CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

THE ALTERNATIVE VOTE REFERENDUM – 12 October 2010

Dr Julian Lewis: As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Eleanor Laing) made clear, it is a very serious step to vote against the leadership of one's party for the first time. It will not come as a surprise to those in the Whips Office to hear that I shall be doing that today, because I informed them in advance that that was the decision that I reached. In fairness to them, with their typical liberality, they have not sought to put any pressure on me to dissuade me. [Interruption.] They genuinely have not.

What I really regret is that I shall be voting in such a way when the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mark Harper), is at the Dispatch Box. He smiled as he heard me mention his name. He, at least, is aware that I have had the pleasure of attending the weddings of only two hon. Members. One was Mr Speaker's and the other was my hon. Friend's, even before he was elected to this House. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will reach every bit as eminent a position as Mr Speaker, but I fear that it will not be on the strength of the arguments that we will hear from him today.

The Shadow Secretary of State said from the Dispatch Box that he was puzzled to learn that the Government were going for the option of holding the referendum on an important constitutional issue on the same day as party political elections. I am glad to see him re-entering the Chamber in time for me to assist him by answering the question that he put. There is a simple answer: it is because the Liberal Democrats insist on it. The Conservative Party would not have dreamt of putting forward this ghastly proposal to substitute the alternative vote for first-past-the-post in any other circumstance, and it is being jerked about by its coalition partner.

Ian Davidson: What the hon. Gentleman has just said is extremely important – if it is correct. He is saying that the AV referendum and the elections are being held on the same day at the behest of the Liberal Democrats. That is immensely helpful. It would be helpful to the Committee if he would make clear what evidence he has that the referendum is to be held on the same day as the elections solely at the insistence of the forces of darkness.

Dr Lewis: I have very good circumstantial evidence. If it were left to the Conservatives, they would not wish this issue to be on the agenda at all; it is part of the price for the formation of the coalition Government. Also, once it became clear that this bad idea of a coincidence of dates was to be implemented, it was said time and again in the press without contradiction – in a way, the hon. Gentleman anticipates the remainder of my speech – that the reason was to improve the possibility of a Yes vote. As the Conservatives, from the leader of our party down, have been explicit that we want a No vote, it is hardly likely that they, albeit reluctantly putting forward the idea for a referendum in the first place for the sake of the coalition, would insist on holding it on the same date for the reason that it was likely to get the result that they apparently do not want. I say apparently because naturally I believe implicitly everything that the leadership of my party tells me, and therefore I am sure that it does not want us to change the voting system.

Ian Davidson: That was a yes, then. The elections and the referendum are being held on the same day solely at the insistence of the Liberal Democrats.

Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman knows that I much admire his tenacity, his persistence and especially his devotion to the aircraft carriers, which I share, but I have to tell him that, for some strange reason, the leader of the Liberal Democrats [Nick Clegg] does not tend to take me into his confidence when it comes to his reasons on issues of this sort. All I have been able to give the hon. Gentleman is my judgment of the situation as I see it. It seems to me that the only logical explanation for insisting on the coincidence of dates is that it is believed that the fact that major elections will be going on in parts of the country where people are used to electoral systems other than first-past-the-post makes it more likely that there will be a higher turnout in those areas and the people there will be more amenable to voting Yes to a change in the electoral system. I am glad to see a number of hon. Members indicating their assent.

Thomas Docherty: There has been some speculation as to the whereabouts of the Deputy Prime Minister. He was spotted just a few moments ago walking past the Chamber. We can but hope that he will shortly join us to take part in this debate.

Dr Lewis: I would not bet the farm on it. One of the depressing aspects of the debate, being a touch more serious for a moment, is that we are debating the proposal only because it is a Lib Dem self-interested obsession. Liberal Democrat Members have not even had the guts to come here in any significant numbers to speak up for those policies on which they insist. They are the originators of this mischief, and they are now doing the Cheshire Cat act and letting my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary have the sticky end of the wicket of trying to defend the indefensible.

Sadiq Khan: Some of us are advocates of AV and would campaign for a Yes vote. Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate how let down we feel that the actions of the Deputy Prime Minister make it difficult for us to coalesce a campaign and get support for a Yes vote, because on the day of the referendum candidates will be standing on the Liberal Democrat ticket? That will make it very difficult for us to canvass in the days and weeks preceding the elections. It pains me to say this, because I was looking forward to working with the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on other issues, but our ability to do so has been hindered by the way in which the Bill has been drafted and the proceedings on it have been conducted.

Dr Lewis: I shall give a slightly pragmatic answer. Frankly, as long as hon. Members on both sides of the House work for whatever reason one way or another to defeat such an unwelcome change in our electoral system, I for one shall be extremely happy.

Liberal Democrats are not known for their consistency, and that was well illustrated by the Shadow Secretary of State when he revealed something that I did not know: that the Deputy Prime Minister previously opposed in principle holding a referendum on the same day as a General Election. At least there would be some sort of level playing-field if a referendum were on the same day as a General Election. What is so iniquitous about this proposal is that all sorts of elections will be held on the same day in different parts of the country using different systems; and in some parts of the country no elections will be held at all. That is unfair and discreditable. I believe that the idea of the differential turnout was part-and-parcel of the scheme for proposing the coincidence of dates because it was believed that it would help achieve a Yes vote.

We had a lively exchange earlier about whether the coincidence of dates would help the Yes vote or the No vote, but the most important thing is not that it might help one side or the other. The important thing is that, if an issue is vital enough that it deserves a referendum, it is essential that that referendum should not be adulterated by party political cross-cutting issues on the same day.

One reason why political coalitions in peacetime generally do not have good reputations is their propensity to do dodgy deals behind closed doors. This proposal is the outcome of such a deal. It is intellectually and morally indefensible. It will not be a pleasure to vote for the first time today against my party leadership on an issue of principle. I hope that I will not be wasting my time and that people on the Government Benches will find it in their hearts to do a good deed today and put maximum pressure on the Government to abandon a thoroughly dishonourable bit of political fixing. I wish I could think of some other words to describe it, but I cannot. This is what happens when parties get together and start tinkering with the rules of the game. We may play on different sides in the game, but we ought to respect the rules. The proposal to hold the referendum on the same day as differential party political elections is an attempt to bend the rules, and we should have no part of it.