The debate around the 55% requirment for a dissolution of Parliament is ongoing and fascinating. Since I posted on this yesterday, I've been mulling it over, but still come to the conclusion that it is a bad idea.
First, did the Conservatives not understand what they were doing? Did they consult anyone outside the negotiating room when they were presented with a proposition that – presumably – had not been anticipated? According to the Next Left blog, the Liberal Democrats had originally wanted a 60% threshold. This would have meant that the government would have needed the support of at least some MPs from outside the coalition in order to get a dissolution – limiting the LibDems’ power. What the Conservatives gave them was the worst of all worlds – low enough to give the LibDems a decisive say, but not so low as to give the Conservatives one.
Second, once the policy because a story, it has been handled astonishingly badly. At its prime, Labour would have moved swiftly to kill the story. In Opposition, this would have been dealt with by CCHQ. Henry Macrory would have been manning the phones to reassure the press that claims of a stitch up were wide of the mark.
But in government, no one seems to have taken responsibility for dealing with the story. Is this because it’s a new government, and no one is yet in authority? Political reform is supposed to be Nick Clegg’s responsibility, yet it was left to Sir George Young, Leader of the House of Commons to put out a (belated) response on ConHome. And in the meantime, the story has gone from a bit part on the blogs, to inside the newspapers, to lead story on the BBC – helpfully stirred by Jack Straw claiming it is a ‘stitch-up’, when he must know – at least if he’s read his son’s analysis – that this harms, not helps the Tories.
Or is it because in a coalition government, there is a temptation to let a story run if it harms the other partner? Certainly, the response of the Liberal Democrats was to implicate the Conservatives. Andrew Stunnell, who had been one of the Liberal Democrat’s negotiators, claimed that the reason for the rule was that “it prevents a surprise attack on the Conservatives by everybody else: it is as simple as that".
But it doesn’t prevent a surprise attack on the Conservatives, who have only 47 per cent of MPs and who can anyway be thrown out on a motion of confidence. The new rule means that an early election can be called by the coalition parties together (who have 57 per cent of seats between them) but not by the Conservatives alone – even if they can get the few extra votes they need to get over the 50 per cent threshold.
Did Stunnell not understand the rule? Or did he understand it perfectly but figure that it was safer to blame his coalition partners? How does this bode for a new politics? Will we get similar problems between when departments headed by different parties’ MPs clash? Why was no one from the Conservative able to comment, and poor Jeremy Hunt left to flounder on an issue he clearly had no knowledge of and no briefing on? Intricacies of constitutional reform are bread and butter to the LibDems, but now that they are part of coalition policies, Conservatives are going to have to be a lot more aware of details that have tended to pass them by – for instance, even frontbenchers tend to attack AV as ‘PR’ when the truth is that it is even less proportionate than first past the post.
Third, it highlights the need for people to link Parliament to the coalition government. In a normal, majority government, this will fall to junior ministers, PPSs and special advisers. But how will this work in a minority government? The main challenge for the coalition now will be keeping the right of the Conservatives and the left of the Liberal Democrats onside. There are a few poisoned chalices for the LibDems – nuclear for Huhne, tuition fees for Cable, spending cuts for Laws. Their special advisers will have an important task in keeping LibDem supporters sweet. But who will be responsible for liaising with Conservatives on those issues: can Chris Huhne’s Spads really try to keep Tory climate-change sceptics sweet? Will Vince’s junior ministers rush to defend him when the bankers complain? What will happen on AV, where in addition to the many Tory MPs opposed (who will be whipped to support) there are a number of Labour sceptics. Labour may have a manifesto commitment to a referendum on AV, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they find some reason to quibble with the detail of the Lib-Con legislation, whip their own members against the measures and hope to split the Conservatives on the issue. If this is left to Nick Clegg and his effective deputy Danny Alexander, won’t Labour successively pull Tory AV-sceptics away from the coalition? It’s certainly what the Tories would have done if the ‘progressive’ Lib-Lab coalition had gone ahead.
This issue threatens to curtail the coalition’s honeymoon period. Hopefully, it is just teething troubles. But if the issues it raises aren’t dealt with, it bodes ill for a full five-year coalition government (unless 55% of MPs disagree).
No one, apart from Labour politicians, is trying to cause mischief. Quite the opposite. But the issue has exposed some dysfunctionality at the core of the coalition agreement, which needs to be addressed as soon as possible.