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?