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Prime Minister (Temporary Replacement) Bill

Volume 706: debated on Friday 14 January 2022

Second Reading

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

It is a great pleasure to speak to this Bill. I can say at the start that the support from the Opposition is clear to see. There are no Liberal Democrats, no Scottish National party Members and only one Labour Member on the Back Benches. Clearly, they do not want the current Prime Minister to be replaced.

The Conservative Benches are, of course, full. We need to deal with this issue properly, and I am very pleased that we have here the excellent Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove). He seems to do many things for the Government, not least stopping small boats coming across the channel, and I thank him for being here today.

I suppose I am now speaking in support of Government policy, but I think we should formalise that policy. Let me explain briefly what the Bill does. If the Prime Minister—any Prime Minister—is incapacitated, temporarily or permanently, there needs to be a route to allow us to have a Prime Minister in charge immediately. That person must have all the powers of the Prime Minister and may be required to take exceptionally difficult decisions straight away.

Let me give hon. Members an example. Let us say that a bomb goes off in Cabinet, and the Prime Minister is incapacitated and a number of Cabinet Ministers are killed. At the same time, a civil aircraft has diverted from its route and is heading towards Buckingham Palace. Obviously, a decision has to be made immediately on what to do about that aircraft. Do we shoot it down, or not? The Defence Secretary says, “I need the Prime Minister’s approval before doing that.” There is no Prime Minister, so what happens? Does the Defence Secretary shoot the plane down on his own authority, or does he allow it to plough into Buckingham Palace? This is a real possibility.

It may be that a big argument goes on immediately afterwards. The Defence Secretary says, “I have the right to do this,” but somebody says, “You are not the Prime Minister.” The Cabinet Secretary stands up and says, “Well, I represent the constitution. I need to make the decision if there is not a Prime Minister.” The Prime Minister’s chief of staff stands up and says, “I know everything about the whole world.” What if there is a maniac as chief of staff in No. 10 who is completely off the rails—as people discover later? Let us say for a minute that this person is called Dom: would we want him to make that decision? He could make the case for why he should make it because there was no Prime Minister at the time. That is what my Bill seeks to make clear: who is in charge immediately at a moment of crisis.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has been nightly watching the series “Designated Survivor” on Netflix, but in this country we have a Cabinet system, with collectively responsibility, and our Prime Minister is first among equals, so we do not really need to have designated survivors. This country does not have a written constitution and it is right that we do not remove the flexibility in our system of Cabinet collective responsibility.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. That line has been argued forever. I am not in the position to go back and ask who would make the decision in the situation that I described, but if my hon. Friend wants to intervene to tell me, I would be most interested. She cannot, because it is impossible: there is no designated survivor, as she calls it. I am not talking about something that might not happen and I will later give a clear example of what happened, why there was a problem and the two reasons why there was a problem.

Let me turn to the Bill, which is very simple and has only two clauses, the first of which deals with the situation I have just been talking about and the second of which says the Bill applies to the whole United Kingdom. Nothing in my Bill would prevent Her Majesty from—[Interruption.] Did I hear the Chinese, who have got in again?

Order. If something has been heard—I did not hear it—can it be either repeated or ignored? Was something said?

I think it was an electronic device heckling me and I cannot give way to an electronic device.

Let me go back to where I was. The Bill has two clauses and one schedule. Clause 2 says the Bill applies to the whole United Kingdom, clause 1 deals with the detail and the schedule lists the order in which people would take over as Prime Minister. The list starts with the person who is designated Deputy Prime Minister, then goes to the person designated the First Secretary of State, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and all the way down to paragraph 1(w), which lists the Chief Whip, and paragraph 1(x), which lists the Attorney General. Actually, I made a mistake with that list: I should obviously have put the Chief Whip last. Nevertheless, under the Bill someone would automatically be in charge as acting Prime Minister, with all the powers to decide what happened. In the case I was talking about, that person could say, “Yes, you shoot down that aeroplane,” or “No, you don’t,” so there would be no confusion.

I am quite interested in the point my hon. Friend has made about the Bill not interfering with the Queen’s prerogative; I suggest that it does. The First Minister serves at the Queen’s pleasure, not at the pleasure of anybody else within the constitution. The First Minister and the First Lord of the Treasury are appointed by Her Majesty; if we subvert that appointment, we subvert the Queen’s prerogative. I suggest that is a major flaw in my hon. Friend’s Bill.

Which would my hon. Friend prefer: to wait for the Queen to make a decision about the next Prime Minister or to have the aeroplane crash into Buckingham Palace first? There needs to be an instant decision-making process. In fact, if my hon. Friend looks at clause 1(1), it says,

“Nothing in this Act prevents Her Majesty appointing a Prime Minister.”

It goes on to say in clause 1(7)(b) that if Her Majesty appoints a Prime Minister, that removes whoever is Prime Minister at the time. It also says, of course, that when the existing Prime Minister recovers, they resume responsibility for being Prime Minister.

Madam Deputy Speaker, the Bill has been around for a while, and you may have heard me speak on it before. I think it was the Leader of the House of Commons who used to say, “This is absurd. It could never happen. There is always time to organise something.” The difference this time is that we have now had the terrible event that happened to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. When he was taken very seriously ill and rushed into hospital, I—like probably everyone in this House—was praying for his recovery, but clearly there was a period in which he was incapacitated. Who was in charge of the country at that time? There was a lot of uncertainty.

In the end, it was decided that the First Secretary of State was in charge. He carried out his duties ably, but nobody actually knew what his powers were. There could have been enormous arguments then: it could have been that the chief of staff to the Prime Minister said, “I’m the one who knows what the Prime Minister is thinking. I’m the one who should be making the decisions until the Prime Minister returns.” That is not an unreasonable argument, but it is wrong. The chief of staff has not been elected, and he does not have to face scrutiny in this Chamber. Therefore, I want certainty about who is in charge. This is partly a question of who is in charge, and partly a question of whether they would know what the Prime Minister wants to do.

I am listening to the interesting point that my hon. Friend is making. It is a genuinely decent question, but I have slightly more faith in the British people than he does, or certainly in the British Government. The British people have decided through the Brexit debate that in the 21st century, with various threats, we are better off being a nimbler, smaller island nation and having much more flexibility. We do not have a written constitution that formalises us, and while it could sound a bit “barrow boy” or whatever, the lack of formal rules is one of the greatest assets that we have. I wonder whether my hon. Friend accepts that his proposed Bill maybe imposes rules where they need not be.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, but I am disappointed that she is arguing against Government policy, because since the event that happened with the Prime Minister, the Government have institutionalised a list of who takes charge in a similar situation.

No, I will carry on. My hon. Friend will have his time in a minute.

The situation is twofold: one part is to know who is in charge, and the other is to know whether that person can carry out the wishes of the Prime Minister who is incapacitated. The first point is made fairly clear by what happened to the Prime Minister when he was taken so seriously ill: it was decided that the First Secretary of State would be in charge. Members might say, “Hang on a minute, how do you know that the First Secretary of State is going to know what the Prime Minister thinks?” After all, he was thrown into the job.

I remember that first interview with the First Secretary of State. He did look a little bit like a rabbit in the headlights and unprepared. My Bill says that the Prime Minister can designate two people: a Deputy Prime Minister and a First Secretary of State. The First Secretary of State could be the Secretary of State for levelling up or whatever. It gives the Prime Minister the opportunity to name the two people who would take over and act on his behalf.

The second is a more difficult point, and is about having the knowledge of what the Prime Minister would do. May I give you an example from this week, Madam Deputy Speaker? At Prime Minister’s questions, I asked the Prime Minister whether he would attend today to support my Bill, which is lower down the list for debate today, that seeks to abolish the BBC licence fee. He said he would consider my points and I had expected to see him today to let us know his views. He may have let his views be known personally or through his Minister, but of course he has in a way—I know he has not been incapacitated—been removed from being able to come here and give us his views because he is self-isolating.

The point is that we do not know whether the Prime Minister would have supported my Bill, whether he agrees that the BBC is institutionally biased or that the BBC’s interview on the Radio 4 “Today” programme was completely biased. We do not know whether he thinks that taxpayers should fund the BBC, that it should be subscribed to or that there should be a licence. We just do not know, so it is exceptionally important that the person who takes over knows the thinking of the Prime Minister. I do not know if the Minister has had a message from the Prime Minister to say whether he supports the Bill. We will know when we come to consider it in a few minutes’ time.

It is, therefore, a two-pronged thing. It is about having the person designated, but also having that person prepared with the knowledge of what the Prime Minister thinks. We really want somebody who knows he is going to do the job and knows what the Prime Minister is thinking. It has to be an elected person. It could not, for instance, have been Dominic Cummings. It has to be somebody with the knowledge of that person, and that is why, if we have a designated person, they would have to be at all times in the Prime Minister’s confidence so that they could take over seamlessly if the Prime Minister was incapacitated.

Just so I am clear, is my hon. Friend expecting the person who takes over temporarily the responsibility of the Prime Minister to act as though they were the Prime Minister, so they are not thinking with their own brain but being a processor for whoever holds the office of Prime Minister at that moment?

That is exactly my point. If we take the BBC Licence Fee (Abolition) Bill, for instance, I do not want the new Prime Minister to change the decision on what the Prime Minister thought about the Bill. I understand my right hon. Friend is absolutely in favour of getting rid of the licence fee and I do not want someone else to come along saying that that is not the case when he is only there temporarily until the Prime Minister comes back. So it is not about a change of policy, it is not about establishing a new Prime Minister who is going to be there all the time; it is only about the period of incapacity. Actually, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have just remembered the blinking point that the only people not covering my BBC Licence Fee (Abolition) Bill are, of course, the BBC. That has little to do with this debate, but I wanted to get it in anyway.

In the past, the argument was always, “It would never happen.” Unfortunately, it did happen. I was so relieved that the Prime Minister recovered, but there was a problem. We did not know the powers that the First Secretary of State had. I know the Government now have a priority list and I am not sure but I think it is published, but I just want to turn it into statute law so we can be certain about what happens. I urge my colleagues on the Government Benches who are opposing the Bill to support Government policy, effectively, and put it into law.

I hope in the few minutes—oh, we do not have a few minutes left. I tell you what, Madam Deputy Speaker, why don’t we come back to this debate at a later stage? By that time, I hope the Prime Minister will be out of isolation and he can come to the House to give his views on the abolition of the BBC licence fee.

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

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 21 January.