No confidence in 55 percent

House of Lords chamber, looking toward throne
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The Government’s self-interested plan to gut the traditional motion of no confidence might gain the status of memorable first flap of the new administration – with a constitutional principle in the role of Bernie Ecclestone.

The proposal, linked to that for fixed-term parliaments, is that votes of no confidence should no longer automatically compel a Prime Minister to dissolve Parliament*. Instead, a vote of 55% of the Commons would be needed to authorise a dissolution request.

There has been a lot of disquiet over this proposal, both from Conservatives such as Iain Dale, Labour bloggers, and politicians. A campaign “No to 55” has been launched, but what are the pros and cons? In one way, this is a necessary part of having a fixed-term Parliament. If you’re serious about having a fixed term, you can’t allow the term to be curtailed too easily, or Governments would use it to their advantage and we’d be back where we started. The US Constitution does not permit Congress to be dissolved early, and UK local councils, even with very difficult electoral balances, have to sit out their four year term come what may. The Scottish Parliament, though a creation of the Westminster version and not sovereign in its own right, cannot be dissolved on a vote of no confidence, but needs a two-thirds majority to petition for dissolution.

At Council level, though, this had led to problems in areas with close balance. Council cabinets can lose control of their budgets, or fail to get major decisions passed. In the case of total breakdown at council level, there is always the Secretary of State to take over, and there are legal provisions for officers to run councils where political arrangements have collapsed. I am not sure that the Queen or the civil service are quite ready to run the affairs of the whole country if the Government is outvoted on supply but need not resign.

The fundamental issue is that neither Congress, the Scottish Parliament or councils are fully-fledged Parliaments – they are not sovereign bodies, they are not the fount of democratic legitimacy. To my knowledge, no other Parliamentary systems require supermajorities to dissolve, even though many have fixed terms, and early elections are unusual.

There is also a fortunate coincidence, to say the least, that the 55% figure, though less than the usual 60% or two thirds supermajority, is enough to ensure that the Conservatives would find it easier to govern on their own without being forced to call a new general election, if the opposition parties are unable or unwilling to unite against them.* Might Nick Clegg be facing his marching orders a few days after the Bill’s Royal Assent?

Finally, it’s worth taking a moment to remember the campaigns by both parties against Labour’s cavalier attitude to civil liberties, and to compare it with this administration’s apparently cavalier attitude to bedrock constitutional principles.

I don’t think constitutional conventions should never be changed – the House of Lords needs replacing, for instance – but it is extraordinary that the Conservatives (ironic name) do not even acknowledge that this is a big decision, not the sort of thing one can tuck away in a Constitutional Reform Act.

In fact, given their other policies, we might have a referendum on whether to accept majority voting in the EU Agriculture Council on sugar beet market support payments, and not one on whether an essential principle of Parliamentary government is abandoned for legal and political advantage. I wonder what constitutional reform tsar and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg would have thought of that two weeks ago.

* corrected to clarify the distinction between confidence and dissolution votes. Confidence votes may not also need a 55% majority, the coalition agreement is silent, but the link between confidence and dissolution is definitely ending.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.