Consideration of Lords amendments
Revival of prerogative powers to dissolve Parliament and to call a new Parliament
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
The Bill passed through the other place, where it was carefully scrutinised and amended in only one respect: to seek to retain a role for this honourable House in respect of Dissolution. The Lords amendment provided that the Prime Minister could request the sovereign exercise—the revived prerogative powers to dissolve and call Parliament—only when this House agreed the motion
“that this present Parliament will be dissolved.”
That would create an untested, hybrid system by imposing statutory arrangements on top of the prerogative system that existed prior to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Such statutory constraints would undermine the flexibility that for generations characterised the pre-2011 arrangements that the Government want to reinstate. With respect, the Government therefore firmly disagree with the Lords amendment.
In fact, the Government and the Opposition both committed—in their manifestos, no less—to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The Lords amendment would repeal that Act only to retain one of its fundamental flaws. That is not our wish or our intention and it does not meet the commitment that we made to the electorate.
I am hugely relieved to hear the Minister say that. I have stood in every election since 1997. Only when we saw the chaos caused by a Government who did not want to continue and an Opposition who did not want the chance to face an election could we see how dreadful that old system was. We need to get rid of it, bag and baggage.
I agree with my right hon. Friend; there is of course a good reason why the 2017 to 2019 Parliament is referred to as the zombie Parliament.
I remind the House of the commitments that both parties made in 2019. The Conservatives committed to repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
My right hon. Friend is quite right that it is not productive, and, in fact, it would not be in the interests of the judiciary themselves, for the courts to have such a role.
We committed to repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, as it had led to paralysis at a time when the country needed decisive action. In a similar vein, the Labour manifesto said that the 2011 Act
“stifled democracy and propped up weak governments.”
A vote in the Commons could create paralysis in a number of contexts, including minority Governments, coalition Governments, or where our parties, Parliament or even the nation, at some point in the future, were divided.
As a majority on the Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act noted, a Commons vote would have a practical effect only where Parliament were gridlocked. The problem is that if the Government of the day had a comfortable majority, a vote would be unlikely to make any difference; it would have no meaningful effect, beyond causing unnecessary delay and expense. However, when Parliament is gridlocked, a vote could mean denying an election to a Government who were unable to function effectively. We witnessed the consequences of such a vote painfully in 2019, so let us not repeat that mistake by devising a system where those events could happen again. Lords amendment 1 is, therefore, with the greatest possible respect, without merit.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned what happens in the event of a minority Government. What would happen where the Prime Minister of a minority Government wished to call a general election, but there was the possibility of an alternative Government being formed? Would that Prime Minister be able to dissolve Parliament by prerogative in those circumstances, or would another person be given an opportunity to form a Government and a majority in the House of Commons?
I do not want to get into hypotheticals, but what I will say is that the pre-2011 position worked extremely well. There is a reason why it worked well and it was proven to have functioned correctly. We seek to go back to a proven, tried and tested system, which works in a whole variety of different circumstances, not every one of which can be easily expostulated.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my disbelief at some of the opposition to the current position, especially as we recall the chaos that led to the last general election and the frustration among the public when Parliament, in many people’s eyes, seemed to lose the respect of the population?
I sat on the Joint Committee that reviewed the 2011 Act and we spent long, productive and interesting hours looking at it. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is really unproductive to look at our future arrangements in the context of what happened in 2019, just as it is to look at them in the context of what happened in 2010? The beauty of our system must be that the constitution can flex. Those were particularly unique circumstances in 2019, and we should not let them affect what happens going forward.
My hon. Friend is completely right. In fact, it is difficult to expostulate all the different scenarios that may occur in future, so it is best to avoid that, but we know what worked well—the status quo ante the 2011 Act.
As I say, we have experienced the consequences of a statutory scheme and we know what happened in 2019, but the amendment is also dangerously silent on critical questions of implementation and is likely to have undesirable consequences for our constitutional system. For example, it is likely to have negative consequences for the fundamental conventions on confidence. The privilege to request that the sovereign exercise the Dissolution prerogative is an Executive function enjoyed by virtue of the ability of the Government to command the confidence of the Commons. That is the alpha and omega of everything, and should not unduly constrained by any sort of prescriptive parliamentary process that would be disruptive and unhelpful when expediency is essential.
I am obviously not doing that. We are able to see where mistakes have been made and where things have gone well in the past, and we see that in the pre-2011 position—the position we are seeking to achieve and that Labour sought to achieve in its manifesto, as did my party. That tried and tested system worked well, and worked well for generations.
May I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to “The Crown”, of which I am sure he was an avid viewer? In answer to the intervention by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), is my right hon. and learned Friend familiar with the Lascelles principles, as written to The Times under the pseudonym “Senex”, and can he update the House on whether they now form part of the Cabinet manual?
The Lascelles principles are something we still respect. One of the fundamental tenets of Sir Alan Lascelles’ letter was the fact that we wished to avoid any suggestion that the sovereign be involved in politics.
The amendment, as I was saying, is silent on the issue of the negative consequences. The privilege to request that the sovereign exercise the Dissolution prerogative is an executive function that is enjoyed by virtue of the ability to command the confidence of the Commons.
We must also question how the amendment would work in practice. For example, how would the parliamentary process be sequenced and when would it apply? Would the Prime Minister be required to confirm the support of the House only when they intend to request that Parliament be dissolved before the maximum five-year term, or would it apply following a loss of confidence? There are myriad questions that the amendment would leave unanswered; as we can see, it adds undesired complexity to what is a simple proposition—a return to the status quo ante.
The Bill intends to return us to that status quo, reviving the prerogative powers for the Dissolution and the calling of Parliament and preserving the long-standing position on the non-justiciability of those powers. The amendment would undermine the entire rationale for the Bill. If it is amended as proposed, we would be entering into precisely the kind of ill-thought-through constitutional innovation that we are seeking to repeal.
The simplest and most effective route is to make express provision to revive the prerogative powers for the Dissolution and calling of Parliament, returning our country to tried and tested constitutional arrangements offering certainty around the calling of elections. The prerogative power to dissolve Parliament is the ultimate expression of humility on the part of the Executive, placing the future and power into the hands of the people.
Finally, with all due respect for the undoubted expertise and value of the House of Lords, I suggest it is not appropriate for the revising Chamber to ask the elected House to revisit questions, not least when they relate to the process and role of this House, on which this House has already definitively decided. I thank their lordships, but I hope that they will now take note of this House’s clear view. Therefore, I would welcome this House’s sending a clear signal and I urge it to vote against the amendment.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak for the Opposition in this debate.
I listened very carefully to the case that the Minister made for his motion to remove Lords amendment 1 to clause 2. I was sad to hear it, and I think we could do better. He is right that Labour, both in our manifesto and in the two years since, has supported the principle of the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which was an ill-thought-out and poorly executed piece of legislation. I gently say, though, given how strongly the Minister stressed that, that it was this Government’s piece of legislation, not ours. He cautions us against novations in this space, but that was actually a lesson for themselves, and it is not quite fair to point it in our direction.
Our support for the repeal of the Act does not mean that we cannot put better arrangements in its place. Those two processes are very much related. It was not clear from the Minister’s opening remarks whether he thought that the events of September 2019 were pertinent. For the first six minutes of his speech, they were, and then, in addressing the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), they were not. We think that they demonstrated that the previous arrangements were not fit for purpose and that many of the arrangements prior to the Act were better, especially in a time of parliamentary balance.
We have been supportive thus far, but the issue at stake today is that the Government have learned the wrong lesson from that debacle—that rather than bringing Parliament with them, it is instead preferable to exclude Parliament, the courts, as we have seen, and the civic space. They say that their actions two and half years ago were the right ones but there were too many safeguards preventing them from getting their way. In reality—I do not look back with any fondness on that period, but having been an Opposition Whip during it, I remember it very well—that is the opposite of what happened, and the Government ought to have taken a different lesson from it. I am surprised that they do not want to take this opportunity to, of course, remove the old arrangements, but also to modernise what was in place previously to strengthen the role of this legislature and to protect parliamentary sovereignty rather than just going back to a situation where a Prime Minister gets an election whenever they want one. What a waste!
This is about one Lords amendment to one piece of legislation, but it is also a continuance of a pattern of behaviour by this Government in strengthening an overbearing Executive. There is this Bill, the Elections Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and previously we had the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 and the Trade Union Act 2016. All these have sought to strengthen the Executive at the expense of the legislature, the courts or the shrinking civic space.
Does my hon. Friend think there is any possibility that a future Government, or this Government given their past record, might abuse the power to dissolve Parliament in the way that they abused the power to prorogue Parliament during that period through a disgraceful hoodwinking of Her Majesty the Queen?
I am grateful for that intervention. I strongly believe in the maxim that how you do one thing is how you do everything, and I believe that the same cast of characters will broadly act in the same way at every opportunity. That tends to be, as with all the pieces of legislation that I listed, that the Government see things through a very narrow political prism, and that is what we are seeing today.
The Lords amendment is a very modest safeguard to that in saying, “At least demonstrate that a majority of the legislature agrees with you.” It is not unreasonable to say that Parliament could be involved in the Dissolution process in the way that noble Lords have said. It is a modest hurdle. All it asks is that the Prime Minister of the day be able to command a majority, and in different scenarios.
I know that the Minister is keen to avoid hypotheticals, but we do have to think about how these powers may apply in future. In a balanced Parliament like the previous one, the amendment might mean that the Government work a little bit more broadly to secure the election. The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) referred to the dreadful election of 2019. I would argue that it was the Government between 2017 and 2019 who were dreadful rather than the election itself, being a passive process. Indeed, the Minister characterised it as a zombie Government. Given that he served in that Government, I think he does himself a disservice in characterising himself in that way.
I cannot agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The idea that it was dreadful that a Government who did not command a majority of this House could not just always get their way—that is how the system is supposed to work, I gently suggest.
Where a Government have a clear working majority, as we have today, the amendment would insure against a capricious Prime Minister—perhaps one losing the confidence of their own Benches in the light of, in a hypothetical, significant issues of judgment or personal character—just going and throwing everything up in the air in their own interest. Indeed, there is the scenario, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) said, where someone else might be able to form a Government, but the individual who would be most harmed could just call an election without that being explored.
The point is this: why should an Opposition, when facing a minority Government who want to resolve things via an election, be able to stop an election? They either have to form a coalition of their majority and govern, which is one option, or allow the public to decide. It was outrageous that the Opposition did not allow the public to have a Government.
I cannot agree with the right hon. Gentleman, because the reality is that before those parties could even come together to form that possible alternative Government, the Prime Minister could be in the car and on the way to call the election, and that process would be rendered moot. I cannot support that.
Many Members may find it rather difficult to think of a scenario when we would not need to have such a vote, but if other Members have watched “The Crown”, we have seen the example—a very fictitious one—where the scriptwriters wrote the moment when the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was losing the confidence of her parliamentary party and had that fictitious meeting with the Queen. In building legislation that will last, we need to ensure that we have sufficient, adequate checks so that any Prime Minister will not abuse their position. Is the truth of the matter not that we are going back to the status quo ante? Indeed, the existence of the ouster clause that excludes the courts means that the Government are going further than that.
It is definitely fair to say that there are new arrangements. That is why the Minister said the amendment would be inappropriate, but I do not think it would be. By the way, I have not seen “The Crown”; my wife and I are working our way through “Flip or Flop”, and there are 160 episodes of it, so it may take some time. In the scenario that the hon. Lady talks about, we have seen in recent history Prime Ministers who are losing the confidence of their party talking in terms of “Back me or sack me”. The reality is that the Bill, without this minor safeguard, would mean that a “Back me or sack me” moment, rather than it being won as a parliamentary process with a party’s Back Benchers, would instead play out as a party psychodrama with the general electorate. I think that would be a bad thing.
I will finish with three further quick arguments against giving the Government the power they seek, or at least not without this minor fettering suggested by the Lords. First, it comes back to a question of electoral advantage and ensuring that elections are fair. It is an age-old argument, and an issue that has launched a thousand dissertations—it was one of the major reasons for the 2011 Act—but it has become only more salient since then. Over the past 12 years, we have seen increasing restrictions on party and non-party activity, and the Elections Bill will put more in. These provisions are backdated, and that provides a significant advantage for candidates of the current governing party during the short campaign period, but the advantage grows further for parties, as the regulated period for political parties is now 365 days prior to election day. It is a heck of an advantage to know that start. The amendment would not completely get rid of that, but it would even the scales, and that is another good reason to support it.
Secondly—others colleagues have brought this up, and if I stray out of order, I know I will be told off, so I will be very quick—surely the real lesson to take from that 2019 episode is that by including a parliamentary rubber stamp on Dissolution, we remove any risk of dragging the Crown into such a decision. I think all right hon. and hon. Members would seek to avoid that, because it was an unedifying moment.
Hon. Members have mentioned the courts and the justiciability of the decisions. The Lords amendment would settle that for certain because a vote in this House would be a definitive answer. I know that the Government think that the Bill’s ouster clause will resolve all matters relating to the courts, but I say to them that we will see; I do not think it is as definitive as they say.
I urge the House to support the Lords amendment. The Minister has made a passionate exposition of his case. I gently say to Conservative Back Benchers that the Bill is obviously targeted at restricting the activities of the Opposition, but that means them too. I see some mischievous faces, including the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), who is an independent figure. They mean to fetter their own—[Interruption.] The Minister says otherwise, but I gently say to him that the last time that was tested with the Government, which was the first week of September 2019, 21 of your colleagues lost the Whip—
Sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker: 21 of the Minister’s colleagues. Of course, they were rare circumstances, but it has happened again in this Parliament that when the Government face opposition from outside, they seek to shut us out, and when they find opposition inside, they seek to lock yourselves out as well.
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I say to the Government that it is not a one-way street and we think that having some checks and balances in our democracy is a good thing. In that spirit, I hope that hon. Members will vote in support of the Lords amendment.
I thank the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for the introduction where he described me as being cheeky faced. It will stun the Opposition and surprise the Government that I will be voting enthusiastically with the Government in the Lobby later, so clearly my re-education is having the desired effect.
I rise to speak against the Lords amendment and in favour of the Government’s motion to disagree. I view the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 not through rose-tinted spectacles as a great beacon of constitutional progress, but as a politically expedient measure that helped to secure a coalition in which the junior partner feared being unceremoniously dumped part way through an electoral term.
The lesson of the passage of this Bill thus far, and indeed of the work of the Joint Committee and of my Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, is that the genie cannot simply be put back in the bottle. I slightly disagree with the Minister, because by removing a prerogative power, the 2011 Act made it impossible to return completely to the status quo ante, hence the need for the Bill where we are codifying Dissolution for the first time. That cannot easily be argued against.
At the heart of the Lords amendment is whether the House should maintain a veto on Dissolution and the calling of an election, and I believe that it should not. It is for the monarch to dissolve the House following a request—I emphasise “a request”, unlike the early drafting of the Bill, which suggested that Her Majesty be advised to dissolve—from Her Majesty’s Government.
The hon. Gentleman invites me to be intemperate about the difference between this House and the other Parliaments of the United Kingdom, which I will resist entirely. Places evolve through their own conventions and those Parliaments are doing exactly that. There is no need for universality; surely he would argue that the beauty of devolution is that it allows for difference. If he wanted uniformity, however, he would essentially support the United Kingdom.
The impetus for the Bill came from the logjam of the previous Parliament. It is important to note where the impetus came for this Lords amendment, because it is a symptom of the mistrust that followed the Prorogation that never was, in 2019.
There is a need for a constitutional release valve, which I would say is a general election, but the country was denied that because the Government did not have a majority. That was problematic as it undermined our constitutional settlement, if I can be so bold, in that we have parliamentary government rather than government by Parliament. The Government were kept on life support when they could no longer govern or get their main business through. The only solution to that was a general election, hence why requiring an affirmative vote by this House, as demanded by their lordships, would leave us at risk of exactly the same problem again.
I end by calming some concerns that there may be about threats of early general elections. Of course, that is an entirely hypothetical possibility brought to the House’s attention by the Opposition spokesperson. I could not imagine what circumstances would bring that about. There is always a danger of a Prime Minister capriciously seeking early electoral advantage. However, that tends to backfire, as it did in February 1974, when the question was asked, “Who governs Britain?”—from the outcome, that was clearly not the Prime Minister—and indeed as recently as 2017.
I rise to speak in favour of the Lords amendment, which would require any Government seeking to dissolve this House early and call a general election to first seek and receive the support of a simple majority of the Members of this House.
Last year, when the Bill was first introduced by the Government, it was presented as a non-controversial resetting of a mistake that David Cameron made in his attempts to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. We were told that Cameron had made a bit of a mess of things, that this Bill would simply take us back to exactly where we were prior to 2010, and that we could almost pretend that it never really happened. However, as we have heard in this place and in the Lords, that is not the case. The Bill is not about reinstating what was in place prior to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, but rather creates a situation whereby the Executive have even greater powers and the monarch, who hitherto had prerogative powers, merely enacts the Executive’s will to dissolve Parliament.
This Lords amendment seeks to place a very minimal check on the Executive’s power by making any Dissolution of Parliament a decision that has to have the support of the majority of this House. I do not think that our constituents would think that it is too much to ask for those who have been elected to this place, and who serve their constituents in this place, to have some say if a Parliament is to be dissolved early and a general election called.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, which is typically gracious of him. He calls it a “minimal check,” but the reality is that it is an absolute veto. If a Government do not have a majority in the House and if the Opposition sense that a Government might well win a majority if they went to the people, the Opposition are basically saying, “We are not going to allow the Government to get a mandate from the people.” That is precisely what would have happened in 2019 if Labour had not, for some reason, given way in the end.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but that is a decision for this Parliament to take. We are elected to take decisions, and to abdicate that responsibility to the Executive is a dangerous route to go down; we should not do that. He says that it is the people, but we in this Parliament are the voice of the people, and there has to be a check on the powers of the Executive.
What we are hearing, especially from Government Members, is continued Westminster exceptionalism: that this place, particularly the Executive, once elected, knows what is best. That is why I raised the comparison with the devolved institutions, which operate to strict fixed terms. If they are to devolve early, that has to be a decision taken by the legislature as a whole.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and he is right. What we are seeing is, as he describes it so eloquently, Westminster exceptionalism, because this does not go nearly far enough. It is the absolute minimum that one would expect.
As Tom Fleming of University College London and his colleague Meg Russell, the director of the constitution unit there, said of this Lords amendment:
“Requiring prior Commons approval for an early general election places some check on the executive, while reducing the likelihood of either the monarch or the courts being embroiled in damaging political disputes.”
They are right, but the problem for Tom Fleming and Meg Russell is in believing or hoping that that this Executive would welcome having checks being placed on their power, be they parliamentary or judicial, because they simply do not.
It is very witty to frame this debate in those terms, but I think the right hon. Gentleman is missing the point. This is not about the power to hold a general election; this is about the power being ceded from this place to the Executive and what the Executive choose to do with that power when they get it. I will come on to what their powers could if that happens.
By opposing this Lords amendment, the Government are saying that the decision to dissolve this Parliament and call an election would rest entirely with the Prime Minister, and that that could be done without any parliamentary scrutiny whatsoever and in the absence of any judicial oversight. I suspect that many people watching our proceedings will be surprised to see that the Government are so opposed to the Lords amendment given that it is so limited and that all it seeks is a simple majority in this House.
Is it not strange that Conservative Members who we have had to listen to banging on and on for years about Parliament being sovereign and Parliament having control are now willing to cede that control to the Executive for cheap political gain?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I suspect he may have been reading my speech earlier, because I will come to that issue shortly.
This Government are determined that the Prime Minister, without consultation with or approval from this House and free of the threat of legal challenge, can call a snap general election when it is politically expedient for him so to do. Regardless of what is happening at home or abroad, basically, electoral calculus and the position of the governing party at the time will decide when we have a general election. It is wrong, and I believe it is unacceptable in a modern democracy.
Of course, as my hon. Friend says, a great irony here is that the very limited check that the Government will vote down this evening will be voted down by people who were elected on a promise that this House would take back control. Well, they should realise that they are not taking back control; they are surrendering control. The collective outrage displayed at the general election of 2019 about the perceived emasculation of this Parliament by Brussels and the European Union—they were absolutely determined to restore the sovereignty of what they like to call the mother of Parliaments—is going to look rather hollow when, at the first time of asking, they vote to take powers away from this legislature and hand them over to the Executive. I hope that when they go through the Lobby tonight, they understand that this is not taking back control. Voting with the Government this evening is about this House handing control to the Executive and about abdicating responsibility to the Executive.
At the risk of adding a note of discord, let us have a look at who we will be handing those increased executive powers to. They will be given to a Prime Minister who has illegally prorogued Parliament, who sought to purge his party of all but his most loyal followers, and who had to remove the Whip from a long-standing and highly respected Member simply for being chosen to head a Committee over his preferred candidate. We will be giving greater executive power to a Prime Minister who, in defiance of the security services, ennobled the son of a former KGB officer turned billionaire Russian oligarch, a Prime Minister whose career three weeks ago was hanging by a thread and who has been revealed to be up to his neck in dirty Russian money, and a Prime Minister who is currently under investigation by the Metropolitan police.
If Conservative Members vote to defeat this Lords amendment tonight, that is the character of the man to whom this House will be handing even greater executive power. I advise them to think very carefully about their decision, because this Lords amendment is there to protect the role of the House of Commons, to avoid executive overreach and, ultimately, to protect democracy.
Opposition parties are struggling a bit with this idea of democracy, are they not? Taking back control was to have control by the people and for the people, and offering the people an early general election so that they could choose an effective Government when a Parliament was logjammed, hopeless and not prepared to govern with clarity and passion was the right thing to do. I just cannot understand why Labour and the SNP are still queuing up to defend the indefensible, and to say that because they may well be faced again with a situation in which they do not dare face the electors, they need some kind of legal rigmarole and manipulation of votes in a balanced or damaged Parliament to thwart the popular will yet again. “Never let the people make the decision,” they say: it must be contained within Parliament, even when a Parliament has obviously failed, as it did when it could not implement the wishes of the British people over the great Brexit referendum.
I want assurances from the Minister that this new policy will protect the Crown—the Queen—from the difficult business of politics. I think the Minister’s version of it is better than the version from the other place. Of course, it must keep the courts out. There is nothing more political than the decision about when we go to an election and when we give the people their power back and the right to make that fundamental choice. It is a choice that now can mean something, because we do not have to keep on accepting a whole load of European laws that we have no great role in making. Again, we need that absolute guarantee that we will have this freedom so that that can happen.
Those who say that they do not want the Prime Minister to have this much power have surely been in the House long enough to know that, while the Prime Minister has considerable power from his or her office, they are also buffeted and challenged every day by a whole series of pressures in this place and outside. If a leader of a party with a majority wanted an early election that their supporters did not want, I suspect that that would get sorted out without an early election. So we are only talking about what happens when a Government have lost their majority and the Prime Minister is doing his or her best to govern as a minority. We get the extraordinary position we got when the whole Opposition wanted to gang up to thwart the public making a choice, but did not want to govern. That was totally unacceptable, and the Opposition should hear the message from the doorsteps in the 2019 election. The public wanted a Parliament with a Government who could govern, so they decided to choose one. Those who sought to block it made themselves more unpopular, and they showed that they do not understand the fundamental point of democracy that, when Parliament lets the people down, the people must be able to choose a new and more effective Parliament.
I apologise to the House that, because I have been in Committee Room 10 launching the call for evidence on setting up a national strategy for acquired brain injury, I am afraid I was not able to hear the wonderful speeches that doubtless came from those on the Front Bench—well, on the Opposition side anyway.
I completely agree with what the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) has just said. Yes, I think the people of this country are crying out for a Government who can actually govern. They still were after the general election, and they certainly are at the moment. Yes, of course, the Prime Minister is buffeted, and I think the Prime Minister should be buffeted a bit more, to be honest. What I do not understand is that this is the tiniest, most minimalist check on government that one could imagine. It simply means that a Government, which by definition already has a majority of Members of the House of Commons, should be required to come to the House of Commons to get a vote through to have a general election. It is absolutely minimal.
In nearly every instance, the Opposition will, of course, vote in favour of having a general election, for the obvious reason that we want to replace the Government. It would be a very cowardly Opposition who would vote against an early general election. Personally, I think five years is far too long. Our five-year rule is about the longest anywhere in the world, and I think it should be four years. In many countries in the world it is three years. I am in favour of having general elections more frequently, and in nearly every instance, the Opposition will want an early general election. However, the problem with the way the Government have constructed this provision—and this was a problem in the past—is the “good chaps” theory that presumes that everybody will be a good chap. Historically, it would have been a chap, but it would be a good person.
If Edward VIII had remained as monarch through the second world war and thereafter, and was working with Neville Chamberlain, I can perfectly well imagine that they might have come to very different sets of decisions about whether there should or should not be general elections, because I do not think that they were good chaps. I can easily imagine a time when a Prime Minister would lie to the monarch about why they wanted a dissolution of Parliament. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) who chairs the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, said that the electorate can always deal with that and can see through a politician doing something surreptitious, but I am not sure that is always true. Indeed, I can imagine plenty of nefarious reasons for holding an early general election, either because a Government know of something coming up that the public do not know about, or a set of events that is likely to come round the corner that the Government want to keep hidden from others. That is why I believe we cannot simply have a law that presumes that everybody will always be a good chap in the future.
Is it equally the case that including this vote in the Bill would not mitigate people not being good chaps? If a Prime Minister has a majority and they could get that vote through—who knows what their reasons are—when they see things coming over the horizon that might give them some advantage, it makes it difficult for the monarch to say “no” under the Bill. Is it better to preserve what was best about our constitution before 2010, which relies on the Prime Minister and the monarch being responsible, and the good behaviour that should follow?
I think the danger is precisely the opposite. The arrangements that the hon. Lady would like us to have are ones that put the monarch in a regular position of making a decision, and brings them closely into not only party politics, but sometimes into partisan politics within a political party. It is perfectly possible that a Prime Minister might have lost, or be about to lose, the confidence of their political party, but that political party might still want to govern and carry on under a different leader. In other words, there may be within the House an alternative Government who would be better for the nation.
My other problem is that there seems to be a very high theological understanding of the role of the Executive. I think the former Leader of the House set that going with his rather Stuart early-17th-century understanding of the constitution, which is that basically, as long as the Prime Minister has the confidence of the House of Commons, he or she should be allowed to do pretty much anything and, frankly, parliamentary democracy is a little bit of an irritant. It is worth always bearing in mind that the Executive today is the only body who can ensure that business and legislation are considered, and the only body who decide when Parliament sits, when it will go into recess, and how long it will go into recess for. If we had the same rules today as we had in 1939, nobody would have been able to table an amendment to the recess debate that led to the big row before the beginning of the second world war. Today we have an Executive who are more powerful than they have been at any stage since the early 17th century, and it is time, occasionally, that the House of Commons said, “You know what? We’re a parliamentary democracy. Let’s take just a tiny bit of power into our own hands.”
I will be brief as I gather I have only a few minutes to speak. The Lords amendment would require the House of Commons to give prior approval to a dissolution of Parliament, and that would be done by simple majority rather than the two-thirds majority required by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011. On the face of it, that would be an improvement to the existing position, but it is still something of a half-way house that causes confusion. In the event that a Government lose their ability to command a majority in the House of Commons, it does not automatically follow that the House would vote to approve an election.
For example, it may suit Opposition parties to keep a lame-duck Government in place, so that they can inflict parliamentary defeat after parliamentary defeat, as a means of further undermining confidence in the Government. But in whose interests would that be? Certainly not the interests of the country. As hon. Members have said, we very much saw that in the “zombie” Parliament of 2017-19, when Parliament initially refused to allow an election to take place. The country became ungovernable, and contempt for Parliament rose dramatically—I speak as somebody who was outside Parliament at that time, and who shared in that contempt. I submit that that is not in anyone’s best interests.
We recently heard some confused interventions on this matter from the other place. For example, a Liberal Democrat peer asked:
“But why should a Prime Minister who cannot get a majority of the House of Commons for an election be entitled to a Dissolution?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 February 2022; Vol. 818, c. 1590.]
I am still not sure whether that was a rhetorical question or whether the Lord in question was trying to figure it out for himself. Either way, it is non-sequitur reasoning because in the example he gave, a Government would not seek to dissolve Parliament unless they found it impossible to gain simple majorities in the first place. In my opinion, a rather better, and frankly rather more honest question would be: why would Parliament want to avoid an election, unless it feared that the result would go against its own wishes? That is the real question that those who support the Lords amendment must ask themselves.
There is concern in certain quarters that going to the electorate to seek a new mandate would allow an opportunistic Government to call an election at a convenient time to increase their majority. It is true that the power to call an election gives an advantage to a sitting Government, but that ability is a double-edged sword and can seriously backfire against a Prime Minister seeking to exploit a perceived opportunity. Post-war history is replete with examples of an incumbent Government misreading the political situation, and calling an election that fails to deliver the result they wished for. Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in 1970 and Ted Heath’s Conservative Government in February 1974 are obvious examples of that. Similarly, a failure to call an election can damage an incumbent Government. The obvious recent example would be from 2007 when Gordon Brown publicly flirted with calling an election, only to back off at the last moment and cause irreparable damage to his public image as a result. The power to call an election—or not—does not automatically confer an insuperable advantage on the incumbent Government. The Lords amendment is therefore completely unnecessary, and I will continue to support the Bill as it stands.
Members across the House want the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, but in its defence, it was a creature of its time and it delivered stable government for five years. Let us not reinvent history regarding why it was introduced in the first place. It disappoints me that so much of this debate has been seen through the prism of 2019. That was a unique political position where we were divided by an issue that crossed party and electoral politics. We risk making very bad law on the basis of what happened in that history.
Call me old-fashioned, but I am a romantic when it comes to our constitution. We have an unwritten constitution, and the less of it that is written, the more likely it is to flex to meet those challenges. On that basis I am opposed to the Lords amendment. However, equally, while the Government’s stated ambition is to go back to the status quo ante, the existence of the ouster clause goes beyond that, and the amendment is an alternative to that ouster clause—it is another way of ousting the courts from deliberation on our proceedings—so the ouster clause’s existence makes a strong argument for it as an option.
I regret that we are having this debate. As Conservatives, we ought to stick to the more romantic view of our constitution and be able to expect Prime Ministers to behave well and honourably in their deliberation with monarchs so that monarchs are never put in that difficult position. However, we have the Lascelles principles, which articulate the occasions where the monarch can be empowered to involve themselves in politics, and that should be enough. I recognise that the argument is lost—it was probably lost in 2011 when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed, and it certainly was when we came to the sad events of 2019—but I hope that we can go back to normal.
It is not really for the Scottish National party to defend the Westminster interpretation of democracy, but the Bill, and rejecting the Lords amendment, is such a retrograde step that we must put that on the record and see it as part of a bigger picture. This is not control being taken back by Parliament but control being taken from Parliament by the Executive and, as a number of other hon. Members have said, consolidating power as part of a package of measures—not least the Elections Bill.
The effect of all that is that the next election campaign starts today. Everyone in the Chamber must therefore be aware of what they are doing when they cast their vote on the amendment. The campaigning starts today. The power will end up with the Prime Minister and he alone, without the check of his Cabinet or of this House. That is a significant power grab that will further undermine confidence among the public in the institutions of this place. Again, I say to Government Members that, from an SNP point of view, that is fine in a way. The Bill and the rest of their package of reform is not strengthening the Union. As I said in my interventions, we can look at the systems in place to protect the devolved institutions’ democracies and see how they can dissolve only with the permission of the legislature or must operate to a fixed term that everyone knows in advance, but the Bill is taking this place backwards. It is increasing the divergence on these islands. Once again, from where I am standing, that is fine, but perhaps Government Members ought to think twice about it.
First, may I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) that I, too, am a romantic—that may come as a surprise to the House—especially when it comes to the constitution? I agree that flex is required and that it is highly desirable to have an unwritten constitution that gives us that flex and ability to change things as needed while accepting the conventions of our constitution.
The Lords amendment before the House is not a small amendment; in fact, it is a wrecking amendment as it would convert the whole purpose of the Bill. I can hardly think of anything more democratic than saying: a Government of any particular day might have lost of the confidence of the elected House and will therefore go to the country and ask the people for their view.
I know that the Opposition would not want to go back to 2019 and, as happened then, block a general election three times. That is no doubt why they agreed in their manifesto that the 2011 Act had to go. Let us not allow that to happen again. Let us hand power to the people, let us protect the sovereign from involvement in politics and let us disagree with the Lords amendment.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H(2)), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendment 1;
That Michael Ellis, Michael Tomlinson, Jane Hunt, Ian Levy, Alex Norris, Jessica Morden and Brendan O’Hara be members of the Committee;
That Michael Ellis be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(David T.C. Davies.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.
Professional Qualifications Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 2)
That the Order of 15 December 2021 (Professional Qualifications Bill [Lords] (Programme)) be varied as follows:
(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.
(2) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.—(David T.C. Davies.)