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I wish very much that the nationalist parties had today come forward with a different proposition—a motion for fixed-term Parliaments—because I would have supported them with enthusiasm. When we set up
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the new Parliaments in Scotland and Wales, it would have been thought preposterous if we had given to those people in office the power at any particular moment to decide the timing of an election.

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman’s comments are more thoughtful than those of some of his colleagues, but would he go beyond the idea of a fixed-term Parliament and consider the fact that proportional representation is a key part of the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and would strengthen this place, because it combines the party and the individual?

Dr. Wright: The time has come to look at various voting systems, and we have a chance to look afresh at the most appropriate voting system for Westminster, but the hon. Gentleman will not lead me into the whole constitutional agenda, because, although I am tempted, I do not want to go there and the House does not want me to, either.

The nationalist parties should have come forward with that single, sensible proposition: fixed-term Parliaments. As I said to the Prime Minister earlier, the proposition was in our party’s manifesto when I was elected in 1992, and I have tried to promote it ever since. Suddenly, however, everyone seems to be in favour of it, including—possibly—the main Opposition party, although we are never quite sure about that. It would be a genuine constitutional innovation of great merit, because we could dispense with debates like this and with the games that we play all the time—the constant nonsense of calling for elections. And I can tell the House something: that would bring huge relief to the electorate.

5.28 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): As always, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), but I must tell him that if he had wanted a fixed-term Parliament Bill, he could have had one—in this Session. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) introduced such a Bill and I supported it, but the Government and Conservative Front-Bench teams rejected it, so the impression that they are the people who can lead us through to the reforms that we so urgently need is a mistaken one. That is why I am very happy not only to congratulate the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) on his proposal but to support it in my own name and on behalf of my party.

May I give glad tidings to the nationalist Members? Their sister party, Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish nationalist party, contrived to secure 92 votes in Somerset for the independence of Cornwall. That is a significant achievement. The bad news, I am afraid, is that it did not beat the Labour party in my constituency. The Labour party came sixth, but Mebyon Kernow did not beat it on that occasion.

There are two reasons why we should support the proposal. The first, which has already been touched on of course, is that this Parliament—this House—is catastrophically compromised. It has suffered a monumental loss of respect, and each and every right hon. and hon. Member now needs a new mandate from the people we represent. We need to know that we still enjoy the support of those who sent us here.

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The second reason is that the Government are tired and rudderless and do not know what they are doing. Their Prime Minister has no credibility and is not providing leadership. That cannot go on. We cannot, for the best part of another year, have a kind of zombie Government—deceased but not yet interred, stumbling on, uncomprehending and without vision. That is not in the interests of the country and that is why a general election is necessary.

In its heart of hearts, none of the parties represented here wants an immediate election. No matter what they say, they do not desperately want to go straight back to the doorsteps of the nation so soon after a long and bruising campaign for the local and European elections. Judging by the turnout, that campaign did not result in an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm among the general public. Nor do we desperately want to go back to the doorsteps to hear the comments of some of our electors, who have not been universally complimentary about politicians of any hue. They have judged the House and found it wanting because of what they have been told by the press.

Furthermore, none of the parties is entirely prepared for an election. The Conservative party, for instance, would have to find some policies if it were to fight an election next week; it is palpably not prepared. However, the crucial point is that those are all essentially self-serving arguments about the policies and politics of the parties in the House; they are not about what this country and the people of this country need. Whether we are ready for an election or not, I believe that the public are.

Respect for Parliament is a crucial factor, and the collapse in respect for the House is a major reason for letting the public have their say. It affects all hon. Members, including those who have not done, or ever been accused of doing, anything wrong. Unless we are unnaturally purblind in this respect, we know that we need to give the electorate the opportunity to back or sack each and every one of us. As Robert Louis Stevenson once said:

I am thinking not of what Parliament can be but of what it is at this moment.

There has been a collapse of confidence in the Prime Minister. If there is one clear conclusion that we can draw from last week’s results, it is that the Prime Minister no longer has the confidence of the people of this country—indeed, he no longer even has the confidence of members of his own party. I hate to quote too much in a speech, but in the immortal words of the Hollies:

Mr. Llwyd: What key was that in?

Mr. Heath: I shall sing it to the hon. Gentleman later, if he makes an appointment.

I have explained why we need an immediate election. There is, of course, a counter-argument, and we have heard it—rather inadequately, I may say—from the Secretary of State for Wales. He said that we faced unprecedented economic difficulties, and that is absolutely right. This is a crucial time for this country, but that is why it is so important that we have a mandate for the
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difficult policies involved. The Government have done some things that I support, and some have been bold policies. However, they cannot say that they have the support of the British people in carrying them out, and the consequences will be with us for a long time. I do not buy the notion that we cannot have an election in the middle of an economic crisis because, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said, major democracies across the world have done so, and prospered as a consequence.

A second argument for not having a general election is the one put forward, to some extent, by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase—that this Parliament has got us into a mess, and therefore this Parliament, and this Government, need to clear it up. That is like the “polluter pays” principle, but the trouble is that it is the taxpayer who pays and the polluter who stays, and that is what so many of our fellow countrymen find so difficult to accept. It would be easier to accept that argument if there were a clear, and very quick, timetable for some of the improvements that are being talked about, but every time I hear the Prime Minister I fail to hear the urgency that is necessary if we are to do this job quickly and clinically, enabling us to go to the country at an early date.

Michael Connarty: I have heard this a few times. People say that things are going to change and be structurally different, and that we are waiting for it to happen. My understanding is that a document was sent to every single Member saying that the House has decided—led, I believe, by the Prime Minister—that there will be no more allowances for anyone to purchase any furniture, so even Members who had to give back the price of their trouser press will not be tempted to buy another one and ask the taxpayer to pay. The sum of money available for rent or paying a mortgage on a second home, which I believe should be a home in London, will be reduced to £1,250, so the Leader of the Opposition will no longer be able to claim £1,700 per month for his mortgage. These things have already been done. They are in place and have been ruled on by the Members Estimate Committee, so they are binding at this moment. No Minister, or anyone else, will be allowed to have a house outside London—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has made his point.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman has not only made his point but undermined his own argument. If we think that everything in the garden is rosy, then there is no obstacle to the general election that some of us believe should be held, but that is not the case. We have done some very basic things that some of us called for a long time ago, but they are far insufficient in meeting what is needed. If he really thinks that that is enough to regain the trust of the electorate, I can only suggest that he has not been on the doorsteps in recent weeks with enough assiduity.

The third argument against having a general election concerns the point that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks made so amusingly about chaos theory—the Prime Minister’s idea that we would somehow be plunged into irremediable chaos were we to have a general election. I do not buy that for one moment.
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However, let me share something that I seem to remember from a long time ago in the days when I was attempting to do physiological sciences. There is a sort of chaos that is often observed at a microscopic level among very small organisms within an aqueous medium: it is called Brownian motion, and that is what we have seen from the Government recently.

So what has been the Government’s response to this crisis of confidence in the House and in the Government? We have had yet another of the Prime Minister’s regular relaunches. Sadly, he is getting into a situation similar to that of the former right hon. Member for Huntingdon—he has been relaunched almost as many times as the Padstow lifeboat. It never really does the job, because one can only relaunch one’s boat so many times when it is leaking below the waterline, as is the case at the moment.

We have had a re-engineered Cabinet. A Department that was created only a year ago has been subsumed by another one—purely, it would appear, for the greater glorification of the noble Lord Mandelson. I will not go through the whole of his nomenclature, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks did, but it occurs to me that this new Department will need very wide doors if his name is to be displayed appropriately.

We have a new Cabinet. Is anybody excited by it? Does anyone feel it will supply the answers to the country’s problems? As the right hon. Gentleman said, there will be seven people attending Cabinet who are not elected Members. I would have thought that that situation would be familiar to the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury rather than to a Government in the 21st century, yet that is what we now have. It suggests that there is a conspicuous lack of talent in this elected House if that is what the Prime Minister has to rely on. Or perhaps those who will serve in his Cabinet do not have the talent, and those who have the talent will not serve in his Cabinet. Either way, it does not suggest a Prime Minister with the confidence of either his colleagues or the country.

Today, we heard a cobbled-together programme of constitutional change. It picked up bits and pieces of what other people have suggested over the years, but was all developed in the secretive and obscure way that is always the modus operandi of this Prime Minister. It tells us everything we need to know about him that his idea of consensus is to have this Committee of Public Safety, or whatever it is called, with no Opposition parties invited to contribute. Do not invite anyone who might disagree—that is the way to build consensus, is it not? It establishes immediate consensus.

Today’s statement was issued to the leaders of the other parties a quarter of an hour before Prime Minister’s questions. The Prime Minister then challenged them to establish a consensus by agreeing with what he and his cronies had put together as a proposal for a constitutional change. Then he had the gall to say that that was the new politics, the change, the way we were now going to do things to establish democratic renewal based on the agreement of all parties and people across the country.

The Prime Minister has said repeatedly that he is the man to cure Parliament of its ills. However, he is the man who, when the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) was trying to exempt the House from freedom of information legislation, could not be bothered to turn up to vote. Members can look it up in Hansard for 20 April 2007. That was the sort of
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leadership that the Prime Minister showed. He allowed Government Whips to do their job and help the Bill to go through, and he allowed them to vote, but he absented himself. So did the Secretary of State for Wales.

The Prime Minister is the man who, on 3 July last year, when there was a perfectly proper proposal from the House of Commons Commission to bring in independent auditing of Members’ allowances, was again not here. He was not present to support that proposal, and he allowed it to be amended out of the Commission’s proposals, so this House managed to escape proper independent auditing of allowances for yet another year. He now says that he is the man to reform the system in this House. He is not the man, because he is not a leader. He is in fact an obstacle to reform, and has been for 12 years now.

Mr. MacNeil: The Prime Minister has been here for only 11 per cent. of Divisions since becoming Prime Minister. By contrast, the First Minister of Scotland has attended 86 per cent. of Divisions in the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Heath: I am not sure that that is exactly the statistic that I would have used had I been the hon. Gentleman; nevertheless it is immediately apparent that there is a lack of leadership. That leadership is not coming from the front of the Prime Minister’s party, from the back or even from behind home lines. This Prime Minister is failing in his duty to provide leadership. Personally, I therefore have no confidence in the Prime Minister or his Government.

I do not believe that my constituents have any confidence in the Prime Minister or the Government. My worry is not that they have no confidence in the Labour party and its doings, but that they have no confidence in Parliament. That is enormously dangerous for our democracy. If our electors do not have confidence in the House to do the job for which it is elected, the House is doing democracy an enormous disservice. That should be a matter not for any one party but for the public to sort out.

It should not be for the Prime Minister and his gang but for the people to decide whether there should be a general election. We do not have fixed-term Parliaments in this country; we have a system whereby the Government of the day choose the date of an election. So be it, but they must listen. At the moment, they are not listening to what the public say. There is only one solution to the predicament in which we find ourselves: we should let the people decide through the ballot box. They should do so forthwith.

5.46 pm

Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): It was a great pleasure to listen to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I feel somewhat deprived in that I was never able—doubtless because of my political affiliations—to attend one of his famous after-dinner speeches. It has therefore been a great privilege to hear today an outstanding example of a pre-dinner speech for free, on which I congratulate him.

I would give the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the reasons for calling for an early general election more
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credence if he had not been part of a Government in 1997 who hung on to almost the last minute of the last hour of the last day. I appreciate that a week is a long time in politics, and we can all have selective memories, so I enjoyed the contribution, if not the analysis.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. McGuire: All right then. The hon. Gentleman tempts me—I do not know why, but he does.

Mr. Bacon: Many women say that to me.

It is not a case of selective memory on the part of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). Indeed, he and many of us think that we should not go through it all again precisely because of the memory of what happened in 1997.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): And in 1992.

Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend is right. The hon. Gentleman makes a valiant attempt not at seduction but at producing an argument out of very little.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) who gave a considered analysis of where we are now and why we should reject the motion. If hon. Members have no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government, we should debate a motion on that, not some camouflage about calling general elections. As my hon. Friend said, it is the tradition in the British system—it may change; we may move to a system of fixed Parliaments, to which some of us are attracted—that deciding when to call a general election is the prerogative of the Prime Minister of the day. Some spurious arguments have been made this afternoon to try to justify an unjustifiable position.

I want to pick up on the nationalists’ decision to table such a motion. I am astonished that they have chosen such a subject for debate when the country, along with the rest of the world, faces the most serious financial and economic crisis in a generation. They have chosen to use their valuable Opposition time to engage in superficial posturing. I would have thought that they might want to have a debate on how this country—this Government and this Parliament—has dealt with the economic crisis.

Pete Wishart: Badly.

Mrs. McGuire: I suggest that hon. Gentleman should have put down a motion asking us to compare how this Government have dealt with the economic crisis with how it has been dealt with by some of the countries in the arc of prosperity, of which we are all so fond. We could then compare how this Government are dealing with the economic crisis with, for example, how Ireland is dealing with it, where there has been a 25 per cent. cut in public services and where benefits for the over-70s are being cut radically. Let us compare that with what is happening in Britain. VAT in Ireland is now more than 20 per cent. Let us compare that with what has happened in this country, where the Government have cut VAT. The manufacturing base in Ireland has collapsed and the construction industry has all but collapsed. That would have been a valid debate.

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