Fixed-term Parliaments Bill Third Reading

Charles Walker opposes the third reading of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I have no rancour against the coalition. I think that it is doing some wonderful things: in deficit reduction, welfare reform and education. We are lucky to have two very fine young men at the head of this coalition-they know who they are, and they do not need to be named. However, I feel that they have got this one wrong. This Bill is a mistake. We have had 350 years of settled parliamentary democracy. We have had no despots ruling-and ruining-this country. We have a great deal to be proud of. I have listened to the arguments closely from the outset. I voted against the Bill on Second Reading, and I had hoped to be persuaded in the intervening weeks that somehow I was wrong and that many of my colleagues were right. However, I am afraid that I was right and they are wrong. This remains an extremely bad Bill.

Some wonderful arguments have been put forward. We have been told that the British public do not like general elections-that we must have less of them; that the last thing that my constituents want is a general election every three or four years, because they are so bored of them. However, in the same breath, we are told that we should have elections for mayors and police commissioners; and yet somehow, the most important election of all-a general election-is relegated to something that we would rather not have, and if we must have them, we should have them every five years.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): My constituents cannot wait for the next general election.

Mr Walker: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be standing in his seat at the next general election and that the reason his constituents cannot wait is that they want once again to affirm his brilliance.

We have had 350 years of settled parliamentary democracy, and we are now turning our backs on that a little hastily. Of course, we can draw on the European model. Europe is a great place-I think it is absolutely wonderful-but there is not a great deal that it can teach us about democracy. Democracy is an innovation across most of Europe, arriving in 1945 and 1946 in some places, and in the late 1990s in others. So, although many good things are happening in Europe, our parliamentary democracy is something that we should be proud of.

I do not want to stray outside the bounds of this Third Reading debate, so I shall conclude my remarks by saying that I think this coalition is going to last for five years. It is led by two honourable and right honourable Gentlemen, and if they want it to last for five years, they will take their parliamentary parties with them. But it should not be the duty of Parliament to do the heavy lifting for the coalition. That is the duty of the coalition partners. The Bill is a grave mistake, and I am afraid that there is only one thing I can do from now on: I must work tirelessly for the rest of my parliamentary career to become Prime Minister so that I can do away with what I regard as this rather dangerous piece of nonsense.

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Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Will my hon. Friend briefly explain why he feels that the change of a Prime Minister should trigger a general election within six months?

Nick Boles: The question that has been asked does not relate to the clause or the amendments and I defer always to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, as to whether my comments would be relevant, although of course I want to be courteous to my hon. Friend.

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Mr Charles Walker: Is not my hon. Friend making a good argument for retaining the current system and doing away with the Bill altogether?

Nick Boles: That is an even more ingenious attempt, Mr Deputy Speaker, because it is harder for me to appeal to you for succour on this point, but I reject my hon. Friend's point because I believe that the Bill is one of principle. I believe that the idea of Prime Ministers picking the dates of elections is wholly outrageous in a modern democracy and that we must have fixed-term Parliaments. I happen to know that this argument has been raging inside the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties for years, so it is a cause of high principle.

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Mr Charles Walker: If we support the notion of a fixed-term Parliament, which I do not, surely we have to accept that risk. If we support the idea of having a fixed date in the calendar, it is just tough if there happens to be a royal wedding at the same time. We cannot have it both ways.

Mark Durkan: That sums up my view on royal weddings, but that is my own prejudice.

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Mr Charles Walker: Does my hon. Friend not agree that we have had a fairly settled democracy for the past 350 years? So there are aspects of the system that he can recommend to the House as well.

Dan Byles: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for alluding to an argument that I have heard time and again, when people suggest, "If it isn't broke, don't fix it," but I shall come to the problems with the current situation in a moment. He also alludes to the interesting idea that we have a democratic system that works, so we should not amend or tinker with it. I have heard Opposition Members support that idea before. I have heard it suggested that, somehow, the Bill is undemocratic. With the greatest respect to my hon. Friends, I find that an extraordinary argument. That line of reasoning seems to suggest that the only truly democratic system is the one that has evolved in this country-the one that we currently use. Such reasoning suggests that it is not possible to amend our system without somehow making it less democratic, even though it concentrates power in the Prime Minister's hands. The Bill will devolve the power to call a general election to the House, which is surely where it belongs.

Mr Charles Walker: Surely any legislation could be avoided if Prime Ministers were to say at the start of their term whether they intended to run a five-year Parliament. If they backed out of that arrangement with the electorate after two and a half years, they would be judged accordingly, so why on earth do we need legislation?

Dan Byles: My hon. Friend makes a truly innovative suggestion.

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Mr Charles Walker: If my hon. Friend believes that the wisdom of our forefathers should not be easily dismissed, why is he supporting the Bill?

Dan Byles: I do not understand my hon. Friend's point at all. Our forefathers decided that five years was a reasonable maximum length for a Parliament.

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Mr Charles Walker: Is my hon. Friend not concerned about the prorogation of Parliament? Will he address that matter when he has finished his opening remarks?

Dan Byles: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am extremely concerned about that point, and very eager to get on to the part of my speech in which I shall address it.

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Mr Charles Walker: A lot of Labour Members are muttering at the history lesson that my hon. Friend is giving us, but is he not demonstrating how important it is in this matter to set the scene in an historical context, bearing in mind the fact that we are overturning 350 years of constitutional precedent?

Dan Byles: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. That is exactly the point that I would have made.

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Mr Walker: Is there not a danger that at times we in this place give the impression of having the clear thinking of the totally uninformed?

Dan Byles: It pains me wholeheartedly to agree with my hon. Friend that that is absolutely the case.

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Mr Charles Walker: As a matter of interest, how will the hon. Gentleman vote on Third Reading tonight?

Thomas Docherty: I do not like to leave the House in suspense, but on this one occasion hon. Members will have to wait and see how many of our amendments the Government are prepared to accept. Clearly, if the Minister accepts all the considered amendments that we have offered, we would be more than happy to give strong consideration to supporting Third Reading. I look forward to the Minister's reply shortly.

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Mr Walker: Does the hon. Gentleman not think that that is a perfectly healthy thing to happen? We do not elect Prime Ministers here; we elect parties and the Prime Minister is simply a Member of Parliament who comes from the victorious party or the coalition.

Thomas Docherty: The hon. Gentleman makes a completely sensible point that goes to the heart of some of our arguments tonight. I will give a specific example, because there has been some discussion of the fact that none of those cases was the direct result of a no-confidence vote. I remind the House that in 1940 the Government of the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, fell on what is largely accepted to have effectively been a vote of no confidence. It was a no-confidence vote by any other name. As the Parliamentary Secretary and the Deputy Leader of the House have accepted, under their proposals there could be a no-confidence motion that is not officially stamped as such. As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, in 1940 the House did not prorogue. There was simply a change of Administration, and a short time later a coalition Government was formed involving all three parties. In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Chamberlain Government, there was no coalition, and nor was the House prorogued.

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