Amendment 2

Part of Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 25th January 2022.

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Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative 7:30 pm, 25th January 2022

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.