Not so easy in the Lords where Baroness Jay – or Margaret Callaghan as she was born – vividly remembers the last vote of no confidence in the Commons which caused her father, prime minister Callaghan, to take off for the palace next day and trigger a general election.
This bill would enable – indeed force – an incumbent government to spend 14 days after such a defeat trying to patch together a new deal before the election was called. The fortnight is because the government does not want to ‘rule out the possibility … of the House changing its mind’ – ‘changing its mind’ being of course a euphemism. As the conservative Lord Howard of Rising said: ‘As for introducing a 14-day cooling off period, the mind boggles … imagine the cornucopia of inducements, together with the bullying, which a future government might carry out during those 14 days. We might even get a few more dukes in this house.’
Labour’s former chief whip Ann (now Baroness) Taylor asked: ‘Are we to have 14 days so that government ministers can offer jobs to rebels or inducements or threats?’ Is it ‘simply designed as a mechanism for one partner in a coalition to try to persuade a different partner to enter a new coalition and form an entirely different kind of majority in the Commons without an election?’
And why 14 days, rather than the five it took the Lib Dems and Tories to put together the present coalition? The wonderful thing about this whole debate is that David Laws’ helpful book spells it all out. He knows five days was enough, as it quickly becomes clear whether a deal can be done. He also admits that the Lib Dems’ long-standing policy of a four-year fixed parliament was junked for five years in just minutes in the coalition talks – to delay having to face the electorate.
And all this is before the government benches in the Lords put their teeth into the ‘paused’ NHS bill. Former health secretaries of state (Norman Fowler, Tony Newton) who know a thing or two about the NHS, along with Baroness (Shirley) Williams are unlikely to nod through the break-up of this great national institution. (Incidentally, I always wondered why the Lib Dems didn’t put defeated MP Dr Evan Harris in the Lords. Given his trenchant views, now I know!)
So watch the red benches over the coming months. There’s rather more life here than among the massed ranks of government MPs on the green ones.
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