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Leader of the House

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2013

My Lords, in leading the tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I am able to be the first to welcome formally as his successor the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Oareford. The noble Lord, Lord Hill, is already very well regarded and liked by this House, and I both welcome his very imaginative appointment and look forward to working with him closely in the future, but he has a very hard act to follow. The departure from the Front Bench of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is a moment of great significance for this House. We shall all miss him, and especially so at great occasions, such as Prorogation, through the clerk not having to read out his full name, as that will mean that the Prorogation ceremony will be a good deal shorter.

A former Member of this House, Lord Wilson of Rievaulx—Harold Wilson as was—once very acutely observed that, “A week is a long time in politics”. Having done 25 years on the Conservative Front Bench, I calculate that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has done 1,300 weeks in politics, which is a very long time indeed. In that time, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has covered the ground. He entered government in 1988, appointed by the now noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, as a junior Whip in the old Department of Trade and Industry. There, as I understand it, he met a very young researcher from the Conservative Research Department called David Cameron, a contact which has clearly stood him in very good stead.

Indeed, if my memory serves me correctly, when, after the inconclusive result of the 2010 general election, David Cameron entered a room full of journalists to make his,

“big, open and comprehensive offer”,

to the Liberal Democrats, slipping into the room beside him—the only person to do so—was the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. So when the Prime Minister yesterday said in response to the resignation of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that to him personally he had always been a,

“staunch friend and wise counsel”,

I suspect that was the heartfelt truth.

I am less confident about just how comfortable the noble Lord has been with the results of that big, open and comprehensive offer—that is, the coalition. When it was put to him on “Channel 4 News” last night that he had been reported as saying he despaired that the coalition had broken down in the House of Lords he didn’t quite knock the story down completely when he replied:

“I’m sure that at times … over the … last 18 months I might well have said that.”

Of course, one of the most difficult issues that he has had to deal with since coming into government, again in the coalition, has been House of Lords reform, and in particular the exciting and very well thought-through proposals from his now ex-Cabinet colleague, the Deputy Prime Minister. Tom Strathclyde is, of course, a natural House of Lords reformer. He has shown nothing but utter loyalty to the Government’s now-abandoned proposals for an all or mainly elected House of Lords. We on these Benches of course completely believed him, and saw no signs at all of one of the biggest political winks in parliamentary history. All I would report is the view of one Member of this House from his own Benches who said, this morning, about the noble Lord and Lords reform: “There were times when Tom’s tongue was so far in his cheek that it was almost coming out of his ear”. As another of the noble Lord’s colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, once so brilliantly put it: they might very well say that, but we on this side of the House could not possibly comment.

The noble Lord has had a long and highly distinguished political career. Indeed, he was Leader of the Opposition in your Lordships’ House for an astonishing 14 years, serving four leaders of his party in the Commons from 1998 to 2010 among the total of six Tory leaders he has served under. As Leader of the Opposition now, I both admire and am staggered by his tenacity, which was signalled very early on in his political career when in 1983 he bravely stood in the Conservative interest as an MEP candidate in Merseyside East. As natural a Scouser as he is a Lords reformer, sadly the noble Lord did not succeed on that occasion, although I am sure the European yearnings which that effort clearly showed will place him naturally in line with his mentor, the Prime Minister, when he makes his long-awaited speech on Europe.

Both as Leader of the Opposition and leader of his own party in Government, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has always been a highly capable political operator, a straight dealer and a man of his word. Even so there have been difficult times, of course, but it really cannot have been part of the coalition’s plan for this House, with the coalition’s huge inbuilt political majority, that we on these Benches and others would defeat the Government 59 times so far since May 2010. If on occasion this has led the noble Lord to be pretty robust in his dealings with the House, his own wit and charm, and sometimes pretty old-fashioned bluster, have more than got him through.

I would say that the noble Lord has always been personally warm and friendly to me in our private dealings, even when texting to inform me that the following day’s business has been pulled. I thank him now for his judgment, his trust, his confidences and his counsel. Among the most difficult times we have seen in recent years were the issues we faced over allowances and Peers’ conduct. As leaders throughout that difficult period, we both worked hard to make sure that there was not the slenderest of cigarette papers between us in the service of the House. He played a particularly important role at a decisive moment in getting the new allowances arrangements agreed.

It is true that some of the noble Lord’s strongest fans have not always been found among some of my colleagues on these Benches, especially when he has picked individuals up personally on points in the Chamber. However, politics can be a rough old trade and there can be no doubt that the noble Lord has served his beloved Conservative Party and, in his public duties, the people of this country well and loyally. In particular, I know that noble Lords will want it said that he has served this House well and loyally. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will be greatly missed and from these Benches we thank him for all he has done. We wish him well in his future life beyond Front-Bench politics and we look forward to his maintaining strong and deep connections with your Lordships’ House from a different perspective to his extraordinary contribution from the Front Bench during a quarter of a century of dedicated service.

My Lords, when Talleyrand died and Metternich received a telegram saying, “Talleyrand is dead”, he pondered and thought, “Now what does he mean by this?”. There has been something of a similar reaction to the resignation of my noble friend. After his 14 years as a leader in this House and 25 years on the Front Bench, our great media have had to speculate on why he is going. There was even an outrageous suggestion in some of the papers that he could no longer tolerate working with the Liberal Democrats. As my noble friends will confirm, there have been no more harmonious meetings than when Tom Strathclyde has come to give the Liberal Democrats one of his regular pep talks. Indeed, if he were so minded, I would be able to persuade two or three of my friends to make way for him here on our Benches.

The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, mentioned the name. What is in a name? Certainly not much for the William Hickey column of the Daily Express, which says that “Charlie Strathclyde” has departed as the leader. One would have thought that it would get the name right. I had to face—as the noble Baroness said—the annual humiliation at Prorogation when the clerk would read out Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Strathclyde and Tom McNally. At one time I thought of adding Plantagenet just to give it a bit of class.

The truth is that we have worked closely together for the past eight years but only yesterday I discovered in one of the cuttings that he is a master of the ancient Chinese board-game, Go. I immediately wanted to find what Go was. It is a game of tactics, the grand masters of which are able to think up to 40 moves ahead, even in complicated positions. Instantly, I realised that Tom had been playing Go with me for the past three years.

The Leader of the House has two tasks: one, as the noble Baroness indicated, is to be the leader of his party and to get government business through as a business manager; the second is to be the guardian of the interests of individual Members and the House as a whole. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has fulfilled that second role with consummate skill. He steps down with thanks, respect and, I believe, the affection of the whole House. All that I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Hill, is: the best of luck.

My Lords, on behalf of my colleagues in the Cross-Bench group, I, too, wish to be associated with the warm and very well earned tributes that have been paid already to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. Although still relatively young—in my terms, very young—he has given many years of his life to being an outstanding public servant.

During the years when he was the Leader of this House he always aimed to act in the best interests of the whole House and his many talents and energy were much admired. My colleagues and I very much hope that the House will continue to have the benefit of his vast experience and wisdom. The noble Lord very much respected the position of the Cross-Bench group, and, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, he very much valued the individual contributions of its Members. He also supported the position of the Convenor and well understood that role in treading carefully—sometimes ever so carefully—between the different party political interests in the House. On a personal note I very much enjoyed the regular meetings that I had with him and I will always be grateful for the generous support and encouragement that he readily gave. I wish him well.

Finally, I also take the opportunity to welcome to this important role the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Oareford. The House rightly has a great regard for him and personally, I have valued enormously my contact with him, especially in safeguarding children and young people. On behalf of the Cross-Bench group I welcome him to his new responsibilities and look forward to working with him.

My Lords, I speak briefly to associate those of us on these Benches with the generous, worthy and well earned words for the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. On these Benches, we are transient. We come and go because, as noble Lords know, we observe a retirement age. By contrast, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is just like a part of the furniture. He is an institution and has been here throughout the time that virtually all of us on these Benches have been here, so it will be a big change for us. My colleagues have been very keen to say how much we appreciate his support, wisdom and guidance for the Lords Spiritual to enable our contribution to the work of the House. Speaking personally, I marvel sometimes when he has to stand at that Box and deal with some rather difficult things coming across the Chamber. I always admire the fact that he is calm, has a twinkle in his eye and generally responds with buckets of common sense. That seems to be a very good way of leading a House and creating the right kind of atmosphere and frame for us.

We also extend our welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Hill. To be honest, on these Benches we have mixed feelings. He has done a wonderful job as Education Minister and has been a great friend to the Church and the Lords Spiritual. In many ways we are very sad to see him leave that post. He has done outstanding work, and I have always admired the way he can stand at the Dispatch Box and, without really referring to his notes, be able to answer the questions and be very astute and quick-thinking on his feet. That is a remarkable gift and one that we look forward to him exercising in his new role. We welcome the noble Lord, Lord Hill, and say thank you very much indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for his help, support and guidance.

My Lords, I rise to pay tribute and give warm thanks to my noble friend on behalf of the Association of Conservative Peers for all that he has achieved for this House and our party during his long and distinguished career to date. Those of us who have served in government and on opposition Front Benches for a number of years are fully aware of the all-consuming and unremitting pressures and strains that that service brings—and, like other noble Lords, I think I have done my bit. However, we can only marvel at the unbroken record of my noble friend over 25 years as a Minister in many departments, as Deputy Speaker, Deputy Chairman of Committees—briefly—and as a member of shadow Cabinets and Cabinets. Few in either House can rival my noble friend’s record and it is entirely understandable that he should now wish to find time for another life and to pursue the many other interests that have inevitably languished during those years.

The House has changed much since 1999, both in its role and value. It is perhaps true to say that, in earlier years, its contribution was sometimes underestimated among the higher reaches in the other place. That is no longer true today, and my noble friend has played a notable part in bringing that about and in developing our House’s modern role in today’s world. Many of us have discovered that behind the jovial exterior and merry manner lie a shrewd brain, an immense capacity for work and a devotion to the tasks in hand. I will give one example of the latter. No one should underestimate the difficulty of repeating a Statement made by the Prime Minister in the other place following a European Council or other high-level international meeting, at which he was not present and where decisions were inevitably sometimes made in the middle of the night. After possibly only one or two hours’ briefing at the most, my noble friend would have to cover a vast range of issues on which it would be easy to drop a brick; yet he always carried out that role with aplomb. All that experience and understanding of the House and its modern role was brought to bear, in my view, with the skill and subtlety with which he has handled the issue of Lords reform.

As Leader of the House, my noble friend has shown devotion to this place above party politics. As leader of the Conservative Party in the Lords, he has always worked closely with colleagues in the ACP in developing policies, and his door has always been open to us. We welcome our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Hill, as a very worthy successor, and we thank the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, warmly and extend every best wish for success and happiness in whatever avenues he now wishes to pursue.

I wholeheartedly support the sentiments that have been expressed across the House about my noble friend Lord Strathclyde. Some play has already been made about his name. My noble friend Lord McNally may feel short-changed with a surname like McNally. I say to him, “Try the surname Hill”. This afternoon’s tributes are a testament to the great dedication that my noble friend showed to this House in his remarkable quarter-century of service on the Front Bench.

My noble friend was a gifted and agile Leader of the Opposition for almost 12 years, before rightly taking his place as an outstanding Leader of this House, working over that time with five different Leaders of the party opposite. Indeed, he led the Conservative Benches for longer than any Peer, save for two distinguished Marquises of Salisbury and the Duke of Wellington. That is not bad company for a Conservative Leader of the House to keep.

Both in opposition and office, during a long period of time in which the House faced change unprecedented in generations, his immense experience and knowledge of—and, I may add, loyalty to—this House have been to the huge benefit of us all. That was given recognition yesterday when the Prime Minister recommended the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to the Order of the Companions of Honour, an appointment which brings distinction and due recognition to the work he has done here and as a Minister over so many years.

As a relative newcomer to the House, I am certainly in his debt for the guidance and support he has given me since May 2010. It is rather disconcerting to stand here at the Dispatch Box today without the benefit of his occasional instruction, delivered in a forceful stage whisper from the direction of my right elbow. Since the general election, my noble friend has steered the House with great skill through some unusual and testing times, with the establishment of a coalition Government for the first time since the Second World War. It is not just the Government for whom he has worked tirelessly, but the whole House, whose interests I know he has always guarded at every opportunity.

It is therefore a tremendous privilege to follow my noble friend in serving this House and these Benches as Leader. I have enormous respect for the work of this House, for its role in our constitutional arrangements and for our traditions and courtesies—which, like my predecessors, I hope to be able to help uphold.

My noble friend Lord Strathclyde leaves a large hole on our Front Bench, as well as perhaps a little more space for the rest of us. To succeed him as Leader of this House is therefore an honour that I view rather nervously, but I take great encouragement from the generous remarks that noble Lords have been kind enough to make this afternoon.