Friday, May 14, 2010

The 'Britvic 55' Clause Must Be Jettisoned

Philip Johnston has a good go at defending the 55% issue HERE. It's the best defence I have read yet. He asserts that it is actually designed to give more power to parliament, not less.

But it still doesn't cut it. Why 55%? Why not 66% as in the Scottish Parliament? Or 57%? Or 75%? The 55% figure seems to be completely arbitrary. According to Johnston the whole thing is designed by the LibDems to stop Cameron cutting and running at a time of his choosing. He also says it prevents the LibDems from ratting on the coalition when the going gets tough. And finally he says that it doesn't alter the maths in a Vote of Confidence, and that they do not automatically lead to a general election.

They are all quite persuasive arguments. Except, they leave me unpersuaded, in part because they cut no ice with Professor Peter Hennessy. He knows more about our system of government and constitution than most, and he has been quite clear that there is something not quite right about this proposal.

“Fifty-five per cent of MPs needed for a government to lose a confidence vote – I am not sure that’s a very sensible change.

“The tradition is that one [vote] is enough and I wouldn’t tinker with that. I would leave that well alone. It looks as if you are priming the pitch, doctoring it a bit. Not good. It’s meant to be a different politics, new politics.”


I have always been an advocate of fixed term parliaments of four years (I think five years is too long). But the term 'fixed term' does not mean that an election should be prevented from being held during that term. It does mean, however, that the Prime Minister should not be able to call an election at his own whim. If Parliament votes down a government there should be an election.

Of course, if we look at an example from Germany, the 55% issue becomes rather redundant...

On October 1, 1982, Helmut Schmidt was successfully voted out of office in favor of Helmut Kohl, marking the end of the SPD-FDP coalition. The vote was not as tricky technically as the earlier one since it was clear this time that the FDP wanted to switch over to a coalition with the CDU and was already in negotiations at the time the vote happened. The FDP was no longer content with the SPD economic policy, and at the same time the SPD was internally divided over NATO stationing of nuclear missiles in Germany. Still, the vote succeeded only with a slim majority of seven votes.

To obtain a clearer majority in the Bundestag (which seemed to be in reach according to the polls), after the vote, Helmut Kohl put up a Motion of Confidence in which the new CDU-FDP coalition intentionally voted against the Chancellor that it just put into power. This trick allowed for the dissolution of the Bundestag according to Article 68 Grundgesetz (see above). Still, the action prompted for a decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court, which, in a somewhat helpless ruling, upheld the move but put up criteria for such motions in future. After all, the new Bundestag had already been elected in March 1983, yielding a strong majority for the new coalition, which eventually lasted until 1998.

As far as I can see there would be nothing to stop David Cameron calling a similar "Constructive Vote of No Confidence" in order to bring about a dissolution, whereby his own MPs would vote against their own government. I can't imagine it happening, but who would have predicted the events of the last few days?

There's been a lot of chatter over the real meaning of the 55% clause. Perhaps it is best explained by Southsea Expat on the Malcolm Redfellow blog.

55% is NOT the figure required to bring the government down. The government will lose power if it loses a vote of confidence by 50% +1.

The 55% relates to whether parliament can be dissolved before the end of the fixed term. The government and parliament are not the same thing. In a fixed term parliament, the fall of the government does not mean the end of the parliament. If an alternative grouping of MPs can command the necessary 50% +1 votes to survive a vote of confidence then they can form a new government from members of the existing parliament.

The 55% rule is not designed to keep the government in power - quite the opposite. It is designed to stop the government dissolving parliament, for reasons of electoral advantage, before the parliament reaches the end of its fixed term. At present the Prime Minister can ask the Queen to dissolve parliament at a time of his own choosing, without the need to obtain the approval of parliament or even of his own Cabinet. Under the proposed new system he could not do so and would have to get a 55% majority in parliament. It is thus a transfer of power from one person - the Prime Minister - to the whole of parliament. As such it is MORE democratic, not less.

I see the logic, but I don't agree. Coming up with an arbitrary percentage is not more democratic, it is less. I want a stable government, but I don't want a government that makes rules designed to keep it in office against all parliamentary precedent. What those who are in favour of this proposal have yet to answer is this. If the government is voted down in a normal confidence vote and the PM then calls an election, would that decision then be voted on in the House of Commons and be subjected to the 55% rule?

To me, as I said on Twitter, the 55% proposal is undemocratic, unfair and should be shelved. 50% plus 1 has been an established way of determining victory and defeat over the years and I see no reason to change.

I hope the coalition partners see sense.

UPDATE: Sir George Young defends the 55% proposal on ConHome HERE. He does well in justifying the principle, but not the figure. Why? Because it wouldn’t stop a future Conservative government with a working majority – 33 seats or more – from dissolving after four years or sooner.

UPDATE: This is from the BBC News website...

A Downing Street spokeswoman said the old rule would still apply to no confidence votes - but should a government be defeated, it would not automatically trigger an election, a 55% vote would be required to dissolve parliament.

Doesn't that prove the point I tried to make above?

72 comments:

A said...

From the BBC News site:

But former Lib Dem MP David Howarth, a legal academic who drew up the original Lib Dem plans for a fixed-term parliament, told the BBC the vote of confidence and dissolution of Parliament were "entirely different things" and said Mr Straw was "totally confused".

In other countries with fixed term parliaments, if a government lost a vote of confidence the parties would have to try to work out a new government within the fixed term, he said.

He said critics had got "entirely the wrong end of the stick" adding: "This dissolution vote, the 55% for a dissolution, is not the same as, for a vote of confidence."

Boo said...

55% rule may be clunky, but there needs to be something to prevent the PM telling his party to give him a disolution of parliment.
If sure the 600 odd people on the green pew could find a away.

Alan said...

It all seems terribly poorly thought through.

As you say, you can win a vote of no confidence with 50%+1, after which the government resigns. Traditionally, the PM would then go to the palace to ask for a dissolution. Interestingly, the Queen does not have to grant it (especially soon after a recent election), and may well ask if someone else can form a government. Parliament itself has no power in the constitution to dissolve itself.

The 55% rule is trying (I think) to move to a world where one coalition of parties can fall mid way through a parliament, but a different coalition could be assembled (more like European governments).

If this is what is intended, surely the easiest way is to agree a revised protocol with the Palace. Leave it still in the discretion of the Queen whether to grant a dissolution - if there is no stable alternative government - or send for an alternative PM. I would far rather trust the judgement of the apolitical monarch (especially one as wise as our current one) than try to write something like this into laws - the parties will just find ways of getting round them, as the German example shows.

There is a real benefit in having a constitutional monarch, as the monarch can apply the "common sense" test that cannot be written into laws.

James said...

There are two types of election. Those of necessity and those of convenience.

When a Government loses a confidence vote then it asks the Queen to dissolve Parliament because it can demonstrably no longer command a majority. That's an election of necessity (as is the term ending due to time).

The 55% comes into play when a PM wants an election of convenience against the wishes of his coalition partner and the Opposition.

I think it's quite an easy distinction and am surprised by the fuss over it.

ollie said...

I agree with you Iain (despite your atrocious grammar and spelling).

Whatever its merits, it simply does not pass the smell test - and it's already making BBC headline news.

Good will is in very short supply for politicians at the moment - and this could erase it in record time.

I do hope Cameron can listen as well as he talks.

Nick Thornsby said...

"If the government is voted down in a normal confidence vote and the PM then calls an election, would that decision then be voted on in the House of Commons and be subjected to the 55% rule?"

If fixed-term Parliaments are introduced, the PM loses the power to call an election. There should be two ways that an election can come about early:

1) If a certain percentage of the House of Commons (e.g. 55%) vote to dissolve Parliament.

2) If the Government loses a confidence motion and a replacement government cannot be formed within an already-specified time period.

What this change would mean is that a successful vote of no confidence won't automatically lead to an election (though it is likely to). It really isn't that dramatic a change, and if you agree with fixed-term Parliaments you really have to have an arrangement like this.

I would argue that the percentage needed to dissolve Parliament should be higher, but it is always going to be arbitrary.

magnus24 said...

Iain, Iain, Iain. How many more people must I see misunderstand this, even Peter Hennessy hasn't got it right, although I suspect that is more to do with whatever question he was asked by a journalist. I bet some journalist went to him and said "What do you think of the proposal that means a vote of 55% would be needed for no confidence?" Ignoring the fact the proposal states dissolution of parliament.

It is impossible to legislate that a vote of confidence requires more than 50%+1 because it would be a fundamental mathematical absurdity.

The 55% figure is not arbitrary, it was chosen to bind these two parties together in this particular parliament.

To the Tories benefit it prevents the combined oppositions and LDs voting for an election.

To the Lib Dems benefit it prevents Cameron from calling an election.

Thus they are tied together, there really is nothing more suspicious about it than that, and if a subsequent parliament doesn't like it they can change it. Heck, even a simple majority vote of this parliament could repeal its own law, but they would look fecking stupid.

Peter said...

Southsea Expat has actually answered your question already in the extact you've included in your post. If the proposal is as Southsea Expat understands it...

The government gets voted down. The PM then CANNOT call an election. He no longer has the power to do so. If he wants to do so he would have to get 55% support from the House of Commons. If he is unable to get that support he will be forced to resign (after all, he's lost a vote of confidence) and someone else, who can command the support of the Commons, will take over. It does raise the possibility of a standoff where no-one can command 50%+1 votes in the Commons but nor is there 55% support for an election. What happens in that situation would need to be defined.

I have to say I am unclear whether the proposal is to raise the bar for a vote of confidence (as Peter Hennessy thinks) or to transfer power from the PM to the Commons (as Southsea Expat thinks). I hope Southsea Expat is right as that is something which I would be in favour of.

Scott @ loveandgarbage said...

The problem is that Professor Hennessy and others are conflating two different things: the confidence vote (on the government) and the dissolution vote (to force an election). In Scotland, the former can lead to an election if - after a short time (28 days) no new government can be formed. The latter requires a 2/3 majority and prevents parties manipulating the system to their advantage.

If you have a 50% plus one rule for dissolution then you negate the whole point of fixed term palriaments because a governing party with a majority can force an election at a time of its choosing (to maximise electoral advantage). A higher threshold for forced dissolution is a necessary consequence of fixed term parliaments.

However, the confidence vote will remain at 50% plus one (contrrary to the position expressed by Prof Hennessy), and can force a change of government. This could result from a minor party changing horse mid-term; or , for example, a dodgy PM trying to cling on after a scandal. In the latter case a confidence vote could get rid off the PM, but a tiem period would allow a new PM to be put in place.

The thing a 55% rule does not do is to keep a government in place that has lost the confidence of parliament.

The two are distinct - and must be thought of separately if you have fixed term parliaments. I tried to explain this last night in a blog post, The mysterious case of the 55% solution at http://loveandgarbage.livejournal.com/325531.html

Personally I prefer the Scottish approach with 2/3 for dissolution and a fixed time period to form a new government mid term failing which an election will be held if we are to have fixed terms - but many of the critics of 55% are really people that do not want fixed term parliaments at all. They should be open about that - and focus their criticism accordingly. An increased threshold for dissolution is a necessary consequence of fixed term parliaments.

Silent Hunter said...

I fail to see - after 13 long years of Labours repressive & authoritarian rule - that this is some sort of all out attack on our democracy.

It's what it is! A way of locking together the two ruling parties to prevent a weakness in government.

It seems that the Tories who don't like it, are the ones who are still smarting that the 'stupid electorate' didn't return them with a whopping majority as is their right as they obviously see it.

Well you need to wake up and smell the coffee guys! . . . this is the type of politics we have been crying out for in this country . . . 'concensus' instead of the pointless partisan 'confrontation' for the sake of it.

Either go with the flow or start your own party.

Either way - give it a chance to see where we go with it, as it clearly isn't exclusively your turn now

James Wallis said...

I couldn't agree more. Surely it makes no sense politically to begin the life of the Coalition with such an undemocratic and controversial measure.

Mark M said...

Iain, I hope you’ve read the article on ConHome defending this as it makes some good points. If the percentage of the house required to obtain a dissolution of parliament is 50%, then it makes fixed-term parliaments rather pointless, as the PM in a party with an overall majority can whip his MPs into voting for a dissolution, essentially giving the PM the power to call an election whenever they please.

You say you’re an advocate of four-year fixed term parliaments, with the power to call elections being removed from the PM, but your proposal that 50%+1 is required to obtain a dissolution leaves a PM with a majority holding exactly that power.

Ralph Lucas said...

Iain, you state of the answer to your question and then you confuse it.

You say "I see the logic, but I don't agree. Comimg up with an arbitary per centage is not more democratic, it is less. I want a stable government, but I don't want a government that makes rules designed to keep it in office against all parliamentary precedent. What those who are in favour of this proposal have yet to answer is this. If the government is voted down in a normal confidence vote and the PM then calls an election, would that decision then be voted on in the House of Commons and be subjected to the 55% rule?"

I think that you are being confused by 55% being so close to 50% -- think of it in terms of the Scottish pattern of 66% (which is a better figure anyway).

A government which loses a confidence vote loses it on 50% plus 1. We then find ourselves in the position that we have just been in, with a Prime Minister who is sitting around waiting for a successor to be appointed, and a parliament who must set about the business of finding a successor.

The Prime Minister has no ability to call an election -- only parliament can do that, and that requires a 66 % majority in the Scottish system. If Parliament does not wish to call an election, then the outgoing government will be replaced by another government which is capable of winning a confidence vote.

Whatever the percentage, 55% or 66%, it does nothing to keep a government in office. All it does is to transfer from the Prime Minister to Parliament the decision of when an election should be called -- and I am puzzled that you should call that undemocratic.

Fausty said...

If Sir George Young and Southsea Expat are correct, then Hennessy is wrong: “Fifty-five per cent of MPs needed for a government to lose a confidence vote".

Sir George Young says it'll take 51% for a confidence vote, and 55% for a dissolution vote. I still don't like it, though.

This is such a major constitutional change, that it should be put to the electorate via a referendum. Fixed term parliaments might've been in the Lib Dem manifesto, but they only got 23% of the vote, and I don't recall their setting any dissolution percentage.

A vote of no confidence and a 51% dissolution should automatically trigger an election.

Cam's current plan will not "clean up politics". It will do just the opposite - and will be viewed negatively by the public.

Not a good start, is it?

Fausty said...

@Magnus

This 55% law would be primary legislation - not a statute.

The Sibil said...

Iain, for one normally so well versed and discerning in politics, I am amazed that you are dancing to New Labours (and the Mirror's) tune.

There is a world of difference between "disolving the government" and "disolving Parliament". The 55% lock proposed is to prevent an incumbent government disolving Parliament early at it's own whim, not to prevent the disolution of a weak government. You need to read Sir George Young's (Leader of the House) comments.

Chris Paul said...

Agree Iain. The only party who can forcibly dissolve parliament are the minority Tories .. if they decide to "dump and thump" their Lib Dem partners they will probably find the vote is something like 593-57 in favour of dissolution. In all but the most remarkable situations Cam is the only one who can bring this government down .. if that is this proposed 55% rule and fixed termism (at 5 years) passes through legal challenges.

However there is this persistent bleat that 50% plus 1 is enough still for a no confidence vote. And if so this is all a storm in a teacup and 55% is fine .. for everyone _except_ the Lib Dems!

James Mackenzie said...

Magnus24 is also right - the 55% law itself could just be overturned by Parliament. Some thoughts on it from an existing UK fixed term parliament.

Richard Manns said...

a) the 55% doesn't affect the Confidence Vote, and

b) the Opposition can always force a dissolution if the vote passes, since they just have to vote down any bill until the Government relents.

That's the whole point of a No Confidence bill; it derives its authority purely from the members, and relies upon the members then putting their votes where their mouths are. 55% or no 55%, that can't be changed.

Eric said...

The most sensible option I feel would be something like this:

1) Two-thirds supermajority of MPs required to dissolve Parliament. Same as Holyrood. This would not be a confidence vote, but would be where the Prime Minister proposes that Parliament be dissolved, and the opposition agrees.

2) If a government loses a vote of confidence, the sitting Prime Minister shall remain as a caretaker unless and until a new government can be formed, like the situation we had where Brown stayed on until the coalition was agreed.

3) If a new government cannot be formed within 28 days, Parliament is dissolved automatically without a vote required. This also happens at the Scottish Parliament.

I also think the fixed term should be of four years. Five years is just a little too long, as we have seen with Labour stretching their last term to the maximum.

Rob said...

Despite quoting someone saying government and parliament are not the same thing, you immediately make the mistake of confusing them!

"I want a stable government, but I don't want a government that makes rules designed to keep it in office against all parliamentary precedent"

This wouldn't do that. A vote of no confidence would still allow them
to be replaced.

Essentially, the only thing this rule would do is stop Cameron, by himself, calling an election when he felt like it.

Cantstandcant said...

I can only echo those baffled by the confusion on this and wondering why people (including Peter Hennessy!) cannot see the difference between a dissolution vote and a vote of no confidence.

This from UCL's Constitution Unit explains pretty well why this is a storm in a (whipped up) teacup: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/files/media/press-releases/2010/14-05-10fixed-term-parliaments.pdf

The one problem is that 55pc is TOO LOW. It should be 66.6pc like for Holyrood, to get it beyond any single party to seek to dissolve parliament. 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001 parliaments all had one party with over 55pc.

A few observations:

1. Labour conduct shameful. What about the Scotland Act of 1997/8 which contains a parallel provision? Cynical opportunism.

2. Govt defence of it dreadful. Lord Rennard on Newsnight last night couldn't justify it properly, Philip Hammond on the Daily Politics today didn't seem to know enough about it to defend it. It comes to something when the most vigorous defences of it are coming from Lord (Paul) Tyler, an ex LD MP (David Howarth), Alan Travis of the Guardian and Will Straw.

3. Even if Charlie Falconer on Newsnight was right about it not having the safeguards of the Scotland Act, all they have announced so far is a couple of lines in the coalition deal!! Who says it won't be in the legislation or the full deal.

Scan said...

I'm totally ambivalent about this but I do think it's the last thing we need after such a politically uncertain week and the amount of people (from all sides) already trying to undermine the coalition after less than 48 hours.

I'm ambivalent because I do see how it keeps these two parties from doing the dirty on one another; however, another way to asses it is to look how it could have been used by Gordon Brown if New Labour had won the election...And we all know how he would have used it.

Like a lot of laws that have been passed in the last 13 years, it's not what it's intended to do now; it's how a disreputable, underhand, and malicious government could use it in the future.

Phil said...

Funny how the very first quote from Professor Peter Hennesey - "Fifty-five per cent of MPs needed for a government to lose a confidence vote" - is wrong!

The "No confidence" vote remains 50% + 1MP, forcing government to resign and allowing formation of new government within the scope of a "fixed term" parliament. There is NOTHING to stop this new government being Labour led. The only difference is that the government can change without an election - which might sound odd but is perfectly normal for fixed term parliaments. Remember, they're still the people we elected!

"Fixed term" parliaments, which the Labour party had in their manifesto - require the % for dissolution to be high to prevent the law being made redundant by virtue of one party achieving a majority in an election - and then calling the election whenever it wants.

If anything, as you point out Iain, the % for dissolution should be higher.

Paddy Briggs said...

Fixed-term parliaments - YES. Five years NO. Four Years - Yes. All motions in the Commons are passed with 51%, lost with 49%.

Easy innit?

doublecross said...

The figure of 55% is interesting because the Cons plus the Lib Dems add up to 56% of MPs - thus the argument that it stops the government being able to dissolve Parliament before the end of the fixed term is wrong.

The Conservatives have their cake and eat it, because they can't be forced out if they split with the Lib Dems but they can call an election at any time if they stay with them.

If the 55% rule was introduced with the additional Scottish provision of automatic dissolution if no new government could be formed, then it would be a lot more palatable.

Southsea Expat said...

I am a great fan of Peter Hennessy (a gentleman and scholar) but, as others have said, he's wrong on this. In addition to Sir Malcolm Rifkind's piece on Conservative Home, see today's press release from the Constitution Unit at UCL: http://bit.ly/9Z8TJN

A simple summary of the proposed new rules is: "The opposition can get rid of the government by a 50% vote. The government cannot get rid of itself without a 55% vote."

As I said on Malcolm's blog, I am personally agnostic on the whole idea of fixed term parliaments; whether they should run for 4 or 5 years; and whether the dissolution threshold should be 55% or 66% as in Scotland and Wales. I'd like to see a debate on these issues, rather than the current hysteria generated by misunderstanding of the 55% proposal.

I believe that Jack Straw and the other Labour MPs who have started an outcry about this are well aware of the correct position. This is classic New Labour spin and misinformation which has been picked up by journalists to lazy to spend 10 minutes on Google and track down the various House of Commons briefing papers, and the last government's own Green Paper, which I mention in my full post on Malcolm's blog; or to read up on Wikipedia about how fixed term parliaments operate with a dissolution blocking mechanism (with or without royal prerogative) in many other countries.

Rob said...

"UPDATE: This is from the BBC News website...

A Downing Street spokeswoman said the old rule would still apply to no confidence votes - but should a government be defeated, it would not automatically trigger an election, a 55% vote would be required to dissolve parliament.


Doesn't that prove the point I tried to make above?"

Well, no, not really?

An election isn't automatically triggered as it is, it's up to the PM. He can just resign - as Stanley Baldwin did in 1924 for example.

This is simply an attempt to fix the term of Parliament, not government.

To put it another way, this rule is effectively saying to Parliament, "We've elected you for this fixed term, we expect you to try to form a government - not squabble and call another election at the drop of a hat. If a majority of you aren't happy with your current government arrangement, go ahead and form another one, but we don't expect you to call an election unless it's absolutely necessary."

Personally, I'm all for that.

BOF2BS said...

I think I agree with Magnus24!

A point comes to mind that currently, in the absence of any specific dissolution vote legislation, the choice of election date might reside with the Liberal Democrats to a large extent in that they could leave the coalition & decide when to side with the other opposition parties on a confidence motion.

Would a dissolution vote have to go through the Lords also? The coalition agreement indicates that prior to its wholesale reform "..... Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election." (This also requires clarification particularly with regard to the smaller parties)

Fixed term Parliaments will undoubtedly need some protection to stop blatant political abuses - I like many others are not convinced that the current 55 rule is the complete answer,

Southsea Expat said...

Well said Cantstandcant. In fairness to the government, they've only just got their bums on seats and have other priorities. As a former Cabinet Office civil servant I would say that Gus O'Donnell should have ensured that the coalition agreement was accompanied by explanatory notes on points like this.

One things for sure, if people of the intelligence of Peter Hennessy and Iain Dale are getting confused about this issue, what will happen when the government

Craig Ryan said...

Under the present rules, a successful no-confidence motion does not automatically lead to an election, that's true. But if no viable alternative government can be formed (as is very likely in this parliament and would also have been the case in 1979) parliament must be dissolved.

Under the coalition's plans what happens if the government loses a confidence motion but less than 55% of MPs vote for a dissolution? The government falls, but there's no election and (perhaps) no prospect of forming an alternative government. This is not an academic point, if the coalition breaks up, such a situation is highly likely given the arithmetic of this parliament.

There are only two ways to go with this: either the 55% rule is waived in this situation, or the rules on a confidence motion must also be changed to 55%.

In Scotland, there are provisions for a fresh election if the government is ousted in a confidence vote and no-one has been able to form a viable new administration within 28 days. But no one connected to the LibCon coalition has suggested that any such provision will apply at Westminster.

I think it's this vagueness about how the proposals will work that is worrying a lot of people.

michael said...

Instinctively, the new fixed term parliament/55% proposal looks wrong but on closer examination, with a key clarification that the right of the Commons to pass a no confidence vote in the Government with just one MP (+50%!) remains unaffected, it may not be so evil, after all.

The key is restricting the 55% (or whatever) threshold to Parliament's life, not the Government's life.

A consequence of fixed-term Parliaments is that it should be difficult (not impossible) to shorten their life. Perhaps more should be required than a simple majority vote, but how much more? That is unless we're going for "fixed term-lite" Parliaments by saying that (leaving aside the option (but also the hassle) of forcing an earlier election against the wishes of a 46% Government by repealing the legislation that sets up the new fixed term with a simple majority vote (but in both Houses!)), there should always be a simple majority vote override to the fixed term?

As others have said, this proposal takes power from the PM and gives it to the Commons to call snap elections - good when you have a majority Government (but not a 55%+ majority Government, I admit) wanting to go to the country opportunistically, but awkward when you get a minority Government defeated by an opposition that isn't united enough to form a new stable Government. Hence the virtue of this supposedly “pro-stable Government” proposal in concentrating MPs minds before they throw out a Government when they know – but will they really know at the time? - that they will probably not be able to replace it with another Government?

But why 55% and not 66%, etc.? Well if you're going to provide some override to the fixed term, you've got to start somewhere. Perhaps the threshold should be higher than 55% (but imagine the howls of protest then)? Or do we keep it to a simple majority vote and only stop minority Governments behaving opportunistically?

If the (currently unwritten) constitutional consequences of a no confidence vote are to be preserved - as they must be! - perhaps the 55% does turn out to be an ill advised (or at least unfortunately presented). Perhaps we should have the rather simpler and more straightforward objective of merely taking away from the PM the right to call (subject to HM's agreement!) a snap election, and giving that, by a simple majority vote, to the Commons?

bewick said...

Oh dear. Is this a reprise of Labour's obsession with making law "on the hoof"? That is BAD law whose imperfections take time to appreciate? I hope not because it bodes ill for the future.
No doubt the academics who came up with this plan thought long and hard but who is to know how far they were influenced by their own political or non political leanings and preferences?
The ONE factor not mentioned in all this is the electorate. Anger them and pay the price. Ye shall reap as ye sow. Long time since we had a popular revolution but who knows what might happen.
Me? Well as someone who actually studied constitution I'm still digesting the import and not yet ready to express my view.

Southsea Expat said...

Sorry for the truncated post.

I meant to say:

One things for sure, if people of the intelligence of Peter Hennessy and Iain Dale are getting confused about this issue, what will happen when the government gets round to explaining the the intricacies of AV and STV to the electorate?

John R said...

Iain

For once it looks like you've got hold of the wrong end of the stick here.

This is good for the stability of the coalition (and hence good for us all) and really isnt unusual even here in the UK let alone elesewhere in the democratic world.

Rob said...

In response to Craig: "Under the coalition's plans what happens if the government loses a confidence motion but less than 55% of MPs vote for a dissolution?"

Assuming the opposition was incapable of forming a new government (because if they were, that's what would happen)...

In what scenario could that actually happen?

You'd have to have a government that had lost confidence, and yet opposed dissolution, or, an opposition that voted everything down, and yet opposed dissolution. I would put forward that either scenario is unlikely.

We could have something similar as is - if we had a government which had lost confidence, but whose opposition was unable to form a government, and whose PM chose not to call an election. It's just not going to happen (but this does illustrate a potential advantage - with a 55% or similar rule at least some of the governing party could choose to rebel and vote for dissolution, at present, no such possibility exists, it's all down to the PM).

richard.blogger said...

Iain I agree with you, the 55% clause should be removed.

However, note something that Daniel Hannan said on WatO yesterday. He said that the new law would be voted on a simple majority and can be repealed on a simple majority, so after a vote of no-confidence if a simple majority exists they can simply amend the legislation to repeal the 55% clause. So why is the clause being added if it is so worthless?

I think that if the House decides that it cannot work then there should be an election, but the decision to dissolve parliament should not rest with the Executive.

Frankly the whole affair has been badly managed. For something like this that has constitutional implications the coalition document (which is just an agreement between two parties) should have deferred the details to a Royal Commission and a pledge to uphold their results. Anything else looks like a fix.

White Rabbit said...

Agree with many others here - as long as you understand the distinction between Government and Parliament, the mechanism is simple to understand and is not undemocratic as it is aimed at preserving this Parliament (the legislature) ie: the MP's whom we the people elected a few days ago and not Government (the executive) for the full 5 year term. Whether this continues after the next election depends on the composition of the Commons etc ie: the people expressing their will through the voting system. What is interesting is that we may have a situation where the current Government loses a vote of confidence (50% + 1), resigns, followed by a vote on dissolution which might not achieve the required 55%. That would mean a government being formed from the Commons as currently constituted so could be a minority Conservative government or the dreaded "Rainbow" government that the unelected Mandelson/Campbell/Adonis tried to put together. This could get very messy at a time when the country needs strong leadership. The markets would crucify us.

norman said...

Plnety of hot air here. Peter Hennessey is a Labour sympathiser. Scottish parliament has set 66%.

Daily Mail says David Davis is protesting about this. There goes his career in the govt. I never considered him as a reliable Tory after the nonevent of his by-election.

I am taking this easy and not exercised about this like Guardian readers and a few Tories.

Chris_sh said...

Please enough already. MPs, stop moaning and get on with sorting the mess out.

So what if your "unwritten" constitution has come to bite you on the backside - you seemed to love it enough when changing the rules for the little people - so suck it up.

If this is such an important thing and it's not really anything to do with party political games, how about the following:

1. All motions for a vote of no confidence must be sponsored by 12 MPs.

2. The motion shall be passed if 50% plus one of those eligible to vote agree with the no confidence motion. In such an event, the PM will ask the Queen to disolve parliament and call a general election.

3. If the motion fails, the 12 sponsors of such a motion will resign their seat and seek re-election so that their constituents may make a decision of their judgement.

i.e. Put up or shut up

trevorsden said...

Your comments beggar belief Mr Dale. (and I suppose those of others wittering on in the same way) - indeed if this is the level of comprehension in the country at large, then no wonder we ae in a mess.

We are going to have fixed parliaments. Now if you do not like that - fair enough. that is the argument to have.

But we are in a coalition and it seems to me that we should have safeguards for both sides of the coalition - especially since in the 'interregnum' everybody was talking about strong and stable govt.

Thus the issue is clear - in a fixed parliament environment (which does lets face it ensure long term stability) we need some standard which must be passed to ensure that there is no precocious dissolution.
I suppose if a govt loses its majority we could still get it, the govt, (having given up the ghost) as well voting for a dissolution.

There is nothing anti democratic about this - a govt can still fail to get legislation passed if it cannot get a majority. But a fixed term is a fixed term - unless an exceptional vote decides otherwise.

Quite frankly the fact that you quote Scotland shows you that there is nothing unusual about the principle.

Get real a national debt heading towards 1.4 trillion and beyond. Thats what worries me.

Calum said...

This is just dumb. One of the key tenets of our constitution is that Parliament is sovereign: whatever laws it makes, it can unmake. Once this 55% rule is in place, there's nothing to stop them passing another law reversing it whenever they - or any future government - decides.

RonLiddle said...

Not the kind of legislation that one would like to see amended every time there is a new government.

The Welsh/Scottish limits are irrelevant and they are composed of 4 main parties as oppose to 3 meaning 66% is reasonable.

93/142 will get you 66%
72 will get you 50%+1

Your 72 could come from:

SNP (47) + Lab (46)
Lab (46) + Con (16) + Lib (16)
SNP (16) + Con (16) + Lib (16)

But 2/3rds isn't arbitrary. Whereas 55% has been architected to this specific deal.

If we bend our rules to suit the possibility of coalitions, we will invite them.

alex said...

No fixxed term parliament = no coalition Iain. If you get your way then its' another general election in 2010.

richard.blogger said...

I am not sure why so many people are so keen on fixed term parliaments, haven't you learned anything from the last one?

The public should get the right to refresh the contents of the House. We saw that need when the expenses scandal blew up - it effectively hobbled anything that the House could do, the public had lost confidence in all of them. In the last parliament it was Brown who had the prerogative to ask for a dissolution, and Cameron is offering to give that up (sort of).

The question is this: if there is another scandal, on the scale of the expenses scandal, say, after 3 years, would CameronClegg continue doggedly for another two years? CameronClegg says he will. What affect will that have on the public's perception of Parliament?

CameronClegg can exchange bands if they wish in their parliamentary civil partnership, but the electorate is a third party and should not be dragged into a ménage à trois with them. Give us a mechanism to throw them out when we have tired of them. A fixed term of five years is a sentence without time off for good (or rather, the parliaments bad) behaviour.

And I am talking about parliament not government.

pol-e-tics said...

The 55% dissolution rule gives politicians the chance to cobble together an alternative coalition government if the existing coalition partnership fails. In the present Con–LibDem case, this would actually enable the LibDems to seek to join a coalition with Labour and others if the present coalition failed. (Or Conservatives might join with Labour, of course!)

All of this would take place without reference to the electorate—and would be enabled by the determination not to dissolve parliament within the timeframe of a fixed term parliament.

Consider fixed terms as the actual democratic problem and it presents the issue in a different light.

More at <a href="http://pol-e-tics.blogspot.com>Pol-e-tics</a>

Iain Dale said...

I feel as if I want to bang my head against a brick wall.

I am in favour of fixed term parliaments. I do not think the PM should have the right to call an election on a party political whim.

But Parliament should be able to vote to dissolve itself before the normal fixed term date, just as it can in Germany.

The 55% thing is wrong and has to be justified. So far no one has been able to justify it.

Scott @ loveandgarbage said...

Iain Dale wrote "But Parliament should be able to vote to dissolve itself before the normal fixed term date, just as it can in Germany"

Well, in that case what you are doing if you have a fixed term palriament where there is one party with an absolute majority - even if only of 1 - is to retain the power with the Prime Minister. he decides an election should be called. He whips his MPs. Bingo the election is called. Which negates the fixed term rule which is designed to stop the Prime Minister being able to manipulate the system for short term advantage.

p smith said...

Iain, you are right to hold your ground here.

The proposition that the 55% figure has been set to ensure that the government cannot cut and run for an election at the time of its choosing, is a flat LIE.

Currently the Tories and Libdems together have more than 55% of the vote so they can together pass a dissolution vote whenever they wish. However, were the coalition to fall apart, the entire opposition including the Libdems could not prompt a dissolution. How is it remotely democratic that the coalition can call an election when it wishes? How is that consistent with a fixed parliament in any sense?

This legislation has nothing to do with giving substance to fixed parliaments. Under this legislation, the Thatcher governments of 79, 83 and 87 and the Blair/Brown governments of 97, 01 and 05 would all have had the votes to dissolve parliament at a time of their choosing.

It is a short term back of a fag packet fix designed to suit the purposes of this coalition rather than a statement of enduring consitutional principle.

At any rate, it has successfully awoken the country from the stupour of Wednesday's orchestrated love-in and it provides a timely reminder to conservatives, liberals and leftists as to the consequences of Dave and Nick's uncompromising lust for power.

Weygand said...

As I understand it, after a vote of no confidence the Queen makes the decision whether or not to dissolve parliament - and she may refuse to do so if she believes there is the possibility of another administration being formed from the current MPs.

Thus, as things stand, a no confidence vote would just take us back to where we were a couple of days ago rather than automatically triggering a dissolution of parliament. So why the need for a change on democratic grounds?

James Cleverly said...

Iain,

If a government can do this:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/4639781.stm

It isn't really a fixed term parliament.

Rob said...

"I am in favour of fixed term parliaments. I do not think the PM should have the right to call an election on a party political whim.

But Parliament should be able to vote to dissolve itself before the normal fixed term date, just as it can in Germany."

Well, there's potentially a bit of a contradiction there. You don't want the elections called on a party political whim, but then you say Parliament should be able to dissolve itself as it can in Germany.

In Germany, similar to how things are here, if the Chancellor (PM here) loses a vote of confidence he can recommend that the President (Queen here) dissolves Parliament.

But that means the chancellor can call for a vote of confidence with the intention of being defeated, so he can call for new elections before the end of his regular term for possibly good reasons... or possibly not. This has been used controversially in Germany (e.g. in 1982).

The reason for requiring a supermajority (be it 55%, 66%, or whatever) is precisely to make it harder for Parliament to dissolve itself. In a fixed-term system, it should require exceptional circumstances to dissolve Parliament. A supermajority reflects that.

Otherwise, it's just too easy for a PM to call, be it directly or indirectly, an election for party political reasons.

Here, in particular, it's far from inconceivable that a party might have a majority by themselves, making it relatively trivial for them to call an election whenever it looked good, making a mockery out of any nominally fixed term.

(And yes, even if a supermajority was required, technically Parliament could introduce new legislation to change the requirement and dissolve Parliament that way - but that in itself would suggest exceptional circumstances).

The Grim Reaper said...

So much for predictions from Lefties everywhere that you were going to become a government apparatchik once Cameron got into power!

magnus24 said...

"The 55% thing is wrong and has to be justified. So far no one has been able to justify it."

I shall try once more.

Cameron has given up his privilege of being able to choose the date of the election, he has done so so that the Lib Dems can be sure that he will not cut and run at a time when he feels he could get a majority and they would lose seats.

The flip side of it is that he needs to be sure that the Lib Dems won't cut and run by leaving the coalition, siding with the opposition parties and voting for a dissolution.

The Lib Dems + opposition parties can only muster ~54%. So they wouldn't be able to vote for dissolution.

Tories and Lib Dems = 56%.

Therefore, for parliament to dissolve, Tories must vote in favour along with one of the other two major parties.

The proposal doesn't bind parliament and indeed under almost any other share of seats the 55% figure would be pointless.
In the future if we have a majority government the rule will likely be scrapped. If we have a different coalition then they may choose to keep the system but adjust the percentage required.

This proposal only effects this particular parliament as a means to bind the two parties together.

Jimmy said...

Against all my insticts I think the tories are getting a bad rap over this. The provision is clearly of no benefit to them but rather seems designed to allow the LibDems to jump ship and come crawling to Labour without an election.

Might be worth it just to see them try.

Ralph Lucas said...

Aah, Iain, at last I understand (at least some of) what you are on about.

You prefer the German 50% vote to preciptate an election, I prefer the Scottish 66%.

I prefer 66% because it would hold in most FPP parliaments, where 50% would hold in one in ten (on average) and seems to me only suitable for PR elections like Germany's.

If you want fixed term parliaments, surely you have to make them reasonably robust?

Paul J said...

I can't get too excited by all this.

I can see the sense in having a threshold in *this* Parliament because of the unique political situation. It does give some comfort to the Lib Dems and also gives assurance to the Tories that the Lib Dems can't gang up with Labour and the minor parties.

Surely the simplest solution is for this law to automatically expire at the end of this Parliament. Having passed this Parliament can consider this issue and fixed terms in the context of a wider constitutional settlement.

Dingdongalistic said...

"If the government is voted down in a normal confidence vote and the PM then calls an election, would that decision then be voted on in the House of Commons and be subjected to the 55% rule?"

The whole point is that the PM *doesn't* still call an election if he loses a confidence vote. Yes, he could put it to the house, but the house would have to, if unable to find a 55% margin, propose an alternative government.

What really sells or condemns this deal is whether a government can cling on without confidence or supply. If so, then this is a bad idea. If, however, there's a safety-net clause whereby if no new government has been formed within a month, an emergency election is called, valid only for the remainder of the previous term, then this bill will be a good piece of legislation which enhances the democracy of the House of Commons.

However, the threshhold should, ideally, be higher.

norman said...

I can't look at the Tory backbench grandees bleating about this. These
idiots want to oppose Cameron and here we go again the Major govt scenario enactment. Aren't these wicked men flipped homes, claimed for porticos, duckhouse etc.. They like Tebbit want to sit in opposition and rant and rant.

megablogger said...

It means that if the LibDems pull out of the coalition, there won't be be an automatic election. Instead if the government can no longer get its business through, the Queen will ask Labour if they can form a government with the LibDems (etc). If they can there won't need to be an election to ratify that new government. In effect it gives the LibDems a chance to stay in government even if they fall out with the Conservatives. (I suppose the Conservatives and Labour could in theory form a government without an election in such circumstances, but that's unlikely to happen....)

Rob said...

In reply to Dingdongalistic: "What really sells or condemns this deal is whether a government can cling on without confidence or supply."

At the moment, if a minority government lost confidence, but the opposition couldn't form an alternative government, dissolution is in the hands of the PM. To cling on, he'd have to not dissolve Parliament. It's theoretically possible I think, but realistically no PM would be insane enough to cling on to powerless power.

With a supermajority dissolution rule, it's in the hands of the House rather than the PM. Yes, the opposition may require some of the governing party to vote with them for dissolution - but how is that any worse than the opposition requiring the governing party's leader to choose dissolution? If anything it's better - a large proportion of the party would have to be insane to cling on, rather than just one individual!

Say No To 55 said...

God bless you, Iain, for being a Conservative yet speaking out against this arbitrary figure of 55% and for pointing out that you can be against it yet be for fixed term parliaments. It really is back-of-the-envelope Constitutional change.

Rich Edwards said...

This talk of majorities misses the point. The key thing is that HMG enjoys the confidence of the House. That is the basis of responsible government. This proposal would allow a government to continue without that confidence. That is unique.

I can understand that the partners in the coalition want to bind themselves together. Equally, I take your point on constructive motions of no-confidence. The most obvious solution would be to reserve the right of putting down a motion to the leader of the opposition thus:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/31377249/Draft-House-of-Commons-Fixed-Terms-Bill

Dual Citizen said...

Sorry to say this Iain but your argument is full of holes.

You provided a perfect example of how 50%+1 can be abused (West Germany), yet you dismiss the very safeguard that would prevent this abuse from happening in the UK.

I would argue that 55% is too low. It equates to a government majority of 66, so any government with that majority of higher could still fiddle a dissolution. Even Gordon Brown had a majority of 67!

Unless you have any other safeguards in mind I'd suggest that you campaign against fixed term parliaments.

And in any case, this government shouldn't force them through without a referendum.

BOF2BS said...

As Magnus 24 says it is specific measure to bind this coalition together. Any future Parliament howsoever elected would have to either change the percentage in the light of the seats held by the differing parties or dispose of it all together!

Whilst I can never see ANY situation in which the following might apply, I calculate that 15 Conservative MP's voting for a dissolution with all the opposition parties could achieve the 55%

tory boys never grow up said...

The 55% figure is not purely arbitary when you realise that the Tories have 47% of seats - it really is the lowest figure possible if you allow for rounding and the loss of few seats in byelections etc. Cameron also knows that with the present arithmetic that the odds of stable non Tory government forming are pretty minimal - especially since Labour wouldn't now want to touch the LibDems with the proverbial bargepole. The net result is the Consrrvatives in power with a coalition or as a minority goverment for 5 years - and of course he can follwo the German solution if he and Nick want to go early. A rather stronger position than if there had been a minority Tory Government under the old rules.

However if you believe in democracy it stinks to hig heaven - when was this proposal ever put to the elctrorate in either a manifesto or a refendum. It is our voting system not Dave's and it shouldn't be changed with out the elctrorate having a say.

PS can anyone remember anyone proposing 5 year fixed terms rtaher than 4 years or shorter?

westie said...

Iain, you are deliberately or, through some very misleading or uninformed comments from Prof Henessy,misunderstanding this provision. A vote of confidence will still only require a simple majority of the Commons. By definition, in this situation the government cannot command a Commons majority and cannot pass its legislation. If a party or group can command a majority then the prime minister of the day must recommend to the monarch that that another person capable of commanding that majority should form a Government or else recommend that the monarch dissolves the present Parliament and hold a general election. The Scottish solution of limiting the period following a confidence vote could be helpful, but only serves as a backstop to the constitutional position. Currently only the monarch has the power to dissolve parliament and the 55% power does not derogate from this power, it gives an additional right to the Commons provided the necessary majority can be mustered. The 55% provision therefore entrenches the Parliament and not the Government of the day, be it a coalition or a majority government.

This is no constitutional outrage. It is a great shame that posters keep crying shame before undertaking a little research. It isn't hard - you need to read some books on constitutional law, rather than a quick google search and spouting off. Remember, just because it isn't on the internet, doesn't mean it isn't correct. Well done Blair and Brown for dumbing down the populace to such an extent. Iain, I expected better of you.

Gareth said...

"Coming up with an arbitrary percentage is not more democratic, it is less."

So you'd be against the mooted 10% reduction in the size of the Commons then? Because that's entirely arbitrary, and if one were to listen to Gove (which I try my very best to avoid), that's all about democracy. Don't make me laugh.

RonLiddle said...

tory boys never grow up -

"Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up,"

HarveyR said...

Of course there is a debate to be had about how easy it should be for Parliament to be dissolved. Once you decide that it should be by a vote on a motion rather than the prerogative of the Prime Minister you could, reasonably say that it should be as easy as obtain a simple majority of 50% + 1... or you could make it really hard by requiring unanimity. Setting the bar anywhere between 50% + 1 and 100% is, as you say choosing an arbitrary value. But to argue against any particular value, simply because it is arbitrary, and for no other reason, seems odd.

You could also argue that choosing the length of the fixed term to be 5, rather than 4, 3 or 6 years is just as arbitrary and therefore, by your argument, simply wrong, and the whole idea of having a fixed term should be ditched because there is no non-arbitrary length of fixed term.

There are plenty of other changes which imply arbitrary choices ahead. Not least the commitment to have fewer and equally sized constituencies. If it is to be fewer than 650, at some point a number will have to be decided upon. When it is, will you be descending upon it to point out how arbitrary it is and that therefore the whole idea needs to be jettisoned?

Phil said...

Iain, to say you believe in fixed term parliaments then state the dissolution should be at a simple majority shows that actually you don't believe in fixed term parliaments!

Any government with a majority could call the election when it wants in a fixed term parliament... does that sound logical to you?

neil craig said...

I am opposed to this too. It is deeply illiberal & typical of the LDs. It would be consistent with a presidential system where the supreme power doesn't lie with Parliament, which is why it may work in Scotland.

I simply do not see how government could continue if the government had no possibility of a majority in Parliament - it is a contradiction in terms. This should be epposed on cross party lines (I suspect some LDs will look at it in the light of morning & not like it) since it is more important than mere party advantage.