Wednesday, 12 May 2010

55% is nothing to worry about

There's a lot of fuss right now on Twitter about the agreement to only allow a dissolution vote if 55% of MPs vote to do so. With the Tories likely to hold over 47% of the MPs it becomes impossible for parliament to vote for a dissolution of parliament on the fly.

Does this mean we have no choice but to have a Cameron government for 5 years? Not at all. No confidence votes will still stand, including on issues such as voting down a budget. If 50%+1 MPs vote against the government on this then the result is either the resignation of government or the dissolution of parliament. Even assuming that (quite unlikely as it is) Cameron will force it so that you cannot dissolve parliament this way, it still means he'll have to resign as Prime Minister and the Queen will have to ask someone else to form a government.

The end game of the above scenario is, surely, the Tories then agreeing to a dissolution vote or face the ignominy of being the party that dragged the country through instability for the sake of spite. Again, this assumes a no confidence vote wouldn't, as it currently does, practically equate to an election being called.

The 55% is a safety barrier, it stops the Lib Dems from getting their AV system, cutting ties and working with other parties to call and election and profit from it. Given it is the Lib Dems that are most likely to break away from a coalition it is a practical step to ensure that government is only compromised in true issues of no confidence, to maintain the integrity of the idea of a fixed term parliament.

Edit2: It also, as I should have said, stops the current largest party from forcing an election at an opportune time under a fixed parliament too, the point of fixed term parliaments being to try to keep governance running until it can no longer do so. Some have suggested that this should be a referendum issue too. I should be clear that I am personally not sold on fixed term parliaments, but they are pointless without this kind of threshold rule.

Edit3: Some feel this is all undemocratic and without precedent. Scotland operates fixed term parliaments, and their threshold for dissolution is 66%, higher than 55%. The reason for this is because fixed term parliaments are intended to keep on going, if a coalition fails the first course of action should NOT, under a fixed term parliament, be an should be giving another coalition or minority government the chance to rule. They also have a 28 day release, which means if no-one is able to gain power to govern, to protect against the sort of thing I state above about keeping a parliament crippled, an election is automatically called. I'd fully expect that to be the case for the UK as well, though we have to be calm and wait for the full details.

Edit: For more on confidence motions, this parliamentary resource seems quite good.


  1. The change is that a 55% "enhanced majority" will be required on a confidence vote to trigger a dissolution. A lesser majority would allow the PM to remain in place.

  2. I don't follow ... on your reading if a no-confidence vote passes, the government will fall, but parliament will remain in session, and a new government can form from the ashes.

    So: Entirely unelected governments -- this from the people who only last week were incensed at the thought of an unelected Prime Minister?

    Or if, like some, you think Westminster should follow the Holyrood model and have automatic dissolution 28 days later if no govt forms ... what's the point? You're only adding 28 days of padding to the current no-confidence mechanism.

    Perhaps it is just a safety barrier to keep the LibDems in check. In that case, this is a far-reaching un-mandated re-write of the constitution for nothing more than incredibly short-term gain. Is that acceptable?

    (This ignores the very lunatic implications of the current wording: viz, Cameron can no longer call an election on his own, but a future majority party still could. And Cameron could stay in office with no confidence *or* supply).

  3. Changing our consitution to accomodate this particular situation is a folly,surely a Prime Minister that does not have the confidence of the majority of the commons should no longer be Prime Minister. This does not mean there has to be an election, it just means somone else has to form a government, whether it be from the main opposition or another member from the existing ruling party.

  4. Think you are entirely right. People are getting worked about this based I think on a misunderstanding. The coalition agreement talks about 55pc for dissolution, not a no confidence vote - which can still happen. Its presumably also to put a brake on the German practice - three times in the last 40 years - of a Govt deliberately engineering a no confidence vote to force an election ahead of time.

  5. Stephen: No, it's 55% on a dissolution vote, no confidence votes would...if we take the one line of text literally, still be there as 50%+1

    bonaldi: "unelected governments" is such a tosh phrase. We have elected MPs that form parties, and they have the right to organise in to government as they see fit.

    I'm purely saying here that the 55% is not "unaccountable", it worst...pointless.

    Adam: That's precisely how it would work with a 55% dissolution threshold would work. Don't worry :)

  6. The power of Parliament to force a dissolution is fundamental to the balance of power between parliament and the executive. I think it unwise to tinker with that.

    Furthermore I think it is extremely suspect that one of the first acts of this government will be to legislate to make this government harder to remove.

    It might act as useful 'safety barrier' for this coalition but it is simply not on for this government to affect serious constitutional chance for it's own convenience.

    It's worrying that this 'new' politics has a move of such breathtaking cynicism at it;s very beginning.

  7. It's not for it's own convenience, it is part and parcel of fixed term parliaments, you have to stop coalition governments from, when they fail, springing a potentially unnecessary election.

  8. It's obvious why Cameron wants to do this, though ironic that a Conservative would drive a coach and horses through our constitution, but how in heaven's name did the Liberal Democrats swallow it? Are they so power hungry? Suffering from sleep deprivation? It starts to look as though the "New Politics" spiel in the Rose Arden was actually in Newspeak.

  9. I think the misleading interpretation may be the fault of a BBC editor, because the 'At A Glance' guide to the coalition agreement (at states: "55% of MPs required to bring government down in confidence vote". As you have pointed out here, this is NOT at all what the text of the coalition agreement actually states.

  10. The power to dissolve parliament is actually a power of the Queen's so more constitutional head-scratching there.

    I would be much happier if there were a sunset clause so that this only applied to this coalition parliament (of 5 years). I don't like this 55% marker in the context of a majority government.

  11. Don't the points 'they're doing it to enable minority government in the event the coalition fails' and 'this motion won't affect votes of confidence' contradict each other?

  12. Gault: No. You have to look at it from the perspective of fixed term parliaments, instead of the system we currently have. You could have a minority government carry on serving under this rule even if the coalition is no confidenced. Of course it's more likely that the minority government will get no confidenced as well...but that's only due to the hung parliament situation, and isn't guaranteed to occur.

    charlsebarry: A dissolution vote would be a vote to go to the queen and ask for parliament to be dissolved. She *could* refuse, but that would essentially be so divisive that it just wouldn't be done. The Queen rubber stamps everything, she's ceremonial more than powerful.

    Nicol: Parliaments that are fixed have to operate differently, they have to be given a chance to run. I'm afraid you're seeing conspiracy where it doesn't exist :/

  13. Worth pointing out for those seeing a Conservative conspiracy that both Labour and the Lib Dems had fixed term parliaments in their manifestos and the Cons didn't.


    "Cameron can no longer call an election on his own, but a future majority party still could."

    Indeed, which is why you need a highish limit, to stop a majority party engineering its own downfall at a time electorally convenient for it. The one being proposed here is pretty low. It's 75% in Scotland and Wales. That *does* worry me (just clearly not in the direction you expect!)

  14. I think Lee is right on this one. I've posted my own response to the various comments and tweets about the 55% rule here:

  15. Lee, on your point about the Scottish parliament, it's woth pointing out that the system is much more proportional than Westminster so the 66%,55% comparison is not really valid.

    The choice of 55% does seem to be remarkably convenient given the current situation.

  16. Andreas - the 55% threshold does indeed appear to be a bit low. In practice, though, it'll probably work. Government backbenchers in marginals would probably be disinclined to support a motion for dissolution; it's rare for an incumbent Government to gain seats in an election, and turkeys don't vote for Christmas (and aren't likely to obey the Whips either, if they're about to lose their seats anyway). So whilst on paper it would seem that a Government with a majority of around 64 or so could unilaterally call an early election, in practice they'd need a rather larger majority to be sure of carrying that vote.

    As far as it being "convenient" is concerned, it may well be that this specific figure of 55% was arrived at to ensure that neither coalition partner could "cut and run" and force an early election in their own interests - though a dissolution vote could still be carried if there was unanimous or near-unanimous agreement amongst all sitting coalition MPs (as Lib-Con has a majority of 77). That I don't know. But given that the notion of fixed-term Parliaments is still quite new to many of us, perhaps a relatively low threshold to begin with isn't such a bad thing.

  17. Are you happy with a situation where PM who cannot command a majority continues to govern, potentially for years? This might be more palatable in countries where the executive has power over and beyond his ability to command a majority in the legislature.

    I agree with fixed term parliaments (dissolving parliament being a parliamentary rather than prerogative power can only strengthen the legislature) and that there needs to be a mechanism through which a motion of no confidence can trigger a resignation but not a dissolution. But I'm still very wary about requiring a supermajority.

    I would much prefer a situation in which a no confidence vote to trigger a resignation and then a second vote on dissolution where a simple majority is required. Actually, I would prefer a dissolution to require a simple majority in both houses, where the upper house is fully election via proportionate means.

  18. Ben: The supermajority is to stop the people in power from calling elections at opportune times, not vice versa.

    Your final paragraph is exactly how it'd work, aside from the higher threshold. This higher threshold would allow the Tories to try and form another government, but the reality is that the Tories if they could not form such a government would then vote for dissolution.

    It's been crazy to see so many speculating about the possibility of a PM carrying on for years (for a start you can still no confidence a minority PM, so he can't carry on for years), I'd like to see any example of a party so intent on it's own destruction that it would drag the country in to economic and social collapse as we remain without leadership for years? Is that really the best argument people have?

    And even that is without considering the safety clause of a timeout before an election must be called as happens under the Scottish system, that would be highly likely to be included in any fixed term system the UK parliament uses.

    Quick point of note, under non-fixed terms a majority PM could be no-confidenced and not dissolve parliament. He could spitefully sit there and MPs would have no power to do anything about it short of a revolt that requires the Queen to move herself in to the political fray (which has it's own set of problems). At least with this legislation MPs have the option of forcing the Queen to dissolve parliament themselves.

    Funnily enough no majority party has ever spitefully sat without calling an election, in the absolute minority of times that a no confidence has been isn't done under non-fixed terms and it wouldn't be done under fixed terms either.

    But if they did this sort of legislation would put us in a better position to deal with it than we currently can.

  19. I stand by the point that the figure of 55% is for the benefit of this coalition. Indeed, speaking on Newsnight not minutes ago, Lord Rennard admitted as much. The figure of 55% was agreed for the mutual assurance of both coalition partners. I think it problematic that a fundamental change to the constitution should be arranged to the benefit the current administration.

    Of course, I should probably wait to see more details of the proposed mechanism. However, I do not accept that the supermajority is necessary for fixed-term parliaments. In this I echo Sunder's thoughts here:

    And finally, there's a whole other constitutional difficulty here as regards parliamentary supremacy and retrenchment. That is, if a law was passed requiring a supermajority for dissolution, could that law not be repealed by a simple majority?

  20. If the coalition benefits it is indirectly. The coalition is over 50% of MPs so they are pretty well protected as it is unless it starts to fail.

    " However, I do not accept that the supermajority is necessary for fixed-term parliaments. "

    To protect fixed term parliaments you have to try and stop elections from taking place. You can do this by ensuring there are never sackings of government without a replacement like Germany, or by using super-majorities to lessen the chances of a no confidence turning to dissolution.

    Anything less means you might as well not have a fixed parliament, the maths doesn't add up. If you believe the moment a government is no confidenced that they should call an election you are not a supporter of fixed terms, you're only a supporter (at best) of requiring parliament to ratify a dissolution rather than just the PM. This in itself is pointless in any majority government, and without the same constitutional safeties that you would require in a fixed term parliament similarly dangerous under a hung parliament.

    It's not a case of "not accepting", it's not a matter of opinion (as much of an arsehole that might make me sound), if you "accept" fixed term parliaments you have to accept structures that seek to avoid untimely elections wherever possible. This isn't more undemocratic, it's just different for a different purpose.

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  22. I think we both agree that in a system of fixed term parliaments there must be:

    a) some mechanism for unscheduled dissolution - such as the calling of extraordinary general elections in Scotland; and

    b) that for fixed term parliaments to have any meaning there must be barriers to dissolving parliament that do not currently exist.

    Where we disagree is the nature of that barrier.

    You will note that in Scotland there is a route to dissolution without the need for a supermajority. A First Minister that loses the confidence of the house is obliged to resign. Then, if no First Minister is appointed - because no party commands a majority - an extraordinary general election is held.

    So in Scotland we have a situation where Parliament can be dissolved either when a large majority of the Parliament wish it or if a motion of no confidence is passed and there is no viable government.

    The Scottish system seems a reasonable compromise between fixed term parliaments and the desire that there be a government with a working majority. I don't think I have much objection to it.

  23. My personal opinion is that the Scottish system is too flexible, while the German too tied in.

    If I had to choose between the two, I'd probably lean towards the German system, after consideration...though my stance is still against fixed term parliaments.


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