Amendment 2

Part of Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 25th January 2022.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 7:15 pm, 25th January 2022

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.