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10 Jun 2009 : Column 871

In mentioning Lord Mandelson, I did not mean to send a chill down the spine of Ministers, but it is now impossible to discuss the operation of government or Parliament without reference to his opinions. The unelected Prime Minister has managed to produce the most powerful unelected deputy since Henry VIII appointed Cardinal Wolsey—except that Cardinal Wolsey was more sensitive in his handling of colleagues than the noble Lord Mandelson is. His personal retinue of 11 Ministers, six of whom attend on him in the House of Lords, is the largest in the Government. The growth of the unelected portion of Her Majesty’s Government is further evidence of the need for the dissolution of Parliament. We also need the fresh air of electoral competition to blow through the dark recesses of several Departments.

The Prime Minister who lectures us all on democratic renewal is appointing peers to positions of power on a scale unknown for decades. There are now more peers attending the Cabinet than at any time since the days of Harold Macmillan. Half the Ministers in the Foreign Office now sit in the House of Lords or are about to do so, including no less a figure than the new Minister for Europe. So after years in which hon. Members in all parts of the House have called for better democratic scrutiny of EU decision making, we have arrived at a situation where elected Members of Parliament will be unable to question the Minister for Europe at all and where, a week before an important EU summit, the Minister is not available to either House of Parliament. That is not democratic renewal, but democratic reversal by the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister who told us today about the importance of accountability and legitimacy has just managed to appoint an enterprise tsar in Sir Alan Sugar, but no one seems to know whether he will have Government machinery reporting to him. Apparently, moreover, he, too, cannot be questioned in either House of Parliament at all.

The Lord Mandelson, denied the opportunity to become Foreign Secretary by the sad combination of a Prime Minister too weak to remove his Foreign Secretary and, equally, a Foreign Secretary too weak to challenge the Prime Minister, has gone around instead collecting titles and even whole Departments to add to his name. His title now adds up to, “The right hon. the Baron Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, First Secretary of State, Lord President of the Privy Council and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills”. It would be no surprise to wake up in the morning and find that he had become an archbishop— [Laughter]. That is exactly what happened with Cardinal Wolsey.

We are left with a Government held together solely by fear. The Prime Minister is unable to remove Ministers in whom he has lost faith, for fear that they will quit altogether; Ministers are unwilling to challenge a Prime Minister in whom they have lost faith, for fear that they will no longer be Ministers; Labour Back Benchers are unwilling to remove a Prime Minister in whom they have certainly lost faith, for fear of having to have an election—and all of them are living in fear of one Minister with a very long title for whom, at the last election, no one in the country ever voted at all.

That is the situation. The Government are locked together in an embrace of mutual terror and diminished legitimacy, but their refusal to face the voters can no
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longer be defended. There comes a point when democratic renewal is indeed necessary, and the country knows and understands that that is now.

The Prime Minister has made a statement today on constitutional reform in an effort to justify his continuation in office. Leave aside the transparent desperation and sheer unadulterated cynicism of looking to a referendum on voting reform only when he has seemingly lost hope of retaining power under the voting rules prevailing today, the fact that the referendum on the European constitution that he promised in the last general election manifesto has never been held at all and the fact that progress on House of Lords reform has been stymied by indecision or indifference during his term of office so far, whatever the history of these proposals and whatever their merits, a Prime Minister at this stage of a Parliament can command the real authority to implement such changes only by including them in a general election manifesto and asking the country to approve them. But the Prime Minister’s objective is not to strengthen constitutional change by winning a mandate for it in a general election. Instead, it is to avert a general election by coming up with proposals for constitutional change—the exact reverse of true democratic accountability and legitimacy in government.

No set of proposals can now overcome the fact that this is a Parliament that has lost its moral authority, and that the Government derived from that Parliament have lost the unity, authority and confidence to govern in the national interest. The events of the last eight days, in which 11 Ministers have resigned from the Government, have summed up for most voters the sense of decay and division that makes them want to be consulted about the future.

The words of resigning Ministers speak for themselves—they require no embellishment by the Opposition. The right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) said:

The right hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) said to the Prime Minister:

The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) said:

The hon. Member for Northampton, North, whom I cited earlier, has said that

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said:

The quotes go on, and they come from Labour Members. It is not necessary to read them all out—it is almost impossible to do so in the time available. It is impossible to recall, even from the dark and dying days of other Administrations, such condemnation of a Government from within their own ranks.

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Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Hague: I have almost concluded, but we must have the entertainment of listening to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. MacShane: I am deeply grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, whose family of course come from my constituency. He can tell wonderful jokes about Lord Mandelson—I wish he could tell more, because we all love laughing at them—but what is the point of this speech? Why have the Opposition not tabled this motion? Why are they coming in on the coat tails of the Scottish nationalists?

Mr. Hague: First, I think that the right hon. Gentleman was not just laughing at my joke about Lord Mandelson; he was laughing with it. That is sad news for him, because it means what has in fact already been reflected in the reshuffle: however desperate the Government have been to find new Ministers, they have sadly not turned to him. That is most unfortunate.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Hague: I am not going to give way any more, because I am nearly at the end of my speech. [Hon. Members: “Go on!”] Well, the hon. Lady is so charming that I shall do so.

Mrs. Williams: I was worried for a moment that the right hon. Gentleman was afraid of the Member for Conwy. I have sat quietly listening to his speech. I was not going to stand up, but then he said that he was coming to the end of it. All I have heard for the past 15 minutes or so is character assassination; I have heard nothing at all about policies. I also listened to the chorus of the boys’ club on the Opposition Benches without hearing a single word about policies and why we should call a general election. Does he agree with the boys’ club chorus from the nationalists? If we call a general election and there is a change of Government, do they think that Wales and Scotland will be immune from the global economic situation in which the UK finds itself? Could he comment on that single policy?

Mr. Hague: I assure the hon. Lady that I am not afraid of any lady from Wales except my mother-in-law, so she need not worry about that. Secondly, I have not indulged in any character assassination; Lord Mandelson will be most flattered by what I have said about him today—I am simply helping to build him up. Thirdly, both the hon. Member for Moray and I have made the strong and serious case that national democratic renewal—the phrase that constantly trips from the tongue of the Prime Minister—can be achieved only by the renewal of a mandate or the renewal of an authority of Parliament across the range of policies in order to deal with the challenges of the world and national economic situation, of trying to improve public services and of safeguarding national security. It has been the burden of my case from the beginning of my remarks that dealing with those things effectively requires a Parliament with the energy and new authority from the people to carry out whichever policies the people of this country wish to follow.

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So as the Prime Minister presides over his national democratic renewal council, let him reflect that the answer to this country’s problems and the unprecedented contempt in which our politics is held cannot lie in another committee led by him. If committees led by the Prime Minister did any good, the country would not be in this mess and the Labour party would not be at its most unpopular since the first world war. What this country needs is a real democratic renewal in which every one of its citizens can take part; a committee with the broadest membership possible—one to include the entire nation; and a long-established tradition called a general election. Such an election is open to all, everyone in the country gets to have their say and at the end of the process our democracy is strengthened and renewed. That is what the country wants, that is what our democracy needs and that is why we will vote this evening for the motion calling for this Parliament to be dissolved and the people of Britain to decide their own future.

5.15 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): In the first part of the debate, I thought that I had intruded on some sort of private feud. It has now become much more fun, and I hugely enjoyed the speech made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I shall be brief, and I am sorry to inject a note of realism into our proceedings. I tried to do so when I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether he could tell me of all the occasions on which Governments had called elections because Oppositions had asked for them. Of course, there have been no such occasions.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con) rose—

Dr. Wright: I will not give way for the moment, although I shall do so later.

There are two problems with what is proposed. One is that it is dishonest, and the other is that it is dangerous. I am sorry to be rather serious about the matter, but I want to be serious. The proposal is dishonest because the proposers of the motion know that what they request will not happen. It is dishonest because it is part of the game that we play, and the game that we play contributes greatly to the regard in which we are held outside this place.

There is a constitutional illiteracy even in believing that if a party changes its leader between elections, there should be an election. We do not have a presidential system; we have a party system in which parties present themselves to the electorate periodically. Some of the arguments that we have heard in recent times have been preposterous. The fact is that Governments with secure majorities do not call elections other than when they want to.

Dr. Lewis: I seem to remember that in both 1983 and 1987 Governments with healthy Conservative majorities called an election a year earlier than they needed to. The hon. Gentleman may say that the Opposition did not ask for an election at those times, but if they did not, it was probably only because they knew that, as the Government were so hugely popular, they would lose such an election, which is what happened. Governments do go to the country early, and they do go to the country when they want a mandate. The Government could do that equally well on this occasion.

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Dr. Wright: The argument is not that Governments do not go to the electorate early; of course they do. Governments go to the electorate when they think that it is to their maximum advantage to do so. That is a truism of all Governments in all times. That is the truism that I am trying to pass on, in a humble way, to the House. That is why it is essentially dishonest to claim that there is some kind of other constitutional position that demands an election at other times. There is no such position, and there is no such precedent. That is one argument.

Mr. Burns: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is possible that the answer to the question that he asked earlier is 1945? When the wartime coalition broke up, and the Labour party refused to serve in a national Government any longer, it asked for a general election. A Conservative Government were formed, and then the Conservative Government, under Winston Churchill, gave the country an election.

Dr. Wright: I am very happy to discuss 1945 in considerable detail, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman particularly wants to.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Wright: I want to finish this point, if I may, because it is the point that I really want to make. If we were in the opposite position, we would be saying exactly the same kind of things, because that is what Oppositions do. That is the game that we play.

I want to suggest to the House— [Interruption.] May I make the argument before hon. Members have a go at me about it? I suggest to the House that we are in an exceptional moment. There is a tidal wave of anti-politics running through the country at present. Nobody can deny that. The choice before all parties is whether we seek to ride that tidal wave and try to extract some partisan advantage from it—I can see the temptations of doing that; all Opposition parties will get some reward from riding that tidal wave—or whether we try to turn the wave around. If we do not together turn that wave around, we are in deep trouble.

Irrespective of the usual games that we play, we have a particular responsibility in the House now seriously, together, across party to put aside the game and to try and rebuild some faith in the system. [Interruption.] Until we do that, we shall not be able to look the electorate in the eye and ask properly for their support.

Lembit Öpik: I agree in large part with the hon. Gentleman’s analysis, but surely he would recognise that the game is played not just by Opposition parties. One of the great frustrations has been that the Government have been masters of spin, which is very much what he is describing. How does he foresee the Opposition and also the party of government shifting away from the spin that has eroded the confidence of the public in what they hear from us, and replacing that with honesty and content?

Dr. Wright: I have said a good deal on that over the years, if I may say so, and I do not want to go there again, because I think and hope we have moved on. What I am trying to say—hon. Members may disagree
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with me, but it is pretty evident from what has happened in recent weeks and what happened last week—is that we have a house that is burning down. It therefore seems a bizarre moment to say, “Shall we have a competition to decide which colour to paint it?” [Interruption.] We have to put the fire out— [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. It is only fair to listen to the hon. Gentleman who is addressing the House. If Members want to make interventions, they should do so in the normal way, not from a sedentary position.

Dr. Wright: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I simply say that we ought to put the fire out. Hon. Members who do not believe that there is a fire burning furiously are not listening to the electorate to whom they keep referring.

Mr. Shepherd: The hon. Gentleman, my near neighbour in Cannock, uses the mixed metaphors of an approaching tidal wave and a fire in a house. It seems to me that the tidal wave might put the fire out. In truth, though, is not the whole point that this Parliament is dead? Our democratic system needs renewal. The agenda is in place and the reforms that we seek will be carried out by an independent authority. This is not a party matter. Every party in the House is affected by the hon. Gentleman’s tidal wave. That is the substance behind the argument that democracy must have its say and the people out there must form their new Parliament.

Dr. Wright: I apologise for the mixing of metaphors, but I do not apologise for the argument. I do think that we are in the condition that I described, and millions of people out there are saying that they want nothing to do with this political system until we put our system in order. Hon. Members may disagree with that analysis, but I think that that is the position that we are in. We have a duty and a responsibility to do that, and to do it now.

Pete Wishart: I am trying to listen patiently to the hon. Gentleman’s contorted logic. Does he think for a minute that the public want this Parliament—this manure Parliament—to resolve some of these important issues? Surely it is right that we have a new group of people in this place to decide how we go forward, not the present degraded House and establishment?

Dr. Wright: That argument has been put repeatedly, but curiously the situation is not unique, because often out of some great scandal, disaster or catastrophe an opportunity presents itself. I am struck by the fact that, although I and others have made arguments over the years for improving the way in which this Parliament works in a variety of ways, we have made little headway. I mind the reasons why, but there happens now to be an opportunity to do something and it is an opportunity worth taking, because they do not come along very often. It is a shame that this opportunity has come out of the circumstances in which we find ourselves but, my goodness, it is a real opportunity and we should take it.

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