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Daily View: Parliament dissolution rules change

Clare Spencer | 11:02 UK time, Friday, 14 May 2010

[Introduction updated 17 May]: Commentators discuss the coalition government's move to introduce a new mechanism for the dissolution of Parliament. The plans would require 55% of MPs to vote for dissolution. Notwithstanding how some of the commentators below may have interpreted the proposal, the threshold for a vote of confidence is not being changed and will remain at 50% of MPs plus one - so the extracts below should be read with that in mind.

Labour MP Paul Flynn says the Liberal Democrats should be ashamed:

"Today a tiny sharp thought pierced the sensitive brains of conscientious LibDems. They have signed up to the illiberal power-hugging cheat of 55% majority for a confidence vote. There is no argument for this except party advantage to the Tories. It's a shameless, blatant denial of democracy.
"When they sober up, the LibDems morphing into Con'Dems will remember their past indignation at alleged Labour sins on democracy and freedoms during the past thirteen years. The Con-Dems have proved their mettle.
"They have slashed a basic tenet of democracy within thirteen hours."

In the Law blog Head of Legal Carl Gardner argues against the move:

"This proposed legislation, though, seems to aim at preventing an election even if 54% of MPs want one. That is wrong in principle, it's undemocratic, and it must be opposed.
"What it would mean is that if the coalition broke down, the Con-LibDem administration would end too. Of course. But there wouldn't and couldn't be an election. Instead, a minority Conservative government would be able to carry on - its 306 seats giving it a blocking minority of 47% - and as long as it kept discipline it could rule without the confidence of Parliament. Bear in mind that this could happen the moment this new legislation comes into force, which is presumably intended to be soon, so that government could go on, effectively behind Parliamentary barricades, for months or for several years. Even for this to be theoretically possible is, I'm afraid, outrageous and unconscionable. Whatever government we have, it must be accountable to Parliament."

Iain Martin says in the Wall Street Journal that he thinks the 55% rule is a "very dangerous constitutional innovation":

"It has slightly sinister sounding connotations, as though a ratchet effect might operate. If it is being suggested that 55% of votes is needed to express no confidence in a government this year (all in the interests of strong government, you understand) then why not 60% or higher at some point in the future?
"It is rather stretching things to try and present this piece of proposed gerrymandering as 'Political Reform.' It is actually designed to ensure that even a walk -out of the whole Lib Dem parliamentary group couldn't actually bring down this government. This would weaken Parliament and strengthen the hand of the executive considerably - when it is only weeks since both parties were talking of doing the opposite."

Lee Rotherham at Conservative Home says the change would betray "the most basic and fundamental principles of how a democracy works":

"A majority of MPs could vote down a government, and yet it could keep on trundling in power.
"I am not sure where this idea came from; it has rather a tinge from the days of the sacked European Commission.
"Having pondered the revolutionary change last night and pored over Erskine May this morning, the reality seems even more striking. I could find in its many pages no actual definition of what constitutes a majority in Parliament. The centuries-old presumption is that it is a majority of one. Ink is expended explaining Speaker Addington's decision of 1796, and three decisions by Speaker Denison between 1860 and 1870, where votes were tied and the Speaker's vote (and his deputy's) counted. But beyond that, the definition of a majority is so obvious it requires no comment or definition.
"That is the measure of the revolution at hand."

A senior lecturer in the school of law at Aberdeen University, Scott Styles is reported in the Times as pointing out a few problems with the plans:

"Firstly, Cameron is renouncing his right as PM to dissolve Parliament at a time of his choosing. Politically this seems unwise but legally it is unproblematic: in effect, the government is surrendering a right.
"The second and much more fundamental problem is the raising of the bar of a no-confidence vote in the government to 55% rather than simple majority of those MPs present and voting. This is a major and fundamental alteration in our constitution and what is being changed is not a right of the PM but a power of the Commons."

The constitutional and government expert from Queen Mary University Peter Hennessy says on the BBC Today Programme that the idea is "iffy":

"You can't actually create hurdles that make it easier for you to last in power. It just looks all wrong."

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Supporting the 55% rule, Alan Travis says in the Guardian that it shouldn't scare voters:

"But it is worth asking if the controversial 55% rule set out in the Lib-Con coalition agreement needed to force an early general election really is a conspiracy against the opposition parties or a legitimate stabiliser for an infant coalition taking its first steps.
"The first thing to clear up is that there does not appear to be any change in the rules surrounding a vote of no confidence. A government could still fall on a simple majority of MPs. The text of the coalition agreement appears clear. It only refers to providing a vote for the dissolution of parliament, that is, the calling of a general election."

Will Straw asks in Left Foot Forward whether 55% too low:

"All this begs the question of whether 55 per cent is too low a threshold for a dissolution resolution. If the point of a fixed term parliament is that the governing party cannot dissolve parliament to suit itself, perhaps the threshold should be two-thirds as in both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly."

Iain Roberts argues in Lib Dem Voice that the reality is different to the critics' description:

"So this proposal makes no difference to motions of no confidence and gives MPs power they've never had before to dissolve parliament, moving power from the Executive to the Legislature. Whilst the percentage might be a little low, the basic principle is both sound and democratic."

Former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd discusses the proposal with presenter Andrew Neil on the BBC's Straight Talk [forthcoming; transmission details below]:

Andrew Neil: You say you hope the coalition lasts for five years. How long do you think it will last?
Douglas Hurd: Well, I'm not 100% in favour of fixed Parliaments, because I think you can have circs, we may get into circs where the existing Parliament is just not working.
AN: You just need a change?
DH: Well, you need a change, and somebody has to produce that change. Now, there's a proposal now that it would be 55%, something of that kind, a substantial majority of the House of Commons has to vote for change. Well, maybe that's adequate, I'm not quite sure.
AN: But doesn't that leave you a little bit uneasy, this requirement that you can only bring a five-year Parliament to an end if you get a 55% majority in a vote of no confidence?
DH: Yes, it makes me slightly uneasy. I'm prepared to live with it because there is that 55% rule, I'm prepared to live with it, but, you know, I'm a Tory really, and Tories believe in a strong prime minister and a strong prime minister is somebody who can actually say at the end of an evening, of a bloody evening, 'well, that's the way you want it, right, I'm off to the Palace.'
AN: It continues, this changing of our constitution with not too much debate or forethought, Mr Blair did a lot of that - remember the argument over the Lord Chancellor? - and now we're saying, here was something that everybody understands, that when a government loses a motion of no confidence in the Commons, it is finished; either there's an election or it has to, the Queen invites someone else to form a government and here is something that both of us were brought up with, suddenly gets changed in a back-room deal.
DH: It suddenly gets changed, but of course it won't be a back-room deal; it will be thoroughly debated and mulled over, not least in the House to which I belong. The House of Lords has become a real expert in interpreting the constitution and many governments haven't liked that.
AN: And may not get through?
DH: May get changed. I mean, there will be a debate, there will be a discussion, there ought to be a discussion exactly as you say.

Douglas Hurd's appearance on Straight Talk with Andrew Neil is on the BBC News Channel at the following times:
Saturday 15 May 0130, 0430 and 2330 BST
Sunday 16 May 0130, 1530 and 2230 BST
Tuesday 18 May 0330 BST

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