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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:43 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench 4:43 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I join others who have so warmly and sincerely congratulated the new Ministers. I also appreciate the tributes that were so properly paid to those who have been translated from ministerial office to opposition spokesmen.

I shall speak to two matters in the Queen's Speech, which stated:

"My Government will propose Parliamentary and political reform to restore trust in democratic institutions and rebalance the relationship between the citizen and the state. Measures will be brought forward to introduce fixed term Parliaments of five years".

Perhaps I may comment on that latter statement. It will be noticed that reference is made in the plural to "Parliaments", but the Prime Minister says that the provision now adumbrated is in respect of this Parliament only. Is that a clerical error, or has there been a change of heart on the part of the Her Majesty's Government? We will welcome a statement on that in due course.

In relation to fixed-term Parliaments and to the sovereignty that is vested not in any institution but in the ordinary people, a great deal can be said with regard to the matters suggested here. One thing that you cannot have is fixed-term parliaments on the one hand and a greater exercise of sovereignty by the ordinary people on the other hand. Let me give this instance. A Prime Minister dies; one died in 1923-Bonar Law. A Prime Minister resigns on account of chronic ill health, as did Anthony Eden. A Prime Minister may find himself so much in opposition with his own party that there is no alternative. Most people would argue that it is utterly proper, all things being equal, that a fresh mandate should be sought by that new Prime Minister. That was the clarion call of the Conservative Party three years ago when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair, and I thought that there was a great deal of sense in it. Had Mr Brown taken that course, he might very well be Prime Minister today-but that is another matter. What you cannot have is a situation of a fresh mandate for a fresh Prime Minister, when Prime Ministers are becoming more presidential all the time, and at the same time have fixed Parliaments. There is a price to be paid for everything and, very often, although these views are honourably held, they are antithetical to each other.

There are arguments for and against fixed parliaments, and one could say that they are very much like curates' eggs-good only in parts. A very substantial statement was made 12 months ago by a very well known public personage, who said that there was a case in favour of fixed parliaments and then went on to say this:

"I know there are strong political and moral arguments against fixed-term parliaments. Political-because there's nothing worse than a lame-duck government with a tiny majority limping on for years. And moral-because when a Prime Minister has gone into an election, and won it promising to serve a full term, but hands over to an unelected leader half-way through, the people deserve an election as soon as possible".

Of course, the author of those words is the right honourable David Cameron in May last year. As the House will have noticed, when he put the matter in the balanced way that he did, his words did not exactly light up with incandescent fervour for the idea of fixed parliaments.

When I first heard of the proposal of fixed parliaments with the 55 per cent rule written in as part of the structure of such an institution, I was horrified. It seemed to me that when a Prime Minister had been defeated, albeit by a single vote, there was no alternative but for that person to go to Buckingham Palace and surrender the seals of office. I accept the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, that of course one should distinguish between the fall of a Prime Minister and the Dissolution of a Parliament. But to say that that Administration or political structure and that party or those parties would still remain in power unless there was a 55 per cent defeat would create an impossible situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton, with his usual statesmanlike and scholarly approach to the question asked what the genesis was of the 55 per cent. In my cynical old age, I believe that the 55 per cent was decided on because it was 2 per cent more than 53 per cent. And what is 53 per cent? It is that proportion of Members in the House of Commons who are not Conservative Members. The Conservative Party has 47 per cent and the Opposition, as it were, 53 per cent, so 55 per cent leaves a margin beyond that.

A totally new factor has now come into the situation, which was referred to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who spoke of the speech made by Mr David Heath, the parliamentary secretary to the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, on Tuesday night. I have read through that speech a number of times and have found it somewhat confusing, but ultimately one comes to a passage on which I should be grateful if the House would concentrate for a moment. Mr Heath said:

"Returning to where a vote of no confidence has taken place, it is extraordinary to suggest that there would be circumstances in which this House would refuse to vote for a Dissolution when it was clear that a Dissolution and a new general election were the only way forward. However, even given that, we are putting forward"- and this is the new matter-

"the automatic Dissolution proposal, as a safeguard that we will make part of the legislation, if no new Prime Minister can be appointed within a certain number of days. It seems to me that that is appropriate".-[Hansard, Commons, 25/5/10; col. 150.].

Mr Heath went on to say that the period could be 20, 30 or 35 days; it matters not.

In fact, 55 per cent is not part of that basic structure as has been suggested. If a Prime Minister had been defeated and given up the seals of office there is a period of 30 days for a successor to decide whether he or she can form a Government. If such a Government is formed, the 55 per cent does not really come into it. If it cannot be formed, then that Government has fallen, not because of the 55 per cent but because of the automatic Dissolution system. That being so, one then asks what is the purpose of the 55 per cent. I think that it was intended to be an instrument to be used in terrorem against the Liberal Democrats. Put another way, it is an instrument-a chastity belt-to prevent the Liberal Democrats jumping into bed with any other political association. If that is the case, and I believe it to be so, we should look at these arrangements and proposals exactly in that cynical light.