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Early Parliamentary General Election Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:12 pm on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 5:12 pm, 30th October 2019

I would be surprised if our successors agreed to that, but stranger things have happened. There might be a statue to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, before there is one to Boris Johnson.

My reservations are partly constitutional and partly concern the effectiveness of this election on Brexit. My first constitutional point has largely been covered by my noble friend Lord Puttnam. There is a real danger of our political process being corrupted by nefarious forces engaging in digital intervention. We know of various groups who intend to do so, and I have not even spoken to Moscow yet. There is a danger, therefore, of this being the first really seriously disputed election because of unlawful intervention.

My second constitutional point is the more profound one also made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I always had my doubts about the Fixed-term Parliaments Act but, in the end, I went along with it. Since then, however, we have had two elections within two years, and a more honest description of the Bill would be “Delete the title ‘Fixed-term Parliaments Act’ and substitute ‘Two-yearly Elections Act’”. That is where we are. When Oliver Cromwell spoke to the rump Parliament, it had been there a decade, if not more. This Parliament has sat for precisely one Session. It is not a precedent that I hope we follow. The House of Lords has a reputation for being the guardian of our constitution, and we should at least put down a marker that this should not be seen as a precedent for future Governments and Houses of Commons. We should look, perhaps in a broader constitutional convention, at the length of our parliamentary Sessions.

My political point relates to the designation of this election as a Brexit election, and the slogan that the Prime Minister is apparently likely to use: “Let’s get Brexit done”. We all know that it will do nothing of the sort. Even this stage of Brexit is not clear. Parliament has not yet fully debated the withdrawal agreement arrangements or the Northern Ireland protocol, or indeed the political declaration. The issues raised by businesses and citizens around the country about our future relationship, trading and security arrangements with Europe will not be resolved by this election; they will not be resolved by 31 January; and they stand a good chance of not being resolved at the end of the transition period. If the public are expecting Brexit to be resolved by this general election, or by returning Boris Johnson and his manifesto, they will be very sadly disappointed. That will not resolve the conflicts in our country—it will make them worse.

I am not sure of the best way to resolve them. My preferred solution—which, I recall, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, also proposed a few weeks ago—is to have a referendum and a general election on the same day. We would then know where the parties and individual candidates stood and, at the end of the election, you would know where the public stood. We are, however, not going down that road. We will be none the wiser about what Brexit will really bring us on the important issues that matter to citizens and businesses in this country on 12 or 13 December than we are today—or have been at any time in the past year.

I recognise that the Bill will go through. I regret that. I regret much of the past two years. I have a terrible foreboding that, if we are not careful, we will move into yet another area where statesmanship and leadership are absent from our Parliament. I shall deeply regret that.