The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Michael Gove): ... When Governments have sought to cut and run – when they have sought to manipulate the electoral timetable to their advantage – they have been punished. It was the case not just in 1974 with Edward Heath but in the early 1920s with Stanley Baldwin, when he sought to cut and run using the formidable advantage that he had – the support of press barons and the wealthy. Nevertheless, we saw the return of the very first Labour Government under Ramsay MacDonald, supported for all too brief a period by the Liberals of that time.
Dr Julian Lewis: The historical case that my right hon. Friend is making is absolutely incontrovertible. The fact is that the legitimacy of previous elections has barely – if ever – been questioned. As soon as we brought in that wretched legislation [Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011], we ended up in what he rightly described as a paralysed Parliament. However, is he satisfied that clause 3 is strong enough to ensure that Parliament is not paralysed in future by political uses of the court to try to interfere with the process of dissolving Parliament? Professor Ekins in particular, I believe, has certain suggestions that might make that provision a little stronger.
Michael Gove: I believe that clause 3 is robust and fit for purpose, but it is also the case that Professor Ekins, of the Judicial Power Project attached to the think-tank Policy Exchange, is a brilliant legal mind. We will pay close attention to his arguments and to those of my right hon. Friend and others, in order to ensure that clause 3 is robust enough. ...
The Joint Committee found that the 2011 Act did fulfil its immediate political purpose of maintaining the coalition Government for five years, but that it did not succeed in enforcing a super-majority constraint on the calling of early general elections, given what happened in 2017 and 2019. Mere repeal of the Act without any form of replacement would create uncertainty and what the Committee called a “constitutional lacuna” – hence the need for this legislation. The Government should allow sufficient time for Parliament to explore the full implications of any replacement legislation. Indeed, the Committee’s own work and the work of other committees has been a service to that cause. That constitutional education should secure a wide degree of cross-party agreement – that exists in the support given from the Opposition Front Bench and from others. ...
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Michael Gove: ... It is very important, following on from the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), that the House understands, appreciates and supports the Bill on that basis. It has been constitutional practice since 1688 and the Bill of Rights that it should not be the case that these matters are reviewed in the courts. Let me say that judicial review is an important part of keeping Governments honest, but there needs to be an absolute limit on what is considered justiciable and it should not be the case that the courts can prevent the request for a Dissolution on the part of a Prime Minister. If that decision is mistaken, then it is for the people to decide in a general election what is appropriate. I was very pleased that the Joint Committee confirmed in its report that it would be appropriate for Parliament to affirm that.
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Dr Lewis: I concede the hon. Member’s [Cat Smith's] point that the Act did work as far as holding the coalition together until 2015 was concerned, but it did not work in 2017. If it had not been for the fact that the Scottish nationalists and the Liberal Democrats, for political reasons of their own, decided to allow the Dissolution, that stasis could have gone on for months, or years longer than it did. The Parliament would have been paralysed endlessly until the end of the five years. That cannot be right, surely.
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Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman [Chris Bryant] is making a strong case that it should not be a question of the Government against Parliament, but does he not agree that it should not be a question of Parliament against the people? That is the situation that we were nearly stuck in, because the Government, by wanting to be dissolved and have an election, wanted the people to have the final say about Brexit, but Parliament did not want the people to have the final say about Brexit. So the hon. Gentleman needs to be very careful, because there is a lot to be said for the Government not overruling Parliament, but there is not much to be said for Parliament not overruling Government when the Government are trying to give the final decision to the people.
Chris Bryant: Well, my point is simply that we need to have a level playing field in any general election. The Bill deliberately gives the Government the upper hand. It places them on the hill surrounding the territory. It means that they determine the territory on which a general election will be contested. They determine many other aspects, such as who is able to vote, who is able to register to vote, how the boundaries are constituted and so on. I start to ask myself: how much power do the Government want to have?
Dr Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is extremely kind in giving way a second time. I do not think he answered my point, which is that the key thing about Dissolution is that we are giving power to the people to have the final say.
On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, he says that the Government are able to choose a time that is to their advantage. The alternative is surely that when we have a fixed date when the election has to be held, the Government will still try to manipulate the situation so that it will coincide to their advantage at that date. We cannot really escape the question of manipulation entirely.