the election, no one wanted to talk about it, including me. All three political parties were divided on the issue. All three were embarrassed by it. That is why the Front Benchers decided that it should be nothing to do with Parliament but should be referred to a referendum at some time in the future.

Now we are all waiting for the referendum in France, which will determine what on earth we will talk about from the end of this month onwards. It is a great pity that the French are to hold a referendum. It reinforces my view that all referendums are a complete lottery. I suspect that President Chirac would never have held a referendum if our Prime Minister had not put him on the spot by making a sudden, weak decision over the weekend to hold a referendum here. We wait to see what the French views are on the admission of Turkey, the popularity of President Chirac, the popularity of Prime Minister Raffarin and whether they feel uncomfortable about the impact of globalised competition on the French social system. They will vote yes or no according to their views on those various subjects. If the French vote no, I think that by general agreement all bets are off and the European leaders had better get down to deciding which bits of the procedural parts of the treaty should be rescued in order to make at least the functioning of the Councils and the voting system work better thereafter. I cannot for the life of me see the point of holding a British referendum on an extinct treaty if the French have rejected it. I do not like referendums anyway, but I do think that the British public will regard with amazement their political class insisting on having a referendum asking a question about whether they approved of a treaty that the French left had killed off 10 months before.
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It would be a triumph if we could persuade 10 per cent. of the population to vote in such a referendum. What on earth in the end they would vote about I cannot possibly imagine. But we keep regarding it as desperately important to get the Minister to continue to commit himself to the foolish remarks of the Prime Minister that he was going to hold this referendum anyway. Sooner or later someone has to have the sense, almost in a "the emperor has no clothes" way, of saying that this is a complete waste of time, and if the French reject the treaty, perhaps both sides, with great respect, should start rethinking exactly what their European policy is now, and bring some more of it back to Parliament.

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