Lord Heseltine (Non-Afl)
My Lords, I salute the two excellent maiden speeches that we have heard today. I am one of the few surviving members of Margaret Thatcher’s first Government and I am amazed to find myself sitting here listening to the arguments from the Front Bench as to why her greatest achievement should be sacrificed. I remember Arthur Cockfield: he is not, perhaps, a household name today, but if you look him up in Wikipedia, you will see him described as the “father of the Common Market”, and that is right. Margaret—not a natural supporter of foreigners—saw very clearly that the mistakes of the common agricultural policy must not be made again, so she sent Arthur Cockfield to Brussels as a commissioner in order to make sure that British self-interests were dominant in the negotiation of the single market.
The single market was historically, perhaps, one of the most extraordinarily successful concepts ever developed by humankind. The implementation was difficult, against difficult economic circumstances and endless forms—small employers at night, having done all the work themselves, finding yet another form—and the flame was fanned by those two great arbiters of British self-interest, Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black. There was a growing resentment, and John Major inherited the problem. “Go to it, Tarzan”, he said to the Tory Party conference.
I was entrusted with the first serious attempt to look at the real effect of all these wealth-destroying, uncivilised, burdensome regulations. I went to it with all the enthusiasm that I hope noble Lords would expect of me. What did I do? I was entrusted with a Minister of State in every department to worm away, dig it all out. I set up public/private-sector committees for each field of activity, led by some of the most strident critics of the regulatory process. I actually published 3,000 of these regulations, so that nothing was hidden from anybody. “Let’s know what we’re all talking about in detail: here they are, great volumes of stuff”. I did something else: I wrote to every trade association and I said, “Look, I’m your man. All you’ve got to do is send me a regulation as drafted that is holding your members back and undermining the country, and send me an alternative draft”. I did not get any replies.
The issue is, of course, central to Brexit. Once the decision was taken—I was rather against it—it was important to get on and do something about the new world, because the uncertainty was bound to be burdensome and frustrating. I thought it was absolutely right that the principal Brexiteers were put in charge of the show: Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox. They, after all, presumably knew what the opportunities were, what needed to be done and what was holding us back, so they were in charge. Well, that did not last long. We had Jacob Rees-Mogg, with his Robespierrean fanaticism, and a whole new government department called Exiting the European Union. Let us not get carried away: the nameplate on the door changed. With Robespierrean fanaticism, he threw himself into the task. There was an uncharacteristic lack of history here, because of course Robespierre followed Louis XIV to the guillotine. Well, it is a more generous and kinder world that we live in today. Four Prime Ministers later, Jacob Rees-Mogg is back on the Back Benches. Dozens of Ministers have lost their jobs. I say to my noble friends on the Front Bench, “Beware: here today, gone tomorrow”. That has an ominous ring for anyone who becomes mired in this Brexit saga.