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Early Parliamentary General Election Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:37 pm on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 5:37 pm, 30th October 2019

My Lords, five minutes is not a long time to speak, so I will not give a long history lesson, but I must observe that the history of winter elections is not very bright. The last one fought in December was fought by Stanley Baldwin, who lost. The last election fought on the question of who governs Britain was fought by Edward Heath and the answer was, “Well, we’re not sure, but definitely not you”. So the precedents are not that good. Even in 1910, the January and December elections produced stalemate; they did not move anything forward. None the less, I live in hope that this election will get it done, because we need to break the logjam.

In the referendum three-and-a-half years ago, it was argued that people did not know what they were voting for. That could be right: a lot was said and a lot passed under the bridge, but this time, no one can say that. Although I strongly believe in remain, I think the fact that Boris Johnson has made his position very clear is a good thing, because it means that when the result comes in, if he has won, he has a clear mandate for Brexit. I will not be arguing any longer for a referendum; I will say, he has put the matter to the people and he has won a majority for what he wanted to do. I call on all my colleagues to respect that. Similarly, if we get what I am going to call a coalition Government, they must be committed, in some way or another, to a confirmatory referendum. There has been a little too much point-scoring between the Lib Dems, the Labour Party and the SNP. They have to reach a common position, and part of that common position has to be what they will put back to the people and how long before it is done.

As many noble Lords will know, I have a dual role, doing some jobs in Brussels. The frustration there is about the inability of the political class in Britain to decide what it wants. If a coalition Government went back and said, “Look, we’re going to have a referendum”, it would have to be a referendum that led not to months of wrangling but to a clear decision. Either we are staying on the terms we had before, or we are leaving on the basis negotiated. We cannot carry on and on with this division.

I make one reflection. We hear a lot about stable government. For a long time, I have advocated proportional representation. I was always told that it would end stable government. My answer has always been that if you had PR, you would not have Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party and you might have a different leader of the Conservative Party. Yes, we would have to put up with the equivalent of Die Linke, the left in Germany, and the equivalent of the AfD. I remind your Lordships that the Norwegian first party and the Finnish now party, as right-wing parties, have played a more constructive role in government than they would have done as outliers within the main parties. I put it to your Lordships that part of the solution might still lie in a reformed electoral system.

Finally, picking up on something that my good friend, my noble friend Lord Cormack said—I first knew him when I was dealing with the trade unions—I deeply regret the treatment of, in particular, Ken Clarke, with whom I worked closely when the Conservatives were in opposition; even more so David Lidington, who became a personal friend and was, to my mind, probably our best Minister for Europe, widely respected and liked there and able to put an often difficult case across without alienating people; and finally, Patrick McLoughlin, one of the few working men who got on to the Conservative Front Bench and who played a distinctive role in keeping the party’s feet on the ground. They have been treated disgracefully, and it does our party no credit not to readmit them and put them up for membership of this House, which they have all justly earned through their service.