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Prime Minister (Nomination) and Cabinet (Appointment)

Volume 678: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2020

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the House of Commons to nominate the Prime Minister and approve appointments to the Cabinet; to establish the office of Acting Prime Minister; and for connected purposes.

This is the third time I have attempted to bring this Bill before the House. The first time it had to be to be withdrawn because of a general election and the second time because of the covid lockdown. I was trying today to ensure that no other disaster befell me, so that I could be here in my place to deliver this Bill.

One of the most curious things about the whole concept of parliamentary sovereignty is the fact that this House is not the least bit sovereign in the nomination of a Prime Minister. Shrouded in semi-mysticism and quasi-convention, this House plays absolutely no part in the process of deciding or determining the nomination of a Prime Minister, save serving solely as a mere spectator. My Bill puts that right by ensuring that the nomination of a Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet is a matter for the House and that we, as representatives of the people of this country, have a role to play in handing over the keys to the most powerful offices in this land.

First, what this Bill does not do: it does not in the least alter the role of Her Majesty the Queen in the proceedings. The appointment of a Prime Minister will still be exclusively the job of Her Majesty the Queen as part of her prerogative powers. The Bill strengthens the constitutional convention of keeping the monarch out of politics, by ensuring that she appoints a Prime Minister having had that nominee agreed by this House.

Through this Bill, I seek in effect to bring this House into the 21st century and replicate the conditions that we find in most other, properly functioning representative democracies right around the world, and even in properly functioning representative democracies in the rest of the United Kingdom. In the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister and her Cabinet must be approved by the Scottish Parliament and MSPs. The same is true in the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies; even the London Assembly works on that basis.

The process allows confirmation from Parliament and even allows alternatives to emerge to see whether he or she might have the confidence of the House. The Bill would end the current situation, where a Prime Minister of this country can be decided by a few thousand members of the Conservative party. It would end the practice of the House’s having a Prime Minister foisted upon it without so much as a by-your-leave, where the Conservative Association of, say, Tunbridge Wells has more of a say than a directly elected Member of Parliament in determining who the Prime Minister is. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I hear the “Hear, hears” from Conservative Members, who obviously enjoy that particular privilege.

Let us take a cursory look at how we had the good fortune to get our current Prime Minister. He was appointed by Her Majesty as a result of winning the Conservative leadership contest triggered by the resignation of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who was first appointed Prime Minister on 31 July 2016 as a result of the resignation of David Cameron as Prime Minister in July 2016. Since 2015, the UK has had two Prime Ministers appointed outside of a general election, determined exclusively by the membership of the Conservative party of the United Kingdom. Looking at the current incumbent, we can only surmise the efficacy and good sense inherent in the current arrangements. This House must never again have an unelected Prime Minister forced upon it. A Prime Minister must be able to demonstrate that she or he has the confidence of this House at the inception of his or her premiership. My Bill would ensure that happens.

My Bill would also help to deal with some of the issues that might unexpectedly arise in the course of a parliamentary term—for example, a Prime Minister losing a referendum on the European Union and having to resign. The current Prime Minister actually wiped away his own majority by banishing from the ranks of the Conservative party those who disagreed with his hard Brexit. His Government were left in a minority, yet he was still able to control the Order Paper of the House of Commons, though lacking the ability to pass any meaningful legislation.

Then what did the Prime Minister do? He illegally prorogued Parliament to prevent the Brexit purgatory being effectively scrutinised and unnecessarily drew the Queen into illegal political proceedings—something that my Bill would address and rectify. Quite frankly, there is no way the current Prime Minister would have been approved by the House, as he would not have been able to demonstrate that confidence in the last Session of Parliament, and had this procedure been available to us last year, we could only speculate as to whether the United Kingdom would be in a better place now.

The provisions in the Bill would be triggered by any of the following: any general election under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011; the Queen accepting the Prime Minister’s resignation; the office of Prime Minister becoming vacant for reasons other than resignation—namely death; and the Prime Minister ceasing to be a Member of the House of Commons as a result of a recall or crime, which of course we could never imagine happening with the current incumbent.

Let us look specifically at one of these examples, because it is quite timely and relevant. All of us are rightly relieved to see the Prime Minister back in such rude health, press-upping his way to his disastrous Brexit. Looking at this epitome of a butcher’s dog, I find it hard to believe that it was touch and go for him only a few short weeks ago. Thank goodness he pulled through. With the Prime Minister’s incapacitation, however, we got the equivalent of government by headless chicken. Without the Prime Minister’s customary decisiveness and head for detail, we had no idea who was running the country.

It seemed that the Foreign Secretary was in charge, by dint of his being the First Secretary, but he executed these responsibilities with all the guile of Emu without the assistance of Rod Hull. His only qualification for that role seemed to be that Dominic Cummings could not think of anybody else. He might not have been doing the job had we had a Deputy Prime Minister, but of course we no longer have one—that unpaid, powerless position whose holder sometimes deputises for the Prime Minister seems to have gone the same way as Nick Clegg. My Bill would create the office of acting Prime Minister to ensure that someone was accountable for the operation of government until the stricken Prime Minister recovered or another was found.

My Bill would do much more than that, however, by seeking to ensure that the whole apparatus of government be a matter for this House and that the activities of wider government and all its advisory functions and capacity come under the responsibility of Parliament. Right now, there seems to be an initiative to reinvent the civil service in the guise of a hard Brexit organisation. A politicisation of the civil servants is being undertaken the likes of which we have never encountered in this country before. A state apparatus is being assembled in the guise of Dominic Cummings, who now effectively runs Whitehall, and we in this House have no right of scrutiny or ability to properly consider all this activity. The extraordinary sight of a Government adviser making a press statement to the country from the Downing Street rose garden could be the metaphor for how the country is now being governed.

My Bill would codify certain aspects of the ministerial code to ensure that the whole of Government was accountable to this House. Ministers would have a duty to Parliament and be held accountable for the policies, decisions and actions of their Departments and agencies. It would uphold the political impartiality of the civil service and ensure that civil servants are not required to act in any way that would conflict with the civil service code as set out the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

My little Bill is simple in scope, but it is ambitious in what it wants to achieve. Our unwritten constitution, designed by convention, needs updating and refreshing, and that should start with the appointment of a Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet. We must never again have a Prime Minister nominated without the consent of this House. We must start to exert control and authority. This is a sensible and practical Bill to bring this House into the 21st century, and I commend it to the House.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), with his usual skill, introduces a Scottish National party policy that sounds attractive but is completely and utterly useless. It is tradition to find something on which we agree with the previous speaker, and I agreed with him totally when he was gracious enough to say how much the House welcomed the recovery of the Prime Minister after his serious illness.

Before dealing with the issue itself—[Interruption.] I do not see a clock running, so am I allowed an unlimited amount of time?

Order. For the avoidance of doubt, no, the hon. Gentleman is allowed 10 minutes. There is a mistake in the clock not running; he now has approximately eight and a half minutes.

Why is this ten-minute rule Bill being introduced now, and what are we being asked to do today? We are not being asked to approve the content of the Bill; we are being asked to give leave for it to be introduced as a private Member’s Bill. The hon. Gentleman could have done that in February. There are 130 Bills that Members introduced properly, prior to this Bill being introduced. So I thought, “Well, let’s ask the Library,” and the Library says:

“Ten Minute Rule bills are often an opportunity for Members to voice an opinion on a subject or aspect of existing legislation, rather than a serious attempt to get a bill passed.”

As usual, the House of Commons Library is correct.

Later tonight we will consider motion 7 on the Order Paper, which will move our private Members’ Bills back again. I agree entirely with the Government that that is the proper thing to do, given the covid crisis, but it means that we will have September, October, November, January, February and March to get through 130 private Members’ Bills. This is an opportunity to throw out a Bill now that would only clog up the system later on.

Let me turn to the gist of the Bill. It is an interesting way of pretending that sovereignty does not exist, but sovereignty rests with the Queen. The Queen is sovereign and the sovereign appoints the Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman has not produced an actual Bill today—what he has in his hand is a dummy Bill—but I looked back to see what his previous Bill said. He was very careful not to go into the detail, and I am not surprised. In normal times, if this Bill became an Act of Parliament, the House of Commons, with a Government majority of 80, would of course nominate the leader of the largest party to be Prime Minister, in the normal way. I had to go back to April 1940 for when we had a Prime Minister who was not the leader of the governing party, and that was only for six months, during the second world war. So why is this clever politician introducing this Bill? Let us think about the detail. He says that the House of Commons would nominate the Prime Minister. I thought, “Well, that’s strange—the House of Commons?” And then I looked a bit further, and it is the Speaker of the House of Commons who would nominate the Prime Minister after the House voted.

Then I thought, hang on a minute—what would have happened when my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) resigned and we had Speaker Bercow in the Chair, if this proposition had been in place? It would not have been impossible to see a situation whereby the Opposition combined to vote for the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), and maybe one or two disenchanted Conservatives joined that vote—and then Mr Speaker would have been proposing to the Queen that the right hon. Member for Islington North be Prime Minister of a Conservative Government that nobody on the Government Benches would support and everyone on the Opposition Benches would. That is a nice try, but it honestly does not work. For that reason, the Bill should not be given leave to proceed.

My Government are a very fair Government, and I doubt that they will interfere with the voting today because they like the House to make decisions on principle, not because the Whips are telling us what to do. But I hope that Back-Bench Members will oppose this ten-minute rule Bill, because it has been brought here to make a point. It needs to be thrown out now and not to be part of the ongoing private Members’ Bill process.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire did move on to two other issues in his Bill that do need more consideration. The first is the question of what happens and who takes over if the Prime Minister is incapacitated. That is a very fair point; we must always have a Prime Minister. When the current Prime Minister fell ill, the Government—thankfully, just before he was admitted to hospital—came up with a schedule of Members who would be Prime Minister if something happened to the current Prime Minister. In fact, the First Secretary of State effectively did become Prime Minister. And if the First Secretary of State had fallen ill, there was a whole list of people after him.

Now, I already have a Bill before the House—the Prime Minister (Temporary Replacement) Bill—to deal with this situation. It proposes a fixed system, so we would know in advance what would happen if the Prime Minister were incapacitated. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that Bill on 30 October. The second part of his own Bill is not necessary and is flawed, because there would be a delay between the Prime Minister being incapacitated and a new one being appointed.

Where I find more interest is in the subject of the appointment of Cabinet Ministers. As I understand it, under the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, the approval of the House would be required before a Member could become a Cabinet Minister. I suppose if one goes back a few years to, say, 1707 when this House introduced—[Interruption.] What happened then was that a Member had to resign their seat if they became a Cabinet Minister. That is not a bad idea. Of course, most of those Cabinet Ministers stood for election and were not opposed; one or two of them took the opportunity to sneak off to safer seats at that moment. That situation was brought to an end in 1926, by a private Member’s Bill.

I do not suggest that we go back to that time, but the hon. Gentleman does have a point when it comes to Select Committees holding confirmation hearings for newly appointed Government Ministers. Departmental Select Committees could hold such hearings and say whether they thought the person was fit and proper. Now, I am sure that that would always be the case as long as there were a Conservative Government, but it might not be if we had a Labour Government in power. I would not necessarily say that that such a process should be mandatory, but it would be a good idea for Select Committees to look at it. If the Select Committees played that role, it would force the Government to form them much earlier in a Parliament than they sometimes do.

There is some merit in the proposals that I have just discussed, but the fundamental issue of allowing Speaker Bercow to nominate to the Queen the right hon. Gentleman for Islington North—what an absurd idea! For that alone, leave to bring in this Bill should not be granted.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

The House proceeded to a Division.

For the sake of clarification, we will close the doors 12 minutes after the commencement of the vote, which was two minutes and 30 seconds ago.

The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.