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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:58 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Labour 5:58 pm, 27th May 2010

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, in an excellent speech, mentioned the no confidence vote in 1979. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, will remember what Jim Callaghan said describing that event-"Turkeys voting for an early Christmas". I assume that it is that memory that has led the noble Lord to argue for a fixed-term Parliament, so that if the turkeys with whom he now associates lose a vote of confidence, they will not have to leave government.

What a marvellous sight the coalition is! The language of Cameron and Clegg is the language of love. It reminds me painfully of those "Spitting Image" programmes in the 1980s. Do noble Lords remember the noble Lords, Lord Owen and Lord Steel, and the boy David nurtured in the arms of the noble Lord, Lord Owen? They had to choose a name for the leader and David Owen suggested that there should be one name from the Liberals-say, David-and one name from the SDP-say, Owen.

New politics-a coalition, and an opportunity to achieve through Parliament changes to the constitution which could be for the benefit of the whole country. There is a huge opportunity offered by this new politics, one which is in the process of being horribly lost. At the heart of the constitutional proposals are attempts to reduce the ability of Parliament to stand up to and restrain the Executive; proposals to prevent the Commons from forcing an election; proposals to make this House a creature of the Executive-something that it has not been since the late 1950s, when this House did not even bother to have votes, because a Tory Government down the road and all the Tories here did not think it worth while.

I think that a fixed-term Parliament is a good idea; it is a good idea to take away from the Prime Minister of the day the power to determine the date of the election. But depriving him of that power has to be consistent with the basic principle of our constitution-that the Government are selected by the House of Commons and survive only as long as they enjoy a majority in the House of Commons. For well over 110 years, whenever a vote of confidence has been lost in the House of Commons, the Government then go straight to the country. Why is that? It should not be us or them down there who choose who should be the next Government; it should be the public who choose.

Mr David Heath, the deputy leader of the House of Commons, suggested that there was an exception to that, when Mr Stanley Baldwin was defeated at the end of 1923 and Mr Ramsay MacDonald formed the first Labour Government. What happened in 1923 was that Mr Stanley Baldwin was defeated on the King's Speech. The position should clearly be that if the Government fail to get the confidence of the House of Commons after an election, the right thing is not to ask the public to think again in a new election, but then and only then to choose a new Government in the Commons.

The twin aims of depriving the Prime Minister of the right to fix the election date while preserving the bedrock principle that if the Government lose the confidence of the House they should call an election can be achieved with a Bill that said that there should be a fixed-term parliament of X years subject to the PM having an obligation to advise Her Majesty to have a general election when his Government had obtained the confidence of the House of Commons but then been defeated on an opposition vote of confidence. That would meet every aim that the coalition has. Why on earth has it proposed this 55 per cent? As my noble friend Lord Hunt said, a whole variety of different reasons have been suggested. But think what the consequences of that 55 per cent are. First, it means that this Government are not affected by the fixed-term Act because they have more than 55 per cent of the MPs. Secondly, well over half the years since 1945 have involved Governments with more than 55 per cent of the MPs, so it is likely that in years to come this provision would not apply to most Governments. Thirdly, what would happen if the coalition split up? Fifty-three per cent is the number of non-Tory MPs in the Commons. If there was a vote of confidence-