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Government unlikely to fall - yet

Brian Taylor | 12:47 UK time, Monday, 24 August 2009

Could Alex Salmond's government fall? His administration is facing undeniably its toughest challenge since winning power two years ago.

But could it fall? Could it be brought down over the decision to return the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to Libya?

Numerically, yes, it could. Politically, strategically, it looks unlikely. At this stage.

Firstly, today.

Kenny MacAskill will make a statement to MSPs explaining his decision. Parliament has been recalled from recess explicitly to hear that statement.

There will be no vote: purely the ministerial statement followed by questions.

Votes, however, will almost certainly follow next week when parliament returns in full session.

Then, it is anticipated that opposition parties will table a motion condemning the decision which, they say, was wrong in itself and has had adverse consequences for Scotland.

But that would not be a confidence motion.

You can say it would be "tantamount" to a confidence motion. But parliamentary rules don't recognise "tantamount."

Should he lose that vote, it would of course be open to Mr MacAskill to "consider his position."

That, however, is the permanent state which attends ministerial office.

Here are the rules. Under the Standing Orders of parliament, a motion of no confidence can be tabled at any point.

That could cover the government as a whole or an individual minister.

(Actually, the rules refer to "the Executive". Standing Orders, it would seem, are still reflecting the wording of the Scotland Act rather than the chosen terminology of Team Salmond.)

For such a motion to be debated, it must be signed by 25 MSPs.

For such a motion to succeed, it must be carried by a simple majority of those voting in the chamber.

That is the case with regard to either a minister or the administration as a whole.

Further, the Scotland Act 1998 - from which Holyrood derives its power - provides that no Minister or government can remain in office once losing the confidence of parliament. Resignation must follow.

If a first minister resigns, then a successor must be chosen from among the ranks of parliament within 28 days.

Otherwise, parliament must be dissolved and fresh popular elections held.

Parliament can choose to dissolve itself. But that requires a two thirds majority.

Those, then, are the rules. Here comes the politics.

Opposition parties are out to condemn the Megrahi decision - and the man who made it, Kenny MacAskill.

They want to extend that condemnation to Alex Salmond and his government more generally.

However, they want to focus for now upon the decision, upon the issue.

They do not want at this stage to prioritise the issue of confidence or otherwise in Mr MacAskill or in the government as a whole.

Why not? Two reasons.

They believe that Scottish and global opinion would not look kindly upon an act which might be interpreted as moving over-swiftly into the partisan sphere.

Secondly, they recognise that the very fact of tabling a confidence motion instantly changes the nature, tone and terms of the debate.

It tends to rally support within the governing party.

So, for now, expect opposition parties to focus upon their opposition to the decision per se.

Expect Kenny MacAskill to focus upon defending his decision.

For now.


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