Debate on the Address

Part of Sessional Orders – in the House of Commons at 6:32 pm on 23rd October 1996.

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Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , The Wrekin 6:32 pm, 23rd October 1996

One of the unusual characteristics of the debate has been the number of hon. Members who have announced that this is to be their last Parliament, and that only a few weeks remain until they leave the House. The four who come into that category are in the happy position of having been able to announce a decision that they have made for themselves. I look forward to a day, some time between now and next May, when a large number of others will join them in retirement, most of them involuntarily and most, of course, on the Conservative Benches. Indeed, I expect that to happen.

Perhaps hon. Members mellow as the years go by, but one of the pleasures of listening to some of the speeches was the fact that I could agree with a fair deal of what was said, particularly the comments of the hon. Member for New Forest (Sir P. McNair-Wilson) about the middle east and the need for us to recognise that the Palestinians must see concrete results from the peace process. I can only say amen to that.

Those of us who are present this evening are probably quite an unusual group, in that we are discussing the Queen's Speech. I do not expect the traffic to be stopped anywhere in the United Kingdom by throngs of people wanting to examine its finer points, and I sense no frisson of excitement across the nation among those who have heard what the Government have in store for us. There are several reasons why that would never have been the case.

For one thing, this is not really a proper Queen's Speech at all. It contains a programme not for a Government who seriously contemplate being in office not just for a full year—that is certainly not possible—but for a moment longer than a point that they vainly hope will arrive: the point at which they can call a general election that they have a chance of winning. We all know perfectly well that what happens to the Queen's Speech will be determined by the opinion polls, and by when the Prime Minister judges that he can call an election that he stands a chance of winning.

One of the many odd characteristics of the Prime Minister's position is that we have been told by all the briefing that we had from the Tory party conference, and by all the spin doctors of whom we keep being reminded, how anxious the Prime Minister is to get to the hustings, get back on to the soap box and go and meet the people. We have been told how he loves elections, campaigning and electioneering. Strangely, although the Prime Minister allegedly loves all those things, he seems desperately anxious to avoid actually pressing the button—for he, of course, is the only person who can ensure that an election will take place.

I appeal to the Prime Minister: if his enthusiasm for elections matches his enthusiasm for Chelsea football club, why does he not announce the election that the country needs so badly? Until he at least has the nerve to face the public, we shall all be in limbo for what could be a prolonged period.

This is an unusual Queen's Speech debate in another respect—and I have attended a number of such debates over the years. The only concrete guarantees of legislation that have resulted from today's debate have been the consequence of an initiative from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. The only certainty about the Queen's Speech—the only thing that we know will happen—is that two Bills will become law, both pressed by private Members and repeatedly asked for by the Labour party. One will establish a register of paedophiles; the other will deal with the menace of stalking.

Those proposals were not to be contained in the Queen's Speech. They were to be left to the accidents of private Members' legislation. Thanks to my right hon. Friend's initiative, however, they are to go on to the statute book. This must be the first occasion on which a Leader of the Opposition has announced legislation, or guaranteed its passage, during a debate on a Queen's Speech promoted by the other party.

Let me now spend some moments doing what has been done by one or two Members who are retiring—although it is emphatically not my intention to retire, provided that the people of The Wrekin do the same by me as they have at the two most recent general elections—and take a little trip down memory lane. If the current Parliament endures until the last reasonable date—local election day, 1 May next year—it will be exactly 18 years since the Government came to power, which, as many of us will remember, they did on local election day in 1979. I vividly remember, perhaps as well as anyone else here, the day after that election, or around that time, when the then Prime Minister, now Lady Thatcher, stood on the steps of 10 Downing street and quoted St Francis of Assisi.