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Prime Minister (Replacement) Bill

Volume 571: debated on Friday 29 November 2013

Second Reading

I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Prime Minister (Replacement) Bill, has consented to place her prerogative, in so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful to Her Majesty for her consent.

I clarify that we will not be debating the merits of Mrs Bone replacing the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), as the name of my Bill might suggest, but rather the lack of clear succession should the Prime Minister become temporarily, or permanently, incapacitated to perform his duties.

I have asked on a number of occasions what procedure is in place should the Prime Minister be unable to perform his duties. Time and again, on each occasion Ministers have failed to give a substantive response, and I have been amazed at the number of different ways Ministers have dodged, ducked and dived around the question. Responses have ranged from the simply unhelpful reply from the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) that

“the Prime Minister is not incapacitated,”—[Official Report, 19 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 446.]

to the Foreign Secretary’s positively clandestine explanation that

“we do not consider it appropriate to talk about these plans in public”—[Official Report, 17 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 597.]

That is a good point, but I am looking to the future rather than the past as I am a very modern Conservative.

I am not in the habit of subscribing to conspiracy theories—although I do think there was somebody on the grassy knoll—but there is something strange about the Government’s refusal to state their position on the matter. Could it be that the admission that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) is next in line to No. 10 is so scary that it would be a breach of national security should it become public knowledge?

In the terrible event of an airstrike on No. 10, we need to know instantly who would be responsible for commissioning a counter-attack. More to the point, we need the potential perpetrators of such an attack to know that we would instantly have the capability to take such decisions. It is preposterous for us to think that there would be time, or indeed the need, for a Cabinet meeting to be called to decide who is in charge. There simply would not be time because the military would need a decision as soon as possible on what action to take. It seems common sense that, in such an event, there should be a predetermined line of succession, as there is in the United States of America.

In a majority Government, there would be a clear mandate for the Deputy Prime Minister to take over, as there was when John Prescott was Tony Blair’s deputy. The same cannot be said of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, replacing my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney. Surely it is not fitting for the leader of a party that holds less than 10% of the seats in the House of Commons, and maintains a lower approval rating than the UK Independence party, to be positioned to take over from the Prime Minister in a national emergency.

Surely it would be up to Her Majesty the Queen to make an instant decision. As she is so brilliant at everything, she would appoint the appropriate person. I can think of many Government Members who could do the job instead of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg).

That is a fair point, but—I am thinking the unthinkable—if Her Majesty were killed, we would need to know who was in charge. This is not a light-hearted Bill; it is a very serious Bill. I have not yet heard from the Government—I hope that I will in a little while—on why there should not be a clear line.

The United Kingdom has the right to know who would be at the helm in a terrible event of the kind that I have described. According to MI5, the threat level to the United Kingdom from international terrorism is “substantial”, meaning that attack is a strong possibility. By default, the Prime Minister is clearly one of the most vulnerable figures in the United Kingdom. We deserve to know who would replace him, and in what order, if the unthinkable occurred. Be it the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary or the Chancellor, the Government must be clear on who would be in charge if a destabilising event occurred.

My hon. Friend is making an interesting case, but there is a flaw in his Bill: in the list of those people who he thinks could be contenders, he seems to have omitted the Chief Whip. In my opinion, the Chief Whip is admirably placed to take command, particularly in times of trouble.

I am grateful for that intervention from a former deputy Chief Whip, but I took advice from the Clerks of the House, and there were some people whom I could not include on my list. Madam Deputy Speaker, I could not include you, much though I would have liked to, or the Speaker. Some may think that that is the reason I have excluded the Chief Whip; others may think that there are other reasons.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to say that a few of us in the Chamber found his comments about Her Majesty slightly unfortunate. I am sure that he is aware that there is a detailed list of people to succeed Her Majesty that goes as far as the deputy Chief Whip and the Deputy Speaker of the House. There is a great, long list of succession, so that problem would not arise. There would be somebody wearing the Crown, and they would be in a position to use their traditional judgment to make that decision.

Order. All that is absolutely not relevant. I would be grateful if Mr Bone stayed, as I am sure he intended to, on the subject of succession to the Prime Minister, hopefully without mentioning too many cataclysmic events happening to other Members.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope that none of these events takes place. My comments, of course, were entirely about the Prime Minister and which elected person should replace him.

At a time when strong leadership would be more important than ever, the last thing we should be doing is having a debate to decide who is in charge. We need a clear line of succession, and we need it now. In the United States, if the President is killed, there is a list of succession of 18 different office holders. It starts with the Vice-President; then comes the Speaker of the House. It goes all the way down to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, so even if there is a mass terrorist attack on the American leadership, it will always be clear who is in charge. That person will immediately take over responsibility for the nuclear deterrent and will be able, if necessary, to order retaliatory action. I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, but these things have to be said: if a civilian aircraft was deliberately crashed on the White House, killing the President, and other civilian aircraft were heading towards Congress, it would be clear whose decision it would be whether those aircraft should be shot down.

In the United Kingdom, we have no idea who would take over if the Prime Minister were killed. Would it be the Deputy Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary or the Cabinet Secretary? The answer is not clear. It might be an elected person. It might be the Defence Secretary, or it might be the Leader of the House. It might be the Cabinet Secretary. It might be the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. It might be the senior representative of the BBC; after all, the BBC thinks that it runs the country.

My hon. Friend is raising some extremely serious issues, and I think that we may be mixing up a number of the functions of government. I visited RAF Coningsby recently to talk to people who were operating on quick reaction alert, and I know that when it comes to that particularly difficult and painful decision relating to airliners—which is surely one of the most unimaginably difficult decisions that a politician might have to make—there are clear and robust procedures in place, and a politician would be the decision maker at all times. I do not think that there is any question that this country always has a political decision maker in relation to our air defence.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, but I invite him to intervene again, because I am not sure whether he was saying that the ultimate decision was always political, or that the action could be taken without a political decision.

What I am saying is that a senior politician would always be involved in any such decision in the circumstances that my hon. Friend has described. I am not sure how much further I can go in terms of engagement, but I am absolutely clear about the fact that there is always a politician in that chain, and everyone involved knows who it is.

Order. I must make it clear to the hon. Gentleman and other Members that we are not discussing emergency powers or exceptional circumstances. The purpose of the Bill is to establish the succession that would operate should the Prime Minister be incapacitated. I should like us not to range extensively over events which may be theoretical or real, and which may or may not happen in the United Kingdom to any Member of the House of Commons.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will of course abide by your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I have to say that my Bill is about exactly that point: it is about what will happen in an emergency when the Prime Minister is killed in a terrorist attack. That is fundamental to the Bill, and it is very difficult for me to discuss it without mentioning events of that kind. Nevertheless, I will move on, because you have given your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I think that the House has got the drift of what I am saying.

We do not know who would be in charge if something happened to the Prime Minister, and I have therefore come up with an order of precedence. I am happy for the order to be changed in Committee, but this is my first go at it.

The first person on the list is the person bearing the designation of Deputy Prime Minister. The second is the Secretary of State responsible for home affairs. The third is the Secretary of State responsible for defence. The fourth is the Secretary of State responsible for foreign and Commonwealth affairs. The fifth is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The sixth is the Secretary of State responsible for transport. The seventh is the Secretary of State responsible for health. The eighth is the Secretary of State responsible for business and innovation. The ninth is the Secretary of State responsible for justice. The 10th is the Secretary of State responsible for communities and local Government. The 11th is the Secretary of State responsible for education. The 12th is the Secretary of State responsible for environment, food and rural affairs. The 13th is the Secretary of State responsible for work and pensions. The 14th is the Minister of State responsible for the Cabinet Office. The 15th is the Paymaster General. The 16th is the Secretary of State responsible for culture, media and sport. The 17th is the Attorney-General. The 18th is the Secretary of State responsible for energy and climate change. The 19th is the Secretary of State responsible for international development. The 20th—this is very important—is the Leader of the House of Commons. The 21st is the Leader of the House of Lords. The 22nd is the Secretary of State responsible for Scotland. The 23rd is the Secretary of State responsible for Wales. The 24th is the Secretary of State responsible for Northern Ireland.

There is, however, one caveat: the person taking over from the Prime Minister would have to be a member of the same political party as the Prime Minister. Otherwise, the role would pass to the next person in line.

Before concluding my remarks, I would like to thank two of my researchers who played a big role in putting this speech together, Eliza Richardson and Emma Wade.

There is a real need for the Bill. It is not actually a joke Bill. We do not know what would happen in such an event. My best guess is that tucked away somewhere in Whitehall there is an envelope that reads, “Open in the case of something horrible happening to the Prime Minister.” I do not think that is good enough. We cannot wait for a terrorist attack before making up our minds about what should happen. We need to know who will replace the Prime Minister if the unimaginable happens.

I will not detain the House for long. I would just like to say that the Opposition find this an interesting Bill that raises some interesting questions. We will not seek to prevent it from receiving further scrutiny and debate.

I have enormous respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and think that he is perfectly entitled to raise these sorts of issues, but I must confess that I have severe doubts about the Bill. If one looks back over history, one must come to the conclusion that it is wrong in our system, in which we do not have a written constitution, to lay down rules. It is much better to rely on people’s good judgment. That is what our system is based on.

I can illustrate that argument by referring to the events of May 1940, when Neville Chamberlain ceased to be Prime Minister. Although he resigned voluntarily following a vote in the House of Commons in which his majority was severely reduced, I cannot help noticing that, according to the list set out in the Bill, the next person in line to succeed him in the event of his having become incapacitated, after the Deputy Prime Minister, would have been the Home Secretary.

Just imagine what would have happened in May 1940 if such a Bill had been passed and if Neville Chamberlain had sadly passed away or become incapacitated. It would not have been Winston Churchill, the saviour of the nation, who took over, but the Home Secretary. For the moment, I cannot remember who that was. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of these matters, probably remembers. [Interruption.] I think that it was Lord Anderson—it has come back to me—of the Anderson shelter fame. Certainly he was not the charismatic leader who saved the nation. Any student of history knows that it was touch and go whether Winston Churchill would take over. Lord Halifax was the favourite, both of the King and of the outgoing Prime Minister.

Why do I make those points? We do not want a written constitution in which rules are laid down. We want people to use their good sense. That is what the British parliamentary system is all about. I do not think that it is particularly instructive to follow precedents from other countries. My hon. Friend mentioned the American constitution, which is an entirely different state of affairs. The President of the United States is the Head of State and commander-in-chief, elected by all the people, so there has to be a procedure that lays down exactly what happens if he dies or becomes incapacitated. It is not a parliamentary system.

The same goes for the French system, in which, unlike in the American system, if the President dies—President Pompidou died in office—there is an immediate presidential election. The Americans, in their wisdom, determined that the Vice-President should take over automatically, and that there should be an election for a new President, but that is a matter for them and their constitution.

Our system is completely different. If the Prime Minister resigns, as Margaret Thatcher did in more recent times, or sadly passes away or becomes incapacitated, the most senior member of the Cabinet would take over as acting Prime Minister. In the present Cabinet—I will hazard a guess—that is probably the Foreign Secretary. Nobody doubts that he could perfectly adequately, and indeed immediately, take over all the reins of government. There would be a rapid election among the majority parliamentary party, and the person best fitted to become Prime Minister would be elected by his colleagues. They would elect him not on the basis of some written constitution or some arbitrary list of the sort my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough has devised, but on the basis of their good sense. That is what our system is about.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the crucial test is whether such a person can command a majority in this House? That is easily tested by the introduction of a confidence motion, and could be very quickly resolved by the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend is of course right to make that point. In our system, which is parliamentary as opposed to presidential, the whole point is that, as in the past, the Head of State—the Queen—appoints as Prime Minister someone who can command a majority in the House, which is what being Prime Minister is all about. There is no mystery about the job: it goes to the person best equipped to command a majority in the House, and the best way to determine who can do that is based not on some arbitrary list laid down, in all his wisdom, by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, but on the good sense of those who sit in this Chamber.

My hon. Friend is making a good and powerful speech, but he is slightly wrong about the Bill. I am only suggesting who should take over as Prime Minister immediately, at the moment an attack happens, not in the long term, and I do not think that he is right to say that he knows who that would be.

I entirely accept that the scenario my hon. Friend describes is different from the events of May 1940 or the resignation of Margaret Thatcher. Luckily, not many Prime Ministers have died in office. Spencer Perceval was assassinated in the Lobby, a few feet away. As my hon. Friend may remember, Campbell-Bannerman died in office. He was replaced by Herbert Asquith in a perfectly normal way, and from my reading of the history books, I do not think that anybody at the time suggested that the procedures for appointing him were in any way wanting. He was a man of outstanding abilities, albeit he was a Liberal—I know that that is a severe disadvantage in my hon. Friend’s eyes—but for all that, there does not seem to have been any difficulty about his appointment.

As I recall, Campbell-Bannerman did not die in office, but he did die in Downing street. Asquith allowed him to stay in Downing street after leaving office because he was so seriously ill, but the leadership had changed.

It is a severe mistake to refer to any aspect of history when my hon. Friend is in the Chamber. I talked only this week to David Campbell Bannerman, who is an MEP—he was in UKIP but is now, I am glad to say, in the Conservative party—and he told me that story. Campbell-Bannerman was of course a very sick man and could have died at any moment, but he died in Downing street a week, I think, after he resigned as Prime Minister.

I accept that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough is making a brave thrust at a very unfortunate and very rare situation, but I assure him that such playing around with our constitution is very dangerous. I have to tell him that it is what we would expect from our Liberal friends. I would have thought better of him, and that he would have trusted in the good sense—

I withdraw that remark. It was unparliamentary language, which I should not have used, and I apologise to my hon. Friend. He has made a brave thrust, but dare I say that he is wrong because the Bill is too rigid. Under his list, the Deputy Prime Minister—if he is in the same party as the former Prime Minister—the Home Secretary and then the Secretary of State for Defence would take over, but once people are in those posts, it will be very difficult to shift them. The present system is much better: an acting Prime Minister from among the former Prime Minister’s leading colleagues temporarily steps into the fold and, in its wisdom, the parliamentary party then takes a decision and appoints the best man or woman for the job. On that basis, I rest my argument.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and I agree more often than we disagree, but I certainly oppose him on this occasion. He has introduced a Bill that he says is a serious one, and we must take his comments at face value. I felt moved to speak only when it became clear that the Bill would be reached this afternoon, and I am a little disappointed that he did not look at experience.

My hon. Friend raised several red herrings, particularly in relation to the Crown and national security. If an urgent matter comes up while the Prime Minister is very temporarily indisposed, I am absolutely confident that our armed forces and the Home Office have appropriate arrangements in place to ensure that any immediate decisions are dealt with properly, and I have already said what some of them are.

It is obvious to me that if there were a national crisis, the Defence Council would meet immediately under the Secretary of State for Defence and, if necessary, decisions would be made by that Secretary of State. I think that such procedures are in place.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s remarks, but I am conscious of your earlier instruction, Madam Deputy Speaker.

It seems to me that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough is being quite harsh on the party that usually sits below the Aisle. That party is perfectly capable of producing first-class statesmen. It has done so in the past and I am certain that it could do so again. I would like to see a true liberal at the Dispatch Box, but I am sure that our party could produce a true liberal. However, that is a subject for another day. We should be a bit more generous to our friends below the Aisle.

We should also be more generous to the House. I am sure that if the House was faced with a choice on whether to express confidence in a Member who did not enjoy the support of these Benches, we would simply vote no and other arrangements would be made through the usual channels.

I am disappointed that the Bill has been introduced. It raises some interesting questions, but many of them are red herrings. The truth is that if the Prime Minister is indisposed in the medium to long term, we have perfectly robust arrangements for selecting a successor. I hope that my hon. Friend will not take the Bill much further.

Is it not nice that Fridays have got back to normal, Madam Deputy Speaker, and that we are able to debate these important constitutional subjects in calm and splendour, rather than with the freneticism that there might have been earlier?

Today reminds me of 14 July 1789. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) comes to this House as a revolutionary, intending to upset a part of the constitution that has served us well since the office of Prime Minister was first filled by Sir Robert Walpole. We have had a wonderfully functioning, effective means of selecting our Prime Ministers that has found some of the greatest people our country has ever produced.

Think of the 18th century and who was selected then: Sir Robert Walpole himself and the great pair of Pitts—Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger. Think particularly of Pitt the Younger, who was called forth to serve his country by George III when he was little more than a schoolboy—a brave decision that was made possible only because of the existence of the royal prerogative in the selection of Prime Ministers. No crude list then to say who should come next, to decide and determine, to bind down the royal prerogative and prevent somebody of that stature from being celebrated as Prime Minister.

Think through to the following century and the great Prime Ministers we had then: Lord Liverpool, that wonderfully long-serving high Tory figure, great man that he was, who governed us with such aplomb; Canning and Wellington, another pair of the greatest magnitude—Wellington, that great hero of the nation who saved us from being invaded or taken over by the French and who, as Prime Minister, set his face firmly against reform in a most admirable style that we should all rejoice in. There was even a not-half-bad Liberal Prime Minister in the form of Lord Palmerston. Lord Palmerston would know what to do about Gibraltar at the moment, would he not, Madam Deputy Speaker?

Because we do not necessarily have the advantage of using the royal prerogative in getting the people we want and because, according to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, we now have to go through some list, we could not conceivably get figures of the stature of Lord Palmerston or Disraeli, great flatterer of monarchy that he was.

Order. The hon. Gentleman does not appear to have a tie on. That is a requirement of the House. If he goes outside and comes back dressed appropriately, I am sure that the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) will give way again.

I am so sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker; I had not noticed that my hon. Friend was in fancy dress today. I am glad that proper sartorial standards are being upheld. What would our sovereign think if her Prime Minister were not properly dressed? Perhaps a debate for anther day is whether court dress should be reintroduced for Prime Ministers when they have audiences with Her Majesty. While I am on this subject, it is a great disappointment to me that the Prime Minister, when listing his engagements on Wednesdays, always fails to say that he has an audience with Her Majesty, as his predecessors always used to do. It seems to have dropped out of usage.

The colour of my tie has perhaps given me inspiration for my question. Can my hon. Friend envisage a “Kind Hearts and Coronets” scenario in which we run out of every character on the list of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)? Also, might we even consider putting the Speaker himself on it to take full command of the House and the country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that crucial point, because I was shocked to discover that advice had been given that the Speaker could not be included on the list. Parliament can put anyone on a list.

For clarification, I wanted to put Mr Speaker immediately after the Deputy Prime Minister, in third place, but I was told that the House could not contemplate such a thing.

I am very worried, given that this is a major constitutional point, that someone is suggesting that Bills introduced into this House can be limited. As long as the sovereign has consented to our considering matters pertaining to Her Majesty’s prerogative, we can put anyone on the list. We could put a lottery winner on it, if we wanted. The House has a right to legislate as it sees fit and not to be held back. There are examples of Speakers going on to be Prime Minister. One thinks of Addington and remembers the little ditty:

“Pitt is to Addington as London is to Paddington”.

It was said rather disparagingly of Paddington, which was thought not to be much of a place in the early 19th century, but which is now a grand place, of course, with a wonderful railway terminus. None the less, Speakers have gone on to be Prime Minister, so I see no reason not to include Mr Speaker on the list.

I have concerns about the list itself, however, partly because it does not refer to people by their proper titles, which I think is an error, and partly because it does not include people in the right order of precedence. The Deputy Prime Minister is in fact the Lord President of the Council, and though he calls himself “Deputy Prime Minister”, there is nothing in the constitution that makes that a proper post. It is just a title given out by Prime Ministers when they face a little political awkwardness and to keep their party on board. I think it was first given to Rab Butler when he needed a sop to cheer him up. It was then given to Lord Heseltine when John Major thought it was a good thing—

Oh, I was forgetting about Geoffrey Howe, who was given it when he fell out with the great, almost divine Margaret Thatcher. It didn’t work anyway; it didn’t cheer him up, and he resigned in a huff not much later. It was then given to the noble Lord Prescott to keep the left of the Labour party on board. It is not really a proper constitutional position, whereas the Lord President of the Council—well, he is the fine fellow who makes us regulate the press and goes along to get royal charters introduced.

I am also very disturbed that the Lord Privy Seal is not referred to correctly. In my view, he should be particularly high up the list, because we have such a fine Lord Privy Seal. It is worth bearing it in mind that the title of “Leader of the House” used to be held by the Prime Minister himself, which is a reminder of why that position is of such fundamental importance. Control of the programme of the House is essential to government, and the man or woman in charge of that is a most senior figure in the Government—as I say, it used to be the Prime Minister—so I should like the Lord Privy Seal to leapfrog all the way up, probably ahead even of the Deputy Prime Minister, in recognition of the reality and seriousness of the role.

I do apologise. My hon. Friend is right about the proper titles and about the Leader of the House. I forgot him when I did the list, which is why he is 20th, but I invite my hon. Friend to table an amendment in Committee. I would accept it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

There is another lacuna in the Bill. It refers to

“the Secretary of State with responsibility for Business and Innovation”,

but that great man, that right hon. Friend of mine, wonderful figure that he is, is in fact President of the Board of Trade. He is a very important figure is the President of the Board of Trade. That board, on which also sit people such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, meets very infrequently; it has met a couple of times in the past couple of hundred years, which is about as often as we need most government as far as I can tell.

Then there is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Since 1714, of course, the post of Lord High Treasurer has been in commission and the First Lord is customarily the Prime Minister and the Second Lord is the Chancellor. If the Prime Minister were incapacitated, the Treasury would remain in commission; it would not need the Second Lord to take on the role of the First Lord—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 3 January 2014.