Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:35 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Steel of Aikwood Lord Steel of Aikwood Liberal Democrat 5:35 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, I am sure that I speak for everybody when I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for his sheer persistence on the issue of child refugees, which we all admire—but I am afraid that I, too, will move on to another topic.

As many of your Lordships will recall, I am probably the only person living who has arranged a confidence and supply arrangement in the House of Commons—which is why I look on the present one with considerable misgiving. In 1977 I led just 14 MPs; the DUP has 10. The first thing that we should note is that such an arrangement is far from being a coalition: the tail should not expect to wag the dog.

We have a Prime Minister who is, to coin a phrase, “just about managing”—but at a huge price. I am not referring just to the pork barrel aspect of the deal with the DUP. The photographs in front of No. 10 are more reminiscent of the rose garden coalition of 2010. You will not find a single photograph of the then Prime Minister with the leader of the Liberal Party in 1977—except at the Cenotaph when we had Margaret Thatcher safely separating us.

A confidence and supply agreement is just that. The DUP said immediately after the election that it would support the Government in the national interest. That should have been the end of the story, and the Conservative journalist Simon Heffer has written that Mrs May’s colleagues are,

“alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP”.

In 1977 I talked with the Prime Minister on a Monday evening and the Lib-Lab pact, as it became known, was agreed by the Cabinet on the Wednesday morning. Today, as then, we were faced with the stark choice of inflicting on the country a third general election in three years or supporting the Government in the national interest in the midst of what was then a financial crisis and now is a Brexit crisis. It worked: the pound immediately rose substantially and over the next 16 months we greatly reduced the destructive rate of inflation. Sadly, James Callaghan decided not to go to the country in the autumn of 1978 after the end of our agreement and soldiered on into the “winter of discontent”.

Today’s long drawn-out and unnecessary negotiations are what the former Conservative Party chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, has rightly called “toxic”. That is not just because of the extra money which Scotland and Wales will regard with justified anger, remembering that per head of population Northern Ireland already receives 21% more public expenditure than the rest of the UK—rightly so—and not even because of the DUP’s prehistoric views on gay rights, abortion and climate change. However, in common with the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Reid, I am concerned about the peace process in Northern Ireland, which is so precious to all of us in the UK. Sir John Major has warned of the dangers to it. I have great respect for the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, but he has been put in an impossible position as a supposedly honest broker. If the restoration of devolved government to the Province mentioned by the Minister in her opening speech is not achieved by the deadline this week, he may have to step aside to allow perhaps yet another Senator Mitchell to act as an impartial referee instead. Furthermore, the Government of the Irish Republic must now be wondering what the chances are of maintaining a barrier-free border post Brexit.

The present cobbled-together, extorted and extortionate arrangement reflects badly on the Prime Minister. She will get her programme through the Commons in the short run, but at a terribly damaging price. Strong and stable it is not.