Orders of the Day — Clause 3. — (Numbers of Holders of Ministerial Offices in House of Commons.)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th December 1964.

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Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale 12:00 am, 10th December 1964

I was in the path of virtue yesterday and again today. Sometimes the path of virtue leads us to support the Government, occasionally to make constructive criticisms, but always the narrow path of virtue is where I seek to tread.

It is extremely difficult to do so after having been provoked by the right hon. Member for Flint, West (Mr. Birch). He is a very strange person to lecture Prime Ministers on whom they should choose and whom they should not choose to have in their administrations. He made some reference to those excluded from the present Administration. I agree that it is a lonely privilege in a sense, but I do not mind the rebuke from those quarters. If I am excluded from an Administration, it is because of a hypothetical assessment of my abilities which may be made by the Government, but when the right hon. Gentleman is excluded from Administrations it is because of soundly based and broad experience.

The right hon. Gentleman was excluded from the Government, or he excluded himself, and every subsequent Conservative Prime Minister took great care not to have the right hon. Gentleman in his Administration again. He is not the best person to lecture us on these matters. If I can give any advice to the present Leader of the Opposition —and I do not have any particular eagerness to assist him—it is, when I see the right hon. Gentleman sneaking back to the Front Bench, not to take that viper to his bosom, because he may be treated by the right hon. Gentleman with the same degree of loyalty which the right hon. Gentleman showed towards the previous right hon. Member for Bromley.

We do not need lectures from the right hon. Gentleman about how Prime Ministers should select Governments, particularly when we know of the circumstances in which he was excluded. The right hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Thorneycroft), when he was excluded from the Government in 1957, during a previous balance of payments crisis, was described as "a local difficulty". How immeasurable must be the insignificance of the right hon. Member for Flint, West, if his leader was a local difficulty. The right hon. Gentleman does not speak with quite the authority in the House of Commons that he pretends.

The right hon. Gentleman gave us a rather selective lecture on the history of these matters, going back to Queen Anne. I do not mind the Government sweeping away Measures operating, introduced or embellished in the days of Queen Anne, but, looking over the history, as I did somewhat to equip myself for this debate. I found one Measure which existed in the days of Queen Anne which I would like my right hon. Friends to reintroduce. In the days of Queen Anne, there was the very agreeable system by which, in order to deal with the delinquencies of their predecessors, incoming Administrations impeached. It would be very agreeable to have that.

Knowing that my right hon. Friends have many other things on their minds, it would be a very good thing if they resurrected the idea of a full-scale impeachment, when we could deal with this situation even more skilfully than we have. I say that especially to show right hon. Gentlemen opposite that I am not in any way prejudiced against Measures introduced or modified in the days of Queen Anne, because that was certainly a Measure which would have come in very handy in October, 1964.

4.30 p.m.

Having said that, there are, in my own opinion, some defects in the Bill. The setting up of the new Ministries is, I think, a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Despite all that was said so tediously yesterday—and it was repeated so that we got the point of what they were trying to say—I seem to recall some important occasions in history when a new Ministry was set up, even though it caused difficulties in enlarging the numbers that had to be brought in to the Government, and even though it caused difficulties with the Civil Service. We were told by the right hon. Gentleman yesterday that the Civil Service was aghast at the consequences of the Bill before us, although, when I interrupted him and asked him to give one single instance of how they were aghast, he said that it was his opinion and that he had no evidence.

There have been cases when the Civil Service has been aghast at what has been done—when all the orthodox people have thought that it should be done in a different way, when everyone has said, "You must not set up a new Ministry", because that would upset the whole patern and mosaic which they like to preserve in Whitehall—but when, in fact, the setting up of such a new Ministry has had beneficial consequences for the nation.

Such an example was the establishment in 1940 of the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Of course, the rest of Whitehall was up in arms. They said that it was outrageous to set up a new Ministry; that it had to be defined carefully. But when that Ministry was set up, there were no explanations given to the House of Commons such as hon. and right hon. Gentlemen were asking for throughout yesterday. They set up that Ministry to get on with the job.