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Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD):
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one example of the royal prerogative being diluted might be to take the power to call general
elections out of the hands of the Prime Minister at his personal whim and into the hands of, say, 55% of Members of this place?
Mr Chope: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is correct constitutionally to say that the Prime Minister has the power to call the general election. He has the power to recommend to the sovereign that an election be called. The sovereign has the constitutional right to say, "No, I do not think the time is right for a general election. I think that another group of people are willing and able to form a Government and therefore I will not call a general election." I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on putting forward the argument in support of the Government.
Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman confirm my reading of the situation that, as a result of the 55% rule, the mathematics of the current Parliament mean that an early general election could be called, regardless of a pledge to have a five-year Parliament, if both of the member parties of the Government coalition decided that they wanted an election, as between them the two parties can muster more than 55% of MPs?
Mr Chope: The hon. Lady makes a fair point and has thought through the possible implications of this. She may be aware of the German precedent, as referred to in some of the excellent briefing provided by our fantastic Library. The most recent German precedent-there have been others-was where the partners in a German coalition Government decided that it would suit their joint interests effectively to engineer a general election. A vote of no confidence was called in which a number of the coalition partners' Members of Parliament abstained, thereby ensuring that the vote of no confidence was carried against the Government. That triggered an election in circumstances that wholly suited the purposes of the coalition. That was despite the fact that in German law there is provision for fixed-term Parliaments. The hon. Lady raises an important point, which along with similar points will I am sure be looked at in detail if and when we get any legislation on this subject.
Mr Chope: Before the Scottish Parliament was set up, legislation set out what the rules would be in that Parliament when it was set up. If the hon. Gentleman is referring to what he thinks might be the appropriate rules to be introduced for fixed-term Parliaments starting after this one, we might be able to have a coherent debate. However, I am sure he is not suggesting that we should be retrospectively legislating now to create a bar to a Dissolution of a fixed-term Parliament when no proposal has been put to the people in a general election that we should have a fixed-term Parliament at all. Therefore, although the Scottish example has been frequently cited, I am not sure that it is a good one, because there was a proper debate in Scotland before the legislation was put forward, and when people went on to vote they knew the terms on which they were voting.
Ms Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman has made precisely the right point in respect of the Scottish Parliament, but will he also therefore agree that the 66% that has been prayed in aid was agreed by all parties and became part of a consensus before the Parliament existed?
"changes to our political system to make it far more transparent and accountable."
"We will establish five-year fixed-term Parliaments. We will put a binding motion before the House of Commons stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, we will legislate to make provision for fixed-term Parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour."
I have set out a number of questions to ask. I am sure that many others could be asked as well, but the following are the questions that immediately came to mind when I looked at the wording of chapter 24. What is meant by a "binding motion"? Surely any motion that is passed can later be amended or revoked by Members of this House? Will this binding motion also be put before the House of Lords; will it need to be approved by both Houses? Will the binding motion include reference to the proposed 55% threshold for Dissolution, or will that be dealt with later in the proposed primary legislation? Will the binding motion be brought before the House before the summer recess? It was stated in the original draft coalition agreement that this motion would be put
"before the House of Commons in the first days following this agreement",
but those words are omitted from the final version. Does this indicate a welcome ingredient of consultation and opportunity for full debate inside and outside the House, in the context of our commitment to more transparency and accountability? I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to confirm that that is the correct interpretation to put upon that change of wording.
"fixed-term Parliaments of five years"
"This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55 per cent or more of the House votes in favour"?
Does the 55% figure mean 55% of those voting on any motion, or 55% of those eligible to vote, or 55% of all MPs elected at the 2010 general election, including Sinn Fein Members and you yourself, Mr Speaker? What role, if any, will there be for the House of Lords in the legislation?
Will Members other than the Government be able to move a motion for Dissolution? If so, what safeguards will there be to require the Speaker to give such a motion precedence over ordinary business? Those of us who have been in the House some time know that it is all very well having a motion on the Order Paper. Indeed, during the last Parliament, there were motions reflecting decisions taken across the House in important debates on future House business and our organisation of our affairs, yet the then Leader of the House refused to put those motions above the line on the Order Paper, thereby preventing Members of the House from voting on them, even though, collectively, we were in a majority. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and I were seething with frustration and anger about that, so I am sure he would not wish us to be in a similar situation under this new regime.
Will there be constraints on the Government's tabling a motion for Dissolution? That point was raised in an intervention. I mentioned Germany, and an example of how something that on the face of it seems plausible could actually be cynically used for the self-interest of a coalition Government when they see that their opponents are in a particularly weak situation.
In what circumstances will a Dissolution follow if the Government are defeated on a confidence motion by a bare majority? There has been a lot of debate about that outside, and perhaps some confusion and misunderstanding, which I hope can be cleared up this evening. Are there any circumstances in which a Government defeated on a confidence motion could remain in office? If they did not remain in office could an alternative minority Government be formed even if they did not enjoy the support of a majority of MPs on confidence and supply measures? What would prevent Parliament from repealing by a vote of 50% plus one legislation requiring a 55% threshold for Dissolution?
I shall expand on some of those points in a minute, but I now turn to some fundamental procedural questions. Will the proposed legislation to establish a fixed-term Parliament and a 55% threshold for Dissolution be published first in draft, and be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny? When we were, collectively, in opposition, we were very much in favour of draft Bills and pre-legislative scrutiny. There could be no more critically important constitutional legislation than the proposals we are talking about this evening.
Will the Government set up a special Joint Committee of both Houses to consider the matter, along the lines of the Joint Committee on the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill in the last Parliament? My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House-I am delighted to see him on the Treasury Bench-and I were privileged to serve on the Committee. It drew on expertise not only from this House but from the other place; for example, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, who has recently written on the subject in The Times, gave some important evidence and his counsels were very well received. Such a Committee would be a sensible way forward.
My next question is for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House: will all these important and novel matters-which were not raised in the Conservative manifesto at the general election, when we said we were in favour of more free votes-be the subject of free votes for all Conservative Back Benchers? That would
take quite a lot of heat out of the situation, because it would then be obvious that in order to win parliamentary support for these novel propositions, my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench would need to win not only the votes, but the arguments. A free vote would, I submit, be useful; indeed, it might be a good example of the new politics in action. To balance that out, I ask the Deputy Leader of the House why, when a fixed term of four years was proposed in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, we are now talking about a five-year fixed-term Parliament.
Some of those questions and others were raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) in an article in one of the national newspapers, and in other media outlets. He has said that he is sad that he is not able to participate in this debate, but he has been kind enough to share with me the response that he received to a letter that he wrote to the Prime Minister. It might help the House if I quoted from it a little. Members will make their own judgment about whether it clarifies or obscures what we are talking about. It says:
"I do take on board your concerns about our suggested proposal to require a 55 per cent majority to dissolve Parliament. Let me set out why I think this is an important, progressive and necessary step.
As we know from last week, the country wants strong and stable government."
I do not want to pour cold water on anything that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister says, but I thought that in the general election campaign we were saying that the only way to deliver strong and stable government was for the Government to have an overall majority in Parliament. Indeed, I can remember distributing leaflets that were strongly against the threat of a hung Parliament, and which said that if we had a hung Parliament, there would be deals done behind closed doors; that nobody would know what was happening; that hon. Members of this House would be the last people to know what was going on; and that the country's economic crisis demanded strong and stable government, and that is why we needed a Conservative Government with a strong majority. I still believe that proposition, and that is what I was campaigning for.
I disagree with the Prime Minister's interpretation of what the country wanted, because the country voted for a hung Parliament. The essence of a hung Parliament-this is important for those of us who have the privilege of being Members of this Parliament-is that it is not a strong Government, but a strong Parliament. A strong Parliament is one that can hold the Executive or the Government to account. It means that we can put pressure on the Government if we disagree with them, whether on relatively minor matters such as the details of Bills, or on slightly more important matters, such as those that we are discussing this evening.
A strong Parliament and a strong Government are two separate propositions. My interpretation of the fact that we have a hung Parliament is that the people decided to have a strong Parliament. I am privileged to be a Member of this Parliament, and I hope that it will be known in due course as the strong Parliament, rather than be given the epithets that the previous Parliament was given.
May I take my hon. Friend back to before the general election? He will recall that on the Order Paper, below the line, there was a motion for fixed-term
Parliaments. I think that I was the only Conservative Member to sign that motion, and there were very few names on it, so before the election there was no groundswell among Conservative Members for fixed-term Parliaments.
Mr Chope: I am interested in the fact that my hon. Friend was and is in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, and he is quite right to reflect on the balance of opinion within the Conservative parliamentary party and throughout the House more widely. At one stage during the previous Parliament, it seemed that the then Government were flirting with the idea of a fixed-term Parliament. Indeed, I think that the Modernisation Committee-I shall be corrected if I am wrong-looked at the idea for a time and took evidence on it, including evidence from Officers of the House. The whole project was then kicked into the long grass.
"we are determined to deliver that stability with our lasting coalition. The introduction of a fixed term Parliament was, therefore, a necessary and important measure to propose. Obviously, this is a new idea for our Parliament and necessitated a mechanism for dissolution. I want to reassure you that a mechanism for a no confidence vote in the Government is unchanged."
"Rather, what our proposals would do is give Parliament a new power to dissolve itself"-
"currently only exercised by the Prime Minister. We are, in effect, taking a power away from the Executive and putting it in the hands of Parliament, not the contrary. As you know it has always been my intention to reinforce the powers of our Parliament. I hope that this proposal is one positive measure to do just that."
"The House of Commons will remain able to call a vote of no confidence in the Government as at present. If that took place, a vote of 50 per cent plus one would mean that the Government falls and unless an alternative workable majority can be formed within a specified number of days, a General Election would be called."
The convention that prevailed meant that if the Government were defeated, the Prime Minister would go to the sovereign and invite her either to dissolve Parliament or to invite somebody else to form a Government, but the new proposal seems to leave Her Majesty out of the equation. I do not know whether that is the intention, and if I am incorrect on that, I am sure that I shall be corrected in the Minister's response.
I am not criticising anything that has been proposed; all I am doing is asking questions and saying, "Why is the change to the convention on Dissolution necessary or desirable?" The Prime Minister is giving up his constitutional right to request a Dissolution, and I can understand that that is very important-a matter of honour between himself and the Deputy Prime Minister. It means that the Prime Minister cannot pull the rug from under the coalition, but why do we need legislation or, indeed, a motion to achieve that? Surely the Prime Minister's word is sufficient. Such a unilateral commitment gives the Liberal Democrats the assurance that the Prime Minister will not pull the rug, but during the
debate on the Loyal Address earlier today the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said that the measure might provide for less stable government, because it would enable the Liberal Democrats to withdraw from the coalition and vote against the Government on a motion of confidence without causing a general election. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will be able to deal with that issue. If at some stage the Liberal Democrats withdraw from the coalition, the threat hanging over them, as things stand, is that the Prime Minister would go to the Queen and invite her to call a general election. But if the Prime Minister said that he would not do that in any circumstances, but had no reciprocal Liberal Democrat commitment not to withdraw from the coalition in any circumstances, the Liberal Democrats could withdraw and align themselves with the left, as the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) would have much preferred them to have done in the first place. They could create an alternative coalition.
That predicament is unlike the situation that prevailed immediately after the general election, when the Liberal Democrats, those on the left and the nationalists were not able to form a sufficient number to guarantee staying in Parliament and enjoy a confidence and supply measure of support. In the situation that I have described, the Liberal Democrats would have no such constraint-they would be able to form a minority Government and stay in office for the remaining period of the fixed-term Parliament. I hope that that nightmare scenario, from a Conservative perspective, is just a nightmare and is not realistic, but I have yet to be persuaded of that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to persuade me.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I am afraid that my hon. Friend is unlikely to be so persuaded, because that situation is par for the course in proportional representation systems, which create shifting coalition Governments. I shall give a classic example. On a visit to Slovenia after the fall of communism, I was told that one day two small centre parties in a centre-right coalition fell out with their partners about something to do with passport legislation and decided to cross the floor. The people of Slovenia went to bed one night with a centre-right coalition and woke up the following morning with a centre-left coalition, without a single vote having been cast by any elector. It is no good my hon. Friend's grumbling about that or anticipating it with fear-the reality is that it is the logical consequence of hung Parliaments, coalitions and proportional representation. That is why all those things are undesirable, although sometimes we have to live with the consequences of undesirable outcomes.
Mr Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that powerful intervention. At the moment, we have not yet signed up to the fixed-term Parliament or the 55% lock. We are not there yet. If my hon. Friend fears the consequences of those changes, he and others have it in their power to prevent them from happening. I am sure that when we get to the referendum on the alternative vote, he will be campaigning actively against that system for the reasons that he has spelt out so powerfully.
Notwithstanding what my hon. Friend has said, I hope that I will be able to be persuaded that there is some guarantee to prevent the minority partner in the current coalition Government from jumping ship and getting on board with the other parties.
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