Much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the idea of the ConDem government installing a rule that means the government can survive a no-confidence vote in the Commons with only 45% support.
My maths may be a little awry, due to vagaries of the Commons (and the presently vacant seat), but it works out something like this:
- Conservative MPs: 306
- Lib Dem MPs: 57
- -> Coalition MPs: 363
- Labour MPs: 258
- Others: 28
- -> Non Coalition MPs: 286
Now, for 55% to support a dissolution of Parliament requires around 358 MPs.
Therefore, 72 coalition MPs need to support the motion for it to be successful. That’s all the LibDems plus 15 Tories. If the Tories stick together, the government cannot fall this way.
If only 50%+1 were required – 326 votes, only 40 coalition MPs need be involved – about 70% of Lib Dems, in other words, would be enough to force an election. (Note that a VoNC with 50%+1 would still be enough to bring a government down, forcing attempts to reconstruct a governing arrangement.)
So, in the context of this coalition, a 55% threshold sort of makes sense. I can see why it was proposed: to encourage a stable parliament, assuaging the fears of the markets.
I’ll explore more in a mo, but first, the gainsayers:
Introducing an ‘enhanced majority’ for confidence votes in the Commons may be politically expedient, but it’s not democratic.
Conservatives make up 47% of our MPs. This change in the law would make it impossible for Parliament to hold the government to account through a confidence vote.
The plan is to scrap the centuries-old convention that when any government loses the confidence of the Commons, it must resign and parliament must be dissolved. Instead, 55 per cent of the Commons must support a no-confidence motion. Which means that a minority government could continue in office until the end of what we must now assume is a five-year, fixed term parliament, without the ability to legislate.
This measure would preserve in power governments that had lost the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons as large as 54 per cent. Since the first vote of no confidence brought down Lord North, on account of certain little local difficulties in the American colonies in 1782, a total of 11 Prime Ministers have been ejected from office in this way.
The most recent was James Callaghan, defeated by one vote in 1979.
So, the case against this move looks strong; almost unassailable.
If the new rules being proposed by Cameron and Clegg had applied, his rotten government could have staggered on for nearly six months more, delaying the advent of Margaret Thatcher and inflicting further damage on the economy.
Could have, perhaps. Would have? I’m firmly of the view that our last unelected Prime Minister stayed in government about 2 years (I’m being generous) longer than was good for the country or the economy.
If this nightmare scenario came to pass in this Parliament, I confidently predict that the electorate would wipe the Tories off the map, and rightly so. That’s not to say the Tories haven’t had their suicidal tendencies in the past, but they’ve paid the price before and they’d have to pay it again.
‘It’s undemocratic’ they cry. As if we had an unblemished electoral nirvana until yesterday.
A commission is being formed to address the West Lothian question. If they can resolve that, a far greater good will be done for our democracy than any damage done by this proposed move.
So, I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one, on one proviso: A sunset clause that requires this 55% piece of be voted upon at the start of each parliament. Likewise for the associated 5 year fixed term parliament. I see these as temporary measures for extraordinary times, and they should be put before the next parliament for renewal or removal.
And for what it’s worth, to hear the left bleating on about gerrymandering is just hilarious after 13 years of tampering with constituency boundaries, buying votes in the public sector and welfare sector, and relying on Scottish votes to pass English matters through the Commons.
UPDATE: Useful further commentary from Dizzy:
A number of people, following my earlier post today, have pointed out that the 55% "super majority" vote is not for confidence votes, but rather for dissolution votes within fixed-term Parliaments. The argument thus goes that because the Tories don’t have 55% of the vote they wouldn’t just be able to win a dissolution vote at a time of their own choosing.
Thus, as some have said, it’s not really that bad at all. However, if you take a closer look it might actually be worse than previously thought and, in fact, it may just be that the Lib Dems have totally conned the Tories with a ruse that boosts their power for years to come.
The quick and easy analysis was that the rule was a stitch-up by the Tories, however, perhaps it’s really a stitching-up of the Tories by the Lib Dems who are looking to future Parliaments, not this one?
As one person put it to me "this is what happens if an experienced Eurocrat negotiator sits down with a bunch of power-hungry poshboys who wrongly believe they have the upper hand."
None of which would be an issue if a sunset clause is included.
And from his commenters:
My take on it is this:
If we have fixed term parliaments, the government is no longer able to call elections at a time and place to suit themselves. Fair enough, I guess.
However, that ability transfers to the opposition, who could call votes of no-confidence in the government at strategic times to suit themsleves. Apart form the constitutional mess that could arise, it would leave a government (especially one with a small majority at best) always looking over its’ shoulder at opinion polls, and unable to make any hard, unpopular choices given the inevitable electoral fallout and then the subsequent vote of no confidence forced by the opposition.
Effectively, this rule evens outs the balance of power again when it comes to calling/forcing elections. Don’t forget also that this rule has a 66% barrier in Holyrood.
That all said, I’m not sure why we need fixed term parliaments at all.
Which makes sense. In terms of the fixed term, I think this is an appropriate temporary measure, under the current economic circumstances. Again with the sunset clause.
UPDATE: Alex Massie has an excellent post about this. To take an extract:
Unless I am hopelessly confused about all this, the provision has nothing to do with confidence votes. The government would still be brought down by losing a confidence motion on a simple majority. But, now that we have fixed-term parliaments, this wouln’t necessarily trigger a general election. That would only happen if it proved impossible to form a new government and, then, 55% of MPs voted in favour of dissolution and fresh elections.
Iain Roberts has a good piece making the case for why this provision may be a little less irksome than many presume. He points out, correctly, that constitutionally-speaking new elections are not in fact triggered by the government losing a confidence vote. The Queen retains the power to ask someone else to try and form a government.
I assume that this new 55% rule is also designed to make it harder for the sitting government to engineer a dissolution of parliament at a time that suits them and, consequently, make a nonsense of the switch to fixed-term parliaments.
It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that such provisions are common where there are a) fixed-terms and b) often coalition or minority goverments.
Read the whole thing here.
UPDATE: More salient points from Alan Travis in CiF here.