I am very glad to follow my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Duncan and the, to my mind, wholly persuasive case he made for the repeal of this legislation.
I should hold my hand up right at beginning. Like, I am sure, most if not all of us here, I think there are votes that with hindsight we regret. I did vote Aye on Second Reading of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act Bill, believing that it was an issue that was worthy of debate in the House, but I am glad to say that I abstained and refused to support the Government on Third Reading.
The case that is made for fixed-term Parliaments rests in part on the assertion that if the Prime Minister is able to pick his or her spot to hold a general election, they can do so to the best party political advantage of their own party. The falsity of that argument was of course conspicuously demonstrated in February 1974, when Ted Heath decided to go to the country on “Who governs Britain?”, and the electorate in their wisdom decided three weeks later: “Not you, Ted.”
I had very valuable and close personal experience of another such demonstration of the falsity of the argument in 1978, when I was Margaret Thatcher’s parliamentary private secretary. We began our usual weekend tour in a washing machine factory in Somerset. At about half-past ten, I had to extract Margaret from her characteristic scientific and housewifely close inspection of a washing machine to tell her that No. 10 had just announced that Prime Minister Jim Callaghan would be making a ministerial broadcast at six o’clock that evening. It was, of course, an electrifying moment. The news could mean only one thing: the Prime Minister was going to call a general election.
So the day proceeded, with mounting excitement. There were hugely growing crowds wherever we went, and a hugely increased number of television crews. Margaret always had a profound sense of Conservative party history, and we ended up, ready to deliver the programmed evening speech, in Tamworth. There we were, at 5.59 pm, in Margaret’s suite at the hotel, when, on the dot, the expected courtesy call came through. The operator said “The Prime Minister’s private secretary is on the phone. He wishes to speak to Mrs Thatcher.”
Margaret, with wonderful aplomb, deputed her diary secretary, Caroline Stevens, to take the call. Caroline took the call, which was very brief, and then said “Mrs Thatcher, the Prime Minister’s private secretary has asked me to tell you that at six o’clock the Prime Minister will make a broadcast announcing that he is not going to call a general election.” No such ministerial broadcast had ever been made before, and I do not think one has been made since.
If Jim Callaghan had gone to the country in October 1978, would he have won? At the time, most of the pundits agreed that it would have been a very, very close-run thing. But, as we all know, after the winter of that year—the winter of discontent—Jim Callaghan’s Government was dead in the water by the following May.
The question with which the Bill presents us is this: what is the right choice once the Government of the day have lost the confidence of this elected House, by however small a majority? Let it not be forgotten that, when we won a no confidence vote before the May 1979 election, we won by a majority of just one. I am absolutely clear in my own mind about what should not happen in such circumstances. No Government should be perpetuated behind closed doors on the basis of “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”. There should be no negotiations between political leaderships with no reference to the House and with no reference whatever to the electorate.
The crucial democratic principle must surely be that the day when an elected Government of this House lose the confidence of this House, by however small a majority, is the day when it is for the British people and the British people alone to decide the future of the Government in a general election.