Saturday, May 15, 2010

Further Thoughts on the 'Britvic' Clause

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.

18 comments:

Andrew said...

Iain, learn to add up. 47% + 57% = 104% so that can't be right.

The Conservatives do have 47%, which means that everyone else put together is just 53%. So no dissolution without some rebels.

Andrew said...

Sorry scratch that, I am a fool that needs to read properly what is written before passing judgement.

ollie said...

Iain, you are right to point out the numerous teething problems of coalition govt - which we are not used to here. It may take quite a few years to get it gelling properly.

If it works - and like you say, everyone wants it to work (apart from the media and labour who have vested interests) - it could be a template for every future government.

We are in unknown waters here - and the learning curve will be steep and painful.

STFC Executive said...

Face it - it is the worst piece of political rigging since Hitler's Enabling Act in 1936.

Tim Hedges said...

I'm not quite sure I have understood this. Surely the 5 year fixed term is what stops the Tories closing down the coalition and the 55% is what stops the LibDems doing that.

When they drop the 55%, as they will have to, the Tories will drop the fixed term parliament otherwise the Libdems could close it down and the Tories couldn't.

richard.blogger said...

Iain, oddly I agree with you.

The LibDems have always known themselves to be the party of coalition, so they would have gone into the election with two manifestos: Lib-Con and Lib-Lab (I think they always thought the former was far more likely, Clegg is a closet Tory). The Conservatives went into the election with just one manifesto since they hold to their Conservative principles.

The LibDems had already weighed up the pros and cons of their manifestos, they knew the issues that would be a problem, they knew which policies they could dump and which they could persuade their new suitor to agree: they were prepared.

The Cons, always assuming that 2010 was going to be their 97 (and a year ago, it would have been), were not prepared for the final result. They were at a disadvantage during the negotiations. Indeed, Nick Clegg's calculated tactic of talking to Brown caused such panic in the Blue team that they gave up more than they wanted to. No one in the Red team thought that Clegg would veer left, nor think that the "rainbow coalition" was even viable, but the Blue team still dazed from the election result were spooked.

Cynic said...

I think you are wrong - more cock up than connivance. A huge number of things are having to be done very quickly and there will inevitably be some mistakes. Indeed, the mature way to deal with them is to say, @whoops ...lets sort this out'. Many journalists - cynical hacks to the core - are desperate to find (or provoke) a "crack in the coalition" story.

The rest of us punters think there are more important things to get excited about - or fall out over

Ruth@VS said...

I agree with @Cynic - I just can't summon up a lot of interest in this story. I've read about it and think it was probably badly handled, but can't quite see it being the end of democracy as we know it. Actually, all the points made on all sides seem to have some sense in them, so is it a story for political nerds only?

Honestly, I'm more concerned about the economy and surviving this recession as a small business owner.

Paul Halsall said...

I have to say that, although no fan of the coalition, I don't regard this bit as especially bad.

Still, you may be right that this by itself is a badly thought out policy. 55% hardly seems a figure of constitutional dreamers, so it must represent some short term agenda.

It's much worse that the LDs have had the Tories give up one of their GOOD Pledges - not to cut the NHS.

Alan Douglas said...

"But it doesn’t prevent a surprise attack on the Conservatives, who have only 47 per cent of MPs."

Which means they DON'T have 53 %, so SOME Tories would have to join to make that 55 % to vote the coalition out.

Or have I like Andrew missed something ?

Alan Douglas

Mrs Rigby said...

Fine Iain, let them follow the Scottish model and make it 66% - it was fine for Labour, fine for the SNP etc., so there can't possibly be any reason to object.

Sean Haffey said...

It's a policy which needs removing. It causes concern and is drawing headlines out of all proportion to its real importance.

Patrick said...

I agree with Mrs Rigby (May 15, 2010 5:49 PM)

Make it 66% .

Labour & Co seem to think this was okay for Scotland.

trevorsden said...

We are not talking about removing a government - we are talking about calling an election.

No amount of percentages could prevent the LDs from withdrawing from the coalition of course (and the terms a precisely as generous as they are to prevent that) but if they do withdraw then its up to the conservatives to continue with a minority govt.
They can do so with the assurance that 55% will be needed to dissolve parliament. Being a minority will create all the usual problems of a minority of course. But only circumstances will dictate hope the public might react to one party breaking the coalition.

I struggle to see what you are getting worked up about Mr Dale - but quite frankly I would take a breather because you seem to be making a few odd calls since election day.

Dual Citizen said...

Howdy folks from the good ol' US of A, where at least our founding fathers understood what the words FIXED and TERM actually mean!

They put together a fixed-term system that has no early elections, triggered by either side. Seems to have worked quite well for the last 234 years.

You should try it!

Paul Halsall said...

@Dual Citizen.

It only works well with a presidential system.

I don't think most Brits want a presidential system.

HarveyR said...

Iain, you say having thought about it you still come to the conclusion that it is a bad idea.

I'm still not clear about what you mean by "it".

Do you mean the proposal for a fixed 5 year Parliament?

Do you mean removing the right of the PM, alone, to ask the Queen to agree to a dissolution?

Do you mean a including a clause which would allow Parliament to trigger a dissolution by the Commons voting on a motion?

Or do you just mean the suggested figure of 55%?

Everyone is juggling the numbers to see how either of the parties in the present coalition could hold a gun to each other's head by threatening triggering a dissolution. That can be entertaining for conspiracy theorists but a Parliament is only really fixed in term if there is a protection against a governing party (or combination of parties) being able to call an election whenever it is convenient for them.

I put it to you that if any party had actually won an overall majority and were proposing a change to fixed term Parliaments, the idea of including a clause whereby a dissolution could be triggered simply by a vote of just 50% + 1, people would be falling over themselves to point out that it would be a change in name only and crying "Fix!!"

A real change to fixed term Parliaments requires that neither the PM nor any one party retains a right to spring an election on us just for its own electoral advantage. So if there is to be a clause allowing for a vote on a dissolution, it really does need to by by some kind of super-majority that no one party could be expected to wield and that 55% is probably too *low* a hurdle.

Either that or, be honest and forget about having fixed terms.

I will wait and see the Bill when it is finally drafted to see what is *actually* proposed before I'll decide whether it's reasonable or not.

Local Government runs on fixed terms and that seems to stagger on without having the right to call elections every 5 minutes, so I can't believe it would be so difficult to do something similar for Westminster.

Tend to agree that this has been handled badly in terms of presentation. It would have helped if the press were bright enough not to confuse a dissolution with a vote of confidence, but also if Downing St had been quicker out of the blocks to explain exactly what was being proposed.

Lloyd B said...

If the 55% rule can be overturned by a simple 50%+1 majority, then that renders the 55% rule effectively meaningless. If, however, this rule cannot be overturned by a simple majority, then we are entering very dangerous waters.