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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

The noble Lord tempts me, and I have to say I would argue that case. Whether my party would fully accept everything I want in the manifesto is another matter, but I would certainly argue for it, because what is happening at the moment is that every time the Fixed-term Parliaments Act becomes inconvenient, the Government and their supporters could bring forward a Bill such as this in order to do away with it. Already, the Act has become nonsense.

During the Queen’s Speech debate, I joked that the first Bill in the Government’s programme would be a “Fixed-term Parliaments (Repeal) Bill”. I thought I was being clever—I have to say that my grandmother would have said I was being “too clever by half”. It was a joke, but I think it would have been a lot more honourable and honest to bring forward that kind of legislation. Perhaps the noble Lord and I could have a conversation afterwards, because if he wants to bring a Private Member’s Bill, I think it would find a fair amount of support in the House.

In that speech, I also joked about not having had a Queen’s Speech or Prorogation for more than two years, and then expecting two or even three in quick succession. I really was only joking, but some might now suspect I have a crystal ball in my office. The programme for government that we heard less than three weeks ago was, as we said at the time, a test run for the Conservative Party election manifesto rather than a serious programme for the coming year, but even we did not imagine that the election would be quite so blatantly soon. I have to say that the Tory Party’s enthusiasm for a general election every time it changes leader is proving to be rather expensive for the taxpayer. With a general election, a new Parliament and yet another Queen’s Speech all within a matter a months, perhaps the normally Conservative-supporting TaxPayers’ Alliance, with its diligent examination of public spending, will be sending an invoice to the Tory Party for the October event. If not, I might just be tempted to do so myself.

So much seems to have changed since 19 October. As we sat on a Saturday to consider the Government’s Brexit deal, I reflected that time and patience was running out for everybody: the public, the politicians and the EU. A situation without resolution was unacceptable to everybody. The bungling of Brexit has fractured our nation and divided friends, families and our politics. If MPs were unable to reach a conclusion on the slightly revamped but inferior deal, I conceded that the way forward would have to be to ask the public to consider the issue. The stalemate in Parliament has made me think again about a confirmatory referendum. A bit like in The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes,

“when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.

As I said then, if this was the best Brexit, one that a Brexit-supporting Prime Minister said was “a great deal”, then we should all have the confidence to ask the public if they agree. At the time, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, speaking for his party, agreed with me. He said—and I am sure that he will not mind me quoting him—that his party was,

“absolutely sure that an early general election would deliver it many more seats. The same cannot be said for the Conservatives or Labour”— we will see about that—

“yet we do not believe it is in the national interest to have one”.—[Official Report, 19/10/19; col. 289.]

As my hero, Harold Wilson, would have said: “A week is a long time in politics”.

I said that my party will not stand in the way of this election: our doubts have been only about the timing, rather than the event itself, which we have been calling for and planning for for so long. I was sorry that our amendment in the other place for an earlier date was rejected. I wonder how tolerant a politics-weary electorate will be about interrupting their Christmas preparations to consider party manifestos. I hope that no party will be tempted to dress their leader in Santa costumes.

Let us be clear, first, that a general election is not just about Boris Johnson’s pledge to “do or die” or “Get Brexit done”. Those soundbites are about as meaningless as Theresa May’s “Brexit means Brexit”. A referendum would have been about the single issue of Brexit, but a general election is about so much more. It is about a vision for the direction of this country, and the Conservative Party will have to stand on its record. By contrast, we have an offer that will make a real difference for the people of this country in health, education, the environment, with a new generation of affordable homes and renters’ rights, free personal care for our loved ones who are most in need and a genuine transformative vision to support our economy and workers in creating the green future that we need. Inevitably, it will also be about the damage that a Johnson Brexit or a crash-out Brexit would do to our country.

Secondly, I make a plea for decency and integrity in campaigning. To hear a Conservative MP say that the country needs an election to “drain the swamp”, and other such inflammatory and disgraceful comments, is both sickening and dangerous. A general election based on the denigration of MPs from any party or all parties, who have been charged with the most difficult decisions and negotiations for a generation, would further undermine any public confidence in our politics. We expect our candidates and leaders to behave with the dignity that office demands, and we must pledge to do all we can to uphold that. If this election is truly to resolve the divisions largely caused by the bungling of Brexit, all parties must seek to heal as well as to win.