Labour’s first PM gained power after a no confidence vote with no dissolution of parliament

Labour politicians and activists have spent the last few days merrily confusing motions of no confidence and dissolution, as I discussed on Thursday.

Many have stuck to the  easily disproven claim that the coalition government proposes a 55% threshold for a vote of no confidence.  It doesn’t: a vote of no confidence requires 50%+1 MP now and will continue to do so.

The other line of attack has been to suggest that 50% of MPs can currently vote to dissolve parliament.

Those who’ve taken the trouble to check their facts at least don’t claim that MPs can actually vote to dissolve parliament.  That power rests with the monarch, under advice from the Prime Minister.  Rather they  claim that, since dissolution always follows a successful vote of no confidence, the change in effect removes the ability of 50% + 1 MP to force a dissolution.

So it is true?  Does a dissolution of parliament always follow a vote of no confidence?

No, it doesn’t.  And it’s perhaps something Labour activists with an eye for history might have remembered, since the first Labour Prime Minister came to power in just such a situation.

The Conservatives won the General Election of 1923, with 38% of the vote.  Labour came second with 30.7% and the Liberals came third (stop me if this is sounding at all familiar).

Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative leader, became Prime Minister but lost a vote of no-confidence.  Was there a dissolution of parliament?  No.  Instead, Ramsay Macdonald became Prime Minister of the first ever Labour administration.  He clearly hadn’t won the election, but in this country we elect a parliament, not a government.

Since then we’ve had only two successful motions of no-confidence – to oust Ramsay Macdonald and James Callaghan.  In both cases the Prime Minister chose to seek a dissolution of parliament, but it was the choice of the PM.  It would have been perfectly constitutional for them to stand down without dissolving parliament and give another party leader the chance to form a government, and they might have done if such an outcome had seemed possible.

So let’s say a vote of no confidence is passed and the Government falls.  The Prime Minister will no longer have the power to seek a dissolution of parliament, since that power will for the first time rest with MPs.

Would it still happen?  Of course it would.  If no government could be formed, why would anyone disagree?  The PM who would otherwise have dissolved parliament would surely support it, as would the opposition who’d just brought down the government.

Let’s wrap up.

Does this change allow a government to cling on if opposed by a majority of MPs?  No. Just as today, the government falls if it loses a vote of no confidence.  It’s possible that a different party might then form a government as Ramsay Macdonald did, but probably more likely that MPs from all parties would vote to dissolve parliament – something they’re unable to do at the moment.

And we shouldn’t forget that Labour were very happy to require two-thirds of MSPs to vote to dissolve the Scottish parliament, and that the whole point of the higher threshold is precisely to prevent the Prime Minister engineering a dissolution for party political benefit.

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64 Comments

  • so then it’s MP’s that get to vote on dissolving parliament – not the PM, I can sell that!

  • GEOFF COSSON 16th May '10 - 8:56am

    There’s a real opportunity for Nick Clegg to convince party members that coalition is worthwhile….and that is by pushing for Proportional Representation in local government elections in England & Wales.
    He may find that Cameron is not as much opposed as he is to PR for parliamentary elections.
    This change has already been achieved in Scotland, would not require a referendum, and would surely offer real opportunities to the Conservatives, who currently barely get a look-in in most cities. It should appeal to Cameron’s modernising approach, would appear to be popular, and would break up many Labour council monopolies.

  • Sunder Katwala 16th May '10 - 9:09am

    Iain

    I am unpersuaded, as you rather caricature and misunderstand the salient critique of the proposal, and I also think you get the history from 1924 mixed up in a crucial way for your argument.

    Though the House can still vote no confidence, but there is no clarity at all about what a vote of no confidence would now mean, in contrast to the existing convention where it is quite clear that the Prime Minister either dissolves (1979, MacDonald in 1924) or resigns (Baldwin in Jan 1924, Rosebery in 1895). Note that the two resignations saw the Leader of the Opposition called to form a government: this was the case even when the Liberals still had a Commons majority when losing a specific ‘cordite’ confidence vote in 1895.

    Perhaps you are able to clarify the following questions about what would happen in the event of a vote of no confidence if this measure was passed. (And, of course, reliance on the Scottish analogy depends on introducing a ticking clock to dissolution mechanism, and dropping the convenient proposal that the threshold was deliberately set so that the existing Coalition can trigger it, while an alternative combination could not)

    Questions of confidence for the coalition
    http://www.nextleft.org/2010/05/questions-of-confidence-for-coalition.html

    1. Would David Cameron promise that he would resign as Prime Minister if he lost a no confidence vote, and was either unable to unwilling to propose a dissolution? Or does he believe he could and should stay as Prime Minister after a no confidence vote was lost?

    2. Does David Cameron believe it would, if resigning after losing the confidence of the House, be as legitimate to recommend a party colleague in preference to the Leader of the Opposition?

    3. Does the government believe it could enjoy the right to stay in office indefinitely in a caretaker role, after a no confidence defeat, if no alternative government were agreed between parties? Or will they commit to introducing a mechanism to prevent the possibility of an indefinite “zombie government” carrying on to the end of a Parliamentary term, even where it did not have the confidence of the House?

    4. Will the government now ask the Cabinet Secretary and Speaker of the House to lead a a non-partisan process, involving Parliamentarians as well as external constitutional experts, to record the existing conventions and rules, and to set out options and guidance for how they could be incorporated in a new fixed term agreement?

    The draft guidelines should be debated and endorsed by Parliament before any draft legislation is produced or voted on over fixed election dates and, were to remain the government’s policy, the new 55% rule.Could any proponent of the ‘new politics’ seriously disagree with that as a way forward?

    ***

    And your Baldwin account seems to me to miss the main point about 1923/24. I think you get the chronology and facts wrong when you write that “The Conservatives won the General Election of 1923, with 38% of the vote. Labour came second with 30.7% and the Liberals came third (stop me if this is sounding at all familiar). Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative leader, became Prime Minister”.

    But Baldwin did not *become* Prime Minister after the December 1923 election. He “became Prime Minister” in May 1923. It was widely and correctly thought at the time and since that, despite being first in votes, the Conservatives had not “won” but had lost the election since he had sought a mandate on a specific issue of tariffs (where Bonar Law had given a manifesto commitment that the policy would not change, hence the dissolution). Baldwin llost 86 seats and his majority (stop me if this is becoming familiar). As importantly, the new House contained a clear majority against the government on the issue on which the election was explicitly called and fought, making it impossible to continue in office.

    So what Baldwin did in Jan 1924 after the Dec 1923 election was rather similar to the pre-1868 convention (dropped by Disraeli) where, after losing an election, the Prime Minister routinely stayed in office to meet the Commons and face a vote of confidence to be voted out. (This was restored by Salisbury in 1886 when he wanted to show the Liberals needed Irish votes to get in). So this would be the equivalent of Brown having gone on to a Commons confidence vote this month, before letting in Cameron as Leader of the Opposition to form a minority or coalition government. I don’t think it shows what you claim.

    Of course the Prime Minister does not dissolve the House when he has just lost the election and then the subsequent confidence vote. Baldwin was in no position to ask for a dissolution in Jan 1924 before (or after) losing the confidence vote, just as Brown was not last week. (Heath would have been denied a dissolution after his talks with Thorpe in Feb 1974, whether or not he asked for one straight away, or lost a confidence vote and asked for one).

    This Jan 1924 case has rather more in common with those 19th century post-election examples of no confidence votes than with the loss of confidence during the Parliament in the previously tenable governments of Rosebery, MacDonald or Callaghan. I don’t therefore see how it can achieve what you seem to think it does as a precedent for a defence of the proposal.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th May '10 - 9:37am

    Sunder

    “Would David Cameron promise that he would resign as Prime Minister if he lost a no confidence vote, and was either unable to unwilling to propose a dissolution? Or does he believe he could and should stay as Prime Minister after a no confidence vote was lost?”

    This has already been made clear by Sir George Young:
    The mechanism for a no confidence vote in the government is unchanged but what our proposals would do is give Parliament a new power to dissolve itself, a power currently only exercised by the Prime Minister.”
    http://conservativehome.blogs.com/platform/2010/05/sir-george-young-mp-we-want-fixed-term-for-parliament-not-governments.html

  • Many have stuck to the easily disproven claim that the coalition government proposes a 55% threshold for a vote of no confidence. It doesn’t: a vote of no confidence requires 50%+1 MP now and will continue to do so.

    No, I think you will find it is the other way round. Many Lib Dem proponents of this proposed legislation continue to claim there is confusion amongst opponents; to divert attention away from the flaws within the proposal. Even when there has been much argument made that explicitly accepts the difference, or claims that it is an artificial difference being used to justify this proposal. Indeed I would go further and say that the briefings on this and the wording used by the coalition have been designed precisely to try and cause confusion.

    And we shouldn’t forget that Labour were very happy to require two-thirds of MSPs to vote to dissolve the Scottish parliament, and that the whole point of the higher threshold is precisely to prevent the Prime Minister engineering a dissolution for party political benefit.

    A different parliament elected under proportional representation with different sets of relationships between the first minister, executive and legislature. To compare both parliaments is like comparing apples and oranges.

    That there has been misunderstanding and misrepresentation on both sides is clear, but there is much debate in the public domain on this issue that isn’t. Clinging to the view that opponents of this proposal are confused is pointless.

    I have yet to see any convincing arguments for this proposal that deal with real world politics and are not stuck in the abstract of how a parliament should work in theory. How can it be constitutional or democratic to try and fix the term of a current parliament, that was not elected on that basis?

    I asked Mark yesterday if the proposal for fixed term parliaments in the Lib Dem manifesto included fixing the term of this parliament, I’ve re-read the manifesto and can see no mention of the current parliament being fixed.

    Hague made a bold statement saying that there was going to be a ‘binding motion’ before parliament that it serve a fixed term. The constitutionality of this assertion is not clear and would certainly be open to the challenge that parliament cannot bind itself in this way. I’m sure that it would at least face a legal challenge were it to be attempted. Is this really want the coalition wants? Surely it was put together in order to bring a strong and stable government to deal with the economic situation. Why on earth would they want one of the first acts of the new parliament to be legislation that will provoke a constitutional, legal and political crisis???

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th May '10 - 10:05am

    Steve D
    “Indeed I would go further and say that the briefings on this and the wording used by the coalition have been designed precisely to try and cause confusion.”

    As I’ve said before, it’s these continual accusations of bad faith and underhand behaviour from one side that make it so difficult to have a courteous discussion about this.

  • @Niklas Smith

    No, it would not have changed peoples votes, that is true. However it depends on whether you view this legislation as an attempt to transfer powers from the PM/Monarch to parliament; or a blatant attempt to ensure a minority or coalition government enjoys the same protection from dissolution a one party majority government would have, under our current system.

    The fact is that the British electorate gave no one party an overall majority, the consequences of that verdict should be played out under existing constitutional arrangements. It is not democratic to try and enact legislation designed to try and circumvent currently possible consequences of that verdict; in order to keep either the Tory Party or the Tory-Lib coalition in power or more likely cause legislative inertia and a constitutional crisis, where no one is able to command the confidence of the House.

    We could have the absurd situation of no government being possible since there is not a government that commands confidence, but at the same time no dissolution because there is not a 55% vote for it. Since parliament had already agreed to bind itself to a five year term, how is that impasse resolved? Does the coalition bunker down in Downing Street; does the Tory party bunker down since Cameron is the incumbent PM and refuse to resign, claiming that the Tory party on its own has legitimacy to act as a minority government; do the Labour party try to get into Downing Street as a minority government, which would surely be unable to govern? There are so many potential problems with this, that it beggars belief that it is being considered at all.

    The argument that an alternative government can be formed in this parliament is spurious since how could Clegg later say something he currently thinks impossible to achieve (coalition with Labour), suddenly becomes viable?

  • @Anthony Aloysius St

    “As I’ve said before, it’s these continual accusations of bad faith and underhand behaviour from one side that make it so difficult to have a courteous discussion about this.”

    I think you should really be pointing that out to Iain Roberts, given his opening remarks. They are hardly designed to enable courteous discussion since it is such a selective and one sided comment to say:

    “Labour politicians and activists have spent the last few days merrily confusing motions of no confidence and dissolution”

    That comment itself is a blatant distortion of the situation and is highly provocative.

  • Sunder Katwala 16th May '10 - 10:27am

    Philip

    There were general elections both in November 1922 after the Carlton Club revolt, where the Tories won a clear majority as the National Liberals got hammered, but again in December 1923 because the new PM (who had taken over in the Spring wished to overturn a central manifesto commitment (free trade/tariff reform)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_general_election,_1922

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_general_election,_1923

  • Andrew Suffield 16th May '10 - 10:27am

    Or does he believe he could and should stay as Prime Minister after a no confidence vote was lost?

    Could, should, and has a duty to do so. The Prime Minister must remain the Prime Minister until he dies or a successor is available. An obscure but significant part of how the British government’s relationship with Parliament and the crown works. The Prime Minister’s resignation is the last thing that happens, not the first – and requires the permission of the crown (the Queen is the arbiter of suitable behaviour here, and usually acts to preserve the political neutrality of the crown).

    After a no confidence vote is lost, the government does not go away – it can’t, because the nation must continue to function. Instead, we get a caretaker government run by all the same people but with very limited power (I don’t know the exact rules offhand, probably the same as purdah), until a new government is available to replace it. This process may involve a general election, or simply a new coalition being formed.

    Does the government believe it could enjoy the right to stay in office indefinitely in a caretaker role, after a no confidence defeat, if no alternative government were agreed between parties?

    Again – not “enjoy the right”, but rather “has a sworn duty to the crown to do so”. The government may not leave office until the next one is ready.

    How can it be constitutional…

    Oh, this one’s easy. Constitutional, in the UK, is whatever the currently sitting Parliament decides. It’s anachronistic and a lot of Lib Dems would like it changed, but that is how our system works: Parliament is the sole sovereign, bound by no law but its own, and in particular not bound by any preceding Parliament. This happened because we don’t have a constitution. We had a sovereign monarch, and Parliament just grabbed their entire power.

    The constitutionality of this assertion is not clear and would certainly be open to the challenge that parliament cannot bind itself in this way.

    Parliament can bind itself any way it chooses. The binding motion is the easy bit.

    Legislation to make all future Parliaments fixed-term is going to be more problematic. This is why the binding motion is in there: everybody recognises that it will take months, at least, to work out the details, and the future of this Parliament must be clear from the outset. It’s not a new problem though: the Parliament Act faced all the same issues.

    Why on earth would they want one of the first acts of the new parliament to be legislation that will provoke a constitutional, legal and political crisis???

    Because nobody will go into coalition with a Prime Minister who will call a fresh election whenever it looks like the coalition can be replaced with a majority government. That happened once, and nobody’s going to fall for it a second time. It’s not going to be a crisis though. They have a political majority, there’s no constitutional issue (because of our annoying lack-of-constitution), and I don’t think you can have a “legal crisis” in a sovereign body. Parliament does not answer to any legal authority.

    a vote of no confidence requires 50%+1 MP now

    Curiosity: does it really? I’d have thought it just required a simple majority in the chamber, which is usually something less than 50%+1 due to low turnout of MPs. Is there a hard quorum requirement on this one?

  • Interesting piece leading to some fascinating political history. My issue here is that you should not be using a form of the “well, they did it too!” argument as a kind of justification (yes, it’s usually known as the Nuremberg defence and no, I don’t think it’s that extreme!). Let the Lib Dem leadership decision stand on it’s own merits and not in contrast with a now meaningless past where the political landscape was unrecognisable in comparison with today’s.

  • Sunder Katwala 16th May '10 - 10:44am

    Anthony Aloysius St

    To say that “the *mechanism* for a no confidence vote” is unchanged does not deal with the issue of how the *consequences* change, in particular how these relate to the existing conventions that Her Majesty’s government must be carried on, in the event there is no confidence in the existing government, insufficient support for a new one, but nor the support to trigger a dissolution.

    Niklas Smith.

    That’s a useful response. Thanks. Certainly, a public pledge from Cameron that (in the event of a no confidence vote) he would resign, seek to play no part in a “new” administration, and advise the Queen to send for the Leader of the Opposition would deal with some of these concerns. I do not myself anticipate such a pledge, still less the codification of one in Cabinet Office guidelines, since accounts suggest the negotiators had this scenario in mind, but perhaps I am wrong about this.

    I note that nobody defending the general principle as a way to have fixed dates can defend 55% (except with the surely illegitimate “to provide stability for this Parliament” argument). Of course, the number was agreed deliberately, so those saying “I agree it should be 66%” should not be defending the 55% proposal in my view.

    The Monarch can only call the person the outgoing PM recommends. The proposed rules would seem to me to allow Callaghan to advise the Monarch to send for Michael Foot in 1979 – having brought the SNP or SDLP back on board – or for Cameron to advise that Hague be called (perhaps to form some other minority administration, perhaps with side deals).

    I think those who think this academic because the 55% can be struck down by 50% vote to do so are probably correct, but let us see how the legislation attempts to deal with this. An ineffective supermajority provision would be to introduce confusion and conflict unnecessarily.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th May '10 - 10:44am

    Steve D

    “That comment itself is a blatant distortion of the situation and is highly provocative.”

    Nonsense. One only has to read the comments by – to take just one example – David Blunkett, to see that they are based on confusion between a confidence motion and a dissolution motion:
    “‘The numbers mean that it would be impossible, even if every opposition MP united against this coalition, for the House to express its lack of confidence in it.”
    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1277884/Jack-Straw-hits-fix-Government-plans-change-rules.html

    (Though it’s nonsensical in any terms, as “this coalition” would have a majority of more than 70 over “every opposition MP”!)

  • @Andrew Suffield

    Parliament does not answer to any legal authority.

    Yes it does. There is the European Court of Human Rights for a start; so the newly created ‘supreme court’ may want to wade in on this matter, certainly I can imagine an attempt to challenge this legislation there. Parliament is clearly not still sovereign in all matters, otherwise why would the Tories want a UK sovereignty act?

    Parliament can bind itself any way it chooses. The binding motion is the easy bit.

    I’m not sure all constitutional experts or lawyers would agree with that assertion.

    It’s not going to be a crisis though. They have a political majority, there’s no constitutional issue (because of our annoying lack-of-constitution)

    There is a political majority currently, but the crisis will happen if that political majority breaks down.

  • @Anthony Aloysius St

    I will accept Blunkett appeared confused but Straw certainly isn’t. I quote from the article you referenced:

    “Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Mr Straw said: ‘Lets say this rule was passed where you require 55 per cent of the Commons vote to have an election.

    ‘What if 51per cent of the Commons was against any confidence in the Government and was refusing to pass legislation? Whether its 50 or 55 would only matter in such circumstances.

    ‘You then get into the extraordinary situation where parliament could not be dissolved, presumably Lib Dems would be scared of losing their seats, but government would be completely unworkable.'”

    So, I’m happy to accept there has been some confusion, but refute the notion that it is entirely as black and white as you and others claim.

    For example Lord Falconer in this article

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/13/commons-dissolution-backbench-constitutional-reform

    “Former Labour lord chancellor Lord Falconer said he backed the idea of fixed-term parliaments, but warned the present proposals risked leaving an impotent “zombie” government in power.

    “Assume 53% of parliament vote against the Conservatives – that’s what all the other parties equal excluding the Conservatives – they can’t be removed,” he told BBC2’s Newsnight. “So if that were to happen a year before the last date for a general election we would have a … zombie government.”

    There is no confusion in that comment.

    Further, in defence of David Blunkett it is only the proponents of this legislation that are trying to artificially split dissolution from confidence; so I’m sure he will know the difference, but like many believes this to be a rouse.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th May '10 - 11:03am

    “To say that “the *mechanism* for a no confidence vote” is unchanged does not deal with the issue of how the *consequences* change, in particular how these relate to the existing conventions that Her Majesty’s government must be carried on, in the event there is no confidence in the existing government, insufficient support for a new one, but nor the support to trigger a dissolution.”

    It deals with the part of your post I was responding to – point 1.

    I wasn’t addressing your point 3, which relates to the exceptional circumstances in which no alternative government could be formed. There has been some discussion of this on another thread. I won’t be surprised if some provision is made for this eventuality when the government provides fuller details of its plans.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th May '10 - 11:10am

    Steve D

    This is getting tedious already.

    You admit there has been confusion – in your comments on the other thread you shared this confusion, for heaven’s sake! So Iain’s comment that Labour politicians and activists were confused was _not_ “a blatant distortion of the situation”.

    You said on the other thread you wanted a courteous discussion. So please stop making these accusations of bad faith.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th May '10 - 11:12am

    Sunder:
    “The Monarch can only call the person the outgoing PM recommends.”

    I’d be interested to see some evidence for that assertion.

  • @Anthony Aloysius St

    in your comments on the other thread you shared this confusion, for heaven’s sake!

    I said no such thing and was never confused. Initially I may have believed that the issues of confidence and dissolution may have been part of the same vote, but I was always aware of the ‘difference’ between the two things. Indeed I still maintain that difference is being artificially created to try and justify this proposal.

    “Labour politicians and activists have spent the last few days merrily confusing motions of no confidence and dissolution”

    This is not the same as saying there is some confusion. It is blatantly colouring that confusion in a negative way. More importantly it is a distortion of what has been said by Labour politicians and others, using an artificial split of confidence and dissolution to justify it.

    What is getting tedious is your continual attempts to provoke me and others. I’ve tried to be courteous to you and given you the benefit of doubt over some of your comments to me. However I am at the point where I can no longer indulge you. If you disagree with what I am saying then engage in a discussion of the issues rather than trying to nit pick and score points over presentation.

    Yes I have made some statements here that many will disagree with and may find my tone difficult to take. I’m not perfect. I do try to be constructive in what I am saying, but will accept it is coming from a particular viewpoint. I have raised many issues with this proposed legislation; some people have engaged on the issues, others have not.

    I make no apologies for having strong views on this issue, since it is about real world politics and not political theory or some constitutional settlement for the future. It is about an attempt by the Tories in collaboration with Liberal Democrats to fix the term of this parliament in their own self interest. Had the Labour Party attempted this I can only begin to imagine the outrage it would have caused and the bile that would have been unleashed in the media, by Tory Party and maybe even the Liberal Democrats; rightly so. The current silence is shocking.

    I appreciate having had the opportunity to post here and thank LDV for allowing me to. Given that I appear to be causing so much angst I will move on and leave you to your deliberations.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 16th May '10 - 11:47am

    Could someone please tell me when the LibDem policy chaged from 4 year to 5 year fixed term parliments – and perhaps when more importantly the current proposals for changes to our electoral system re the 55% mechanism and 5 year parliaments were ever put before the electorate in a manifesto or a referendum???

    Why stop at 5 year fixed terms – why not 10 or 20.

  • I hope that this scenario doesn’t occur – despite being a Labour Party activist I do wish the Coalition all the best.

    Imagine that a couple of years into the term, the Coalition is floundering, the economy has gone back into recession, unemployment skyrocketing, the deficit no better because of the increase in welfare payments and reduction of tax revenues. The coalition parties are down in the polls, Labour under a new leader relatively popular and at that point something comes up to split the Coalition partners apart.

    Cameron loses a vote of confidence when the Lib Dems vote against him so has to go to the Palace to resign under the 50%+1 rule. He recommends to the Queen that the leader of the opposition be called for. But the leader of the opposition still has the same parliamentary arithmetic, maybe a couple of extra seats from by-election wins but the Labour/LibDem/SDLP/Alliance coalition would probably still be in a minority. Such a government would be unstable in difficult times and the Labour Party leader would prefer a dissolution to seek a proper mandate. Under the 55% that would be impossible unless the Tories agree to it. So Labour have to lead a coalition until a few months down the line that coalition breaks apart. So we’re back to Hague or someone leading a Tory minority, and so we stumble along to 2015, with at no point it being in the interests of the parties forming 55% of the commons to face the people.

    What in the 55% is stopping that scenario?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th May '10 - 12:29pm

    Steve D

    “I said no such thing and was never confused. Initially I may have believed that the issues of confidence and dissolution may have been part of the same vote, but I was always aware of the ‘difference’ between the two things.”

    You believed that the motion resulting in dissolution would be a no-confidence motion. If that’s not confused I don’t know what is:
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/confusion-reigns-over-55-the-reality-is-rather-different-19488.html#comment-122296

    What is getting tedious is your continual attempts to provoke me and others.

    Believe me, the last thing I want to do is _provoke_ you. My problem is that when I see a fallacious argument or a misleading statement on these threads, my first impulse is to post a correction. It’s a character defect in this day and age, I know, because it results in a lot of wasted time, effort and temper.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 16th May '10 - 12:40pm

    DM Andy

    My guess is that your scenario is more likley than you think – since if the LibDems were to vote against Cameron – my guess is that the Labour Party would not want to touch them with the proverbial bargepole. My guess is Dave is more than aware of this – so what the LibDems have done is in effect given power to a minority Tory Party for 5 years. Just see what happens when Cameron starts finding good reasons to water down his commitments to the LibDems and they are in effect powerless to resist.

  • @Anthony Aloysius St

    I assume this is the quote you are referring to:

    “All the other parties combined have 53% of the MPs, so there could never be a dissolution without some Tories voting for it as well. For what reason would they do so? Assuming the 55% mark has to be achieved in the same confidence motion as 50%+1 for the Government to resign, all the opposition parties including the Lib Dems at this point go and vote their no confidence in the Government. Possibly thinking to themselves it’s time for that rainbow coalition. Meanwhile the Tories engineer enough of its backbenchers to vote no confidence and we are tipped over the 55% mark and Parliament is dissolved.”

    Fine. I’ve already admitted that initially I assumed both issues would be decided in the same vote; that is not the same as confusing the two things, simply an uncertainty about the mechanics and the process involved. An uncertainty that is there thanks in no small part to the wording of the proposal itself; which did not make it clear 2 separate votes would be required; just two different thresholds. That is my only sin of confusion, not that I was confused between confidence and dissolution.

    I am not going to be drawn into this matter any further. If you feel you have corrected me, then so be it. You have my thanks.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th May '10 - 1:35pm

    “It wasn’t dreamt up with such an odd figure that the only reasonable conclusion is that partisan benefit is at play.”

    I don’t think it’s too hard to see why they arrived at that figure. The Lib Dems certainly – and both parties probably – wanted a guarantee that the other side couldn’t leave the coalition and force an election. The Lib Dems are in favour of fixed-term parliaments anyway, and would no doubt have been happy with a higher threshold. But presumably the Tories wanted to keep the option of the coalition collectively being able to force a dissolution. Hence 55%.

    I hope that after more reflection both parties will be able to agree a higher threshold. I don’t see why not, because the 55% option can only be exercised with Lib Dem support in any case, so the Tories wouldn’t really be losing anything.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th May '10 - 1:39pm

    And I think consultations between all the parties would be a good idea, but before that can happen Labour will need to decide whether it’s still in favour of the fixed-term parliament policy that was in its manifesto, or whether anything other than a simple majority of MPs having the right to force a dissolution would be a “constitutional outrage”.

  • Anthony, the Labour Party is in favour of fixed term parliaments, it was in our manifesto. But the 55% rule isn’t about fixed term parliaments, it is a mechanism so that the Coalition can choose an early dissolution when it’s in their interests to do so but a Labour led coalition cannot. You can’t put into place a constitutional change (the 55% rule) that wasn’t in the Lib Dem or Tory manifesto that just happens to be of benefit to the governing party.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th May '10 - 2:22pm

    Kehaar

    As I see it, the supermajority is a way of all or most of the parties agreeing that parliament is deadlocked. I think obviously 55% is too low on that interpretation, but I don’t see any point in arguing about what the exact figure should be.

    DM Andy

    I know it was in the Labour manifesto – I mentioned that. But Straw, Blunkett, Adonis et al. have been criticising the proposal on the basis that a no-confidence vote by a simple majority of MPs wouldn’t be able to trigger a dissolution. Obviously that would be so in any fixed-term parliament worthy of the name. That makes it very hard to figure out what Labour’s position is.

  • Kevin Colwill 16th May '10 - 4:23pm

    I really do now get the nuances between dissolution votes and votes no confidence. I’m wondering if some people who have a different take on this “get” how 55% changes what a no confidence motion means.
    A vote against the government in a confidence motion is saying, “You have lost the moral authority to govern and must go”. It’s not saying, “We currently have the ability or authority to govern in your place.” It is an obvious and vitally important distinction.
    My point, tedious as it may be, is a simple one. Loss of a confidence motion means the government resigns. If 55%+1 MP can agree to form a new governing coalition then fine. What if they can’t?
    Take Europe. I can foresee a situation where the present collation sign a treaty or cut a deal with the EU so hated by Tory euro-sceptics that they’d be prepared to vote down the government in a no confidence vote.
    Obviously the rebel Tories would have no common cause with the other parties and could not form a new coalition. What then – A minority government working bill to bill? How does that square with fixed terms stated aims of stability and policy focus on the medium term?
    What’s so hard in accepting that in exceptional circumstances it remains important for 50%+1MP to retain the power to force a dissolution/election?

  • Sunder Katwala 16th May '10 - 4:36pm

    I am not sure I see why the suffrage in 1924 is relevant. The original post argued that criticism was confused because the 1924 case was a no confidence vote which did not lead to a dissolution. This was, in effect, because it was an immediately post-election no confidence vote. That can hardly prove that a new norm that confidence votes do not lead to dissolution does not change anything.

    Dave’s “Nobody said anything about 55% before finding they had 56% of the seats, and this provision seems entirely without legitimacy, quite apart from being just a little bonkers” does get a central reason for concern.

    ditto DM Andy “the 55% rule isn’t about fixed term parliaments, it is a mechanism so that the Coalition can choose an early dissolution when it’s in their interests to do so but a Labour led coalition cannot”.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th May '10 - 4:43pm

    “What’s so hard in accepting that in exceptional circumstances it remains important for 50%+1MP to retain the power to force a dissolution/election?”

    I don’t think that would be hard for advocates of fixed-term parliaments to accept, provided a way could be found of ensuring that it really could happen only in exceptional circumstances, when it was impossible to form a viable government – and in particular that the provision couldn’t be abused by the prime minister to call an election at a time of his choosing. Or, for that matter, abused by the leader of another party to do the same.

  • Kevin Colwill 16th May '10 - 5:27pm

    @AAS- We are agreed, taken a while but we got there in the end!
    There have been several realistic scenarios presented where we can foresee how 55%+1MP could come together to vote down a government on a confidence motion but not themselves have the common cause to form an alternative coalition.
    To deny an automatic dissolution in those circumstances is to change what a confidence vote means. The onus on longer on the government to demonstrate that it commands confidence but on the opposition to demonstrate that it could form an alternative government. A legal analogy would be the shifting of the burden of proof.
    I suggest a body that sits between the PM and Her Majesty. Perhaps a committee of Privy Councillors. They would have a set of simple tests to demonstrate whether or not any confidence motion had been engineered. If they felt it had then a dissolution request would not be passed to the queen. The very existence of such a committee would go a long way to prevent abuse.
    If such a squaring of the circle could be made my recent shift from sympathetic agnosticism to atheism on the matter of fixed terms might even be reversed!

  • Kevin Colwill 16th May '10 - 5:57pm

    whoops – in my previous post for 55%+1 MP please read 50%+1 MP!

  • Andrew Suffield 16th May '10 - 10:21pm

    There is the European Court of Human Rights for a start; so the newly created ’supreme court’ may want to wade in on this matter, certainly I can imagine an attempt to challenge this legislation there. Parliament is clearly not still sovereign in all matters, otherwise why would the Tories want a UK sovereignty act?

    The fact that Parliament can pass an act to overrule the EU is precisely what sovereignty means. You can’t have an “act to create sovereignty” – that doesn’t make any sense, since only a sovereign body could do it. What the Tories want is an “act to preserve sovereignty”, that requires a referendum before it is yielded to the EU. Of course, given the usual “Parliament cannot bind its successors” problem, that’s not a very useful thing to do, and given that the UK’s interactions with the EU so far are on a treaty basis rather than a sovereignty one, it’s fairly meaningless. (Cameron didn’t promise a referendum before any new treaties with the EU)

    The court of human rights does not have any real authority over the UK (which has been a sore spot for both human rights and europhile campaigners for some time), and indeed we have several cases where that court has ruled against the last Labour government, and that government’s response was to ignore it (DNA retention being the obvious one).

    Personally, I think it would be a good thing if Parliament was bound by some court such as this, but the reason that people have been campaigning for constitutional reform here is because it currently isn’t.

    Now, there are some subtleties here. The UK judiciary has indicated that there are certain things they will not enforce, and if Parliament ever tries to push them through anyway then we’ll have a real constitutional crisis on our hands. But that only applies in the courts, and for direct actions of the government (such as DNA retention) there are no similar limitations. Insofar as the UK has signed treaties with other nations, there may be international consequences to violating them, but that’s not the same thing as “binding” – Parliament is free to violate those treaties if it decides to do so.

  • Andrew Suffield 16th May '10 - 10:28pm

    Some arbiter is clearly needed, as a truly deadlocked assembly is just about the last entity to task with voting by a clear majority on its own fate!

    Note that we already have this: the arbiter is the crown, which can dissolve Parliament or dismiss a government on its own authority. This power hasn’t been used in over a century, and our current Queen would strongly prefer never to use it, but it still exists in case things break down.

    A robust constitution that provided an alternative would be nice. More privileged unelected bodies is not the answer though – I’d go for something much simpler, such as “after a vote of no confidence, Parliament will dissolve in four weeks unless a government can win a confidence vote before then”. That would be a good thing to include in the coming legislation.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 16th May '10 - 10:55pm

    No 5 years does not maintain the status quo – weak governments which could not command majority support in the House of Commons have not been able to carry on for 5 years in the past nor should they. There are plenty of countries with fixed term parliaments that have provisions to allow early elections in such cases – the arguments fro fixed term parliments were all about taking away the arbitrary power of governing parties to call elections at a time of their advantage. These two objectives are not mutually exclusive. I’m afraid that this could turn out to be a pretty substantial constitutional change which is made without proper reference to the electorate – and if LibDems who believe in true democracy should be insisting that it be subject to a referendum – at the same time as the one on AV?

  • toryboysnevergrowup 16th May '10 - 11:04pm

    Philip Young

    You have an endearing faith in Dave and his Party – I will happy will have a little wager that before this Parliment is out he will call the LibDems bluff on voting him down (i’m sure many Tory bloggers will be egging him on even if they aren’t already). It is not in the character of Tories to get on with it having lost a vote. If you don’t believe me just look how well they took the referndum on EU memebership! Please remember Dave’s only experience in work are in PR and the Tory party machine – before you think he has embraced a new politics.

  • Kevin Colwill 16th May '10 - 11:36pm

    @Andrew, Your proposal has merits and I gather there are similar systems in place in Scotland and elsewhere. It does not, however, solve what for many (not so much me!) is a key worry- the engineering of the loss of a confidence vote.
    Being devil’s advocate, I could see an engineered loss of a confidence vote followed by the 28 days, supposedly used to seek an alternative coalition but actually used to electioneer.
    My concern is the about the 28 day period would be when there is a real no confidence vote. I can see it used by a government to twist arms, cut deals, buy off individuals and parties and scupper a principled stand. The 28 day period could be one of chaos.
    Getting a 50%+1 majority on a confidence motion should be good enough, not demanding the 50%+1 hold firm under pressure for 28 days.
    An arbiter is far from ideal but I believe it’s really a deterrent to hold political leaders to an agreed position. I don’t really think there is any good system to impose a fixed term and this looks the least bad one.
    Fixed terms need a changed political culture in order to work properly. I don’t think you can legislate for what’s in people’s minds or force unwilling majorities to keep a parliament going when they don’t want to.
    My key objection to enhanced majorities (55% and up) is they could be seen as denying the possibility of a stand on principle to bring about a dissolution before term. There is sometimes honour in just saying “no” to a government. Confidence motions should require the government to demonstrate it can hold the confidence of the house and never effectively require the opposition to do that.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th May '10 - 11:44pm

    “Getting a 50%+1 majority on a confidence motion should be good enough, not demanding the 50%+1 hold firm under pressure for 28 days.”

    This sounds as though it’s going back to automatic dissolution on the loss of a confidence motion. I thought the idea was to have dissolution only in exceptional circumstances when parliament was deadlocked and no alternative government could be formed.

  • Andrew Suffield 17th May '10 - 2:50am

    It does not, however, solve what for many (not so much me!) is a key worry- the engineering of the loss of a confidence vote.

    I’d expect a loss of a confidence vote to hurt a party hard in an election – but to pull out something else I suggested in a similar thread a few days ago: add a rule that says (roughly) any prime minister whose own party votes against them in a confidence vote is barred for life from taking up that office again (to be immediately replaced by their deputy until the new government is ready to take over). If you think about it, this situation always indicates somebody you don’t want anywhere near the government.

  • Kevin Colwill 17th May '10 - 3:27am

    AAS- Depends on how exceptional is exceptional!
    In all seriousness I believe it comes down to the extent you feel a fixed term is move that should only limit the power of the PM/executive and how much a move to limit the power of backbenchers/legislature.
    If it’s only or mainly about stopping elections being called for narrow political advantage 28 days is a bit of a red herring. If it’s about limiting (or to be charitable balancing) backbenchers powers to destroy coalitions e.g. Tory euro-sceptics. Then 28 days could be for you.
    It does mean a 50%+1 majority has to hold for 28 days to make a no confidence vote stick. I’m of the opinion that is still placing a burden on the opposition that wasn’t there before and using my legal analogy still shifts some of the burden of proof.
    On a practical level, what manner of dirty deals would be happening in those desperate 28 days? Wouldn’t an election be preferable?
    I’m for the clarity of a genuine, non-engineered loss of a no confidence motion (50%+1) to automatically trigger a dissolution/election. That said, is 28 days preferable to 55%? – you bet!

  • I will simply state what we have witnessed recently from Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats

    1. The refusal to follow the constitutional precedent and practice that means the incumbent Prime Minister should first attempt to form a government in the event of a hung parliament.

    2. Engaging in the kind of old school politics he supposedly rejects to cynically remove a sitting Prime Minister and gain further concessions from the Tory Party.

    3. Attempting to fix the term of the current parliament in the self interest of the coalition partners.

    4. Attempting to rig the makeup of the House of Lords in the coalitions’ favour.

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article7128387.ece

    I ask a simple question, ‘Is this really what Liberal Democrats stand for?’

  • Malcolm Todd 17th May '10 - 3:35pm

    Well, as we’re all repeating what we said in an earlier thread on this issue: the sane and simple answer is the Swedish solution. Fixed term, with a get-out clause that no government would have any incentive to use spuriously. Result.

  • Malcolm Todd 17th May '10 - 3:36pm

    @Steve D:
    “refusal to follow the constitutional precedent and practice that means the incumbent Prime Minister should first attempt to form a government in the event of a hung parliament”? Codswallop! Constitutional precedent is no more than that the Prime Minister remains in office until an alternative government is available. There is not and never has been any obligation on any other party to enter into negotiations with the defeated Prime Minister on propping him up (sorry, “establishing a rainbow coalition” – bloody funny rainbow that has no blue in it, but never mind), much less an obligation to talk to him first.

    “Engaging in the kind of old school politics he supposedly rejects to cynically remove a sitting Prime Minister and gain further concessions from the Tory Party”. Same again. A peacetime coalition is not old school politics; removing a sitting Prime Minister is kind of old school – it’s the normal response to electoral defeat. The electorate removed the possibility of GB remaining prime minister; there’s nothing remotely cynical about it.

    On points 3 and 4, however, you’re a bit near the bone…

  • @Malcolm Todd

    I would draw your attention to the cabinet office guidance on this matter established prior to the May 6th 2010 election which examines all of the constitutional precedents. Within the analysis is the view expressed by Robert Blackburn, Professor of Constitutional Law at King’s College London, on page 14. He states that in the event of a hung parliament: The incumbent Prime Minister has the first opportunity to continue in office and form an administration.

    So I don’t believe your assertion that is codswallop to be correct. Certainly it may not be the only view expressed, but none the less it comes from a constitutional expert.

    http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-04951.pdf

    In the end Brown followed principle 19 of the Cabinet Office advice on Elections and Government Formation:

    19. It is open to the Prime Minister to ask the Cabinet Secretary to support the Government’s discussions with opposition or minority parties on the formation of a government. If Opposition parties request similar support for their discussions with each other or with the Government, this can be provided by the Cabinet Office with the authorisation of the Prime Minister.

    http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100416132449/http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/343763/election-rules-chapter6-draft.pdf

    He did not have to extend the opportunity to opposition parties at this point and I would still maintain that in the first instance proper negotiation should have taken place with the government; even if it subsequently failed.

    The old school politics I am referring to is the underhand and duplicitous way in which Clegg handled the situation; from his pronouncements prior to the election result, to playing one party off against the other and being less than honest in the process.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 17th May '10 - 6:44pm

    David Davis has come out against the 55% threshold, though he seems confused about what it means:
    “The consequence in the extreme is you could have a government in parliament which could command 45%, or 45% plus one, of Parliamentary votes but no more and therefore couldn’t deliver a Budget, couldn’t deliver its manifesto, couldn’t deliver its normal legislation and yet couldn’t be thrown out either, because you can’t force a dissolution.”

    So is the BBC journalist who wrote the article:
    “The threshold would currently stop the Conservatives alone engineering a no-confidence vote – or the Lib Dems walking out on the coalition and siding with opposition MPs to force one.”

    Which is pretty remarkable, as the article quotes Professor Gavin Phillipson, who teaches constitutional law at Durham University, as follows:
    “This won’t stop MPs being able to bring down an unpopular government, just as they can now.”
    The 55% threshold was about a separate issue – when Parliament can be dissolved early, he said.”

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8687110.stm

  • Kevin Colwill 18th May '10 - 8:26am

    @AAS- I think David Davis et al do understand the proposals (in so far as anyone can understand them at the moment).
    Those of us who worry about this each have our own prime objection. To many it is simply that 55% feels looks shabby given the arithmetic of this particular parliament. We can all agree that this figure smells bigger than a mouse.
    To others (me included, although my reservations won’t bother anyone) it’s about principle. Of course there are those who are against fixed terms per se but there are also those (again me included) who see merit in fixed terms and yet have deep concerns about particular scenarios in which supermajorities appear to be too high a price to pay.
    I think David Davis is doing no more than presenting a scenario we all accept could occur. Namely, a majority against the government that is not itself willing or able to form an alternative governing collation.
    It is not too fanciful to see how a confidence motion could be lost, government resign, opposition fail to form an alternative government, original coalition (minus a few!) re-form as a minority government.
    There are all sorts of arguments flying around. Some people suggest that in the scenario above those who force the government out could just pass a one line bill for immediate dissolution- job done. The confidence motion retains its power to force elections. It’s just that there is another step in the process.
    It’s all too messy. Defeating governments in votes of confidence is hardly a simple, every day occurrence. It’s a bit of a big deal and would be very tough for any opposition to achieve. A real, no-engineered, defeat on a genuine confidence motion should always trigger an election.
    State that today and it becomes a non-issue. We can have academic debate about how we ascertain whether a confidence motion has been engineered safe in the knowledge that the key power of backbenchers to say, “go!” has not been compromised.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 18th May '10 - 8:52am

    “I think David Davis et al do understand the proposals (in so far as anyone can understand them at the moment).”

    Let’s just say that it’s not obvious that he does from what he’s quoted as saying.

  • Kevin Colwill 18th May '10 - 8:27pm

    @Dave, I take the point and I’m sure if we’d had four elections in five years and a period of weak coalitions I’d agree- I might even find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with supermajorities!
    In the here and now, under FPTP or AV, I’m minded towards clarity.
    The 28 day period may focus the minds of an opposition seeking to form an alternative government after winning a confidence vote. I’d suggest in the current political climate it’s most likely to benefit a government desperately trying to buy off its critics to find some way to regain power.
    I’ve already said that 28 days is preferable to 55% but an election is preferable to both.

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