News

The King’s Speech, State Opening and the 1922 Committee – Parliament Matters podcast, episode 1 transcript

10 Nov 2023
The Queen's Speech delivered by the then Prince of Wales during the May 2022 State Opening of Parliament. ©UK House of Lords (CC BY 2.0)
©UK House of Lords (CC BY 2.0)

In this first episode of our Parliament Matters podcast, co-hosts Ruth Fox and Mark D'Arcy discuss the political prospects for the Government's legislative programme, and whether the pageantry of the State Opening of Parliament has outlived its usefulness.

This transcript is automatically generated. There are consequently minor errors and the text is not formatted according to our style guide. If you wish to reference or cite the transcript please first check against the audio version. Timestamps are provided above each paragraph for ease of reference.

Hello and welcome to Parliament Matters, the new podcast from the Hansard Society about the institution at the heart of our democracy - Parliament itself. I'm Ruth Fox and I'm Mark D'Arcy. Every week we're going to be analysing what's going on behind the Gothic facade of Westminster.

00:00:34:02 - 00:00:52:00

We'll be explaining how the system works and hearing about the latest research on the workings of parliaments and politics, and looking back at key moments of parliamentary history. We're going to talk in this episode about The King's Speech, the new laws the government has proposed, the State Opening of Parliament. And indeed, why do we have a State Opening of Parliament?

00:00:52:01 - 00:01:23:22

Why do we have this slightly strange system of parliamentary cycles that start with The King's Speech and closed with the prorogation ceremony providing a sort of hard stop to the legislative agenda? And then we'll be talking to Lord Norton, political savant and Tory peer who dropped by to discuss the 1922 Committee, the mysterious institution whose inhabitants may or may not wear gray suits, but who can make or break a conservative prime minister.

00:01:23:24 - 00:01:46:05

But first, The King's Speech. The King's Speech is the beginning of a parliamentary year. It's when His Majesty sets out on behalf of the Prime Minister of the day the program of laws they're planning to pass in the coming year. But we all know that an election is due in the next 12 months or so. So how much of what's being proposed this time around is actual law that they want to get on the statute book?

00:01:46:11 - 00:02:08:13

And how much is political performance art? I suppose you might say something intended to create dividing lines with labor, something intended to set up the debates of the next general election. Ruth, you've been looking at the list. Yes. So the 21 bills that the government has has identified. Of course, the thing to remember is the government can bring bills in that are not in The King's Speech.

00:02:08:13 - 00:02:27:04

And conversely, there may be things listed in the King's Speech that they never get to. Even if the session, you know, is a normal one, not not possible in a general election year. So there's no guarantees here that we will see this legislation. But this is what the government is putting forward as its plans. It's a statement of intent, but kind of soft intent.

00:02:27:05 - 00:02:51:09

Yes. So it's got sort of three headings, if you like. It says that the Government wants two new bills to strengthen society, to grow the economy, and to keep people safe. So that's sort of its broad narrative, but it's actually the fewest number of bills since the Queen's Speech in 2014. Again, a pre-election year. Yep. And, you know, the number of bills in and of itself is not not a great indicator because some of these bills might be quite short.

00:02:51:11 - 00:03:17:22

Sometimes you get bills which are just a few clauses and some of them will be sort of 250, 350 pages long. So, the sheer number itself is is not necessarily a great guide to what's going to happen or indeed to how controversial they're going to be. And of course, what's not discussed in The King's Speech and what's not included in that 21 list of bills is the Finance Bill, which will be needed to keep the nation's finances running after the Budget next year.

00:03:18:00 - 00:03:38:18

And, of course, they also have to be Northern Ireland legislation to fill out the for the fact that devolution has collapsed in Northern Ireland for the time being. And that's meant that the Westminster Parliament has at regular intervals to set a budget for Northern Ireland - that requires a Bill. So that is something that will be fairly unavoidable as well for Ministers unless miraculously the devolved institutions revive.

00:03:38:20 - 00:04:01:10

Yeah. So you can see already that we can be more than 21 bills if indeed the Government gets through the whole program. But as you mentioned, the general election is going to come into play here because the timing of the election, it's looking increasingly unlikely that it's going to be may timed to coincide with the local elections, given the poll ratings of the of the government and perhaps more likely that they're going to run into October or December of next year.

00:04:01:12 - 00:04:34:01

In that case, they're going to have more legislative time available. But if they did want to go for an earlier date, then of course, the guillotine on the legislative program will fall earlier and they'll have less chance to get things through. Having said that, it doesn't feel like many of these bills are so critical that they couldn't either lose them for a quicker election or indeed bang them through in negotiations with the Opposition. And there was a rather withering verdict from Labour MP Chris Bryant, who said that we could pass all this lot in a fortnight and then get on to have a general election.

00:04:34:01 - 00:05:03:22

Possibly a poetic exaggeration there a touch. But it isn't the most weighty program of new bills that either of us have seen to put it gently. No. And having said that, I've been struggling to think of Queen's speeches in the past that, you know, have sort of turned the tide, turned the political fortunes of the party. Certainly, if you have a Gracious Speech at the start of a Parliament after a big election victory... I always love that, the Gracious Speech - I was trying to ensure I didn't blunder over either King's Speech or Queen's Speech!

00:05:03:24 - 00:05:29:03

But if you have a big election victory, a landslide, you know, Tony Blair in 1997, Margaret Thatcher in 1979, after that big change election, then, yes, the Speech afterwards, the legislative program does look big and meaty and is all about change and reform. But when you're at the back end of a Parliament and you're 20 points behind in the polls, it doesn't look quite so good.

00:05:29:05 - 00:05:49:19

There has been talk that there are few opportunities left for the Government to have a kind of game changing moment where it can reset the political mood. This doesn't appear to be it. And now, immediately, MPs are casting their eyes towards the 22 November, when Jeremy Hunt is due to deliver his Autumn financial statement as Chancellor.

00:05:49:21 - 00:06:08:07

And the hope amongst Conservative MPs seems increasingly that he will come up with something that will really grab the attention of the electorate. A big tax cut being probably the main thing that he might be able to offer them. And who knows whether he'll be able to do that or not, because that, of course, depends on all sorts of judgments about the financial markets.

00:06:08:07 - 00:06:38:14

And they will have seared into their memory the experience of the Liz Truss tax cut that the financial markets were unconvinced by, which caused all sorts of havoc. And not that long ago either. This is one of the sets that kind of noises off that mean that this hasn't been a reset moment for the government because, whatever good publicity there might be to be had from this King's Speech, it's competing with some of the astounding things coming out of the COVID inquiry at the moment about quite what was going on in Downing Street during the pandemic, for example.

00:06:38:16 - 00:07:06:05

It's competing with the equally lurid revelations or, I suppose you better use some scare inverted commas around that, from Nadine Dorries' account of the fall of Boris Johnson and some of the stories there that have been splashed across most of the front pages in the last few weeks. And now of course, the rather bare knuckle battle that seems to be emerging between Rishi Sunak and his Home Secretary and potential rival for the Tory leadership, Suella Braverman.

00:07:06:07 - 00:07:29:16

Even as we speak, I'm checking my Twitter feed to make sure that Suella Braverman hasn't been dismissed while we're recording. Who knows what's going on there? But when all that is going on around you, you're not going to get all that much publicity for a legislative agenda of kind of techbro measures about digital markets and self-drive cars and criminal justice tweaks and reforms to this, and new authorities for that.

00:07:29:18 - 00:07:48:12

Well, shall we get into that Mark? Shall we actually start on the list of Bills and have a look at them in a bit more detail. Well, talk us through. There's what, four criminal justice bills? There's five I think - it depends how you cut it - but they listed four or five. So the one that catches the eye is the the bill to reform sentencing.

00:07:48:12 - 00:08:25:13

So the Government is proposing that they be tougher on the sentences of the most violent offenders. So you get tougher sentences, you get more political oversight of some of those. You get more 'life means life' occasions? Yeah, but at the other end of the spectrum, interestingly, taking a different approach to shorter sentences and saying that, you know, if you are facing a 12 month sentence, then you wouldn't necessarily get a custodial sentence because normally you'd only serve half of that and actually therefore you'd get a suspended sentence, which you can argue is a response to the situation with prison overcrowding.

00:08:25:13 - 00:08:48:11

But the Government are rightly saying that successive governments have looked at this and have recognised that shorter sentences is not a good thing. An expensive way of making bad people worse, I think is the phrase that used to float around. Yeah, so it will be interesting to see what the response to that one is going to be. You've got to think, how long is it since we had a Queen's Speech that didn't include the words crackdown and tougher sentencing?

00:08:48:13 - 00:09:11:14

This is the kind of boilerplate rhetoric that accompanies every single Queen's Speech or King's Speech that I can remember. Yeah, and anti-social behavior also features in this King's Speech, and it's featured in lots and lots of Queen's Speeches in the past. I mean, I remember it being a big feature of Tony Blair's government, there were multiple anti-social behavior bills to crack down on on that issue.

00:09:11:16 - 00:09:40:18

We've also got a criminal justice bill, which I think is one area where there may be some opposition in Conservative ranks from people like David Davis, the civil libertarian. Yeah, this is that wing of the Conservative Party which has concerns about measures which will allow the police to enter premises on suspicion of organised crime, for example, without warrants, This is for example, if they trace stolen mobile phones, presumably by their signal to a particular address, they can just pile in on that.

00:09:40:18 - 00:10:01:06

Shall we look at some of the economic bills. There's one that I think is is going to be controversial and it's one that is perceived as a Government attempt to put a wedge issue between them and the Labour Party in relation to net zero, and that's the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill for drilling offshore for oil and gas.

00:10:01:08 - 00:10:21:14

And this goes into the whole debate about climate change and net zero. And the Government makes the argument that actually it's better to have that provision rather than relying on more expensive imports of fossil fuels. One of the more withering lines in Rishi Sunak's speech in the opening of the debate on The King's Speech was a suggestion that Labour aren't against oil and gas

00:10:21:14 - 00:10:46:02

they're just against British oil and gas. You could hear 'here, here's' from his own benches. And then we've talked about tech and there's automated vehicles. Yes, the techbro section, of the Speech. The bit that possibly Rishi Sunak wrote himself! Yeah. Automated vehicles. So I have to say this is a bit that terrifies me - self-driving vehicles, if you were to crash in a self-driving vehicle, you would be immune from prosecution. Which sounds like a good thing,

00:10:46:02 - 00:11:10:04

but I have to say I'm not very keen on self-driving. I think unleashing me on the roads in something like that is a terrifying concept. So we'll have to see what happens with that one. There's another Media Bill - the Government's proposing to introduce some changes and interestingly they're planning to repeal some provisions in legislation that were introduced after the Leveson inquiry.

00:11:10:08 - 00:11:36:06

If you recall, it was the public inquiry that took place looking at media standards in the aftermath of the phone hacking inquiry that affected Rupert Murdoch's company which was found to be phone hacking, all sorts of people - the royal family, businessmen, sports personalities. And of course, there is legal action around that still going on. The sight of Uncle Rupert coming into Parliament and announcing this was the humblest day of his life, still remains with us, even before someone applied a custard pie to his face. It will long live in the memory!

00:11:36:06 - 00:12:04:00

So the Government's proposing to repeal some of the provisions that were introduced then in an Act of Parliament. But interestingly, they've never actually brought them into force. And this highlights, I think, something that a lot of members of the public and indeed some MPs don't realise, which is that although you might spend hundreds of hours on a piece of legislation scrutinizing it, and it's the law of the land.

00:12:04:02 - 00:12:31:05

But if the provisions haven't been commenced through a Commencement Order, they will not necessarily come into effect. It's a trigger that has to be pulled before certain parts of the law are activated. And the bit we're talking about here is a provision that media organisations that hadn't signed up to a regulator would be in a position where if someone sued them for libel, they would be liable for the suers costs.

00:12:31:08 - 00:12:58:02

Yes, even if that attempt to sue them was unsuccessful, which a lot of media organisations not entirely unreasonably found a bit onerous. Yeah, so they'll welcome this. But sometimes in legislation there'll be provisions to to say that these specific clauses will come into force straightaway or it may say they will come into force after a particular event or a particular date, or it will be left open to ministers to decide when they come into force.

00:12:58:02 - 00:13:15:17

And if they don't commence them, then they never come into force. And that's what's happened here. I think that's interesting because a lot of people don't realize that that's the case. And you can have whole sections of an Act of Parliament that are never commenced. And famously the the act set the date of Easter has never been commenced.

00:13:15:19 - 00:13:37:05

I'm dimly aware that I think there is legislation on the books to require age verification for porn sites that's never been triggered because there was a Private Member's Bill to attempt to activate that, of some previous act of Parliament, which never got anywhere. But there was an attempt. Yes. There's some suggestions that actually the Government shouldn't be able to do this, there should be a sunset.

00:13:37:05 - 00:13:56:01

If they don't introduce the provisions within a certain amount of time, then they fall away. Its quite an easy way to get yourself off the hook, to diffuse some opposition to your bill by putting in some clause that you then don't activate and then it just withers away. I suppose it's a good way of sort of bamboozling your backbenchers if you really wanted to.

00:13:56:02 - 00:14:23:14

Yeah. Then the other one that we can talk about is Tobacco and Vapes Bill. So if you're under 14 you'll never be able to buy tobacco products. This is the one that I think might get a bit of opposition on the Conservative backbenches on the basis that however bad you think tobacco is, should it really be the business of Government to basically try and rule it out for future generations forever?

00:14:23:16 - 00:14:49:16

And that's quite an interesting argument to have. Rishi Sunak feels that this is a very important public health measure that can stop smoking related illness more or less forever. So a public health versus individual liberty issue really writ large, being fought out possibly on the Conservative backbenches. I think Labour would probably back this, but I'm pretty sure that there will be some Conservative voices that are distinctly uncomfortable about that.

00:14:49:17 - 00:15:10:00

It goes back to those civil libertarian backbenchers that we were talking about earlier. Once the Government has decided on when the election is going to be, once it's effectively determined a dissolution date to dissolve the Parliament for the election, you are then going to have anything between a couple of weeks to just a few days for what we call the legislative wash up.

00:15:10:02 - 00:15:31:01

So basically all those bills in the speech that have not got royal assent and that have been laid before Parliament gone through perhaps some scrutiny, but not not fully completed the process, they'll be the subject of immense negotiations with the opposition about how they can get agreement on those bills and ram them through the final stages before dissolution.

00:15:31:02 - 00:15:46:13

Yes, they can only go through very quickly before dissolution if the Opposition is prepared to play ball and the Opposition's price for that is, you've got to take out this clause that we really don't like, you've got to rewrite it this way so that we're happy and so there's a huge sort of watering down process that takes place in the wash up, if I'm not mixing my kitchen metaphors a bit too far here. Yeah, so one to watch and something I think we'll probably talk about a bit nearer the time.

00:15:46:13 - 00:16:07:09

And the other thing of course we don't get much clarity on is HS2 and what is going to happen to that legislation, because there is a Bill for that next stage of HS2 that was carried over from the last session.

00:16:07:11 - 00:16:29:10

So it's a bill that's had, you know, hundreds of hours spent on it so far, and a select committee that's been looking at it has basically suspended its proceedings pending further information from the Government, and an instruction from the House of Commons about what to do. I thought we might get some sense from the King's Speech about what might happen or you know, at least in the briefing around the King's Speech.

00:16:29:10 - 00:16:54:12

But I haven't heard anything. And the only indication we've had is that the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport, appeared before the committee in the last few days and indicated that primary legislation would be needed to deal with some of the fallout issues from the Prime Minister's decision to scrap the next stage. But we don't know what form that legislation is going to take - are they going to amend this existing bill or is it going to need new legislation?

00:16:54:15 - 00:17:17:22

It's really very hard to underestimate the amount of time that MPs have spent on HS2. There have been several HS2 bills during each stage of the unfolding program. And it's astonishing. I once accompanied members of one of the bill committees around a chunk of rural Warwickshire, where they were talking to people in the various elements ...it's.

00:17:17:22 - 00:17:41:13

Miss Marple Country - I kept expecting a sharp eyed old lady to dart out and solve a quick murder while the proceedings were underway. And it would have made quite a good Miss Marple plotline, I suspect. But you'd come to these places and groups of residents would make speeches about how they needed a cutting here or a tunnel there. Or they were very worried about having 24 hour a day, lorries thundering through their community, whatever it was, and the MPs would listen and take notes.

00:17:41:13 - 00:18:00:21

And sometimes the bill would be changed a bit to accommodate those kind of concerns. And it's a very intensive, incredibly detailed bit of work that has to be done. And what you've got to remember is these kind of bills are in essence a kind of planning permission. This is how you get permission to do all the things that are necessary - of the kind of compulsory purchasing and all the rest of it.

00:18:00:23 - 00:18:17:03

So there's no obligation when you've got planning permission to actually go ahead and build what you've got permission to build. So to that extent Rishi Sunak was able to just sort of bring the whole thing to a halt with a wave of his hand. And I think that was one of the things that was misunderstood at the time - that people sort of thought, 'Well, Parliament has passed this, so it must happen'.

00:18:17:05 - 00:18:40:01

Yeah. And, you know, we were talking earlier about, Parliament passes bills and they come back to Parliament and certain sections don't get implemented. This is slightly different because as you say, it's a form of planning consent. So it's permissive - 'yes, the government can build this line if it wants, and it can build it in this direction, and it will have to make these mitigations, put in place these mitigations if it wants to do it.

00:18:40:03 - 00:18:58:10

But of course, it's got to be funded. So you would grant permission for the money to be spent, but the Treasury doesn't have to. And that was one of the misunderstandings. I had a colleague at the Hansard Society sit and work this out. He didn't thank me, going through through hundreds....You're a cruel leader!

00:18:58:15 - 00:19:20:21

Hundreds of pages of the parliamentary website trying to track all this information down. But 1,300 hours, at least of parliamentary time has been spent on these four Bills to date, which is an awful lot, an awful lot and a lot more time than the kind of bills we're talking about here in the King's Speech will get. .

00:19:20:22 - 00:19:43:02

A criminal justice bill might get a few hundred hours spent on it. 1300. Not a chance. Yeah. So a question that emerges out of all of this is, is this bill process for these big infrastructure projects like HS2, the right way to go? Is this the best way for Parliament to deal with them. Is a committee of MPs the right people to decide it?

00:19:43:08 - 00:20:01:00

You're talking about taking a trip into Miss Marple country and deciding whether you're looking at whether you should have a cutting here or a bridge across two fields. The positioning of a roundabout on a, you know, a local road. Are these really the decisions that MPs should take? But if not MPs, who should take them? Well, that's the thing.

00:20:01:00 - 00:20:36:00

And a small bet here. If you get an incoming Labour government after the next general election, I wouldn't be surprised if they tried to do a quite major reform of the planning system to speed up this kind of thing, which would probably mean not having MPs taking these kind of decisions because if they want to start building big infrastructure at the start of their term and have something to show for it by the subsequent election, they've got to speed up this part of the process, which in any case, a lot of critics think is just too granular to really work effectively.

00:20:36:00 - 00:20:57:02

And this is this is essentially a process inherited from the golden age of steam when Victorian entrepreneurs were building the first railway lines across Britain. Maybe it's time that a 19th century process was brought into the 21st century. Yeah, because the alternatives - you know, local planning consents, traffic planning, development, consent orders, they are not necessarily any quicker for some of these big infrastructure projects.

00:20:57:02 - 00:21:16:17

If you look at you know, the building of some of the power stations you are still looking at ten years. So from an incoming government's perspective, that's no good either. So yeah, one to watch. Or indeed if the Conservatives decide if they want to get their infrastructure moving faster after they win the next election, they may well do something when they've got a mandate to do it.

00:21:16:23 - 00:21:45:16

And it might all be expressed in the small print of their manifestos. We will upgrade the planning system and that will be the cover they get. But this brings into play an interesting question for Labour in this final session, because, you know, looking at the polls, they've got obviously high hopes of getting into government. I think it's a big pressure on the new shadow leader of the House, Lucy Powell, because she's effectively got responsibility for putting together and managing the legislative program if they get into government.

00:21:45:18 - 00:22:05:17

She needs to become to the legislative program what Rachel Reeves is to the public finances. So basically saying to her colleagues in the shadow cabinet, you cannot be going out and saying you want this bill or you're going to deliver this bill in 100 days, or whatever it may be, because that program and the prioritisation of it is going to be critical.

00:22:05:19 - 00:22:23:06

It's got to be well organised. They've got to be quite strategic in terms of how they think about about what they're putting together in the order in which bills are introduced, both in the Commons and the Lords. And she really needs to have command and control of that. Otherwise, with her colleagues, it'll get out of hand. Absolutely.

00:22:23:06 - 00:22:44:14

And if Labour is aiming, and I bet they are, to have a kind of 100 days of feverish activity, aided doubtless by the fact that the Conservatives have lost the next election, they may be in the throes of a leadership campaign and rather distracted. So they will be trying to ram stuff through very, very quickly at the start of their term while their new employees are still sort of typically desperate to implement the agenda.

00:22:44:16 - 00:23:00:04

That's the moment when they've got a strike and it's got to be well organised. And the presence of people like Sue Gray, the former deputy cabinet secretary, now in Keir Starmer's office, suggests that they really do want to make the machine deliver very quickly and get off to a flying start. And they're probably, as we speak, concocting detailed plans for that.

00:23:00:04 - 00:23:23:17

So watch that space. Yeah. And again, it goes back to what you were saying earlier. You know, good legislation is not necessarily legislation that's been rammed through at speed. So there's going to be that there is a danger with that. Legislate in haste and repent at leisure. Absolutely. Well, that's the King's Speech, Ruth, But I'm left with the kind of overriding mystery about why on earth Parliament does things this way.

00:23:23:19 - 00:23:42:07

Why do we have what I call legislative sessions, kind of parliamentary years that start with a King's Speech and end up with a Prorogation ceremony where people in the House will doff caps for one another. Why do they have to have a year? And you have to get pretty much all the legislation that's discussed like a year pass before the music stops at the end.

00:23:42:12 - 00:24:02:01

I can see there might be some virtue in having a hard stop, but it can also be rather inconvenient and give the Opposition, as we were just discussing, a little bit of power at the end of the process. So why do they do it that way? It used to be that we had Sessions which run broadly for 12 months, but of course over the last ten, 13 years we've had longer sessions, sometimes two years, sometimes ever.

00:24:02:01 - 00:24:27:17

The coalition parliament opened with a two year session. Yeah, so, so essentially the government decides and you have state opening at the start of the Session and you have, as you say, Prorogation, which is sort of the bookend at the end of the Session, which essentially is a temporary suspension of Parliament pending the start of the new Session with the next State Opening and King's speech from the Government's perspective, really, it's about, as you say, it's that sort of hard stop.

00:24:27:23 - 00:24:51:16

They want to clear the decks. It provides a sort of, if you like, a deadline for Parliament, for both chambers to get the legislation through, because if it doesn't get through, it either falls away or the government agrees to seek the motion to carry tabling to the next Session. And from the government's perspective, they want to carry over as little as possible because they want that clearing of the decks, they want that fresh start, they want a new legislative program to take through.

00:24:51:18 - 00:25:10:10

But, you know, from Parliament's perspective, it's frankly a bit inefficient because ..there's this rather undignified scramble at the end, isn't there? Yeah. And so there's a lot of rushing to get the legislation through its final stages. But also at Prorogation, the sort of suspending of Parliament at the end of the Session pending the start of the new one,

00:25:10:12 - 00:25:32:07

quite a lot of business falls away. So it's not just legislation. If you are an MP that has asked a parliamentary question and the Minister hasn't answered it, it's cleared, cleared away...it just disappears with a pop. Yes, it disappears. And you then have to table the question again. Select committee inquiries: they carry over but they're paused. Committees can't meet in public session during the Prorogation period.

00:25:32:13 - 00:26:04:11

And of course we've had a Prorogation shortly after Summer recess, Conference recess, and now Propagation. So Parliament actually hasn't sat for that many days since July. Yes, we've had a sort of staccato period where they've sat for a couple of weeks, then away for a few weeks and then back again for a few weeks and then you know, here we are. I suppose maybe the origin of this is back in the days of yesteryear when people would travel into Parliament for a few months to pass a few laws as an MP, then travel back to their hometowns, you know, get on a donkey and run up muddy tracks or a return to the shires, whatever.

00:26:04:17 - 00:26:24:01

And so it made sense to have a rule that, you know, you had to sort of finish what you started before you went away. And so that was the origin of this whole system. But there's no particular reason, it seems to me, to have essentially a sort of Middle Ages constraint when you're in the 21st century. Do other Parliaments actually do this?

00:26:24:03 - 00:26:41:24

No, it's pretty, pretty rare. I mean, if you look at the devolved parliaments, for example, in Scotland, Wales, you know, Scotland doesn't have these sessions. It has an opening ceremony at the start of the Parliament after an election, but it doesn't have these these annual Sessions - legislation can carry on through from year to year.

00:26:42:01 - 00:27:07:05

There are some advantages I can see from the Government's perspective. But really I just think, you know, one of the things that Governments also like is it's not just about the legislative program and the Session approach itself, but it's also having that big State Opening, the King's Speech at the start of of each Session, which they like. They get to make these big pronouncements about their legislative program.

00:27:07:07 - 00:27:34:06

And there is value in those occasions where you get the three constituent parts of Parliament together: the Monarchy, Parliament and Government in the same place. I think it was the journalist and essayist, Walter Bagehot who said - he wrote the great work on the English Constitution - who said it's the bringing together at State Opening of the dignified, the Monarchy, the dignified parts of our Constitution with the efficient parts of our constitution in Parliament.

00:27:34:08 - 00:28:01:02

But frankly, these days, I think we've got - look at that ceremony and that parade and look at the State Opening and the King and Queen on the thrones and so on, the Peers sat in ermine - and I think there's a bit too much dignity and not nearly enough efficiency. I go back and forth on this a bit because, ludicrously I quite enjoy the dressing up, I quite enjoy the sense of history that it gives MPs. I think it's good for their souls

0:28:01:02 - 00:28:26:04

when an MP goes, for example, into the Chamber of the Commons and they walk between the statues of Churchill and Lloyd George, the two great war leaders of the 20th century. And you're thinking this is a serious place. If you relocated Parliament to an industrial unit off the M25 and the whole place was done up like a Crown Court somewhere with a bit of wood paneling and the odd coat of arms. You don't have to go that far, that's a great extreme. I think that would be ridiculous.

00:28:26:04 - 00:28:47:19

I mean, I'm torn by this because I quite enjoy the sense of history. I quite enjoy a bit of pageantry. It plays to some atavistic part of my soul. But I also find myself worrying if you if you go through the Palace of Westminster and you look at all the decor and the murals and the symbolism of the place, what you're seeing...it doesn't represent modern Britain.

00:28:47:19 - 00:29:16:11

Well, yeah, What you're seeing is a Victorian romantic conception of medieval monarchy. It's like being trapped inside of the illustrations to classic children's stories by C.S. Lewis. You might as well be in Narnia. It's a conception of government that is way, way, way out of date now. It's 19th century romanticism about the Middle Ages raised up into the shell for a Parliament in the 21st century.

00:29:16:13 - 00:29:37:07

And I just wonder if the vibes are wrong. Yes, I mean, ironically the Parliament was built after the Great Fire of 1834, built largely under the direction in terms of the decoration, the internal decoration, by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria at the time. So there are very strong resonances of that Victorian era.

00:29:37:13 - 00:30:04:00

But ironically she was the monarch that very rarely participated in these great occasions because after he died she effectively went into widow's mourning and didn't emerge. And, you know, State Opening as we know it, this grand ceremony really takes off under her son, who wants to be more visible, you know, wants the pageantry and the ceremony because he wants to assert the monarchy is back after the period of mourning under Queen Victoria.

00:30:04:04 - 00:30:28:23

But I would scrap a lot of it. If we have to have it, let's have it once at the start of the Parliament. But I really don't see why we have to have this rigmarole every Session. I'd scrap sessions. But the House of Lords hates it, absolutely hates it when any given newspaper story about the House of Lords is illustrated by pictures of Peers in ermine robes in the State Opening rather than sort of somber people in suits debating through the night.

00:30:28:23 - 00:30:46:22

But they do it, every year they do that. Yeah. But the public assume looking on that that's how they dress for normal business in the legislature. It's not. That's what they do once, once a year. The rest of it, they're in normal dress like the rest of us. Up to a point

00:30:46:23 - 00:31:10:08

fair enough, Lord Copper. But I do tend to think that if you do dress like that and it's an arresting image and newspapers and television are all about using arresting images, then I'm afraid it's a fair cop. Yeah, but if if the image you're getting is a false one about the nature of your work and who you are and what you do, I just think that's, you know, it's not not in Parliament's interest, not in the House of Lords' interest to have it.

00:31:10:09 - 00:31:31:17

But if Parliament is annually a place where Silver Stick in Waiting and Rouge Dragon Pursuivant and all these people, in sort of Alice in Wonderland playing card costumes, parade about and if it's the whole sort of imagined panoply of medieval monarchy on display, it's very hard to dispel that impression. That's the big image of Parliament that people see.

00:31:31:19 - 00:31:51:23

That's just what's there. Yeah, well, hence my point that we should do it once a Parliament, not every, not every Session, you know reduce the power of it. And one interesting thing is that everybody assumes that we've always been good at this. One of the things people say is that Britain, particularly friends from America, will say Britain's fantastic at this pageantry, the ceremony,

00:31:51:23 - 00:32:10:17

you know, you do it so well, you're the best in the world. Well, we didn't always used to be good at it because reading back through the history of some of this ceremony, I mean, you know, there's a cracking example, in 1937, where the current king's grandfather, George VI for his State Opening, they got the timings mixed up.

00:32:10:17 - 00:32:34:05

Apparently the MPs turned up in the Lords before the Monarch was ready. How they all must have laughed. And in 1901 this occasion with the new king after Queen Victoria, he was doing State Opening, there was lots of pageantry and ceremony. The MP were so desperate to see it, there was a stampede and they got, they got crushed in the rush and they had to have an inquiry after it, a joint committee of Parliament to look at it.

00:32:34:05 - 00:33:00:18

But, just to take back my role as Scrooge of Westminster...'Bah Humbug'...the other element is cost. How much does this cost? And you know, it may, in the grand scheme of things in the government budget, be very small in comparison to other things. But actually in 2021, which was a dress down State Opening because the Queen wasn't wearing the Imperial State Crown and all the robes and so on.

00:33:00:20 - 00:33:22:00

I mean that cost £137,000 and that was just the Common's share of the cost. So as I understand it, the House of Commons share's the costs 60% and 40% is paid by the House of Lords. That does not include the cost of Westminster City Council. It doesn't include the cost of the Metropolitan Police security operation, which is huge. It doesn't include the military parades.

00:33:22:00 - 00:33:47:02

Yeah, nor the Palace's own costs. So, you know, you think this adds up. Some years it's been half a million plus for the Commons and Lords costs with all those additional organisation's costs on top. So it's not an insignificant issue. And you know, when you're cutting money elsewhere and you're looking at priorities, is this the thing that we need to do every year in a Parliament or actually once a Parliament, would that suffice?

00:33:47:03 - 00:34:06:16

I'm in favor of once a Parliament. That sounds like quite an interesting suggestion for them to take on board when the economies are starting to be considered after the next election. Watch this space.

Well, we've popped over to the House of Lords to talk to Philip Norton, Lord Norton of Louth professor of government at the University of Hull.

00:34:06:22 - 00:34:25:14

He's just written a new book about one of the more mysterious and opaque institutions in Parliament, the 1922 Committee of the Conservative Party. Now, Philip, first of all, the 1922 Committee is a bit like the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither Holy, Roman nor an Empire. The 1922 Committee wasn't founded in 1922, and it's not actually a Committee.

00:34:25:14 - 00:34:48:22

So what is it? That's a very good question, because it's the closest we've got to the parliamentary Conservative Party. But it isn't the parliamentary Conservative Party because it doesn't include all Conservative MPs. It automatically excludes the Leader, whether in Government or Opposition. In Government, it excludes the Leader and Ministers. So essentially Conservative private members, which is the official name of the Committee.

00:34:48:22 - 00:35:10:01

Wow. And what does it actually do? We know of it because of the role it plays in leadership elections of the Conservative Party. But of course, that's a sporadic function, whereas on a more pervasive basis it acts as a sounding board for members. It's a way of Conservative backbenchers getting involved. It acts as a platform for them to put their views over.

00:35:10:05 - 00:35:33:07

It's also a sounding board for the party leader and ministers to hear the views of backbenchers because you can hear them in a private meeting and have a discourse that you would not have publicly. It's a way of backbenchers themselves scrutinising what their leadership is doing, what ministers are doing, where particular policies may be causing a concern. So raising that. It's also a way of keeping track of the conduct of ministers,

00:35:33:07 - 00:36:06:13

it's not just that policies, but obviously some scandal might arise and that causes criticism at a meeting of the 22 committee, which for some ministers is fatal. They go as a result. So particularly under the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, you saw quite a number of ministers go: the Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, Leon Brittain the Trade and Industry Secretary, David Mellor, the Culture Secretary among others. There were several others went as well because they'd clearly lost the confidence of Conservative backbenchers.

00:36:06:15 - 00:36:28:18

So this would have been, delving back into ancient conservative history, Lord Carrington after the Falklands War, people felt that as Foreign Secretary, he had dropped the ball and had to - to mix my metaphors furiously - sort of carry the can for that one. Leon Brittain I imagine is the Westland affair, the weird intricate party maneuverings and cabinet maneuverings around the helicopter contract. And David Mellor

00:36:28:18 - 00:36:51:07

it was the scandals around his personal life that finished him off in the John Major era. Yes, and there are others as well. You may remember Edwina Currie and the Salmonella scandal and the way she handled that which caused problems. So in some cases it was the '22 almost getting ahead of the Prime Minister because John Major said well, he would have asked for Dave Mellor's resignation, but the '22 had got in there first and decided it's time for him to go.

00:36:51:07 - 00:37:16:00

And as Gyles Brandreth put it, the Chairman of the '22, Sir Marcus Fox, phoned David Mellor and gave him the black spot. Basically he was out. Parliament is two chambers - we are here in the House of Lords. You're a Conservative Peer. Do you attend? Can Conservative peers attend as well as MPs. We can, Conservative Peers can attend. So meetings of the 1922 Committee are not actually confined to members of the '22.

00:37:16:02 - 00:37:40:24

You can have others invited to attend. So since 2010, Ministers have been invited to attend, so they may attend. They're not officially members. Since the late sixties, Conservative Peers have been able to attend, so occasionally you will get some Ministers. So particularly if its the Prime Minister addressing the '22 you get a full turnout of not just backbenchers but Ministers, quite a few Peers; normal meetings, hardly any Ministers.

00:37:41:04 - 00:38:01:18

And I'm the only, probably the only regular attender from the Lords. But yes, one can attend. And you keep notes of what's said - you've been going for 25 years. I've been attending since I became a Peer. So yes, 25 years, and I've kept contemporaneous notes which are somewhat fuller than the minutes, which over time have become more sparse.

00:38:01:20 - 00:38:32:22

They've never been that full, but they're getting even more succinct. So going back historically, looking at it, since it was founded in '23 to find out what goes on, the minutes if you like are a starting point. It's then looking at diaries, memoirs, occasionally media coverage, really, to find out things like the mood of the meetings. All the minutes will tell you is who spoke, how many people attended, and it depends who the Secretary was as to how well rounded the figures are. And when there are, for example, really big meetings when the fate of the Prime Minister is on the line

00:38:32:22 - 00:38:50:01

there'll be journalists outside who can hear the cheers and the banging of desks or non-banking of desks, I suppose? Absolutely. And that's quite a key point, actually, not just what's said, but how many are attending. That's a way for the party leadership, the whips, to assess what's going on. It's not just what's said, but how important is this to the party.

00:38:50:01 - 00:39:20:13

They're all crowding in there. What's the mood? And of course, as you say, the corridor on occasions like that is crammed with journalists. It can be quite difficult getting into the room, whereas other weeks there's just one lone journalist sat out there. The key thing that the '22 does is oversee, as you say, the election of Conservative leaders and you almost wonder if its members have been on some kind of productivity bonus in recent years because there have been so many leadership elections and so much change and so much destabilisation.

00:39:20:15 - 00:39:44:10

How much of that is down to the current rules for electing the Conservative leader where the MPs filter candidates and then the membership votes on them? Yes, the rules have varied over time and the current rules are problematic. So the '22 acquired the power to elect the leader in 1965. Before then, the Conservative Party had this process of 'emergence'...the 'magic circle'.

00:39:44:13 - 00:40:18:01

Yes, it was a magic circle. It was not, as some people claimed, the men in gray suits visiting the leader and saying 'your time is up'. It never happened. So they introduced the rules and so the MPs became important. They were the ones who were determining who the Leader was. The next big change was in 1975 because then the rules were changed so the '22 could decide who the leader wasn't in the sense of removing the leader. There was provision for annual election of the leader so the leader could be challenged and of course was. Margaret Thatcher for instance? Well, Edward Heath was the first.

00:40:18:01 - 00:40:38:24

That's why the rules were introduced to get rid of him. So Margaret Thatcher was elected under the new rules, but then she was also got rid of under those rules eventually in 1990. But then the next big change was 1998, when the parliamentary party was reduced to such small numbers and it was agreed the party membership would have the ultimate say.

00:40:39:01 - 00:41:00:16

So the '22 committee narrows it down to two candidates, and then it's up to the party membership to choose which of those two. But there is an inherent problem because it's done by eliminating ballot. So, if there's more than three candidates you have eliminating ballots. Fine, when you've got three candidates and the top two go through to the membership.

00:41:00:18 - 00:41:31:07

So you could come second in that final ballot, with a very small minority of the votes, as happened with Ian Duncan Smith. He got about a third of the votes. Ken Clark came top with about 56. Duncan Smith got 51 and Michael Portillo 50, so just one vote difference. But that's what put Duncan Smith through. The membership then voted for Ian Duncan Smith, largely because he wasn't Ken Clark.

00:41:31:09 - 00:41:56:12

So he became Conservative Party leader with the support of one third of the MPs. So you can see why it's not necessarily the most stable of positions. It was exactly the same with Liz Truss because she got 32% of the vote in that final ballot just easing out Penny Mordaunt So you may remember that when Theresa May became leader, it was going to be a contest between her and Andrea Leadsom.

00:41:56:12 - 00:42:19:07

Now Andrea Leadsom withdrew from the contest ostensibly because of an interview she gave to the Times about Theresa May being childless. But she was already at that stage contemplating withdrawing because she realised she didn't have the support of the parliamentary party. She was conscious of the fact that in that final ballot, Theresa May got an absolute majority of MPs.

00:42:19:09 - 00:42:41:01

Do you think in a parliamentary democracy it's compatible for the membership of parties to choose the leader? So you talked about the rules of the Conservative Party, but it's also true in the Labour Party they've opened the leadership up to the membership. Part of the problem is that actually membership of political parties is much smaller these days than it was, you know, 30, 40, 50 years ago.

00:42:41:03 - 00:43:00:14

So the selectorate, if you like, who are choosing the leader is much smaller and less reflective of the country than it would have been. Absolutely. I think it's a fair point. Go back to the early 1950s. You know, the Conservative Party, largest political party, had three or four million members. And since then, the membership has shrunk quite markedly.

00:43:00:18 - 00:43:26:22

And yet you're giving that body the power to select the party leader and of course if you're in government the person becomes Prime Minister. And so, yes, there's always been a constitutional objection because the Prime Minister is Prime Minister because they rest on the confidence of the House of Commons. So you rely on the majority of MPs to sustain you, which in government means de facto your own supporters, your own MPs.

00:43:26:24 - 00:43:46:16

And so if you take that away from them, it's problematic because the person being chosen is not someone who can demonstrate whether they carry the confidence of the House of Commons. The problem then of course, if you think, well, the present situation is unsatisfactory, if you want to change it, how do you get from here to there?

00:43:46:16 - 00:44:09:20

How do you tell the party members, sorry, you can't have that power. Would you mind voting to give it up? Are we looking at some kind of post-election smackdown on this issue, especially if the Conservatives are out of government after the next election, which is not entirely improbable at the moment. Would we see perhaps an attempt in fact, a power grab by the parliamentary party to say we will choose the leader in future?

00:44:09:22 - 00:44:32:10

What would happen then? It would certainly give them the leverage to do that because various schemes have been devised already where you don't quite exclude the party membership, you give them a role, but you leave it ultimately to MPs. But they've not yet come up with a satisfactory formula. But a big election loss might act as a big incentive to actually revisit and change the rules.

00:44:32:12 - 00:44:59:07

I suppose a key player in all this is the current chairman, because it is chairman of the 1992 committee, Sir Graham Brady, who's also been its longest serving Chair, He's been the longest serving and he's seen off more Conservative Prime Minister's than has the electors. And for the first time I think he's come out and said it should revert to MPs selecting the leader. Graham Brady is a household name because he's kept his silence and he receives the letters.

00:44:59:07 - 00:45:25:21

What is that process? What are the letters he's getting and why? A vote of confidence in the Leader can be triggered if 15% of Conservavtive MPs write to the Chairman of the 1922 committee calling for such a vote. So Sir Graham is the now the recipient of any letters. He keeps a count, I think verifies to make sure the person who claims to have written, the MP has actually written it.

00:45:25:21 - 00:45:42:19

It is a bit of a plotters charter this system, isn't it? And if you read the extracts of the Nadine Dorries book at the moment about the removal of Boris Johnson, you know, you kind of think what a gift this is to shadowy cabals to have a system like this. Absolutely, because that's one of the problems with the process it is, of course, it's all secret.

00:45:42:20 - 00:46:03:16

You don't know who has written because they don't, you don't know unless they announce it, and then of course you don't know whether they're being honest anyway. So you don't know who actually put in the letters. So, yes, I mean, any member can do it free in the knowledge they are not going to be held to account for having done so. So a more open process might actually tamp down the kind of endemic plotting?

00:46:03:18 - 00:46:36:24

Yes. If you had the equivalent of what we used to have in the 19th century with elections, which was open ballot, so you'd list who the electors were and how they voted. What a refreshing idea. Philip Norton, thanks so much for joining us on Parliament Matters. My pleasure.

Okay. So that's all for most for this episode of Parliament Matters, make sure you subscribe to the podcast so you get the next episode, do share your thoughts by reviewing it on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

00:46:37:01 - 00:47:13:11

And if you've got any questions you'd like us to talk about in our special Urgent Questions episodes, go to hansardsociety.org.uk/pm. You can put your questions there or you can follow us across social media @Hansard Society. Thanks for joining us. See you soon.

00:47:13:17 - 00:47:25:13

Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. For more information, visit hansardsociety.org.uk/pm or find us on social media @HansardSociety.

Parliament Matters is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

Parliament Matters is supported by a grant from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a Quaker trust which engages in philanthropy and supports work on democratic accountability.

Subscribe to Parliament Matters

Use the links below to subscribe to the Hansard Society's Parliament Matters podcast on your preferred app, or search for 'Parliament Matters' on whichever podcasting service you use. If you are unable to find our podcast, please email us here.

News / Democratic decision-making in health emergencies: Learning the lessons of the Covid pandemic - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 37

This week we have a compelling conversation with human-rights barrister Adam Wagner as we delve into the findings of the Independent Commission on UK Public Health Emergency Powers. Just before the general election was called, the Commission published its final recommendations, aiming to reshape law-making in the event of a future health emergency in the UK.

31 May 2024
Read more

News / General election called: What now for Parliament? - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 36

This week, we dive into the unexpected political shake-up in Westminster, where Rishi Sunak’s decision to call a general election has thrown Parliament into turmoil. The Prime Minister’s surprising move to hold the election in early July, rather than waiting until Autumn, has sent shockwaves through the political landscape.

24 May 2024
Read more

Briefings / General election rules and regulations: what has changed?

With a general election on the horizon there has been a spate of new legislation and regulations to implement changes to the way the election will be run, with consequences for voters and electoral administrators. Parliament has not always had a role in approving these changes. This briefing sets out the core changes to the electoral process that have been implemented since the last general election in 2019, the role that Parliament has played in scrutinising and approving them, and the risks arising from these changes.

26 Apr 2024
Read more

Support / 80th Anniversary Appeal: support our work to make Parliament more effective

Faith in parliamentary democracy is waning at a critical time as we confront domestic and international challenges that are as significant as any the country has faced since the Society was founded 80 years ago.

11 May 2024
Read more

News / Democracy is in danger, warns Theresa May - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 35

In a powerful Churchill Attlee Lecture commemorating the Hansard Society's 80th anniversary, former Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a stark warning about the state of democracy. She expressed grave concerns about the waning trust in democratic institutions, particularly among young people.

17 May 2024
Read more