Labour activists are up in arms – apparently the Lib Dems and Conservatives are going to change the law so the government can only be brought down if 55% of MPs vote against it.
They’ve got a point – if anyone really was proposing that, it would be an outrage.
But they aren’t. The proposal is quite different.
To quote from the coalition agreement:
legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.
Let’s quickly look at the current situation.
A government falls if it loses a vote of no-confidence – i.e. if a majority vote against it. That does not currently trigger a General Election. The Queen may invite the leader of another party to attempt to form a government. If no stable government seems possible, the prime minister will ask the Queen to dissolve parliament and we have an election.
Today, MPs have no power to dissolve parliament. None at all. The Queen has the power, under advice from the Prime Minister. That’s why Prime Ministers are able to pick and choose when to hold an election, and why they try to pick a date when they’re more likely to win.
First thing to note – the new proposal has absolutely nothing to do with motions of no confidence. The current situation – that a government can fall without triggering a general election – remains exactly the same.
Second thing to note – it increases the power of parliament and reduces the power of the Prime Minister. Right now, the PM can choose to dissolve parliament for party advantage (and frequently does). With this change, MPs get the power for the first time.
There is an interesting question, though. Is 55% high enough?
If you have fixed term parliaments, dissolving parliament early should be a last resort, when all else has failed. If parliament can be dissolved on a simple majority vote, a PM can just engineer it and we’re back where we started with the ruling party picking the date of the election.
I would argue that we should only dissolve parliament early when MPs on all sides agree its the right thing for the country. A 55% barrier is rather low for that. Plenty of governments have over 55% of the MPs and so could engineer it.
A higher barrier, say two thirds of MPs, would make it almost impossible for that to happen.
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.
Update: see also my follow-up article.