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It is good to see that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has found time from his millionaire speaking and consultancy contracts to be
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with us today. He has a vivacious Welsh wife, but sadly she has not managed to educate him politically. He opposed the minimum wage, which has benefited millions of workers throughout Britain. He opposed the social chapter, referring to

He said that the National Assembly for Wales would be

Does he still hold those views? Should he not now apologise to the shadow Welsh Secretary for landing her right in it?

When the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State for Wales, at least he learned the national anthem—indeed, his rehearsing it led to him marrying his private secretary—but he blocked billions of pounds of objective 1 and convergence funding for Wales, which a Labour Government subsequently delivered. He is now part of an Opposition who want to implement billion-pound cuts that would decimate those very European programmes right across Wales.

Adam Price: The Secretary of State’s speech is another good argument for an early dissolution. He is obviously out of practice. If Plaid Cymru has nothing to contribute in terms of the economic crisis, why did his party agree to form a coalition with us, and why is the leader of my party, the Minister for the Economy and Transport, coming up with the ProAct wage subsidy scheme, which the Secretary of State has himself praised and described as an innovative scheme that should be copied here?

Mr. Hain: If we are talking politics and government in Cardiff Bay as opposed to politics and government in the House of Commons, why did the hon. Gentleman’s party chase after the Conservatives in the desperate search for a coalition before Labour helped it out and got it into government?

On the “Today” programme this morning, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, let slip that

Yes, the demand from the Tories is very tough. A 10 per cent. cut would be an utter disaster for housing policing, business support, defence and many other public services. A 10 per cent. cut would amount to cuts of £50 billion across the United Kingdom, £600 million in Wales, and £1.2 billion in Scotland.

The Tory mask is slipping. The Tories want people to vote soon, before the truth is out. They have no positive solutions to the financial crisis, just opportunist spin on the economy today followed by savage cuts to public services tomorrow—cuts made almost with relish, gleefully. The Tories would use the financial crisis as an excuse to do what they have always wanted to do: cut, cut and cut again.

Stewart Hosie: The Secretary of State is absolutely right: making savage cuts in the teeth of a recession is the wrong thing to do. He will therefore criticise his own
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Chancellor and the Treasury for the £500 million worth of cuts that will be heading Scotland’s way next year in the teeth of a recession.

Mr. Hain: Is this not curious? The Scottish Government have never had more money than they have now. Their budget, like that of the Welsh Assembly Government, has more than doubled since we came to power in 1997.

What is the real nationalist agenda? Why would the nationalists dissolve this Parliament today? It would not just be for the purpose of an immediate election; they would dissolve this Parliament for ever. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!” There we are. They are cheering the idea. If they were frank, they would admit that they would break up the United Kingdom, cutting off Wales and Scotland from the main markets, population centres, wealth and international influence of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): He is talking sense at last.

Mr. Hain: That is the sense that the people of Scotland will reject: cutting Scotland’s links with the United Kingdom, just as Plaid Cymru would cut Wales off from the great benefits of sheltering under the umbrella of the United Kingdom and making us all stronger together.

Mr. Salmond: Given that the Secretary of State’s colleagues in the Labour party in Scotland have been deploying these arguments for years—and, I am sure, deployed them in the European election campaign—to what does he attribute the judgment of the people of Scotland in increasing the SNP vote by 10 per cent. in mid-term, and last week’s resounding endorsement of the SNP Government in Scotland?

Mr. Hain: The right hon. Gentleman speaks of a resounding endorsement, but I believe that the SNP received less than a third of the vote on a tiny turnout. Labour voters, for reasons that I have explained, stayed at home in their hundreds of thousands.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that people listening to this debate will be appalled by the petty discussions about which party’s votes have increased by what percentage? What concerns the people of this country, and certainly the people of Wales— [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mrs. Moon: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

What concerns the people of Wales and the people of this country is the memory of being told to get on their bikes and find work—of “hunt the job”. They remember money being sent from Wales to Westminster when it could have been invested in Wales. They remember schools falling apart, and education waiting lists. That is what people want us to discuss here, not whether another party has increased its voting share by 1 per cent. Nobody cares about that; they care about their lives.

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend makes that point extremely persuasively, and it reminds me that when the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks was Secretary of State for Wales he endorsed the policy of his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), in
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sending money back from Wales to the Treasury, which we then had to reverse by more than doubling the budget for Wales since we came to power. If the nationalists were successful in wrenching Wales and Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom, that would leave Wales with a £9 billion deficit in public finances, and the figure for Scotland would be about £10 billion.

The SNP Administration at Holyrood are propped up by the Tories. Tory votes in the Scottish Parliament supported the SNP’s budget of cuts, and the quid pro quo is that the SNP in Westminster does the Tories’ bidding. People in Scotland whose communities still bear the scars of Thatcherism did not thank the SNP in 1979, and they will not do so now.

Let me make this plain: the Tories and the nationalists would turn their backs on the British people and walk away together. They would dissolve this Parliament because they hope it would suit their short-term political ends. Only Labour will stay the course to do the hard work, to reform, and to give real help to the British people. They can dissolve if they want to; this Government are not for dissolving. We are standing firm, and I urge the House to reject the motion.

4.52 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I congratulate the Secretary of State for Wales; to hold that office is one of the greatest honours that life can bring, and to hold it twice is a piece of great good fortune. He said that I had in the past somehow landed the current shadow Welsh Secretary in it, but I can assure him that, the Conservatives having won in Wales for the first time in 90 years, she does not feel very “landed in it” at the moment. He should hope to be landed in it in a similar way in future elections. Such a description was therefore not very appropriate, and nor was deriding any other party for getting about a third of the vote when there was no region or nation of the United Kingdom in which his Government received a third of the vote last week, only two in which they received a quarter of the vote, some in which they did not get a fifth of the vote, and some in which the governing party of this country did not get a tenth of the vote.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) on moving the motion, which, it will be no surprise to discover, the official Opposition can readily support. The crux of the question is simple. By common consent across all parts of the House, our country faces enormous challenges. Members of all parties are familiar with them: the challenge of restoring the health of an economy battered by recession and high debt levels; the ever-present challenge of improving public services; the challenge of reducing violent crime and of improving national security at a time of international terrorism; and the challenge of restoring faith in our political system after scandals and revelations that have hit this House hard, and rebuilding respect and confidence in our democracy itself.

The question before us is whether these tasks and challenges are best faced for the next 10 or 11 months by the current Parliament, now in its twilight year, with a large and growing number of right hon. and hon. Members leaving its ranks, burdened with a serious loss of its reputation, with a minimal and diminishing
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opportunity to pass fresh legislation, with many decisions on hold and with a visibly divided Government, or whether they are better faced by a new Parliament, with new Members and renewed energy, with the expectation of several years of work before it, with a mandate approved by the people of the country, and with the authority that comes from demonstrable popular approval in a democracy—something that the current Government have forfeited and the Government of the current Prime Minister have neither sought nor ever received. One only has to ask the question to see that to most people in this country there is a clear and emphatic answer.

The Prime Minister’s statement to the House earlier was peppered with references to legitimacy, accountability, democracy and engagement, but it never seems to occur to him that one way to bring about those characteristics for any Government is to consult the 44 million voters of this country and let them have their say. He has set up a national democratic renewal council, which turns out to be a Cabinet committee behind closed doors with a title so risible in its grandiose pomposity that it shows a complete lack of self-awareness of the ridicule with which the nation views the Government.

How can we inject vigour, energy and freshness into political debate better than by consulting the people of the country? It is apparent beyond argument that the majority of the people, who are genuinely no fans of holding elections unnecessarily, believe that they now have the right to give their own verdict. Every survey shows it, and every time any of us walk down the street we hear it. Some people feel let down by their elected representatives and wish to have their say. Many can sense, with the sure instinct of the British people, that a crucial decision point is coming and that there is no reason to delay.

Perhaps even more have been watching a bitter battle take place within the governing party about whether one unelected Prime Minister should be replaced with another one. It is not surprising that they should feel that the question of who leads our country is not the private preserve of a dysfunctional Government at the tail end of a Parliament, but a matter for the collective judgment of the nation.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman is a considerable historian. Can he tell us of just one historical occasion on which a Government with a secure majority have called a general election simply because the Opposition have asked for one?

Mr. Hague: There are many cases in history when Governments have called general elections because they wish to seek a mandate for whatever policies they were putting to the country long before the expiry of a Parliament— [ Interruption. ] I refer the hon. Gentleman to Baldwin in 1923, before the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), says that it was not a Tory Government. Indeed, many Governments in the 1950s and the 1980s sought re-election before the end of the Parliament, and on some of those occasions, the Opposition were asking for an election—certainly they were in 1923. If the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has any further historical inquiries, I hope that he will make them.

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While the question of the dissolution of Parliament cannot simply be settled by reference to public demand, it has to be accepted by any commentator or participant in our politics that the current circumstances of this Parliament, already in its final year, are without precedent in modern times. Not only is public faith in this House at its lowest possibly at any time since the late 18th century and the mail franking scandal—a historical reference for the hon. Gentleman—but public support for the Government is, by reference to any of the widespread elections held last week, the lowest by some distance for any incumbent Government at any point in our modern democratic history. Such a combination means that this Parliament lacks the authority to embark on new and substantial programmes of policy or reform, even if it had time or if the Government had the energy, purpose or vision.

Vision, of course, was the crucial ingredient promised by the Prime Minister when he suddenly called off the general election planned in the autumn of 2007. He said that he would not call an election so that he could set out his vision. Curiously, he then forgot to do so. Indeed, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble)—a former Labour Minister—has pointed that out. In her letter last week, she wrote that

She added that the people

That is what Labour Members think.

Then the reason not to have an election was to set out the vision. Now the reason memorably given by the Prime Minister in his interview a month ago on GMTV is that an election would cause chaos. That revealing insight into the bunker-like mentality of No. 10 Downing street is a further argument that the people in the country should have their say. The Prime Minister feared chaos at the ballot box, presumably in place of the well-ordered conduct of government that we have witnessed in recent weeks. The Home Secretary resigned on Tuesday, the Communities and Local Government Secretary on Wednesday, and the Work and Pensions Secretary on Thursday. Downing street worked for 48 hours, through the night, to save the Prime Minister from being overthrown by his Cabinet. What a relief it is that there was no chaos in this country in the last couple of weeks.

The argument against holding an election on the grounds of chaos possesses three shattering weaknesses. First, it can presumably be used at any time and could be used to justify never asking the people to go to the polls for fear of the chaotic consequences that they might haplessly bring down on themselves. It is an argument of which Ceausescu would have been proud, as he pathetically waved from the balcony at the tens of thousands who had come to remove him.

Secondly, such an argument shows a patronising misreading of the people of this country, who have never in recent times produced chaotic scenes in a general election and have seldom produced a chaotic result. The Prime Minister can rest assured that they
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will go about their democratic duty when they get the chance without any trace of chaos, but with a quiet and determined efficiency.

Thirdly, it is a comment that says little for those countries that have recently had a full-scale general election, even in the midst of a world economic recession. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) pointed out that some of them had fixed-term Parliaments, but they still managed to conduct their elections in the middle of that recession. They include among their number no less a country than India, the world’s largest and most complex democracy, where a respected Government won the authority and increased freedom of manoeuvre that came from a renewal of their mandate. The United States of America is the world’s most powerful democracy, in which elections produced a renewal and reinvigoration of national leadership on an utterly historic scale. The people of India and America managed to have their elections in a perfectly orderly way, and after campaigns that were far longer than a general election campaign in this country, but the Prime Minister believes that an election in this country—from which those countries derive so many of their proud democratic traditions—would be impossibly chaotic. What does that say about his view of Britain and the British people? It is yet further proof that he is incapable of trusting the people of Britain.

To be fair to the Secretary of State, his loyalty to the Prime Minister does not extend to adopting the nonsensical arguments against an election employed by the Prime Minister. The gist of the Secretary of State’s argument was that Parliament has important work to do and that on parliamentary standards and the economy, only this Parliament can clear up its own mess. That, of course, is not remotely true. In each case, the decisions that are to be made are so serious and public approval for them so essential that they would be far better carried out after all the debate, explanation, discussion and transparency that only a general election can bring.

The Government’s argument is that it is impossible to interrupt proceedings for even a month for a general election, but that we can interrupt them for nearly three months for the summer recess. If Parliament is engaged in such important work at the moment, why is there so little business before the House of Commons this month? Why have a last Session of Parliament, beginning this autumn, that can be only a few months in length? If we work it out, we see that perhaps a maximum of 14 weeks might be available in which legislation can be considered. What has happened to the important legislation that was going through Parliament in this Session, some of which has mysteriously disappeared—namely, the Bill to allow part-privatisation of the Royal Mail?

Lord Mandelson, whom I believe we must now deferentially refer to as the First Secretary of State, has said of the Postal Services Bill:

The Government’s case against the dissolution of Parliament would be much stronger if they even knew whether and when they want to proceed with a measure that they have said can stand no delay and that is meant to be before Parliament now.

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