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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:29 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Hendon Baroness Miller of Hendon Conservative 3:29 pm, 27th May 2010

Yes, of course, it does not include us in this House.

What we witnessed in the five days after election night is but a foretaste of what we can expect if the country turns to proportional representation: days of beer and sandwiches-type haggling and the wholesale abandonment of manifesto commitments made to one side or another. Five days is nothing. In future, it could easily be more. Germany took 40 days to form its current Government, while Belgium was without a Government for six months.

In the recent events, we also saw the Liberal Democrats announcing in advance that they had the moral obligation to negotiate with the Conservatives. Then, at the last minute, they entered into secret negotiations with Labour. I had visions in those hours of my party being humiliatingly jilted at the altar. The words of the old music hall song came to mind, although I will not sing it:

"Can't get away to marry you today. My wife won't let me".

But what does this conduct say for the hopes of future good faith in a coalition? Trust is an essential ingredient.

That brings me to the first of my two questions on the present situation as it affects your Lordships' House, as it is still called, at least for the moment. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, touched on the first one in moving the Motion on the adjournment on Tuesday when she pointed out the strange bedfellows that a coalition makes. In the past, I have referred to Members of the Liberal Democrat benches as "the noble Lord" so and so. In the rose garden, the Deputy Prime Minister referred to his "colleagues" and to a "partnership". Am I supposed to say "my noble colleague" or "my noble partner"? Actually, it has been made clear by my noble friend Lord McNally that "my noble friend" will do. That at least sounds nicer. However, I must point out one thing to my noble friend, which the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, also pointed out-the less than supportive attitude that my party and its policies have often received from the Liberal Democrats in the past. A Member of the other place beat me to it by voicing the same question on Tuesday. I was going to consult the Leader of the House or the learned Clerk, but I shall take my noble friend's advice and leave it there.

There is another major and far more serious, indeed basic, constitutional measure about which I have great reservations-the requirement for a majority of 55 per cent to secure a Dissolution of Parliament before the expiry of the proposed fixed term. I do not believe that a centuries-old democratic convention can simply be demolished by Parliament without a referendum or some discussion, especially by a Parliament in which no party has a majority and no party included the suggestion in its manifesto. The convention is basic: a Government who cannot command even a simple majority of Members of the other place have to fall.

As Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister rightly and insistently, but fruitlessly, demanded a referendum on the Lisbon treaty because it gave away so much of our national sovereignty. Yet here he is preparing to legislate away a major concept of parliamentary supremacy, the unfettered power to dismiss a Government with a minimum majority vote. I remind your Lordships that, with a 55 per cent rule in place, Chamberlain could have claimed to have morally survived the vital vote just 70 years ago, on May 7 1940, because he had a 58 per cent majority. Even if this arrangement is sanctioned by an Act of Parliament, which I predict will have a difficult passage in your Lordships' House, I point out that one Parliament cannot bind its successors and cannot even be bound not to repeal a law that it has itself recently passed.

I have to ask what credibility a lame duck Prime Minister would have if he lost a vote of confidence by even the "one is enough" described by Disraeli 130 years ago. Also, what influence would a Prime Minister have over his own fractious Back-Benchers, or in this case also a mutinous coalition partner, which came third in the recent election, if he abandoned the power to request the Dissolution of Parliament? The composition of the other place is such that the joint votes of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats can barely muster the 55 per cent between them. Even if the Lib Dems do not abandon ship for some reason in, say, year four, it will take only a couple of Back-Benchers anxious about their minuscule majorities to veto any resolution. The whole concept is impractical, if not nonsensical, as well as-and this is the important thing-unconstitutional.

The Prime Minister has also announced that Mr Clegg will be consulted on ministerial appointments and sackings. What happens if Mr Clegg does not like the changes or objects to one of his nominees being sacked or moved? There is plenty of scope for disharmony in the present superficially cosy partnership. The unfettered power of patronage to appoint and dismiss Ministers, to promote those worthy of advancement and to replace those who fail is a most important instrument of prime ministerial authority, as well of good government. Now it is being severely constrained, to say the least. These proposed constitutional changes bring to mind the aphorism used in his resignation speech by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, to whom the Prime Minister was once an adviser:

"We give the impression of being in office but not in power".-[Hansard, Commons, 9/6/93; col. 285.]

These problems have been created because of a shotgun marriage between the two parties, which was clearly cobbled together in frenetic negotiations over a couple of days in a conclave held in the Cabinet Office, without the benefit of the advice of constitutional lawyers. As the old adage says, "Marry in haste and repent at leisure".

Speaking as a party activist, and a Whip when we were last in Government, I would sometimes have to remind voters-and even MPs on occasions-unwilling to support part of our programme that being a Conservative was not like going into a restaurant and choosing from an à la carte menu. The manifesto is a table d'hôte. I would tell them that that is what they had to do: they had to swallow the whole package. Following my advice, in my 17 years as a Member of your Lordships' House, I have never voted against my party's Whip. However, in common with other colleagues with whom I have spoken in recent days, I feel that it will be a struggle to support some of the constitutional matters at issue at present.

Your Lordships will notice that I have confined my observations to the constitution, which I love. Some of us on the Conservative Benches are derisively and condescendingly referred to by the media as the "party faithful". I wear that badge faithfully and proudly. But I am also faithful to the constitution and the constitutional conventions of this country and Parliament and I will not see them lightly diminished.