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Early Parliamentary General Election Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:11 pm on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:11 pm, 30th October 2019

My Lords, when the Prime Minister was standing for election as leader of his party—and, therefore, Prime Minister—I asked an esteemed Conservative Minister and parliamentarian of some integrity whom he was voting for. I was surprised when he said Boris Johnson. I suspect he had his misgivings, but his reason was that he thought he was a winner. I countered that Boris Johnson would see Parliament as an inconvenience, and I regret that I am being proved right.

First, we had the unlawful Prorogation, when the Prime Minister attempted to shut down Parliament for five weeks. Then, last week, having gained parliamentary support for the Second Reading of his withdrawal Bill, he pulled the Bill only because MPs would not agree to an unreasonable programme Motion—not, as the noble Baroness said, to any kind of timetable; they would indeed have agreed to a timetable, just not that timetable. All that was being sought on that occasion was the normal and reasonable process of consideration and scrutiny. Then, having won the vote on his Government’s programme for the forthcoming year, he demanded a general election—thus again trying to avoid the normal and reasonable process of scrutiny of his legislation. Then, having failed to get a two-thirds majority for an election at a time of his choosing under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, he was obviously relieved and delighted when the Liberal Democrats and the SNP threw him a lifeline and offered to support an election. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, joked during the Queen’s Speech debate that these days fact is certainly more unbelievable than fiction; he is right. This is a book that nobody would have dared write.

When the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was introduced by the coalition Government, we were told that it would create strong and stable government, even from a minority Government. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who introduced the Bill for the Government, said that this would ensure that election dates would no longer be picked for a narrow, partisan, political advantage. We were given lots of high-minded, constitutional reasons why it was so important, yet our own Constitution Committee admitted to some scepticism, recognising that the Bill’s origins and content,

“owe more to short-term considerations than to a mature assessment of enduring constitutional principles or sustained public demand”.

Basically, the Conservative-led coalition Government sought to bind Parliament to give it a five-year term in power. Having succeeded in that, neither party now sees any further use for the legislation.