Neil Kinnock – 1986 Speech on Westland

Below is the text of the speech made by Neil Kinnock, the then Leader of the Opposition, in the House of Commons on 27 January 1986.

For all of the people in the Westland company, the affairs of that company are obviously vital. For most of us outside the company, the affairs of the company have become increasingly important in recent months. But no one inside or outside the Westland company would have considered four weeks ago that this matter could become one of such current critical significance.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday, it was a comparatively small thing. Now it is palpably a very big thing. It has grown in size because of the actions and the attitudes of the right hon. Lady and Members of her Administration. Of course, the Prime Minister says that it would never have assumed this proportion but for the fact that one member of the team was not playing like a member of the team. It is plainly true that we and the country would not have known what we know now but for the fact that the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) kicked over the bucket of worms by resigning earlier this month. All the dishonesty, duplicity, conniving and manoeuvring would still have been taking place. We would not have known about it quite so quickly and quite so clearly.

Evasions, manoeuvrings and deceits nurtured this comparatively small thing until it became a very big thing. It was turned from an issue into a crisis by the dishonesty of people in this Administration. That dishonesty infected the Government’s whole approach to the affairs of Westland plc. There was a basic duplicity of their public dispassion about the affairs of that company and their private partisanship in the bids that were being made for Heseltine—[Laughter.]—for Westland. I think that may be the last occasion on which Conservative Members of Parliament have cause to be amused in this debate. Clearly, they hold a cavalier attitude towards dishonesty, which may explain the attitude of many of them—

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the Leader of the Opposition to accuse hon. Members of this House of dishonesty?

Mr. Speaker

I think the Leader of the Opposition would wish to withdraw any allegation of dishonesty against Members of this House.

Mr. Kinnock

I only withdraw allegations if the cap does not fit—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a debate in which the House is taking a great interest. I ask the House to keep it on a level which is in keeping with our conventions. I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition, at the beginning of his speech, would wish to get us off to a good start.

Mr. Kinnock

You have that guarantee, Mr. Speaker, and it will continue like that—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw any allegations of dishonesty.

Mr. Kinnock

I said that hon. Members opposite have a cavalier attitude towards dishonesty. [HON. MEMBERS: “Withdraw.”] On the point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the basis of the view that you take of affairs, I will certainly withdraw what I said earlier. I said that the Government’s attitude was one of public dispassion and private partisanship. There are also the standing charges that still exist about moved meetings and minutes that were incomplete, and now we have the differing versions still existing of the meeting between Sir Raymond Lygo and the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. We know enough of the truth about the connivings of 6 January to understand that the dishonesty has run right through this whole episode. [Interruption.]

All dishonesty has to stop. We have had two dress rehearsals from the Prime Minister full of half-truths and concealments. Today the Prime Minister must come clean. That is not only my view; it is the view expressed throughout the country and expressed by the Home Secretary in the course of his interview yesterday. Today, the Prime Minister must answer the questions that she signally and significantly failed to answer six times last Thursday.

First, when did the Prime Minister find out about the decision to leak, how it was to be done and who was to do it? Secondly, how can the Prime Minister explain her claim that she did not know what action was being taken? Thirdly, did the Prime Minister establish an inquiry in response to the justifiable outrage of two Law Officers who felt that their integrity was being abused and compromised—

Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme) rose—

Mr. Kinnock

—or was there an additional reason for that? After seven days delay, did the Prime Minister establish an inquiry whose conclusions would not in the normal course of events be published, simply because she knew that demands for such an investigation would most certainly be made? Was that inquiry established for detection or was it established for deception? Was it set up to obscure the issues and to provide an excuse for silence? Was it set up by a Prime Minister who knew very well who had leaked, why they had leaked, when they leaked and what they did it for?

The Prime Minister must give clear and truthful answers to all of these questions. She must make no mistake. Today the Prime Minister is on trial. [HON. MEMBERS: “Rubbish.”] The main testimony against the Prime Minister is provided by herself. It is provided by her own words to this House last Thursday, and testimony is further provided by the whole nature of her style of governing. How could it be that a Prime Minister who prides herself so earnestly on her involvement in detail; who prides herself so much on her knowledge of the minutiae of her Government; who has such a deep engagement historically in the Westland affair did not know of a supremely important decision, taken by those so very close to her, to manipulate events on 6 January?

How can it be—

Mr. Churchill

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, but before he accuses others ​ of deceit, will he explain whether it was deceit that led him to falsify his age when he first put himself forward for political candidature or did he just forget how old he was?

Hon. Members

Oh, no.

Mr. Kinnock

I think that that may be the best that Conservative Members will be able to do in the course of this afternoon. That was certainly the last time that I inadvertently added a year to my age.

On the testimony against the Prime Minister, provided by herself, we have to ask how it could be that seven days could pass before she recognised that the issue of the leak was so important that it warranted an inquiry. Who would expect us or the country to believe that 16 days could pass between the corrupt practice of that leak and the Prime Minister’s discovery of the details when the plotters were her closest confidants—her most frequent companions?

Who would expect the House or the country to accept that in all that time the Prime Minister never asked her associates to venture even a guess about the identity of those involved in the leak? Who can expect us to believe that in all those endless hours of contact, through all those days of discussion and debate and questions, and statements in the House and in the even closer quarters of No. 10 Downing street, the Prime Minister was really blundering around in blissful ignorance of the actions of 2 January? Who would expect us to believe any of that?

Well, obviously the Prime Minister expects us to believe that. It is clear that the Prime Minister expects the House, her party and her fellow citizens to suspend all normal standards of belief and to accept that it is strange but true.

“Truth,” she said on television yesterday, “is often stranger than fiction.” When we heard that, as when we heard her last Thursday, many of us wondered whether the Prime Minister had lost the ability to tell the difference between truth and fiction.

We want to know truthfully now exactly when the Prime Minister first knew of the decision to send the Solicitor-General’s letter. We want to know truthfully now exactly when she first knew of the decision to leak the Solicitor-General’s letter. We want to know now exactly when she first knew of the involvement of the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and her office in the conspiracy. When did she first know that he had given his authority, as she put it, and when they had given their cover, as she put it, to act in good faith—act in good faith by making a furtive phone call to the Press Association for the specific and carefully contrived purpose of discrediting another member of her Cabinet?

We know that the right hon. Lady has not answered those questions. She has admitted that herself. Any statement, she said yesterday, is almost always a basis for further questions. That may be the understatement of the Prime Minister’s lifetime. [Interruption.] But all we have had so far are excuses for the omissions and evasions of last week—no apologies for not answering questions with meticulous accuracy; just attempted excuses. All we have had is the propaganda about “toughing it out”—a phrase, Mr. Speaker, which you will recall first entered the British vocabulary when it came out of Richard Nixon’s office.

We are told that last Thursday the Prime Minister was sheltering the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The Home Secretary told Mr. Brian Walden yesterday—[Interruption.] They are going to hear it all, Mr. ​ Speaker—that he could feel the courage going through the Prime Minister when she made her statement, as the Home Secretary put it, “protecting Mr. Leon Brittan”. That excuse has palpably gone because the late Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has gone, although, interestingly, he went not without resistance. Even when the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) wanted to do the right honourable thing and resign, the Prime Minister tried to talk him out of it and even invited him to apply for the next vacancy for “high office”, as she put it.

But what of the Prime Minister’s excuses for the omissions from last Thursday’s statement and questions? [Interruption.] The Prime Minister said that the majority of the inquiry report—[Interruption.] Even the deliberate efforts, that will be heard by the nation, by Conservative Members to interrupt the House and to prevent someone from getting a fair hearing, will not stop the truth being heard. [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister said that the majority of the inquiry report was new to her. She said that, until the report was available, she did not have the full facts—what she called an “enormous number” of facts. As I listened to her then and to the Home Secretary yesterday, saying how much they wanted to be able to give the full facts, I began to think that it was the Government, not the Opposition, who had got the emergency debate today. [Interruption.]

The protest that there were just too many facts to be absorbed does not carry any weight at all. Of course, it is handy to have the full details for the historians—the dates, the times, the places, the footnotes. But only one fact was absolutely essential for the Prime Minister; one fact really mattered, and that was the fact that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and her office had conceived, organised and executed the leak. That was the fact which mattered and it was the fact which the right hon. Lady was forced to admit last Thursday. It was also the fact—the single salient fact—that the right hon. Lady was denied for over a fortnight.

Who were these people who decided to keep the right hon. Lady in the dark?

Who were these merciless people who made the Prime Minister, in her innocent ignorance, go through the charade of the inquiry into the leak? [Interruption.]

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Do something about the giggling schoolgirls opposite.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I did not see anything going on.

Mr. Kinnock

Whatever anyone sees, the whole country will be able to hear what has been going on. Once again, Conservative Back Benchers have decided that, because they cannot take the truth, they will try to bury it. [Interruption.]

We want to know who were the people who prevented the Prime Minister from being able to gain access to the single fact about the involvement of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and her office in the decision to leak. Who were the cynics who let the Prime Minister be in the dark for 16 days? Who let her come here to tell truths so partial, so incomplete, that they began to look like untruths and who let her come to make a whole speech in this House on 15 January without telling her that they ​ knew who had leaked, how they had leaked and why they had leaked? Who were these callous people who caused the Prime Minister so many problems over the weeks?

Why, they were the Prime Minister’s own Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and, strangest of all, her own office—the Prime Minister’s very own office, her closest, most senior staff; her office which, in her own words, did not seek her agreement; her office, which, in her words,

“considered—and they were right—that I should agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry”.—[Official Report, 23 January 1986; Vol. 90, c. 450.]

That begs the question. If her office did not tell the Prime Minister, why did her office not tell the Prime Minister? There can be only two reasons. It was either because they did not want to tell the Prime Minister or because they did not think that there was a need to tell the Prime Minister. If they did not want her to be involved, that could be for only one reason—the simple, straightforward reason that they were doing wrong, that they knew that they were doing wrong and that they did not want the Prime Minister to be contaminated by the guilt.

Of course, it may be that they thought that the Prime Minister did not need to know about what was going on. They might have said to themselves, “There is no need to tell the Prime Minister. We know what her attitude is to Westland. We know her attitude to the turbulent Secretary of State for Defence. We know what her attitude is to his campaign and we know what her attitude would be to us using dirty tricks to defame and undermine the Secretary of State for Defence.”

Were the people in the Prime Minister’s office actually right about that? Do they really know the Prime Minister? Either they do know the Prime Minister and they think of her as a woman who would stoop to conquer, no matter how low, or they are totally mistaken and she is not the woman that they think.

From the Prime Minister’s statement last Thursday it appears that they do not know the Prime Minister. We have the Prime Minister’s own word for it. She told us that her office did know her well enough to guess accurately that she would agree to the attitude taken by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and that she did not and would not have consented, if she had been consulted, because she felt that there was a different way, a better way, to make the relevant details known.

Despite their years of close proximity and despite the deep mutual trust that has to exist between the Prime Minister and her office, it appears that they did not know the Prime Minister at all. There they were taking important decisions in her name—[Interruption.]

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. May I say to the House that backchat does no credit to the House.

Hon. Members

It is deliberate.

Mr. Kinnock

Either they knew the Prime Minister or they did not know the Prime Minister. She says that they knew her well enough to understand that she agreed with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but that, had she been consulted, she would have told them that there was a different way and a better way that must be found to make the relevant facts known. ​ That is all despite those years of close proximity and all that close contact. Despite all of that, there they were, taking important decisions for the Prime Minister as she busied herself yards away in Downing street.

They did not tell the Prime Minister, so we are told. All the time, they were outrageously miscalculating the Prime Minister’s attitude towards the correct method of putting matters into the public domain. Having made that miscalculation, they then apparently compounded the fault by allowing her to set up an inquiry into a leak which they themselves had perpetrated.

They must have been wrong—practically wrong and terribly wrong; too wrong to enable them to endure in their present positions. At least that is what we would think. How can they continue to carry out the immense responsibilities and be the object of the Prime Minister’s trust when they could be so terribly wrong, so we are told, about her attitude towards the way in which that information should be released.

If they are so wrong, why have they not gone? They have not gone, and they are not going. They are not going because the Prime Minister says that she has complete confidence in them. Why has she that confidence in them? Is it because the Prime Minister, who has the reputation for. being ruthless with those who fail her, has suddenly gone soft? It cannot be that. It must not be because of charity. Can it be because of complicity by the Prime Minister? Can it possibly be that the Prime Minister is not innocent but that she is implicated and involved?

For the moment, we withhold our judgment while we wait for the Prime Minister to give her account. Last Thursday, in reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), the Prime Minister said that she hoped that we would have the decency to accept her version of events. We have the decency; what we lack is the gullibility to accept the Prime Minister’s version of events.

We want the facts. We want them now. We want only the one version that will be believed—the truth, the whole truth and absolutely nothing but the truth. If the Prime Minister cannot tell that truth, she cannot stay. If she will not tell that truth, she must go.