William Wragg – 2022 Speech on the Resignation of Lord Geidt

The speech made by William Wragg, the Conservative MP for Hazel Grove, in the House of Commons on 21 June 2022.

It is a pleasure to be called to speak in the debate.

The motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition is deeply flattering to me—presumably—and to the Committee that I have the great pleasure of chairing. I appreciate the Opposition’s confidence in us, but would gently encourage them to have more confidence in themselves rather than deferring entirely to my Committee.

In the exposition with which he responded to the deputy Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General remarked that the motion was unconstitutional, and I have to say that perhaps it is. However, I increasingly find that the Government themselves advance all sorts of propositions that could be described as unconstitutional in the first place, not least the assertion by some members of the Cabinet that we now have a quasi-presidential system of government. That, I imagine, would be news to Her Majesty. I might ask whether the reading of choice in the Cabinet is indeed Dicey and Bagehot nowadays, or perhaps something a little lighter.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has not requested these powers, but I understand the sentiment behind them. It is the imperative to appoint a new adviser to the Prime Minister on ministerial interests, which, if I am to decipher what my right hon. and learned Friend said earlier, is something that they are keen to do.

I will, if I may, briefly reflect on what happened last week. Lord Geidt appeared before the Committee on Tuesday. He went through an astonishing transformation, it seems, over the course of that week—those who may have been a little critical of his appearance on Tuesday were regarding him as a great national folk hero by Wednesday. I am sure that he was touched by that change of heart. None the less, he certainly had a difficult time, not on the basis of him as an individual—a man of flawless reputation, I might advance, with a distinguished record of public service not least to Her Majesty—but probably because he was defending a sticky wicket. He found the need to bring clarification to the motivation behind his resignation in a letter to me on Friday. It is clear that Lord Geidt is not a political creature, but that is exactly the kind of quality that is needed in the independent adviser.

It should not go without challenge in this House when Ministers appear in the media, but some unhelpful perceptions have been created. I am afraid to say that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was wheeled out on the radio on Friday—presumably for the nation’s entertainment rather than its edification. Her appearance was quite astonishing. I agree with her on one thing though. Let me paraphrase what she said. “Never heard of him”, she said. That is quite right. I do not think that the independent adviser to the Prime Minister on ministerial interests should be heard of, because the sort of the work that they undertake should be done thoroughly, but discreetly. It should never capture the public imagination—I think that that is more of a reflection of the times in which we are living, which, largely, are of our own making.

I would further question why my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, felt the need to observe that Lord Geidt had been complaining about the amount of work that he had to do. Well, we know what could be done about that perhaps. All I would say in praise of my right hon. and learned Friend on the Treasury Bench is that he is a complete contrast to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and I welcome his sensible and considered approach to these matters and indeed the emphasis that he placed in, I think, the urgent question last week, which was that it was vitally important to have such a position filled.

On the question of whether people care, I think that, yes, they do care. The British public are, on the whole, capable of having two thoughts in their minds at once. Yes, they are able—by their own painful experience quite often—to understand the cost of living crisis. Yes, they are entirely able to have empathy and grave concern about the situation in Ukraine, but they are also able to judge the Government on whether they think that they behave—not perfectly, because that is not what people expect—with at least an adequate degree of propriety. I say to colleagues that we might gently remember the Standards Committee report from the autumn, which I thought would have shown that, for many, this was an area of interest that the public thoroughly understood.

I shall conclude briefly, the House will be relieved to know, as this matter does not really need a great deal more from me. Why do we have an independent adviser? It comes from a 2006 recommendation from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. There are practical reasons why these advisers are necessary. It is that they can give objective advice to the Prime Minister of the day. In fairness to the Prime Minister of the day, or the Prime Minister at any time, they have a difficult role in forming a judgment on close colleagues and, indeed, even friends. They need to be able to draw upon and be able to back up their decision with that advice.

I completely support the idea that the Prime Minister has ownership of the “Ministerial Code”. It is his code, and it is right that it should be so. We should not be upsetting that constitutional principle. However, we need to make sure that there is an adviser, with the Prime Minister as final arbiter, in a way that allows for that transparency in the difficult decisions that they make.

So, although personally deeply touched by the Opposition’s confidence in me, and indeed in the illustrious members of my Committee, I am afraid that I will not actively support their motion, which I know will upset them dearly. But as the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) and I go back an awfully long way, to the time when she was union representative at Stockport Council and I was a mere humble councillor for the Hazel Grove ward, I trust that she will take what I have said in the spirit that it is intended. I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate.