Queen's Speech — Debate (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:18 pm on 18th November 2009.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Leader in the House of Lords, Spokesperson for Constitutional Affairs , Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 4:18 pm, 18th November 2009

Listen, my Lords. I have a definition of being a Chief Whip:

"Being chief whip is a case of endeavouring to give information early and being very pleasant to people".

That is the opinion of my noble friend Lord Shutt. It certainly fits, especially with an enforcer like Josie.

My first and most pleasant duty is to add my congratulations to the proposer and seconder of the humble Address. The noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, as the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, reminded us, has had a most distinguished trade union career, followed by an equally successful ministerial career. She is now one of the grandes dames of the House, sitting usually on the Privy Council Bench like a Baroness Trumpington in waiting. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, comes to us with an outstanding record of community and educational service on both sides of the Pennines. I can bring to the House the information that that record is approved by no less a person than the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, of Pendle. Ministers will know that it is not the easiest thing to get the seal of approval from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, of Pendle. Indeed, successive leaders of the Liberal Democrats have found that it is not that easy.

Although he is no longer in his place, I shall use this opportunity to welcome back to the House the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, who gave us a scare a few weeks ago. However, it has now been made clear to him that in no way can he leave us until he has given us the answer to the Barnett formula.

One of the pleasures of speaking in this slot at the very beginning of the Queen's Speech debate is that it gives me the opportunity to follow my very good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. As he has reminded us, it is his 11th speech as Leader of the Opposition. That continuity encouraged me to do a little historical research. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, has now been Leader of the Opposition for longer than the 10-year record in the 20th century of the noble Lord, Lord Richard. I researched further and found that only Lord Derby in the 19th century spent longer as opposition leader-17 years. Tom, I tell you with all sincerity that there are many in this House who would like to see you go on and beat Lord Derby's record.

Last year I introduced the concept of "boing" into our study of politics. For those noble Lords who were not awake at the time, "boing" is the phenomenon, rather like the echo of Big Ben across the Thames from St Tommy's hospital, whereby a good idea from the Liberal Democrats is played back a short time later as government policy. The concept is now so fully accepted that I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is running seminars on it at the University of Hull.

This year I should like to bring another concept-"pouffe". "Pouffe" is what happens when a notable talent joins the Prime Minister's Government as one of the GOATs. They appear at the Dispatch Box; we all admire them-and then "pouffe". The noble Lord, Lord Jones-"pouffe". The noble Lord, Lord Carter-"pouffe". The noble Baroness, Lady Vadera-"pouffe". The noble Lord, Lord Darzi-"pouffe". The noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown-"pouffe".

There are two notable exceptions. Who can read the first lines of the epic poem "Casabianca" without bringing into mind the behaviour of the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead? We all know the first lines:

"The boy stood on the burning deck,

Whence all but he had fled".

The admiral, good sailor that he is, has clearly decided to go down with the ship. In contrast is the case of the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, who seems to have gone from landing stage to lifeboat without bothering to join the ship at all. [Laughter.]The Benches opposite are not supposed to laugh at that. The noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, is not laughing.

The sad fact is that the Prime Minister is now a very lonely goatherd. There is a death rattle about the Government that the gracious Speech did little to dispel. On both the economy and constitutional reform, there is a desperate scramble to get on the record intentions to do things that have been left undone. On the economy, recent events have made a mockery of the Prime Minister's hubris in his decade-long claim to have removed boom and bust from the economic cycle, based on a housing bubble and loose credit. On constitutional reform, the Government do not have even the fig leaf of world events to cover their failures. It is almost beyond belief that a Labour Government, equipped with large parliamentary majorities, which would have been increased further by support from the Liberal Democrats, waited until the last six months of their third Parliament to bring forward ideas on electoral reform, Commons reform and Lords reform.

The rush of good intentions is easy to understand. The electorate now see clearly that reform is a matter not just for anoraks who attend Constitution Unit and Hansard Society seminars. People now understand that there is a direct linkage between the quality of the rules that govern our politics and the quality of governance that such rules provide. As one newspaper put it the other day, if the Conservatives emerge from the upcoming election with a 5 per cent lead in the popular vote but without a parliamentary majority, even they might concede that the present voting system frustrates rather than reflects the will of the people.

As for Lords and Commons reform, the sad truth is that this Labour Government have missed the boat and the Conservatives have never wanted to catch it in the first place. Voters in the general election will be left in no doubt that only a vote for the Liberal Democrats will guarantee that electoral and parliamentary reform are pursued with the vigour that the present crisis of confidence in our politics demands.

In the mean time, we will look at the constitutional measures in the Queen's Speech and those presently before Parliament with an eye to the national good. We are not interested in simply making running repairs to the reputation of a Government who have spent 10 years arguing in Cabinet and dithering in government.

As my right honourable friend Nick Clegg has pointed out, this gracious Speech is no more than a charade concocted by a Government who have run out of ideas but who dare not go to the country. As a result, we find ourselves in a political never-never land of the Government's own making. We will co-operate with those measures where urgency is required-for example, the digital revolution mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Patel. The technological changes around it do not work to a government or parliamentary timetable, so we will help where we can with the Digital Britain Bill.

Let me lay down a marker, however, to both Labour and Conservative parties: whatever Faustian pacts for electoral support they try to make with international media moguls, we on these Benches will fight tooth and nail to protect the integrity of our public service broadcasting. The battle will go beyond the Digital Britain Bill and the general election and into the next Parliament, but I am grateful to Mr James Murdoch, the Sunnewspaper and the behaviour of Fox News in the United States for so clearly drawing the battle lines. I find it shaming to watch the government and opposition parties fawning over people to whom Mr Baldwin or Mr Attlee would not have given the time of day. I know that times have changed, but being the best politician a media mogul can buy does not seem to me to be a qualification for high office.

I have reached the point in my speech where I usually promise the Government support where we think that their proposals are good and constructive criticism where we think that they are bad. However, over the next week, my colleagues will use the debate on the gracious Speech to look beyond this charade within a charade. We will expose the quite literal bankruptcy of the Government's case, but we shall also point out that a Conservative Party that aspires to lead must explain how it intends to defend Britain's interest in trade talks, climate change, energy security or the war on drug trafficking, people trafficking and terrorism while alienating itself from the broad centre right in Europe and making common cause with its more eccentric fringes. Indeed, there was a timely warning on that from the Lord Mayor in this week's Mansion House speech.

My party has a more solid bedrock of support than it has had in over 80 years. It has demonstrated its capacity to take responsibility in government in six out of our eight largest cities. It has been shown to be right on the major issues of the day-on the environment, Iraq, the economy and the urgent need for radical constitutional reform to bring fair votes and a clean Parliament. Like the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, we will do our job on these Benches as long as the Government keep us here, but we are ready to take our case to the country whenever the Government dare to go. In the mean time, new Labour can take satisfaction in the fact that the song that it came in singing is now sung by the whole country-"Things Can Only Get Better".