Early General Election — [David Mundell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 17th October 2022.

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Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee 4:30 pm, 17th October 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 619781, relating to an early general election.

The petition calls for an immediate general election to end the chaos of the current Government. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell.

As we gather in Westminster Hall this afternoon, the drama of the current Government is once again playing out in the Chamber and on the news channels. Many Members are keen to question the Prime Minister, who has failed to come to Parliament to account for events, and a Chancellor who was appointed by the Prime Minister just last week to try to sort out the utter chaos. I am sure many more Members would be here to speak if there were not such an important clash with business in the House.

I am particularly disappointed that there are no Government Members here to speak for the petitioners, who would like to hear not only Opposition views on the petition but Government Members’ views. It is no wonder that the petition, which is still open, has been signed by more than 632,000 petitioners—the number is going up as we speak, by about 1,000 signatures an hour. The numbers make this one of the most popular petitions considered by the Petitions Committee to date. As its Chair, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on behalf of the petitioners and pretty much anyone I have spoken to in the last few days, weeks and months about the state of the country.

The petition is clear in its demand. It states:

“Call an immediate general election to end the chaos of the current government…so that the people can decide who should lead us through the unprecedented crises threatening the UK.”

It goes on to explain:

“The chaos engulfing the UK government is unprecedented. Over 40 ministers resigned leaving departments without leadership during cost of living, energy and climate crises. War rages in Ukraine;
the Northern Ireland Protocol has further damaged our relationship with Europe;
recession looms;
the UK itself may cease to exist as Scotland seeks independence. This is the greatest set of challenges we have seen in our lifetimes. Let the people decide who leads us through this turmoil.”

I pay tribute to Darrin Charlesworth, who set up the petition. Little did he know, I suspect, that the chaos that led him to start the petition would develop further into the mini-Budget U-turns, the market turmoil, the sacking of the now ex-Chancellor and the extraordinary scenes we saw this morning of the new Chancellor reversing the entire platform that the Prime Minister stood on. Perhaps he had the foresight to see how much worse it could get. There were plenty of warnings and, sadly, it is not over.

The scenario facing us when the petition was started was the horror of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, inflation reaching a 40-year high, unaffordable fuel bills, record backlogs in our NHS and a looming winter of struggle ahead. Unfortunately, weeks on, with a new Prime Minister and now a second Chancellor, things have only got worse.

Those who signed the petition were expressing their frustration at a governing party spending a summer focused inwards, choosing themselves a new leader, rather than dealing with these multiple crises. Rather than speaking to and engaging with the country and setting out a vision of what they should expect from a new Prime Minister, those of us outside the Conservative party—99.7% of us—were left looking on, with no input into the process and precious little scrutiny, as planned televised interviews on the BBC and Channel 4 were cancelled. It was far removed from the scrutiny of an agenda for government that would happen in a general election campaign. After recent events, particularly this morning, we can see why such scrutiny matters.

We live in a parliamentary democracy. It is not the first time that a Prime Minister has changed during an election cycle, but we are now on to the fourth Conservative Prime Minister in little over six years. The last three were replaced not by the electorate, but by Conservative MPs and members. That is frustrating for the public, who have no say in who their Prime Minister is or in their programme for government.

The real boost to the number of signatories to the petition came once the new Prime Minister had been chosen. Concern was heightened by the fact that she received the backing of only 31% of her own MPs in the final ballot. By comparison, in 2019, Boris Johnson received 51% of votes in the final ballot, and in 2016, Mrs May received 60%. It did not end well for them, so is a Prime Minister with less support among her parliamentary party destined to fare any better? In the light of recent events, clearly not.

Most of the policy proposals that were set out in the Prime Minister’s leadership campaign and hastily enacted in the disastrous mini-Budget had no mandate whatsoever. The 632,000-plus people who signed the petition represent nearly eight times the number who voted for our current Prime Minister. Some may ask, “Why does that matter? The Prime Minister won under rules set by the Conservative party, which is currently the largest party in Parliament.”

This is not without precedent: in 1976, when Harold Wilson announced his resignation at Prime Minister’s questions, the then Leader of the Opposition asked if there would be an election. She said:

“In spite of the political battles, we wish the Prime Minister well, personally, in his retirement. His decision has come at a time of great financial difficulty and of unprecedented parliamentary events. Is he aware that the best way to resolve the uncertainty and to give the new Prime Minister the authority re-required would be to put the matter to the people for their vote?”—[Official Report, 16 March 1976; Vol. 907, c. 1123.]

I do not often find myself agreeing with the late Margaret Thatcher, but on that point I—and the petitioners—do. Lady Thatcher was not wrong about lack of authority; we are seeing its consequences unfolding before our eyes. Weeks into office, any semblance of authority that our Prime Minister may have had has been shattered, along with confidence in her and in this Government’s ability to govern. Over the weekend, one of the Government’s own MPs described her as being like “the chairman” while her new Chancellor would act as “the chief executive”—they were not even trying to hide the fact that she is in office but not in power.

Then, there is the mini-Budget. The then Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, proclaimed that he wanted to “bet big” on the British economy. We have seen just how reckless that was. The question remains: who gave the then Chancellor and the Prime Minister permission to gamble in such a way with our public finances, bypassing the checks and balances that go with such a fiscal event, including the growth forecasts and spending commitments calculated by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility? How on earth was that allowed to happen? Not even the 81,326 Conservative party members who voted for the Prime Minister gave their permission for it.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that the mini-Budget contained

“the biggest package of tax cuts in 50 years without even a semblance of an effort to make the public finance numbers add up.”

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research said that the uncertainty caused by the fiscal event was directly pushing up longer-term borrowing costs. The Government lacked the mandate to make those disastrous changes, and they still lack the mandate to try to clean them up. Although the package has now been scrapped, the damage to the UK will be long lasting: higher borrowing costs, higher mortgage rates and damage to our reputation for years to come. This will never be forgotten.

Many are rightly asking, “What is the point of this Government now that their showpiece policies—all rainbows and unicorns—which they spent the summer waxing lyrical about, landed calamitously and were swiftly withdrawn the moment they met reality?”. When Downing Street cannot govern, it is incapable of stepping up to the significant and pressing challenges our country faces. We desperately need a Government who can.

What is left of the Government’s programme? Although the Budget has been reversed, we still have fracking. Despite the Conservatives’ own 2019 manifesto pledge that they

“will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely” and the fact it is a policy that few can support, the Government are seemingly still intent on lifting the ban on fracking licences without any consultation, assurances on safety or local planning considerations.

Then there is the current debate around benefits uprating. The right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak)—three Chancellors ago, remarkably—promised that benefits would be uprated in line with inflation, but the current Prime Minister has not confirmed whether that will be the case. Concerns have been heightened by commitments made on pensions but not on the uprating of benefits. Working parents, disabled people and the poorest pensioners are already being hit by the skyrocketing cost of living. The Government have no mandate for inflicting unconscionable misery on the poorest in our society. I know that many Government Members feel the same.

Without a mandate, Government MPs will find it even harder to justify the lifting of the cap on bankers’ bonuses at the same time as the poorest are set to be punished. Indeed, the lifting of that cap is one of the only other measures in the mini-Budget that is left.

Today marks the United Nations International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and the start of Challenge Poverty Week. Some 41% of babies, children and young people are growing up in households in receipt of universal credit or legacy benefits; that figure is 52% in my region of the north-east. The failure to uprate benefits with inflation will have a devastating impact on those households, compounding the already shocking levels of child poverty in the UK.

Where is the mandate from the public for this Government to preside over the poorest in our country being made poorer and increasing numbers of children growing up in poverty? Where is the democratic accountability for a Government that have no mandate for the policies they seek to pursue? Why should anyone trust this Government to clean up the mess they have made in the past few weeks? Would we ask a person who started a fire in our house to be responsible for putting it out? Of course not.

Far from a fresh Administration buzzing with new ideas, we have a tired, worn-out and weak Administration, going round in circles and damaging our reputation at home and abroad. The spectacle of our great country being led by Government MPs desperately clinging to power and trying to distance themselves from the past 12 years is embarrassing to watch.

The petitioners have very clear asks: for there to be an end to the chaos engulfing the Government and our country, and for the people to have the chance to decide who should lead us going forward. Will the Minister say how the public can have confidence in the competence of a Government that just days into office took such a reckless, irresponsible gamble with the public finances? After being forced to abandon her entire policy platform just weeks into office and sack her Chancellor, what authority does the Prime Minister now have? When will people on the lowest incomes have confirmation that benefits will be uprated with inflation, as promised by the Government only weeks ago? How can the country have faith in anything the Government say when, over the past few weeks, they have backtracked on most of their promises and appear set to do so again, after warning of “difficult choices” to be made? Most importantly, when will the public have their say on how they want this country to be governed?

It is in the Government’s gift to call an election. Failing that, Government Members can join with Opposition Members to put things right. Whatever Government are elected, they will at least have the support of the British people.

It is not just the 632,000 petitioners who believe that the public deserve a say. In January, the current Business Secretary, Mr Rees-Mogg, stated that

“the mandate is personal rather than entirely party and…any prime minister would be very well advised to seek a fresh mandate.”

Earlier this month, the former Culture Secretary, Ms Dorries, tweeted that

“No one asked for this”,

and that if the Prime Minister

“wants a whole new mandate, she must take to the country.”

Mark Garnier has stated that there should be an election soon because

“we can’t expect people to put up with the psychodrama of the Conservative party indefinitely.”

I could not agree more, but those Members need to put their money where their mouths are on this matter.

Darrin Charlesworth, the petition’s creator, said that the Prime Minister has “torn up” the manifesto that saw the Government elected, and the

“major change in direction and policy requires a general election, regardless of which party happens to be in power.”

He feels that the current situation is a

“dangerous distraction from the business of running the country” and believes

“it needs to come to a decisive end with a general election immediately.”

Aside from the over 632,000 petitioners who agree with Darrin, a poll out today from “Good Morning Britain” found that an astonishing 93% of respondents want a general election. Similarly, Channel 4 found that only 8% believe that the Prime Minister should remain. The situation is completely unacceptable and unsustainable.

Since 2010, our country has faced monumental changes: a coalition Government, a referendum in Scotland, Brexit, parliamentary gridlock, the illegal proroguing of Parliament and a pandemic. The previous Prime Minister oversaw the complete erosion of standards in public life, before being forced from office as scandal caught up with him. Those seismic changes and the ensuing chaos have tested our constitution—and our patience with the Government—to the limit. After their 12 years in office, the country deserves a chance to have its say on this Government and their programme. Today, as with most days, we all woke up to another chaotic day in politics. It is damaging and exhausting, but it does not have to be this way.

This is not about party politics. Many who signed the petition will have voted Conservative at the last election and may do so again. What nobody voted for was this chaos, which is caused by the lack of the clear mandate that any Government would need to have the authority to face up to the challenges ahead. MPs have a duty to the public to govern in the national interest. The petition calls on the Government to do the right thing and put an end to the uncertainty and lack of authority by giving the people their say. If the Government have any hope of rebuilding trust with the electorate, they should do exactly that—today.