Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore): Will the Leader of the House clearly define at this stage what interpretation he would offer of the nine Members who are no longer members of the parliamentary Conservative party in the House- -the eight who were suspended and the one who resigned? One might suggest that the Member who resigned would automatically lose his position, but the eight who have been suspended have been subjected to a particular debate. It is for the Leader of the House to decide into what category those eight Members should be put, because the Committee of Selection, of which I am a member, is having great difficulty deciding how we can appoint people to Committees until such time as the House has decided the issue. In the early part of December, in reply to the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), the right hon. Gentleman said that it should be up to the Committee of Selection to make the decision and that it was not a matter for him. The Committee of Selection has failed to reach agreement, hence today's debate on the Floor of the House. Can he explain in what category he believes that those eight Members should be put in the formidable list presented to the Committee of Selection when we determine the numerical strength on each Committee?
Mr. Newton: Surely I have made it clear, in response to a number of interventions by my hon. Friends, that, for this purpose, the Members in question would be regarded as Conservative Members of Parliament.
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South): The Leader of the House said that the internal workings of the Government party have nothing to do with the motion before us. How can that be so? In so far as the eight Members are concerned, it is a result of an internal matter in the party concerned. All that the motion does is to pretend that that never happened, for the purposes of the Standing Committee and the Committee of Selection. Is not it using the authority of the House to back up the internal authority that has failed inside the Conservative party?
Mr. Newton: No. The purpose of the motion is almost exactly the opposite, but, as a result of the number of interventions--about which I make no complaint--I have not been able to make the principal argument that I wish to make to the House.
The motion has long-term implications, which we will reach eventually, and short-term implications. Will my right hon. Friend say, categorically, that, as far as he and
Column 164the Government are concerned, those of us who do not have the Whip at the moment will be treated in exactly the same way for the purposes of Standing Committee selection as those colleagues who currently have the Whip--yes or no?
Mr. Newton: I think that I made it clear that--although it is a matter for the Committee of Selection--we would expect the Committee of Selection to consider those Members in the same way as other Members, and we would neither wish nor seek to exclude them from such consideration, or to veto them.
Mr. Marlow rose --
Mr. Lamont rose --
Sir Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown) rose --
Mr. Marlow: We all know that the usual channels have a great deal of influence on these events. My right hon. Friend is a bit shy about it, but we know that that is the case. Does he agree that colleagues such as myself who do not have the Whip will be treated, as far as the Government and the usual channels are concerned, in an identical way to other colleagues?
Mr. Newton: I think that I have made that clear to my hon. Friend. The best description of the situation was that given by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West. The arrangements on the Conservative side of the House have historically been different from the more rigid approach adopted on the Labour side of the House, as I understand it. It is the traditional practice that, on the Conservative side of the House, Members have usually written themselves to the Committee of Selection, and their opinions and wishes are taken into account, together with any thoughts coming from other quarters. That position will continue. I hope that I have said clearly several times that we would neither wish nor seek to exclude those Members from normal consideration by the Committee of Selection.
Sir Andrew Bowden: Will the Leader of the House spell out, loud and clear, that the Members about whom we are talking were elected as Conservative Members of Parliament and continue to be members of the Conservative party, and that that is being confused by an internal operation centring round the word "Whip"? They are Conservatives, they were elected Conservatives and, as long as they remain members of the Conservative party, they are part of the Conservative party strength in the House.
Mr. Lamont: My right hon. Friend, in response to an intervention from an Opposition Member, said that if an hon. Member on the Conservative side of the House resigned the Whip--I am sorry to use that phrase again-- but did not join another party, he would count none the less as an independent. My right hon. Friend appears to be drawing a distinction between someone resigning the Whip and having the Whip withdrawn from him, and I cannot see how that distinction can be made.
Column 165Member for Wolverhampton, South-West couched it, in suggesting that there might be a difference in one Member's perception of his position. That leads me to one of the points that I want to make later in my speech. I also want to return to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Sir A. Bowden).
Mr. Bryan Davies (Oldham, Central and Royton): Some of us were under the impression that a grievous sin had been committed against the Conservative party by some hon. Members who voted in the wrong Lobby in the autumn, that condign punishment was being meted out to them and that they had to earn their passage back. As it is palpably the case that such hon. Members can vote in any Lobby they choose at the conclusion of any debate on the Floor of the House, and as the Government now seem to be portraying themselves as being solicitous of the interests of those Members should they wish to participate or vote in Committee, what is the nature of the punishment that such Members have received?
Mr. Newton: As I have already said, I do not propose to discuss on the Floor of the House the internal arrangements of the Conservative party any more than I would expect to discuss the internal arrangements of any other parties.
Mr. Budgen: Will my right hon. Friend give me a bit of guidance? We are told that one of the ways in which we may be able to crawl back on our knees into the party is by a display of abject loyalty. Obviously, we very much want to display those characteristics, but there is a practical difficulty. If we do not get the Whip, we do not know when the votes will come, we do not know when anything will be contested and, with the best will in the world, we cannot display the subservience required of us.
Mr. Madden: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The debate so far reinforces the reservations that I and a number of others have about the motion. What is clear so far is that the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body) has a fighting chance as an independent to claim Short opposition money to support his party. As long as they are not receiving the Conservative party Whip, the other eight Members have no chance in hell of serving on a Standing Committee. All in all, would it be helpful to you, Madam Speaker, the House and particularly the eight Members who have had the Whip withdrawn if I were to move to withdraw the motion to ease the difficulties facing the Leader of the House? We could return at a later stage when the Whip is restored to the nine Members.
Mr. Newton: I shall respond briefly to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, whose intervention I took to be extremely friendly. I assure him that we shall be as helpful as we can in ensuring that he is fully informed about what is going on.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): On one occasion the Leader of the House said that there would be no veto, and on another he said that the rebels would be treated the same as everyone else. Is he seriously asking the House
Column 166and all of us to believe that neither he nor any of the Whips will pass judgment on an application by any of the nine rebels to serve on a European Standing Committee?
Mr. Newton: I have said what I have said several times and I do not propose to repeat it or seek to elaborate it further. The motion would establish a firmer basis for dealing with any comparable difficulty in future. Its purpose is to achieve that aim by stating that the composition of the House is to be regarded as determined by the electorate and the declared position of Members themselves, not by internal party arrangements within the House. Such arrangements are not recognised in our Standing Orders or procedures and are not normally discussed on the Floor of the House--although plainly that can hardly be avoided today.
The motion provides in a clear and straightforward manner that a party with a majority of Members elected at the preceding election shall retain a majority on Standing Committees unless and until it loses that majority, as a result either of seats changing hands at by-elections or Members seceding to another party. I believe that to be not only sensible but constitutionally right in recognising the relationship of Members to those who elect them. In the present House it would, of course, reflect the reality that, of its membership of 651, 330 were elected as Conservatives-- which picks up the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown-- and are members of the Conservative party who support Conservative principles and who have indicated their broad support for the Government's legislative programme set out in the Queen's Speech. Indeed--this echoes something to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West has referred already--as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his interview on Sunday, some would say that my hon. Friends whose position is at issue are very blue Conservatives indeed.
The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) will no doubt address the Opposition amendment, my disagreement with which I have already made clear. Its very terms underline the important point at issue, since I think that it would be the first occasion on which an order or resolution of the House had enshrined the position of the Whips. I can only repeat that I do not believe that the composition of the House, for the purpose of our Standing Orders, should be determined by internal party arrangements within the House, but should be determined by the electorate and the declared position of Members of Parliament themselves.
In case the hon. Lady intends to refer to the events of May 1976 as some kind of precedent for her argument today, let me say that I think that exactly the opposite is true. In May 1976 the then Labour Government had lost their majority as a result of by-election defeats and the defection of a Labour Member to a party of his own. It was of course right in those very different circumstances that the Government should cease to have a majority on Standing Committees--as indeed, in similar circumstances, would happen under the terms of my motion today.
As it happens, in 1976 the Government argued initially that they should continue to have a majority on Standing Committees simply because they had a majority over the Conservatives rather than an overall majority in the House. That was plainly not acceptable in 1976. I suspect that there was much to-ing and
Column 167fro-ing through the usual channels and, between debating the proposition that there should be a majority regardless of the absence of an overall majority and 7 May, the dispute was resolved by a motion precisely along the lines that I propose today:
"the Committee of Selection should interpret the Standing Order so that only an overall majority in the composition of the House should guarantee a majority in each Standing Committee".
Before I conclude, Madam Speaker, I hope that the hon. Lady--whatever else she may say in her speech--will explain the mystery of the apparent flat contradiction between the letter that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) wrote last week to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Sir M. Fox) and the motion on which his name appears today.
In his letter of last week, the hon. Member for Perry Barr referred to a Labour party standing order which said that, even if someone were suspended from the Whip, that Member is
"expected to comply with the Party whip, and to conform with whatever pairing arrangements apply to other members of the Party from time to time".
The letter continued:
"If the PLP at any time had Members who were suspended from the whip, it would still be quite legitimate for the Labour Party, in Parliament, to `claim' those Members for the purposes of constructing Committees of the House".
He went on to say that unless the 1922 Committee had a similar rule--I am bound to say that it does not because, as I have said, its constitution is largely unwritten--there would be one rule for Labour party calculations in the House and another rule for Conservative calculations. Perhaps there is some simple misunderstanding--or perhaps wiser counsel has prevailed--but it would be helpful if the matter could be cleared up.
Whatever the explanation, however, the motion that I have moved represents the approach that is both sensible and right, and I commend it to the House.
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: "in the opinion of this House, any Member who for disciplinary reasons has been deprived of his or her party's whip has in effect been expelled from his or her Parliamentary party and cannot logically be counted as belonging to that party for the purposes of determining the current composition of the House; and accordingly this House instructs the Committee of Selection to apply this principle in nominating Members to serve on Standing Committees in accordance with Standing Order No. 86(2).".
Labour Members have certainly enjoyed the debate so far, although I am not sure how much light the Leader of the House has shed on the issue this afternoon. I am not sure that he has told the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) how he should crawl back into subservience.
We are still intrigued to know exactly what is meant by withdrawing the Conservative Whip. If the roles were reversed and we were talking about Labour Members who had lost the Whip, it would be easy to define exactly what that meant, because the parliamentary Labour party has written rules and a constitution and we abide by them.
Column 168The Leader of the House said that he had tabled the motion because he thought that the House should decide. In fact, the decision to refer the matter to the Floor of the House was taken by the Committee of Selection; it was a unanimous all-party decision by that Committee, and that in itself demonstrates that the Committee of Selection considers that there is a problem, and that the new circumstances in which the House is working need to be examined and throw up new problems.
I start by reminding the House of the exact circumstances which have led to today's debate. It is not surprising that the Leader of the House did not spend a great deal of time on those circumstances, but it is worth reminding the House of the sequence of events. On Monday 28 November last year, the House debated the Second Reading of the European Communities (Finance) Bill. The Prime Minister, because of fears about the scale of the Tory rebellion which was pending at that time, made that vote a vote of confidence in his Government. As it turned out, eight Conservative Members refused to support the Government on a vote of confidence and had the party Whip withdrawn. One hon. Member, the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body), voluntarily resigned the Whip the next day. The motion moved by the Leader of the House leaves that hon. Gentleman in limbo, because its terms imply that hon. Members can move only to another party rather than have the independent status that he was implying could exist, but that is a minor point. As a consequence of the decisions of that hon. Gentleman and the Conservative Whips, the number of members of the parliamentary Conservative party fell by nine. That meant that the number of Members receiving the Government Whip fell by nine and that the Government no longer enjoyed an overall majority in the House. The figures were reported in the House of Commons Library bulletin of 2 December, which shows clearly that there are 321 Conservative Members and 269 Labour Members. There are two new categories: elected as a Conservative but has resigned the Whip, one; and elected as Conservatives but the Whip has been withdrawn, eight. Shortly after that, the position changed because after the Dudley by- election the number of Labour Members increased to 270. The change in the composition of the House following events on 28 November left the Committee of Selection having to decide what the ramifications of the new circumstances were and how it should interpret them in respect of new Standing Committees.
The Leader of the House has already mentioned that there have been other occasions on which Members on both sides of the House have had the Whip withdrawn. Indeed, there have been other occasions when Conservative Members have defied three-line Whips. When the European Communities Bill went through in 1972, the Government were defeated three times on three- line Whips because of defections on their own side, but in those circumstances no action was taken. It was somewhat unusual and unprecedented for so many Members of the Conservative party to have the Whip withdrawn on one occasion.
Now the Government have lost nine Members, which, given the relative narrowness of the Government's majority, has materially affected the balance of the House
Column 169of Commons. As the Leader of the House said, on such occasions we tend to look for precedents and he is right to say that there is no exact parallel.
As the right hon. Gentleman anticipated, I would argue that the nearest parallels are presented by events in 1951 and 1976, when Labour Governments were elected with small majorities which they lost during the ensuing Parliaments. It is interesting to note what Conservative Members said at those times. In 1951, for example, Mr. Winston Churchill, Mr. Anthony Eden, Mr. R. A. Butler and others tabled a motion when the Labour Government lost their majority, suggesting
"That a Select Committee be appointed to consider"
the relevant Standing Order
"and report what alterations are necessary to elucidate its meaning and to ensure that Standing Committees in fact reflect the composition of the House."
As all hon. Members probably know, the outcome of that was a general election soon afterwards.
In 1976--the Leader of the House has already mentioned this--a Labour Government lost their majority on the Floor of the House. On 29 April 1976, the then Leader of the Opposition, Mrs. Thatcher, tabled early-day motion 351, which called on the Committee of Selection "henceforth to appoint Members in equal numbers from the Government and the Opposition Parties."
Incidentally, that motion was signed by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, who is not present at the moment. The position was debated on the Floor of the House, and it was agreed that only an overall majority in the composition of the House should guarantee a majority on each Standing Committee.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle): Did that historical position arise because Labour Members who formed part of the majority were denied the Whip? Surely not; this is a different situation.
As the Leader of the House has said, we still need to ask how we should define the composition of the House. That was the difficulty that faced the Committee of Selection when it met before Christmas. The peculiarity of our constitution is that it tends to ignore the existence of political parties whenever possible, which does not make the definition of the composition of the House any easier. The points made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) are extremely relevant in this context. Registration of political parties, which has been suggested by some Opposition Members, might help, but, for reasons that have already been mentioned, the idea has always been rejected by the Conservative party.
As we debate the motion we do not know exactly what is meant by withdrawal of the Whip, which makes life very difficult. The Government argue in the motion that the circumstances that should be defined as the loss of a majority are extremely narrow: under the terms of the motion, the Government could withdraw the Whip from half the Conservative party and still claim to have a technical majority on the Floor of the House. In fact, the motion could well store up future problems for the
Column 170Government, because it could be interpreted as an invitation to other potential rebels to risk a rebellion without bringing down the Government.
Mr. Kirkwood: The hon. Lady is making a powerful point. Does she agree that, although this provision may be available to the Government at a later stage in this Parliament, it also sets a precedent that will straddle Parliaments and could be used by future Governments in circumstances that the House cannot foresee today?
Mrs. Taylor: We have noticed that with some interest, but we would not intend to try to use the provision, because we are certain that one election victory does not give a Government absolute authority to do anything they like.
The Leader of the House has said outside the House and again here today that because independent Conservatives--or rebels--were elected as Conservative Members of Parliament, they should automatically be counted as Government supporters. Perhaps we should leave aside the fact that claiming the 1992 election victory as authority for anything is a bit rich coming from the Government, considering all the broken Tory taxation pledges. Be that as it may, the right hon. Gentleman is ignoring a few important facts, not least the reasons for the withdrawal of the Whip.
Mrs. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman overlooks the simple fact that they are not members of the parliamentary Conservative party; there are other important ramifications to which I shall come later. I remind the House that the Conservative Whip has been withdrawn from certain Members because they refused to support the Prime Minister on a vote that he had made a vote of confidence. We are not talking about a minor vote or an ordinary three-line Whip. How can the Government have it both ways? If Conservative Members cannot vote for the Government on a vote of confidence which the Prime Minister said could have led to a general election, how on earth can the Government count them as part of their majority from day to day? The fact is that nobody does that. We have only to read the press reports--Tory press reports--of the day after to know that. I have already mentioned the House Library bulletin. We know that Tory central office has been in touch with the constituency chairs of the so-called rebels. We know that it is generally thought that withdrawal of the Whip puts Conservative Members beyond the pale. Indeed the hon. Member for Reigate (Sir G. Gardiner) said before Christmas on "The World at One" that the Government should restore their majority in the House of Commons by giving the Whip back to the rebels; so he clearly believes that the Government lost their majority by withdrawing the Whip from them.
The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss) went out of his way in the debate on the Christmas Adjournment to proclaim that he could no longer call the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer his right hon. Friend. On the VAT vote, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) said that if he had still had the Whip he would have voted with the Government, but that as he
Column 171did not have it he would make up his own mind and take his own decision. If all the rebels thought the same, perhaps that is why most of them did not vote with the Government on VAT.
It may, of course, have been all these instances that led the Prime Minister to talk about whether the Whip should be restored to those who lost it at the end of November. Just before Christmas, on 20 December, he said:
"In due course one can consider whether"--
"they should be readmitted to the party whip . . . but it is not imminent at all. They must show that they are in the business of supporting the Government."
If their return to the fold is not imminent and if they must still show that they are in the business of supporting the
Government--crawling back to subservience, as it has been described by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West--how can they be counted as part of the Government's majority when we debate these issues? Some Ministers are not sure whether they should be taking a tough or soft line, whether they should be wooing or abusing the so-called rebels. Even the Prime Minister has changed his tune on some occasions. Despite his toughness before Christmas, we heard a slightly different tone last weekend. Perhaps that is because he wants the votes of the rebels today, or wants them in the near future. The Secretary of State for Employment has said all along that he hopes to have the rebels back in the fold soon. He is adopting the gently, gently approach. That may be because he agreed with them at heart. It may be also because one day he may need their votes in a leadership election. One of the consequences of withdrawal of the Conservative Whip is that if there is a leadership election, those Members who do not have the Whip will not be able to take part in it.
Mr. Dixon: My hon. Friend's argument is extremely relevant. Is she aware that when the Committee of Selection met on the Wednesday at 4.15 pm to determine whether the rebels were still Conservative Members--that is what the Government were arguing--nominations for leadership of the 1922 Committee had finished at 12 noon? If the Committee of Selection had met the night before, would the Government have been claiming that the rebels were Conservative Members? They could well have submitted counter- nominations.
Mrs. Taylor: I understand that one member of the parliamentary Conservative party said today that he regarded the withdrawal of the Whip not as a disciplinary decision but as a political one. Perhaps that is what those concerned had in mind.
Sir Michael Neubert (Romford): I have been listening carefully to the hon. Lady's arguments. She lacks one crucial piece of evidence in securing the conviction that she seeks. Will she say what evidence she has that any one of my nine hon. Friends of whom she has been speaking has declared that he or she does not support the Government? We cannot rely on the House of Commons
Column 172bulletin and the person who compiles it. Does the compiler determine the composition of the House? If so, who is it?
Mrs. Taylor: I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman might mean by evidence that the rebels do not support the Government. Surely not voting for one's Prime Minister in a vote of confidence is pretty clear evidence that one does not support the Government.
I return to the central point that the Leader of the House made when he talked about the composition of the House being determined by the electorate in a general election. Opposition Members all live in the hope that if a general election were to be called today, tomorrow or next week, the rebel Members--the independent Conservative Members--would not be eligible to stand as parliamentary candidates in that election. It might be that they would stand as Conservative independents. They could stand as parliamentary candidates but not as official Conservative parliamentary candidates. The Leader of the House has confirmed that in our discussions.
Mr. Budgen: The issue is shrouded in some mystery. The answer depends on whether the Members concerned were selected by a Conservative association and whether that association was then expelled from the national union. The constitution of the Conservative party is as shrouded in mystery as the constitution of the United Kingdom.
Mrs. Taylor: I agree with the hon. Gentleman in one respect, and that is that many of these issues are shrouded in mystery. Every time a Conservative Member intervenes to clarify an issue, the waters are even more muddied.
It might be helpful to the House and to the country if correspondence and reports of telephone calls between Conservative central office and individual Conservative parties were placed in the Library, which would enable us all to have the full information. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) has made public some interpretations of the Conservative constitution which have been given to her. As the Leader of the House has said, however, all these matters are extremely vague. That does not help us. Some of those who have had the Conservative Whip withdrawn have been told that until the Whip is restored, if it is, they will not be able to stand as official Conservative candidates.
It may be that some Conservative Members would consider that an advantage. Some of them who are now in their places might think that their chances would be enhanced if they stood as independent Conservatives rather than official Conservatives come the next election. The hon. Member for Ruislip- Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) made it clear in a television interview that he is not concerned whether he stands as an official Conservative candidate or an independent one. I am sure that the House is aware that the hon. Member for Billericay is similarly not concerned. She stood as an independent candidate against an official Conservative candidate in 1974. If the rebels are not eligible to stand as official Conservative party candidates, how can the House consider them to be eligible to be part of the Government's majority today? The real problem is that the Government have been in office for too long. They have been in office for so long that they think that they can get away with anything, both with their own Members and with the country. The truth is that the Prime Minister
Column 173has lost his authority in his party within the House. It is only a matter of time before the country has the opportunity to pass its verdict.
I wish to pay tribute to the members of the Committee of Selection. I think that all nine of us would agree that it is a pleasant Committee. Nevertheless, we have our arguments. When I first became a member of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Sir M. Fox) was the Chairman. That was in the halcyon days when the Government had an enormous majority. With his usual impeccable timing, my hon. Friend moved on to fresh fields and pastures new and left me to hold the baby, when the Government had a small majority. I pay tribute to the members of the Committee because our arguments are always conducted in a civilised way. There have been no instances of anyone being unpleasant or descending to personalities.
The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) was incorrect when she said that no agreement had been reached by the Committee. We reached a decision on a vote. It was because of that that the Opposition members of the Committee felt that the matter should be referred to the House. I did not dissent because I thought that if we could not reach a proper agreement in Committee, the matter should be decided by the House itself. At the same time, I am sorry that the issue has had to come to the Floor of the House. The Committee decided before the vote took place that the matter should be referred to the usual channels. A meeting was deferred for a week so that that could happen. Over the years, the usual channels have done a tremendous job in sorting out extremely difficult issues.
The speech of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was constantly interrupted. He showed enormous patience. It is difficult to make a speech when one is being constantly deflected. I pay tribute to him. Many Leaders of the House would not have given way as often as my right hon. Friend did.
The motion is perfectly fair and deserves support. The problem arose because nine of my hon. Friends no longer have the Conservative Whip. As a consequence, the Committee of Selection had to decide whether they should be counted as Conservative Members or, when we decide the party proportions on Committees, whether they should go under the umbrella of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), the Chief Whip of the Liberal party who looks after the minority parties. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman because he consults the other parties fully before any nominations are made on behalf of the minority parties.
My nine hon. Friends continue to sit on the Conservative Benches. That is an important point. They have repeatedly stressed that they are Conservatives and that they support Conservative principles. Therefore, I believe that--this is the point that I made in Committee--they should be treated as such.
Column 174party to sit as an independent has been treated as a member of another party, which is a subject of the motion of the Leader of the House?
Sir Fergus Montgomery: I am sorry, but I cannot give an answer to that. I was going to use as my precedent what happened in 1976, which is something to which the hon. Member for Dewsbury also referred. At that time, Hugh Delargy was Chairman of the Committee of Selection, and the Labour Government had lost their majority. That was the simple fact. A debate took place, in which Mr. Delargy said: "The Labour Party has a majority of 39 over the Conservatives. Most of the other 40 or so hon. Members belong to four political parties. They are independent parties with their own Leader, their own Whips and, more importantly, their own policies. They are the Liberals, the Scottish National Party, the United Ulster Unionist coalition and Plaid Cymru. There is also the SDLP of Northern Ireland. None of these parties was elected to support the Conservative Party in this House. They were not elected primarily to oppose the Labour Party. They were elected for positive reasons--to pursue certain policies and to serve their electorates."--[ Official Report , 3 May 1976; Vol. 910, c. 984.
One can switch that argument around. Today, there are 60 more Conservative than Labour Members of Parliament. There are 23 Liberal Democrats and 24 other hon. Members who represent six different parties. I maintain that those Liberals and Members for the minority parties were not elected to support the Labour party today. They were not elected to oppose the Conservative party, to use the analogy that Hugh Delargy used then.
On 6 April 1976, the then Labour Government lost their overall majority, because of the death of Brian O'Malley, the Labour Member of Parliament for Rotherham. I think that there was parity at that time. The following day, John Stonehouse crossed the Floor of the House. His clothes were found on a beach in Florida and he turned up in Australia. He must have been a very strong swimmer. The point is that the Government's majority dropped to zero after the death of Brian O'Malley, and with the defection of John Stonehouse the Government had a minority.
Later in 1976, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will recall, the Labour Government lost other by-elections. There was also the defection of James Sillars and John Robertson, who left the Labour party to form what was called the "Scottish Labour party". That, of course, increased the deficit that the Labour Government had.
The situation today is very different from that in 1976. I disagree with the hon. Member for Dewsbury, because the problems in 1976 were caused as a result of by-election losses and because three hon. Members, who were elected as Labour Members in October 1974, became increasingly disenchanted with that party and crossed the Floor of the House. We voted on 3 May 1976 on whether the Labour Government should keep a majority on all Committees even though they had lost their majority in the House. The argument arose because Mr. Delargy gave his casting vote in the Committee of Selection to say that the Labour Government should keep a majority of one.
Mr. Dixon indicated assent .