My Lords, over the last few days the constantly muddled and largely misleading comments on the proper constitutional role of your Lordships’ House have persuaded me that I should spend a few minutes on that this evening, because obviously it affects every single proposal in the gracious Speech.
Last week, my noble friend Lord Purvis reminded the House that we are all minorities now. The Prime Minister’s Faustian pact with the DUP yesterday does not change that. It follows, therefore, that not only is the Salisbury-Addison convention irrelevant—indeed, it was declared dead and buried by the 2006 Select Committee on parliamentary conventions, on which I served—but all the other conventions do not really apply either, except, of course, that which relates to the primacy of the elected other place.
Let me explain. This is not a coalition. It has no fully agreed programme of government, supported by a majority of MPs elected in the previous general election. It therefore has no manifesto mandate. With many others, I permitted myself a hollow laugh when the noble Lord, Lord Barker, said on television that he would have preferred a repeat of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat “strong and stable coalition”. Alone of all the Governments in my political lifetime, the 2010 coalition was a true majority Government. They were supported by a clear majority of those who voted. They could legitimately claim that the conventions redefined by the Select Committee report and approved by both Houses did apply. This Government cannot so claim.
In short, the committee briefly examined the circumstances of a minority Government but could reach no agreement and made no recommendations for the role of your Lordships’ House whatsoever in such circumstances, as referred to by my noble friend Lord McNally. We are now in a completely new situation.
Many in the House served in the short Parliament of 1974, as I did as an MP. Indeed, my noble friends Lord Beith and Lord Steel were very active Members, as we had to be in that Parliament. Even that short Parliament does not provide a firm precedent for our situation now, because there was then the presence of a large number of Conservative hereditary Peers in this House, and it was still largely a bilateral House in the other place, so of course the Salisbury-Addison agreement was thought to be generally applicable.
In any case, Prime Minister Wilson craftily avoided any controversial or contentious legislation for the whole of that summer, and simply waited for his opportunity to achieve a working majority. Anyone who thinks that is the situation now is well away in a fool’s paradise. Brexit is clearly very contentious, and I do not think the Prime Minister is going back to the polls.
This has urgent and vital lessons for all parts of this House, but especially for those of us who believe that Mrs May’s appeal to the country to back her approach on Brexit manifestly failed. In particular, those who have resolutely argued for a very different approach—on the Conservative, Labour and Cross Benches, as well as my colleagues here—have a constitutional duty, as well as a right, to stick to our judgment of what is in the country’s best interests in these circumstances. I trust that the Labour Front Bench will no longer simply roll over at the first whiff of pong in ping-pong.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, has a fully justified reputation for personal integrity, but she should bear in mind that the majority of Labour voters, particularly younger ones, have now twice said that they have a more positive view of the relationship with the EU than Messrs Corbyn and McDonnell. The Labour leadership in the Commons may still regard the single market as a capitalist conspiracy, but most of their voters do not. She and her colleagues really do not have to just suspend their own judgment, or desert those Labour voters. We should all take note of the copious signs of opinion, in the country as a whole, calling for a fresh approach. Some 69% now record support for continuing in the customs union and 53% want the public to decide, in a referendum, whether or not to accept the Brexit deal, rather than politicians.
With a minority Administration, not a coalition, this House has an overriding obligation to examine everything put before us with “extra special care”—I quote the words of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to the Conventions Committee on this issue. And, yes, that applies as much to the flood of secondary Brexit-related legislation that we are told to expect as to the Bills themselves. How ironic: this process could end up with Parliament taking back control, with your Lordships’ House in the vanguard.