Lymington Times – 1 July 2000
New Forest East MP Julian Lewis scored a hat-trick of successes in Parliament on Thursday, last week [22 June], when he managed to gravely embarrass Chancellor Gordon Brown, mock the Defence Ministry's hostility towards Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, and feature prominently in a rare debate on the Security and Intelligence Services.
Dr Lewis had, two weeks earlier, tabled a question asking the Chancellor what discussions he had had with the Minister for Europe, Keith Vaz, and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson "on the timing of any move to replace the pound by the euro". Messrs. Vaz and Mandelson are both much more strongly in favour of pressing ahead with this than Mr Brown, and the question was designed to highlight this disagreement.
To everyone's surprise the Chancellor refused to answer the question himself and put forward his most junior Treasury colleague, Economic Secretary Melanie Johnson, to face the music on his behalf. Her response did not even attempt to answer the question posed.
Pointing this out, Dr Lewis asked:
"Isn't it the case that, if the Chancellor ever gets back on speaking terms with any of his ministerial colleagues, the test that they will be discussing will not be the economic tests with which he is so fixated or the Euro-federalist test with which his colleagues are so fixated, but the size of the overwhelming majority of the British people – two thirds – who are resolutely opposed to abandoning our economic and political sovereignty by replacing the pound with the single currency? Isn't that what it is really about?"
Matters descended into farce as one Labour MP was ruled out of order by the Speaker and others desperately tried to help the beleaguered junior minister.
The coup de grace was delivered by Shadow Chancellor Michael Portillo, who said:
"May I suggest to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he will come to regret his decision not to answer this question, because it speaks volumes about the state of the Labour party that he is not willing to answer a question on the central economic issue of the day – the Government's position on the euro? Will the Economic Secretary, who has been put in this hapless position, admit that only one of the five economic tests that have been set out by the Chancellor could in any way be thought of as being objective – and even that could be massaged by the Chancellor – and that the other four tests are wholly subjective? The potential effect of the euro on unemployment, on the City, on flexibility and on investment are merely matters of opinion, on which different members of the Cabinet will doubtless take different views in due course. The tests that he has set out offer Britain no protection whatever against a potentially catastrophic decision. Will the Financial Secretary accept that the five economic tests amount to little more than four fudges and a fiddle?"
As the Chancellor left the chamber soon afterwards, he was pursued by cries of "frit, frit, frit" from the Conservative Opposition – Margaret Thatcher's favourite term for deriding cowardly opponents. The exchange featured as the main story in both BBC Radio 4's "Yesterday in Parliament" and the Parliamentary sketches in all the major newspapers the next day.
Later, in a question to Leader of the House Margaret Beckett, Dr Lewis pointed out that the Ministry of Defence had been involved in and "unusual controversy" about the renaming of the next two Royal Navy survey vessels:
"They were to be named HMS Shackleton and HMS Cook. There is no problem with HMS Shackleton, but I understand that the name of the other vessel has met resistance in the Ministry of Defence,"
he added, to laughter. It is well-known that there is not much love lost between MOD ministers and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook; hence the hesitation over the name of the second survey ship.
Finally, in a speech on MI5 and MI6, Dr Lewis called for more openness in revealing the identity of past traitors and spies, paid tribute to the Russian archivist who courageously compiled a huge secret dossier on KGB misdeeds, and called for the reactivation of the anti-subversion branch of MI5, which has been virtually shut down. In an earlier exchange with the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, he raised the question of Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain demanding access to his own MI5 file. Mr Straw recalled that he himself had never sought to find out what information was held on file about him and promised that "a reply in the negative will be given to any Member of this House who asks to see his file". Dr Lewis expressed his satisfaction with this assurance.
Speaking after what had undoubtedly been his best day in Parliament, Dr Lewis said:
"It is only once in a while that one can expect to have a massively productive day of this sort at Westminster; but it does show that a combination of good timing, good luck, mistakes by others and, above all, perseverance can pay dividends".