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Statement from the Leader of the Opposition

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The Leader of the Opposition, Arya West, this morning made a statement from Labour Party HQ on yesterday's events in Westminster, and the path forward.

Thank you all for coming this morning. 

Yesterday was a dramatic day in Westminster. Amid all the urgent questions, so-called emergency press releases, government resignations; it’s very easy to lose sight of what politicians are arguing about, and what that means for what should happen next.

I want to emphasise something right off the bat. William Croft and I agree that China represents a serious threat to Britain’s national security; and economic reliance on China - indeed any country - makes Britain’s economy less secure and British workers more vulnerable to - well, to events such as these. I set this out to the Prime Minister when he announced his initial measures, and have long been sceptical of the last 12 years of Conservative Prime Ministers opening the open door to Chinese investment in our economy and critical infrastructure.

But the Prime Minister made three serious errors of judgement in how he executed this, such that he left our country isolated, unprepared, and weak on the international stage.

Those three errors were:

  1. Lack of preparation: the Government had no plan for replacing the investment or jobs in our economy or infrastructure; and no plan in the event of Chinese retaliation. That left hundreds of thousands of families on the front line of a potential trade war with no support from the Prime Minister.
  2. Making no international outreach: William Croft didn’t speak to a single British ally, or to the Chinese Government, to gauge international reaction to - or attempt to build support for - Britain’s unilateral actions. That meant that Britain, rather than leading the world, was simply left isolated and weaker for it.
  3. Not consulting or acting on the advice of his national security or intelligence advisers: a mistake that has cost him the resignation of two of his top officials, including the Director General of MI5. Both the security and intelligence services could have provided valuable insight on China’s likely reaction, or the issues to focus on - but William Croft wasn’t interested.

Those failures led Britain into a disastrous trade war. And it crucially left it without a good hand to play in any negotiations, isolated in the world. It is not unpatriotic or parroting the lines of the Chinese Communist Party to point that out; nor does it stop us condemning the way in which China escalated tensions and sanctions. It is simply holding William Croft and his Government accountable.

Don’t take my word for it - the former Chancellor euphemistically called the approach “disjointed”. I do not care for such political euphemisms. The Prime Minister was naive to think there would be no retaliation, incompetent to not prepare, or arrogant in his belief only he knew best. Or perhaps he was all three. We have given him the benefit of the doubt, all of us. He has thrown that trust in the face of every British job he put on the line as a result of his cowboy diplomacy.

So where are we now? William Croft to great fanfare announced a deal - and immediately it transpired that in his rush to solve a political problem, he had announced something that he hadn’t read. And even the bits that he had read were bad enough, including allowing the Chinese Communist Party to make British tax policy and increasing our economic dependence on China - a key shared objective of both parties not only failed but going backwards. The deal takes us backwards, not forward.

William Croft called it “a great victory”, seemingly claiming that this had been his grand vision and plan all along. Even putting aside that ridiculous spin, throwing hundreds of thousands of jobs on a gamble - or suggesting that you would be willing to - really says it all.

Of course, the announcement that this “great victory” would need to be renegotiated means that we are thrown right back into the uncertainty we started with. So what next?

What is 100% clear is that William Croft is not the right man to lead these negotiations. He has shown himself to be a diplomatic liability. He does not listen to expert advice, has not shown that he has learned anything from this saga, and seems more interested in tough-guy press releases than real action and solutions. So in the immediate term, William Croft must hand over operational control of any renegotiation to the experts in the diplomatic service, before he does more damage, and set out his objectives and intentions clearly to Parliament.

But the broader question here is whether the Prime Minister and this Government can learn from this debacle. We face grave economic and international challenges. If the Government is to respond to those challenges without further chaos, then it needs to learn. Or it needs to change.

That is why Labour is calling for a full inquiry into the circumstances leading up to the Prime Minister’s initial announcements, the escalating trade tensions, and the Government’s response at the time; with the purpose of learning lessons for the conduct of delicate diplomatic affairs and for the response to diplomatic crises. 

If the Prime Minister is not willing to convene such an inquiry and commit to learning the lessons now and during that process, then my simple message is this: he must go. I do not expect him to heed that suggestion. I do not think that he understands the gravity of the crisis that Britain faced, and his role in instigating it. His actions in the press yesterday, in which he called the Labour Party “useful idiots of the CCP” for asking very reasonable questions, do not show a Prime Minister taking any responsibility or learn any lessons. 

But my hope is that his colleagues and friends may encourage him to do the right thing. 

Thank you very much.

Dame Arya West - Leader of the Opposition

Labour MP for West Ham (2005 - )

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