Moved by Lord Wallace of Saltaire
2: Clause 2, page 1, line 9, at end insert “subject to subsection (1A).(1A) The Prime Minister may not request Her Majesty to exercise Her prerogative to dissolve Parliament if Parliament has been prorogued, unless Parliament is first recalled and the House of Commons agrees that the Prime Minister should request Her Majesty to exercise Her prerogative to dissolve Parliament.”
My Lords, quite a lot of what we will discuss this evening is how far we need to put into statute the sort of things the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, has been thinking about, or whether a revised version of the Cabinet Manual would be sufficient to set out the conventions agreed by the parties. We will come back to that later.
Looking through the 2004 report of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Taming the Prerogative: Strengthening Ministerial Accountability to Parliament, I note that there was a memorandum from the Treasury Solicitor’s Department on the royal prerogative, which listed as one of the prerogatives
“the summoning, prorogation and dissolution of Parliament” as a single interconnected power.
The Government have said that Prorogation is outside the scope of the Bill and is an entirely separate car. The reasons, going back to why in 2010-11 Prorogation was taken out, seem relatively clear. The Lords Constitution Committee then said that
“the risk of abuse of the power of prorogation is very small”.
The Government said in the debates on the Bill that
“The conventions of this House are sufficiently strong”—[Official Report, Commons, 18/1/11; col. 768.]
to make inclusion of the power of Prorogation on a statutory footing unwise and unnecessary. Opinions would now differ. As the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, pointed out, no Prime Minister has asked improperly for a Dissolution, but the question of whether a Prime Minister has asked improperly for a Prorogation is very much open.
The noble Lord, Lord True, and other Ministers have enjoyed referring to our tried and tested constitutional system. If one looks back at arguments over Prorogation, there were riots throughout the country in 1820 against Prorogation. In 1831, when the Lords were about to debate whether there should be a Motion to prevent Prorogation, William IV jumped into a rather inferior carriage and came down personally to prorogue Parliament. In 1854, an MP proposed an address to the Queen against Prorogation, which Lord Aberdeen as Prime Minister made a matter of confidence in order to prevent. “Tried and tested” is, perhaps, a little strong.
I ask the Minister in general terms for an assurance that a revised edition of the Cabinet Manual, which I hope is now well under way, will clarify that there is now a well-established convention—tried and tested, even—over the last century that Prorogation is now a prerogative power available for use only in marking the short recess period between parliamentary Sessions, and that this should not be used as a prelude to a request for Dissolution that has not been communicated to nor approved by Parliament. Nor should it be used, as it has not been for the past century, as a means of avoiding parliamentary scrutiny, proposals or decisions over any extended period.
Perhaps I may be permitted to say a little about the broader issues behind this debate since my amendment is linked to the broader amendment which follows. The desirability of reaching as wide a consensus as possible has been stated in a range of reports relating to this Bill. The 2004 committee report said that the case for the reform of ministerial executive power is “unanswerable”. Indeed, opposition Conservatives including William Hague gave evidence to that committee in support of further limits on executive power. Perhaps the young Nicholas True wrote some of the evidence which he gave; I do not know.
The Minister’s response to the Constitution Committee last December said, rather more weakly, I thought:
“Political consensus is of course valuable when possible” without, so far as I am aware, promoting any active cross-party consultations on the constitutional issue. I regret that. This is a major constitutional Bill; therefore there needs to be as much consensus as we can achieve.
The fact is that, week by week, we begin to approach the idea that this Government might not necessarily be in power beyond the next election, which could conceivably produce a Parliament in which no single party has a majority. We are concerned not just with addressing the flaws in the 2011 Act but with future-proofing, as various committees have talked about, so that we are prepared for a situation that we might face with the outcome of the next election.
The Joint Committee says at paragraph 14 that there has been
“a clear direction of travel to bring prerogative powers under greater democratic control, usually through greater Parliamentary scrutiny or approval, or by giving statutory force to rules that previously relied on prerogative powers, executive discretion and constitutional conventions.”
The Faulks administrative law review makes much the same point. Conventions are based on trust and executive restraint. Where trust is weakened, statutory authority has to replace convention. I therefore move my amendment, which links Prorogation to Dissolution, because that is part of making sure that we share an understanding of some of these basic constitutional principles.
My Lords, the amendment in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Lansley, is about the constitutional location of power today and for the next 80 to 100 years. It is not about where, historically speaking, power in Parliament used to rest. It is about now, at the beginning of this century, after at least half a century in which the powers of the Prime Minister have been accreting at an alarming and chilling rate. I will not go through the endless efforts I have made to draw your Lordships’ attention to that fact, but it is a fact.
I was not able to speak at Second Reading but the issue of troublesome prerogative powers relating to Dissolution and Prorogation formed the basis of my contribution to the debate on the Queen’s Speech. I know that I am not taking the Minister by surprise because he and I have had many rather interesting discussions about the constitutional issues. It is important that I add this too: when I made that speech, the present Prime Minister was riding high in the polls. This is nothing to do with the fact that he has troubles abounding at the moment—Prime Ministers always run into trouble at some time. It is not about the present Prime Minister; it is about the person, whoever that might be, who holds this office not being given further power, as the Bill proposes.
We should not have a fixed-term Parliament. We all agree on that. There should be a maximum period. Five years is what is proposed and it makes perfect sense. What did not make sense last time was the proposal that a two-thirds majority was needed in the Commons for that term to come to an end. It did not make sense because of something that should have been absolutely obvious to everybody. I am sorry to say that to those who advocate for it. Just about every important piece of legislation enacted in Parliament has required a bare majority. Nobody set about trying to have two-thirds majorities; a bare majority would do. The Great Reform Act had a majority of two. The Habeas Corpus Act, where all our freedoms were determined, passed because the noble Lord acting as a Teller for one side counted a big fat Peer as 10 and so it was carried. That is what our liberties have turned on. My point is that a two-thirds majority is an aberration.
The question is: how do we replace the legislation? We have had the beginning of a fascinating discussion: do the current proposals revive the prerogative power? Fun—the noble Lord, Lord Norton, can get his students to write endless essays, all getting Firsts if they agree with him, on this subject. But this is the point: whatever the theory might be, the reality is that the power of Dissolution will now be based on statute—this statute, which might be changed. Prerogative power does not get elevated out of thin air; it is founded on the statute.
In answer to one or two of the matters raised in the noble Lord’s Amendment 1, whether the theory is that the Prime Minister gives Her Majesty—the monarch, rather—advice or a request, it seems to me, and here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, absolutely impossible to understand that the monarch of the day would be prepared to enter into tempestuous political controversy, threatening the very existence of the monarchy, if the prime ministerial advice or request was rejected. It seems inconceivable. It might have been possible when the Lascelles letter was written to the Times in 1950. It was never put to the test; it never arose. In my view, it is inconceivable. If my view is right, here in the 21st century, the current legislative proposal in this Bill is that the decision whether Parliament should be dissolved would be vested exclusively in the Prime Minister of the day. Today, in a modern democracy, an uncurbed power to have Parliament dissolved—it is rather astonishing to think about it.
Of course, as was said in an earlier debate, it is perfectly true that the Prime Minister, in making his or her decision, has to be mindful of the possible adverse reaction of the electorate if they choose to think that his or her idea of having an election is a bad one. Of course it is, but whether the public do or not, general elections are about the next five years. The election arrives and a decision is made on the health service, the education system, the Armed Forces. It is not just about this single decision made by the Prime Minister. So I go this far with the argument against me: okay, the Prime Minister would take into account possible adverse reactions from the electorate if the electorate do not want an election. But this is not a principle; it is simply a matter of prime ministerial judgment. It is not constitutional control; it is the Prime Minister making a purely political decision: “Where does the balance of advantage to me and my party lie?”
It will also be suggested—it has been suggested to me and I have read it pretty frequently—that recent events in the Commons in the context of Brexit underline the need for this prime ministerial power. The Brexit debates were hardly a model of clarity but let us remember what they reflected: a huge parliamentary and, indeed, national divide, splitting parliamentary parties themselves, in the context of the constitutional aberration of a referendum, with the Dissolution process itself governed by the requirement for a two-thirds majority rather than a simple majority, which, as I said a moment ago, altered parliamentary processes and, indeed, strategies. In constitutional terms, the Brexit shambles demonstrated the folly of a two-thirds majority being superimposed on the result of a referendum that was not welcome to a majority in the House of Commons. That is not a sufficient justification for reviving or creating—it does not matter what you call it—this unrestricted power over the length of the life of the Parliament for the Prime Minister of the day.
These arguments overlook something so obvious that it is not merely in danger of being overlooked, it is being overlooked. I am not going to let it be overlooked. The Dissolution of Parliament eradicates the choice made by millions of citizens when they cast their votes at the previous election and chose who would represent them in the House of Commons. That sounds over- dramatic, but I invite your Lordships to think about it, because that is what it means.
To ensure continuing democratic involvement, to ensure that we live in a democracy and to enable us all to reflect on where power should lie, of course there has to be a finite time for each Parliament. That is a necessity in a democracy. But when the Dissolution is not a consequence of the effluxion of time but is simply based on a unilateral prime ministerial decision, the votes at the earlier general election are wiped out. The earlier democratic decision is revoked. One vote trumps millions of votes. To me, in a democracy there is a certain level of absurdity about such a principle. If this Bill passes unamended, the effect of those votes will be revoked by—and I am choosing a word used recently by the Delegated Legislation Committee—diktat. If you do not like “diktat”, call it decree, call it command, call it whim, call it fancy. I do not mind what you call it. but it is one person’s decision—unconstrained and unrestricted—by an assessment of political advantage.
Surely in the 21st century the exercise of power to change and to ditch the democratic vote should at least be subject to a modicum of control. The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Norton, offered the possible control of the monarch and, for the reasons I have given, I respectfully suggest that that is not sufficient. Surely we should rest some responsibility on the House of Commons of the day—the elected representatives. That is what the Commons is there to do: to control and to keep an eye on the Executive and to keep a particular eye on the accreting power of the Prime Minister.
This is something that we cannot just accept on the basis that a prerogative power is being revived. This is going to be a statute.
My Lords, I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord True, and he is right that this is an important Bill. I very much welcome the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act—I was never a fan and I am pleased to see it go.
I hesitate to disagree on any occasion with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, but I am not sure that I follow his logic entirely. Maybe that is because of the political experience that some of us have seen and felt when Prime Ministers have not always got these things right and have not always chosen the right minute to have an election. My noble friends Lord Grocott and Lord Rooker will well remember 1978 when Jim Callaghan did not have an election at a time when people thought it might be advantageous and subsequently lost a few months later. Gordon Brown did not have an election in 2009 and subsequently lost a year later.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, is right that this is about the constitutional location of power, but it is also about the role of the Executive and the legislature. Yes, the legislature is there to hold the Government to account—a very important function. If I was in the House of Commons at the moment, having been given a vote by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act I think I would have wanted to hold on to that vote to say whether an election should take place. I thought that that might have been one of the compromises that was reached during the consideration of this Bill by the Government and when the Joint Committee looked at it. I am surprised that the Commons gave up so easily the power to have a say and to sanction the calling of a general election.
It would not necessarily have been a simple thing to do. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, mentioned the two-thirds majority that was clearly just part of the political fix of the original deal between the Conservatives and the Liberals after the 2010 election, and that is a non-starter. However, I wonder whether he would say that the majority had to be 50% plus one of those voting on the issue or 50% of the whole House plus one. What would the Motion be and what would the role of the Speaker be in terms of a tied vote? We have to consider all those arrangements. I do not think it is a simple issue although, had I been in the Commons when this Bill was going through, I would have been very reluctant to give any say whatever in terms of when an election should take place.
I support the approach from the noble Lord, Lord True, that the main objective should be making this Bill as clear and watertight as possible. That is one of the principles that should underpin all the considerations we have about amendments. The Constitution Committee, which I chaired until very recently, said that constitutional legislation should be able to pass the test of time. Clearly, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was never going to do that, and I think many of us saw that from the outset. Certainly, when we are looking at this legislation, be it on certain other clauses—Clause 3, for example—or indeed the points that have already been made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, I think that the purpose of our deliberations from now on should be to make sure that there are no loopholes whatever in this legislation so that it can pass the test of time.
I do not come to this as a constitutional expert—far from it—but I think I bring to it two objectives. One is to think about it from the practical, political point of view. In this House we have encountered, and will continue to encounter, the prerogative power being increasingly clarified by statute. I start with that point, which I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, referred to. When we see the prerogative being clarified by statute, my view is that we should try to make it a watertight statute. We should try to make it absolutely clear. In this particular respect, we are looking at something that is clear only in so far as it reasserts that there is the status quo ante. However, the status quo ante itself is not necessarily clear. We have a set of principles which—as we have discovered, and I have discovered, by listening to the debates and reading them in the other place—are themselves debatable about how they would be applied and in what circumstances they would be applied. Even in the first debate this afternoon, we heard the assertion that it would be inconceivable for the monarch to refuse a request for a Dissolution but equally, there may be circumstances in which such a request may be refused, otherwise what is the point of calling it a request?
It is not certain. My view is that when we encounter prerogative whether we were debating the Trade Bill and looking at the prerogative to make treaties—I have a Private Member’s Bill which would clarify in statute the circumstances in which the Government could enter into a prolonged and substantial armed conflict or declare war—or here, I think we should be prepared to be more specific about the circumstances in which this prerogative is to be used.
I come back to the practical and political. First, there is a manifesto commitment. The Conservative manifesto said:
“We will get rid of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act”.
Amendment 3 also enables that to happen. That is not the issue.
Secondly, the Joint Committee put forward the proposition that constitutional change should secure
“as wide a degree of cross-party agreement as possible”.
My personal view is that Amendment 3 would enable that to happen. It is supported by parties in this House. Although it will not commend itself to my noble friends on these Benches, it would be supported by the Scottish nationalists, who are not represented here; they said so in the other place. However, I was rather disappointed that when the Government responded to the Joint Committee, they did not address that point; they did not say that they were looking to secure as wide a degree of cross-party support as possible.
What we have to do, which the Joint Committee asked for, is expose the Bill to the fullest possible scrutiny. Looking at the debate in the other place, I do not think that this issue, which seems central, received that, so I am pleased that we are giving it an opportunity to be thought about very carefully.
I recall that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and its implementation fell down on the two-thirds majority. We should remember that there were three occasions in 2019 on which a Motion was presented in the other place and secured a simple majority but not a two-thirds majority. That immediately begs the question: was that the extent of the problem? Certainly, a simple majority enables us to start to think about how crises should be resolved and by whom, but it is that fundamental point about “by whom” that I come back to. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, put it extremely well, but I shall put it in my own terms.
If a Prime Minister were requesting a Dissolution of Parliament and calling an election in circumstances where that would not be supported by a majority in the House of Commons, on what authority would he or she be doing that? If people cannot tell me what that authority is, we should put into the statute now that a Prime Minister should act with such authority. In all normal circumstances, based on our past experience, a Prime Minister will command a majority in the House of Commons and be able to secure a simple majority for such a Motion, and they would be able to have a Dissolution of Parliament at a time of his or her choosing.
However, I do not think that we can turn the clock back to past conventions and assume that they will be readily or easily applied to future circumstances. For example, coalitions have happened and may do so again, and they may be quite complicated. If we were in circumstances where a Prime Minister did not have a majority based on his or her own party and we were in the relatively early stages of a Parliament, by what authority would they circumvent the fact that an alternative Government was available?
Perhaps I may ask my noble friend about a situation where there was a hung Parliament, where the Prime Minister had no majority—we have had that experience very recently—where a pandemic was taking place and where the Opposition did not co-operate in passing laws. Surely then it would be right for the Prime Minister to seek the consent of the country.
There are many circumstances in which crises can emerge. There are arguments that cut both ways. In the midst of a pandemic, does one want an election? In the midst of a war, does one want an election? We could go back to 1940 and say, “Surely, if the Prime Minister then, Neville Chamberlain, had sought a Dissolution, why would he not have been granted it? Would it have not been right for the electorate to say what the outcome should be?” My response to my noble friend would be to ask whether in those circumstances it would not be the responsibility of the House of Commons, and whether it did not have the authority to resolve that crisis. If the answer we come to is, “Oh, but, but, but…”, there are all sorts of circumstances and hypothetical scenarios that we can conjure up which would lead us to the assumption that the Prime Minister can go to Her Majesty or the monarch and request a Dissolution, but the House of Commons would not support it. I come back to the same question: by what authority does the Prime Minister make such a request? I support the amendment and have put my name to it because it brings us back, time and again, to precisely that point.
Professor Robert Hazell put it more elegantly when he gave evidence to the Joint Committee:
“The best way of protecting the monarchy is not to revive the prerogative power but to leave decisions about Dissolution where they belong—in Parliament, in the House of Commons.”
This amendment does that in the simplest and most effective way possible by making it certain that if a Prime Minister requested a Dissolution in future, he or she did so on the basis that a majority of the House of Commons had agreed. If not, by what authority would he or she do it?
This is an issue which divided the Joint Committee. The view expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, was the view of a minority of the committee of which I was a member, whereas the majority did not want to go into this territory. We had a great deal of discussion about it, but the report records, unusually, that there was a clear difference of view.
I support the idea that there should be a House of Commons vote. Even though I previously supported ensuring that the prerogative power remained a personal prerogative, partly in case this amendment was not carried but also because the two are not inconsistent with each other, it would be even more inconceivable that the monarch should refuse a Dissolution if it had the clear authority of the House of Commons behind it.
A further benefit of having a House of Commons vote on Dissolution is that it makes it quite clear the ouster clause that we will debate later would be unnecessary. The courts would not interfere with a decision taken by Parliament. We can return to that topic later, but we might as well put it on the table now, because it is a powerful argument for having a House of Commons vote. I therefore support what has been said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lord, Lord Lansley.
There are circumstances in which a Prime Minister might be told that it would be embarrassing for the monarch to have to be asked because a Dissolution might be refused. That would include a re-run of an election that had just taken place. Let us imagine a situation where one party is known to have substantial resources and seeks a re-run of the election, because it is just about the largest party but does not have a majority. There are a variety of such circumstances. In their response to the committee, the Government quite sensibly said that it was impossible to speculate—I am not quoting exactly—about the many different possible situations that could arise, and it is not very fruitful to do so. We merely recognise that there are possibilities.
While so much is said about the failings of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act—I know that it has faults, but the two-thirds majority issue was probably the only significant fault in the legislation—we have to recognise that most democracies in any way comparable to ours have a fixed term for Parliament and that the Joint Committee said:
“The Fixed-term Parliaments Act very clearly fulfilled its immediate political purpose. Not only did the Parliament last the full term, so did the Coalition Government that was formed at the beginning of it.”
I simply say to the other parties that they should be careful what they wish for. The time may come when they seek to form a Government with others and both sides need some guarantee that the Government will not be torpedoed early in its existence.
My Lords, I had added my name to Amendment 2 in the name of noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, but unfortunately it has not made it on to the Marshalled List that I have. I hope that is not an expression of editorial disapproval.
I congratulate the noble Lord on his ingenuity in bringing Prorogation within the scope of our discussions. As the Minister will know, I was a little sceptical about the view that Prorogation was outside the scope or relevance of the Bill. That was on two grounds. First, it was said that Section 6 of the 2011 Act excluded Prorogation. Of course, it may have excluded it, but what is excluded can be added by amendment.
The second ground of my scepticism was the intimate relationship between Dissolution and Prorogation. It is by no means unknown for Parliament to be dissolved while prorogued; I have not looked at the figures, but this may be the majority of cases in recent decades. Even if we go back to the relatively short period—the business period, as it were—of Prorogation after wash-up, there will be a period of time when the House of Commons cannot take a decision of the sort envisaged by my noble and learned friend in his Amendment 3. So I suggest that, although this may not be crucial, it is probably a useful procedural mechanism or precaution.
I raise the next point with considerable diffidence because it relates to the drafting of Amendment 3. I see that, in proposed new subsection (1B), Parliament “will” be dissolved—not “shall”. I was going to apologise for my pedantry, but I never have before, so I do not think I am going to start this evening. “Will” is an expression of will but, of course, once the House of Commons has enshrined that in a resolution, it takes on an executive character, so “shall” is probably more appropriate.
It is essential that, if we go down this road, there is a form of words in the statute, if that is the eventual view of Parliament. Whether a particular Motion falls within the statutory requirements cannot be left to the interpretation of the chair. It seems to me that that would put an unbearable strain on Article 9 and would lead us all down a path that we would not wish to traverse.
The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, asked what would happen if there were a tied vote. I immediately agree that conventions and precedents are not as tight a constraint as statutory provision, but I am in no doubt that, if there were a tied vote, the Speaker of the day’s attention would be brought to the decision of Speaker Denison in 1867, when he said that major matters of public policy should be decided by a majority of the House, not “merely”—he used that word—on the casting vote of its presiding officer.
“We should never take democracy for granted: it needs to be defended.”—[Official Report, 30/11/21; col. 1332.]
I absolutely agree, which is why it is important that the amendments in this group are not passed.
Sometimes, when people talk about democracy, they talk in terms of the role of Parliament or the separation of powers. But we must always remember that democracy is about the people—demos—who have power at the apex of our constitution and whom we have to defend. The most important players in our democracy are not Members of Parliament at Westminster but the voters up and down the land. The possibility of Parliament standing in the way of asking the people for their views on the way forward is fundamentally undemocratic, in my view.
These amendments are capable of depriving the people of their say in the future of the country. Furthermore, they could do harm at the very time that the views of the people, as expressed at the ballot box, are most needed and could have the greatest impact. Of course, if the Government of the day have a whopping majority, whether or not they have to pass a resolution in the other place will make very little difference to the outcome. It might perhaps add a few days of delay to the timing of a general election, but it would otherwise simply be a tiresome detail. But the amendment will make life difficult for minority Governments or Governments with small majorities, if they feel that they need to call an election.
At Second Reading, I spoke about the events of 2019 being one of my key reasons for supporting the Bill. It was plain that Parliament was dysfunctional. The Government could not get their chosen policies through the House due to a combination of the actions of the opposition parties and of some of our own Back-Benchers. A majority in the other place and indeed in your Lordships’ House—although that is not relevant to this amendment—was set upon frustrating the Government’s Brexit policies, but the Government could not call an election to settle that issue because they could not meet the two-thirds threshold of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
Of course, the Government eventually got their Early Parliamentary General Election Act through and, by then, the Labour Party had decided to support it. But we will never know whether it would have been possible for the Government to have reached the simple majorities required in these amendments at an earlier stage—but it is entirely possible that they would not have done so. A number of my party’s MPs had lost the Conservative Whip during those unhappy days and would not, therefore, have been able to stand as Conservative candidates if an election had been called. Would the turkeys really have voted for Christmas? I think not.
Many noble Lords in this House might choose to forget the result of the 2019 election because it was not to their taste, but I remind them that it was a resounding thumbs up for the Government’s Brexit policies, which Parliament was seeking to harass and destroy at the time. These amendments could well have prevented that decisive view of the country from being expressed at the time, and we would have been the poorer for it.
Minority Governments with small majorities but fractious Back-Benchers capable of frustrating a vote on a general election are not figments of my imagination; they are a real part of our political system. I say this especially to the Benches opposite because, if they have any hopes of again forming a Government, they need to reflect on whether a zombie Parliament could affect them as well. They might also reflect on whether the minority Wilson Government in 1974, which the noble Lord, Lord Beith, referred to in the debate on the earlier group of amendments, would also have resulted in an election. Is it absolutely clear that the Wilson minority Government could have called the second election in that year if he had had to cope with what this amendment would have landed him with? These amendments could be a very dangerous part of our constitutional arrangements and should be rejected.
My Lords, I feel part of an endangered species: a Cross-Bencher who fully supports this government Bill. I would also like to go back to where we were before the ill-starred and ill-judged Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
I am against giving the Commons a veto, as proposed in Amendment 3 by my noble and learned friend Lord Judge, who is normally so sagacious but who is wrong on this occasion. This could lead to the same chaos, stasis and problem of September 2019, which the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has just outlined, when we subjected our Prime Minister—whatever you thought of him then or think of him now—to the humiliation of having to go cap in hand to Brussels to plead for an extension of time to achieve a policy flatly contrary to the one that he wished to put to the country. He could not get a two-thirds majority, and one seriously doubts whether he would have got a simple majority.
The Joint Committee that examined this legislation and reported in March 2021 made plain that, although a minority supported the view outlined by my noble and learned friend Lord Judge and the noble Lords, Lord Lansley and Lord Beith, the majority recognised the danger, which we should avoid at all costs, I respectfully contend.
As to the prerogative power, one can hardly overstress the difference between Prorogation and Dissolution. Prorogation—let one remind oneself—affects the cessation of Parliament and is anti-democratic in the sense that it thwarts the power of Parliament. Our governing, imperative, fundamental constitutional principle is the sovereignty of Parliament; Prorogation thwarts it and leaves the Executive for the duration in uncontrolled power. Dissolution—at the opposite end of the spectrum—is explicitly designed to give the electorate the opportunity to decide who should control our Executive. My noble and learned friend Lord Judge speaks of Dissolution eradicating the decision of the electorate last time around, ditching the democratic vote. Well, of course, in one sense you are getting rid of an existing Parliament, but you are inviting more up-to-date views on what the public—who, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said, really should be controlling all our processes—want and whether they approve the particular policies in the particular circumstances in which Dissolution is sought.
Of course, if you put the Commons in control, although you run into the sort of difficulties that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, rightly identified, you get rid of the problems that others seem to suggest arise under Clause 3 here. There is no question then, obviously, of the courts’ supervisory jurisdiction. But—and we will come to this point of debate later—I suggest you really do not need to introduce the chaos of a Commons vote in support of Dissolution in order to avoid the risk of introducing the courts into the whole business.
My Lords, before I comment specifically on the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, I think that both the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, have misread what happened in 2019. What happened then would have happened had this amendment been passed, which was that a clear majority in Parliament voted for a general election—fact. On three occasions, they voted for a general election. A general election would have occurred under the terms of this amendment.
If I may say so, the politics of it are fairly obvious. If a Motion comes from a Prime Minister that there should be a general election, which is what this amendment suggests, the Government may not even have a majority, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, suggested; there may be people opposed to the Government’s policies generally on their own Benches, and they may not get a majority of their own people, necessarily. But it is almost impossible for an Opposition to vote against a general election. It kills the whole point of being an Opposition. What is an Opposition for if not for saying, “We’ve got a rotten Government, and it is time the people turned them out”? The Labour Opposition at that time sat on its hands, but politically, though I cannot go into all the legal ramifications, it is impossible to imagine a Prime Minister with a majority in Parliament—and he or she would not be the Prime Minister if that were not the case—calling for a simple parliamentary majority, which is all that is required, in order to hold a general election and Parliament throwing it out. That is for the birds; it really is. It would be politics turned upside down.
I think the amendment from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, just nails it. I agree with it absolutely, partly because, when in doubt, you should opt for the simple solution, and there is nothing simpler than a simple majority. We get into all sorts of trouble, as other Members have said, when we require a two-thirds majority or an artificial majority. The public know what a majority is and, let us face it, the real fact of life is that a majority in Parliament—this is as close to Dicey as anyone could be—is power in the land, apart from on the day the general election is held. If Parliament tries to do things that do not have majority support, the majority has all sorts of ways of asserting its support.
A Prime Minister who decided that he or she wanted a general election would be able to get one via this mechanism. This is why I am stunned, frankly, that the Government do not accept it. It meets what the Government want to do, as far as I can see. It restores a situation in which a Prime Minister can get a general election. I am in favour of that; I have said that repeatedly. I support the Government’s objective to enable that to happen so that you do not have the chaos that occurred at the end of the 2017-19 Parliament.
Of course, a simple majority in the Commons has huge additional advantages as well, one of which I have already referred to: it completely removes the monarch from having to make political decisions, or the most significant political decision anyone could make, which is whether to consult the people. I cannot see how there is any way that a monarch would say to a Prime Minister armed with a majority in Parliament and requesting a general election, “No, you may want one, but you can’t have it. Up theirs to the majority in Parliament.” No monarch is going to say that. It is obvious.
As far as I am concerned, though I do not whether I would carry all the lawyers in the House with me, it has the added advantage of keeping the lawyers out of politics as well, which has been a cause of some concern and been rather problematic on a number of occasions that I could refer to, although that would be out of order. We would not need the dreaded ouster clause we are going to talk about shortly. A majority in Parliament is the jewel in the crown: it can do what it wants, mercifully, in our constitution, and more often than not it is far and away the best way of making decisions.
I recognise what an odd situation we are in and what an odd situation this amendment is proposing: we, the unelected House of Lords, are suggesting to the recently elected House of Commons that they should have this power and not give it away for the monarch to decide. I am in favour of simple arguments and simple solutions. A simple argument is that the history of the British constitution is the slow attrition of power by Parliament—or, more specifically, by the House of Commons—away from the monarch. And this House of Commons, which I respect as I do all elected bodies, has decided to reverse this process: “We think this is too big a decision for us to make, and we need to hand it back to Her Majesty so that she can decide when it is convenient for the British public to exercise their democratic right to vote.”
I find it difficult to find a credible argument against the proposition in this amendment. It keeps the monarch out of trouble; it keeps the judiciary out of trouble; it gives the Prime Minister what the Prime Minister wants and is entitled to have with his or her majority in Parliament; and the Government get what they want. What is not to like about it?
My Lords, like everybody else who has spoken in the Committee so far today, I share the objective of returning to the status quo ante and repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. But as some noble Lords who heard me speak on Second Reading may know, I do so for different reasons from that which the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and most others have set out today. I supported the original legislation, and the reason why I think that it should be repealed is because something that I believed was a relinquishing of power to the electorate turned into a weapon that got used against the electorate, as my noble friend Lady Noakes has described.
That is why I think it is important that we go back to how we were before, rather than, at this point, seek to introduce something that would maintain a power that the House of Commons did not have before. I thought what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said when he introduced his amendment was interesting as he said this about where power lies. He carefully made the point that this was not about the current Prime Minister, this was about where power rests in this situation. Should it be with the Executive? Should it be with Parliament? I know that over the last few years the noble and learned Lord has raised many different examples of where there is an imbalance of power between the Executive and Parliament, and that there are some ways in which that needs to be looked at and that imbalance addressed.
I do not think we would be wise to try to introduce a power because of what happened a couple of years ago. The battle for power at that point, in 2019, between the Executive and Parliament was observed, in my view, by people outside Parliament as a battle that should not have taken place. It was power that should not rest in the hands of Parliament. Indeed, it should not rest, in a direct way if you like, in the hands of the Prime Minister. This was about a democratic mandate that was in need of being implemented. I think, for everybody’s interests, trying to introduce the amendment that has been proposed here would be unwise, and the best course of action would be to return to exactly what we had before.
My Lords, I put my name to this amendment for the reasons given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lord, Lord Lansley. Like the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I have been searching for credible arguments against it. I was therefore very grateful that the Minister circulated a letter, setting out the Government’s stance, in which I hoped I might find some credible arguments against it, even if I did not agree with them, but this is what the letter said. It said that it
“will not necessarily achieve the desired outcome” and:
“Its long-term consequences … are untested.”
I may have got the logic wrong, but until something is implemented how can we know what its long-term consequences are? So I was not too troubled in my belief by that.
Then I read that it was a “novel element”. Anything that is change, by definition, has a degree of novelty to it, so that did not get us very far. It was then said that there could be “(unintended) consequences” without any suggestion of what they might be, so that did not get us much further. It then said it was a “constitutional innovation”. Well, yes—so? That did not get us any further. The letter then said that it had not been “fully considered” and constitutional change needed to be fully considered. Perhaps it had not been, but it has now, so that is not a credible argument. Finally, we had a typically empty threat from the noble Lord, Lord True:
“We are not doing a service to the elected chamber if we ask them to reconsider a question which they have squarely confronted and which they have decisively decided against.”
We might as well go home if we adopted that policy. We certainly would not have been voting against the police Bill at all if we accepted that. That is the sum total of the Government’s response on why we should oppose this amendment.
The further argument—which the Government did not use, incidentally—that I thought had some substance was advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. These are my words, not hers: MPs might refuse a Prime Minister an election because they feared for their own seats and so would act out of personal interest rather than the national interest. Against that theoretical possibility, surely there is the more likely possibility of a Prime Minister calling a premature election primarily to save his or her skin, rather than because they have considerations of the national interest uppermost in their mind.
In any event, surely, the constitutional position is that citizens vote for someone to represent them in Parliament, not for a Prime Minister. In my political lifetime, there have been five occasions on which the Prime Minister has changed during the lifetime of a Parliament without triggering a new election in any case. So voters have ended up with a Prime Minister who was not a prime ministerial candidate at the previous election and who has no personal, direct mandate from the electorate. MPs, by contrast, will be held to account by their electorates if they trigger an early election and so, in my view, the decision on whether to do so should rest with them.
I was going to respond to the noble Baroness in terms of what happened in 2019, but the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has done that extremely comprehensively. I would just say, going back to 1974, that the same arguments apply. Does anyone believe that in the autumn of 1974, if the House of Commons had been asked whether there should be an election, Harold Wilson would have been denied one? The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, gave the reasons. Oppositions are there to oppose, and they do not vote to keep their opponents in office—it is in the name. The key question which the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, raised is by what authority does a Prime Minister decide, uniquely, when an election should be held, particularly, as I said earlier, if that Prime Minister was not the candidate for Prime Minister at the preceding general election? In my view, authority on when an election should be held should rest with the people who have been elected to run a Parliament. That is why I support this amendment.
My Lords, I am very puzzled by this debate. There have been words used such as “inappropriate”, “exceptional” and “misuse of power” to suggest that the Prime Minister of the day, when he or she asks the electorate to choose the Government, and where he puts his or her own tenure in No. 10 at risk, is somehow abusing his or her position. I do not understand what those likely positions might be where the Prime Minister of the day can be accused of abusing his or her power to go to the electorate. Nobody has yet produced an example of that. We know when the Prime Minister might want to do that—because they have no majority and want a majority, because they have a very small majority or because they want a mandate for a new policy, possibly—but none of those is an abuse of their power.
If I had read the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and instead of reading “election” and “Dissolution” had read “Prorogation”, I would completely understand. Of course, it would be an abuse of power to give the Prime Minister of the day the power to extend the life of Parliament, but I do not understand in what situation a Prime Minister can be accused, in these words, of inappropriate or exceptional misuse, by asking the electorate to choose the Government they want, and to put his or her own tenure at No. 10 at risk. I would be grateful if somebody could provide me with some examples.
I am sorry. God, I will be glad when we get rid of those for good.
The noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, said that, somehow or other, there is a suggestion that the argument on this side or around the House is that a Prime Minister calling for a general election is bad, undemocratic or inappropriate. We are not saying that at all. We are saying that a Prime Minister would not be a Prime Minister unless he had a majority in the House of Commons, and the Prime Minister would get what he wanted. I apologise for the length of the intervention, but the question I want to ask the noble Lord is: if he feels this passionately about, as I understood it, the Prime Minister alone being able to make that decision, how could it possibly be the case, in his argument, that a monarch—unelected—could say no to the Prime Minister making a request of that sort?
I am very pleased that the noble Lord asked that question, because the debates this evening have said that we do not think the monarch could conceivably refuse a request for a Dissolution, as the noble Lord has already said. Other speakers have said that the House of Commons would never refuse a Dissolution; that was the thrust of the noble Lord’s speech and the speeches of other noble Lords. We are being asked to put in a brake on the power of the Prime Minister, but we are told that the brake will never be exercised. What is the point of that? I come back to my question: what are the most inappropriate examples of a Prime Minister abusing their power by calling an election? I can think of only two. First, they might, for party-political reasons, seek the advantage of going early because they think they can get a bigger majority. We know that the electorate are not stupid. There are, throughout the whole country, Brendas from Bristol who will react to that—we found this in February 1974 and in 2017.
The other reason which I thought might be in the minds of noble Lords is if the Prime Minister of the day wanted to go to the country with what they thought would be a sole populist or undemocratic programme, and they were worried that the electorate might vote for it. That poses two problems. First, it is denying the public the right to choose the Government and policy they want. If you really want to exercise an effective brake for that sort of reason, you need a different Bill, because this Bill is designed to end the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and go back to the status quo ante. I believe, as my noble friend the Minister said, that this clause to give the House of Commons a veto—otherwise there is no point in giving the provision to it—drives a coach and horses through this Bill.
I shall seek to answer the noble Lord’s question. I go back to February 1974. Imagine that Harold Wilson had said, “I’ve become the Prime Minister. I don’t have a majority. Mine is the largest party. I want to rerun the election straightaway.” Add into that mix—which was not the case at the time—that he is the leader of the party that has the most substantial resources and has been the least damaged financially by the conduct of the election. But that is not what happened. Maybe Harold Wilson was advised that he should not do that, but that is the sort of circumstance that might be thought inappropriate.
I just think that if you gave the House of Commons the opportunity to veto it, and the Government of the day simply could not get on with their business, which is what would probably happen, then we would have a problem. I come back to the point I made with my noble friend Lord Lansley: if you have a Government with a minority, or without a working majority, that Prime Minister may not be able to get the support of Parliament; but he or she needs it to be able to have an effective working Government.
My Lords, the noble Lord asked for an example of where a Prime Minister might illegitimately ask for a general election. I will give an example not a million miles away from our present circumstances. Let us suppose that 54 Conservative Members of Parliament expressed no confidence in the present Prime Minister, and there was then an election in the Conservative Party for an alternative leader, and that leader emerged. At that moment, the present Prime Minister decided that, rather than give up power, he would ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament so that there could be a general election. I put it to the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, that, in those circumstances, a majority in Parliament, which the Conservatives would have, would reject the proposal for a general election. That might be an imaginable circumstance. I am not in favour of this amendment—I would rather not have it at all—but that is a situation where I would rather that the majority in Parliament rejected the idea of an election than the Queen having to do it.
My Lords, I have a very vivid recollection of Harold Wilson’s problem when he was elected with less than a parliamentary majority. As noble Lords will know, he had a second election in that year. At that time, I was the Sheriff Principal of Renfrew and Argyll, and therefore I was a returning officer for the constituencies in Renfrew and in Argyll, so I was rather familiar with what was going on.
Harold Wilson, when he was elected first, had not got a majority. The opinion polls were not quite so prominent in those days as they are now, but there was quite a lot of speculation as to whether, if he took a second election, he would be better off or worse off. That was a decision that he had to make which would not necessarily have been the same as the balance of people in Parliament, because, if the theory of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, were right, they would be anxious to be the Government. But I fear that they had the rather suspicious feeling that they might not be the Government, and that in fact what might happen would be that Mr Wilson would get a better majority than he had up to that point. As the Committee knows, it was not quite like that either. To forecast what the vote in Parliament will be in the event of a Prime Minister wanting to call an election is by no means easy. It was very difficult in 1974, and I have no doubt that that sort of circumstance might occur again.
I have tried to look at this from the point of view of the construction of our constitution. We have three parts of the constitution: the Executive, the judiciary and the legislature. The business of the House of Commons—and this House, for that matter—is to legislate primarily and to hold the Government to account. The executive power is not in the House of Commons or in this House, and it should not be; something has gone wrong when that happens. The executive power is in the Executive.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked what the authority of the Prime Minister is if he or she has changed since the Parliament was elected. The authority is that he or she is the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister’s responsibility, subject to Her Majesty, is to be the head of the Executive. Therefore, the responsibility for taking executive decisions is, and should be, with the Prime Minister.
As I said, the idea that you can forecast the result of a vote in Parliament on this subject is extremely difficult if you take account of all the possible circumstances. I know that if you have an Opposition doing very well and the Government are looking a bit shaky, they will both want the same thing—but there are many other circumstances in which they will not want that.
I submit to your Lordships that we had in existence for many years a system under which there was no vote in the House of Commons at all. As far as I remember, apart from the Wilson year there was really no difficulty about the responsibility of calling an election. You just have to think what a responsibility the person who calls an election has. We had a slight example of that not long ago, when an election was called and the result was that the Prime Minister had a smaller majority—indeed, no majority at all—having started off with a majority. I do not think for a minute that the Prime Minister thought that was going to happen—it would be extraordinary if she did—but it did happen, and that is the responsibility of the Prime Minister.
I find it very difficult to see how that can be properly shared with anybody else. He or she has to take the responsibility to consult the public—the people. It is an executive call to start a general election, and surely the responsibility for doing that should be on the Prime Minister and not on the House of Commons. All Members of the House of Commons will have some kind of interest in what is going to happen. It does not necessarily follow that they want the good of the general population, although it might be disguised in that way. For example, I could see that as people age—as I certainly am—they may feel that they do not want to continue, whereas others are very anxious to keep their position. One has to have that kind of consideration in mind.
I have great difficulty in disagreeing with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, with whom I have agreed many times in the past, but this is a fundamental point. My principal reason for thinking that this is not an appropriate amendment is that the responsibility of the Houses of Parliament is primarily to legislate and to keep account of the Government, but not to control an executive act except by legislating. This is not in any way a legislation; it is just a decision in the House of Commons that has no effect except as an executive decision.
My Lords, this has been a long and really interesting discussion, and it sums up the very reason for this amendment. When I spoke on the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Norton, at the beginning, I said that one of the reasons I thought he had brought his amendment forward was to bring some clarity, and it is the same with this amendment in so many ways.
When I looked through the Hansard for the other place, one of the things that struck me—I mentioned this at Second Reading—was how often Ministers asserted as fact something that was really a ministerial opinion or judgment, and not actually a fact. The most crucial one was that the Bill will
“reset the clock back to the pre-2011 position with as much clarity as possible.”—[
If it was that clear, we would not have the amendments before us tonight. It is not clear, and that lack of clarity has caused concern.
The comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, about having a practical view of how this works in practice were really important. As the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, said, one of the problems of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is that it did not stand the test of time. It was probably flawed at the beginning, and the Minister was kind enough to quote me at the very beginning when I said that the legislation was brought in for a specific purpose, which was to protect the coalition. It outlived its usefulness pretty quickly.
On all this, I start from the basis that a Government must have and retain the confidence of the House of Commons. A Government derive their authority from those elected to the House of Commons. Without that authority, a Prime Minister is unable to govern, unless they can command the support of the House of Commons. In some ways, the 2017 to 2019 Parliament is not a good starting point from which to look at how Parliament operates. We had the Long Parliament and the Rump Parliament; that was the dysfunctional Parliament in so many ways. We need to accept that.
The honourable Lady in the House of Commons kept saying we would “reset” this back to pre-2011. The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, made the point that that is not clear at all. Can you reinstate a royal prerogative by statute? Does the royal prerogative—a point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge— really work in practice today? It seems there are two options. Either we remove the ouster clause, which would allow the courts to intervene to say whether they think a general election being called by a Prime Minister is appropriate, or we have a separate mechanism of the House of Commons and Members of Parliament voting.
I understand the comments made by the noble Baroness and others that MPs would have a vested interest in whether there is an election. That is 650 vested interests, but a Prime Minister has one vested interest in whether to have an election. I struggle to understand why it can be acceptable for the Prime Minister just to call an election on their judgment, as in the Bill—it is moot whether it restores the position back to pre-2011—but not for Parliament to vote on it. MPs have a vested interest in every single piece of legislation passed and in governing the country. That is what we expect them to do in the interests of their constituents and the nation, so to deny them a vote on the one thing that allows the public to have a vote is difficult.
The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said MPs would be denying the people a say in a general election. That is not the case, because there will be a general election within five years. Only if a Prime Minister wishes to have an early election would there have to be endorsement by those elected to Parliament. In this system we do not elect a Government. We elect individual Members of Parliament, who then choose a Prime Minister and the Prime Minister chooses the Government.
I have some sympathy with the comments made by the noble Lord about what would be an inappropriate decision by a Prime Minister to call an election. When a Prime Minister calls an election, it may be to increase their majority. That seems to me a perfectly legitimate reason for a Prime Minister to call an election. Because they are worried the other side might win is also a reason not to call a general election, but at the end of the day that is why we have term limits. No Prime Minister can put off an election for ever, because there is a term of office within which they have to call a general election. We all know that when you do not have fixed terms, Prime Ministers and Parliament will choose an election date to the benefit of their party, and I do not think that an illegitimate way to proceed.
The noble Lord, Lord Beith, in some ways trespassed on the next amendment as well, which I understand because the two go hand in hand, and it is far preferable to have Parliament making the decision than to remove Clause 3 from the Bill.
I would not dare to suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, has his “shalls” or “wills” wrong on this, but it highlights a point—the same one made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. The noble Lord, Lord True, said at the very beginning of our discussions on the Bill that because the House of Commons did not make any amendments your Lordships’ House should not make any amendments. That is not a good justification for not doing so. I read the debates and looked at the discussions they had on whether the House of Commons should have a final say on whether there should be a general election. It did not seem that there was much detailed debate on that, and I wonder whether those Members of the House of Commons who debated this really understood the power they were giving away or what they were giving away. Our democracy works on a system of checks and balances, and I am far more comfortable with those checks and balances being held by elected Members of the House of Commons than by the courts, or by dragging Her Majesty into political discussions. The Lascelles principles are clearly outlined on paper, but I am not sure they have stood the test of time.
I do not think it is possible just to reset the clock by passing the Bill as it is. We have a duty to ask the House of Commons to have a look at this again. It is a matter for MPs. They should debate and consider it and see whether they think it is appropriate that we hand the power straight back to the Prime Minister so that the decision is vested in one person. Ministers have said previously that this increases democratic legitimacy but handing it to one member of the Executive in the House of Commons does not do that. No one is saying that the Prime Minister—he or she—would not be capable of making a decision, but democracy is served better when decisions are taken in the House of Commons in the normal way.
My noble friend Lord Grocott knocked back the point made about the two-thirds majority by explaining why that is so difficult. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, did not listen to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, earlier, because he gave the circumstances in which the House of Commons did vote for an election, but because it was not a simple majority but a two-thirds majority it did not happen then. It did eventually happen, but a simple majority, in the same way as we decide every other piece of legislation, would be the best way forward.
I support Amendment 3 in my name and those of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lords, Lord Newby and Lord Lansley, and I hope the Minister will not just dismiss it out of hand but will be happy to enter into further discussions to see whether it could be a helpful way forward, particularly when we get to the next debate, on Clause 3.
My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken in what has rightly been a lengthy debate. Perhaps my concluding marks too will be lengthy; I trust not. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. Your Lordships will divine that some of those who have spoken I agree with, and some I found less persuasive, but I have welcomed the opportunity to discuss these matters and others with many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness opposite, whose courtesy I always so much appreciate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. I very much appreciate that.
I have listened very carefully to all the arguments, not least the compelling concluding remarks of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. I was a little puzzled by the position of the noble Baroness opposite because she seemed to say that when the Labour Party told the electorate in 2019 that they would repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, what they actually meant was that they would not repeal it, but they would keep the chance of the very zombie Parliament that the public so overwhelmingly rejected in the 2019 election. I suggest to your Lordships that, notwithstanding some speeches that have been made, the risk of that occurring if these amendments are supported remains high.
I respectfully suggest to all noble Lords that retaining a revised version of the failed 2011 Act, which this amendment would do, in effect, by keeping the Commons veto in a revised form, is a highly problematic suggestion. It would not achieve what it is intended to do; it certainly would not secure clarity. I was on the Constitution Committee a long time ago when the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, became chair, and I say to her how much I admired and respected the work that was done by that committee while she was chair; I am sure I speak for the whole House on that. In her compelling speech, she spoke of the need for some degree of clarity and the need to avoid loopholes. We must guard against repeating one of the fundamental errors of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which, in the words of our manifesto, led to “paralysis”, or, in the words of the Labour manifesto, has “propped up weak governments”—Governments without the authority to govern effectively.
I submit that the first problem is that this is not the simple solution that some noble Lords have implied. In fact, a vote in the other place on Dissolution would be complicated and challenging to effect. To highlight one area of difficulty, what will be the likely consequences for constitutional conventions, including the conventions on confidence? Some of your Lordships will recall that this was a question that very much exercised this House in the debates on the 2011 Act.
The amendment would undoubtedly repeat the mistakes of the 2011 Act: it would undermine the fundamental conventions on confidence—by virtue of which a Government hold office—by divorcing them from practical effect and, even worse, making the consequences of a loss of a confidence vote ambiguous. The amendment is dangerously silent on the status and practice of the conventions associated with confidence. That silence is unclear and ambiguous, and could undoubtedly lead to fractious debate, uncertainty and delay at a time when timely action might be needed. In particular, in the event that a Prime Minister lost a vote on a Motion designated as a matter of confidence, they would not be able to request a Dissolution without the prior approval of the House.
It is unclear, therefore, how the amendment would interact with conventions on confidence in practice. Does it mean that the Prime Minister would be expected to table the Motion provided for in this amendment straight away, or would they be able to try to regain the confidence of the House? Would some other Member of the House be able to table the Motion? What happens after the loss of a vote on confidence? We saw with the 2011 Act, which tried to codify what would happen after the loss of a vote of no confidence, that efforts to partially prescribe how essentially political processes are played out leads only to ambiguity and uncertainty.
With respect, rather than introducing a process that would arguably preclude the Prime Minister reflecting on the view of the House after a defeat on a designated issue, the amendment does not provide a clear and unambiguous process, yet it also serves to restrict the ability to flexibly respond. The amendment is silent on these fundamental points of principle and practical implementation and therefore risks us repeating the mistakes of the 2011 Act. I agree with my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston: lack of clarity is risky.
Your Lordships have suggested that a simple majority is the silver bullet, preventing deadlock and stasis. However, I submit that, with the benefit of history—from not so long ago; we do not have to have grey hair to have lived through the disastrous Parliament of 2017-19—we can see that the real risk of a vote, even a simple majority one, as I will argue shortly, is a repetition of the deadlock and paralysis of the 2017-19 Parliament.
In my party’s manifesto, when we pledged to repeal this Act we made absolutely clear that its purpose was to prevent
“paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action.”
The Government, in submitting their manifesto to the country, had no doubt that the procedures that led to that paralysis should be done away with.
A vote in the House of Commons, by hindering the ability of the Prime Minister to call and to request an election at the time of his judgment, could mean that a Government are held hostage and lame duck Parliaments limp on. We have seen it. We have heard many fanciful scenarios in this debate, including the one of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell—which I thought very fanciful—but this has happened and could happen again.
My Lords, I am coming on to that, as I just said to the House I would. You can look at those circumstances in different ways, I would submit. Perhaps I will deal with that and then go on to the other point.
The Government had effectively lost the confidence of the Commons on the central purpose of its being, which was to deliver the referendum result on a key European policy. As the noble Lord opposite says, they tried to call an election three times, and three times the Commons refused to grant one. Why did the other place refuse to grant one? I cannot remember which noble Lord it was who said in the debate that it was because the leader of the Opposition sat on his hands and decided to prevent an election taking place. The noble Lord said he would not have done, but he did—three times.
The votes for dissolution were 298 on
The noble Lord suggests that of course if they had known there would be an election, the Opposition would never have sought to vote against it. By sitting on their hands, the Opposition defied the people and did not have an election.
My Lords, there is a conditional in that: a “would”. I believe that people must be presumed to intend the consequences of their own actions, and the consequence of Mr Corbyn’s actions was to thwart a general election three times. The figures I have given to the House are there in the book.
I want to move on because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in the gravamen of the argument—although I think the matters I have covered are a flaw in it—used the argument, which I think was taken up by my noble friend Lady Noakes, that the votes of millions of people should not be overturned by Dissolution. A number of noble Lords have addressed this. By implication, the noble and learned Lord argues, per contra, that the chance to vote for millions of people should be denied by a vote of the House of Commons. It seems to me an extraordinary concept that a House of Commons that does not wish to go should, in his words, prevent or overturn the votes of millions. I respectfully disagree. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, who chaired your Lordships’ Constitution Committee with distinction, put some political practicality into the equation, as did the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. This is very serious. I simply do not accept the argument that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, put forward.
A simple majority vote, for the reasons I have given, would not necessarily prevent deadlock in certain conditions—my noble friend Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury spoke to this—such as when the Government of the day held only a small majority, no majority at all or depended on a small party with a particular regional or country-specific interest. The procedure that is proposed would, in my submission, fail the test of clarity and the absence of loopholes, as the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, put to us. The Joint Committee itself noted on the matter of a vote in the Commons before Parliament was dissolved, that, “The majority”—there were conflicting views, as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, put to us—
“considers it a change which would only have a practical effect in a gridlocked Parliament, which could mean denying an election to a Government which was unable to function effectively, and which might therefore be counter to the public interest.”
I agree with the submission of the majority that this would be
“counter to the public interest.”
In short, far from making things simple, the very thing that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said he wished to achieve, it could still lead to stasis.
The most detrimental aspect of a vote in the other place, and potentially allowing that to be used to frustrate an election, is that general elections are sometimes called when the existing Parliament has proven to be unviable. The statutory requirement for a vote in the other place would only compound that problem, and in such a case, as we have discussed or I have submitted, with part of his own party potentially voting against a Prime Minister—circumstances that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, suggested could happen—even a simple majority would be too high.
Past Governments, and potentially future Governments, have often worked within turbulent political and economic contexts, trying to deliver ambitious and significant agendas and sometimes with small majorities. It is in these circumstances, above all, that the flexibility of the system which the two major parties in this country pledged to revive and which we are seeking to revive through this Bill matters most. In these scenarios, a Prime Minister should be able to be decisive and request a Dissolution to try to resolve a parliamentary stalemate or test their mandate to govern.
My noble friend Lord Lansley asked by what authority a Prime Minister might act. I think my noble friend and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern answered that. The Prime Minister, acting as the Sovereign’s principal adviser, is able to request a Dissolution by virtue of an ability to command the confidence of the other place. In the case of a minority Government or a confused House of Commons, the agreement to a Dissolution might be difficult to secure—as it proved three times in 2019. I submit that not many new MPs—some noble Lords have been slightly disrespectful of what might be the motives of people in another place—would rush to face the electorate in a matter of months if given the chance to have a say.
It is by no means certain, as noble Lords have suggested, that past minority Governments would have secured opposition support for an election had this system operated. I agree with the powerful interventions of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, and my noble friend Lady Noakes on this point. Some noble Lords seem to forget the experience of 2017-19. A vote in the House of Commons might have meant other minority Governments and similar ones having to limp on like that one, unable to deliver their priorities. The revival of the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament is, in our submission, the most effective way for a Government to be permitted to put important questions to the people, resolve stasis and secure the mandate to govern effectively. It is a system of constitutional practice that has worked; I urge noble Lords not to seek to add complexity where previously, before 2011, there was none.
I must address briefly the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. It would go further in the development of a statutory process by making express provision that, when Parliament stands prorogued, a Dissolution cannot be sought. The amendment seeks to set a condition that a Parliament must be “recalled”—or rather summoned—for the purpose of the passage of a Dissolution approval Motion.
Prior to the Dissolution of Parliament, a short Prorogation may be necessary to allow the swift conclusion of business; of course, it should be as short as possible. This has happened on several occasions, most recently in 1992, 1997, 2005 and 2010. In 2010, Parliament was prorogued from Thursday
I have heard the arguments in favour of a Commons vote on this matter in the circumstance of a Prorogation also but, respectfully, the Government believe that this is undesirable and risks repeating some of the worst aspects of the 2011 Act. In our submission, providing for the requirement that a prorogued Parliament must be summoned serves only to build in additional delay and undermine the ability of the Prime Minister to act decisively. The risk that the noble Lord alluded to in seeking to strengthen the role of the Commons raises that fundamental question: who should be the ultimate judge on the Government’s decision to call an election? As many noble Lords have said, the answer is clear: the electorate. As the Joint Committee said, they are
“the ultimate authority in a democratic system”.
Like my noble friend Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, I simply do not understand the idea of a rogue or outrageous Dissolution because it is the fundamental act of humility by the Executive to place their future in the hands of the electorate, who should be the final arbiter of whether a Prime Minister has called an election legitimately. I acquit the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, of this but I have found it strange to hear noble Lords say that they want to repeal the FTPA but return to some of the worst aspects of it. I think that there is a further complication in what the noble Lord suggested.
I am sure that the House wishes to move on. We will have further opportunities in the debate on the next group to discuss sovereignty and controls on Parliament, but I ought to say in preamble that noble Lords have suggested that a Commons vote increases parliamentary accountability and acts as a check on the Executive. It is not our view that the prerogative system diminishes parliamentary sovereignty and the Executive’s accountability to Parliament. Rather, by reviving the prerogative powers, we are restoring the link between confidence and Dissolution. If a Prime Minister loses the confidence of the elected House, they can either resign, seek a Dissolution or seek to recover the confidence of the House. The other place has the nuclear option of a Motion of no confidence and a plethora of means of holding the Executive to account. It does not require further prescriptive statutory measures to do so effectively.
Notwithstanding the gentle chiding of the noble Lord, Lord Newby—I am grateful to him for taking the time, or wasting it as he seemed to argue, to read the letter that I sent to noble Lords—I ask your Lordships to consider carefully the potential, unknown, long-term consequences of this amendment, which flow out of some of the problems that we have discussed in this debate. A vote in the Commons would disrupt the equilibrium in finely balanced, historical constitutional arrangements and could have an impact on the role of the sovereign. In reviving the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament, the Government have clearly acknowledged that this power is exercised by the sovereign on the request of the Prime Minister, as we discussed in the first group.
There remains a role for the sovereign in exceptional circumstances to refuse a dissolution request; the noble Lord, Lord Beith, made this point. This is a powerful incentive to ensure that improper requests are not made of the sovereign, irrespective of the Government’s majority in the House of Commons. However, a House of Commons vote in effect removes the role of the sovereign as the constitutional backstop. Some of your Lordships avowedly wish to do that; it is the Government’s strong opinion that that would be unwise.
The Bill as drafted will provide constitutional arrangements that deliver significant benefits to this country and clarity on the way forward—a clarity that has been well known, understood and trusted, and served successive Parliaments and Governments of different parties for generations. The Bill has been through rigorous parliamentary scrutiny. There has been a good deal of scrutiny of the 2011 Act by the Constitution Committee and PACAC. The Joint Committee also undertook outstanding pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, which has informed our approach.
The careful scrutiny that your Lordships rightly expect has been provided. To construct this novel constitutional scheme which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, is suggesting, building on the remnants of a piece of legislation that did not stand up in the political turmoil of the previous Parliament, would perhaps be to act with a little haste. That is not the way to ensure that our constitutional arrangements will stand the test of time as the previous arrangements did. This Bill returns our country to its best constitutional traditions, and I urge your Lordships to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I briefly point out that the definition of “Prorogation” that the Minister has just given does not cover the meaning of what the Prime Minister did in 2019. He might perhaps like to reconsider that definition if he wants to argue that the Prime Minister was behaving within the constitution. A lot of this debate has been about the lack of clarity in constitutional conventions at present and the need for greater clarity. I would be very happy to discuss further with him the revision of the Cabinet Manual to set out clearer definitions of what our conventions are, agreed among the parties and consulting with the committees in both Houses, which is what we need. We lack trust in politics at present and the public has a low opinion of politics and politicians. That is part of the reason why, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, we need to put conventions down on paper. I hope that we will come back to the Cabinet Manual later.
I say rapidly to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that we are a parliamentary democracy, and one of the planks on which the 2016 referendum was fought was to restore parliamentary sovereignty. When Parliament began afterwards to divide up into factions within both the major parties—which, after all, was the cause of our difficulties between 2017 and 2019—the Government moved towards an idea of popular sovereignty. If we were to move towards a system of popular sovereignty, as she suggests, we would be moving towards the Swiss model. We would have a much more local democracy, with local as well as national referenda and a Government who were much less able to control anything much from the centre; Switzerland does not have much of a foreign policy as a result. That is a popular democracy. It would be a very different model from our constitutional democracy based on checks and balances between judiciary, Parliament and Executive.
What we risk having is a populist democracy with highly centralised government and a leader with a good deal of financial support behind him—occasionally her, but almost always him—who says that he speaks for the public without actually asking them what they say, who does his best to denigrate any sort of critical or independent media and who thus undermines the whole idea of a constitutional democracy. We have seen that happen in a number of countries in recent years and we do not want it to happen here. That is why we need greater clarity in our constitutional conventions, which is part of what we are concerned with in this Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.