Sunday, 23 May 2010

That 55%

I cannot understand all the huffing and puffing from senior Labour figures and some constitutional pundits about the proposal that the five year fixed term of future parliaments should not be curtailed unless 55%, rather than a simple majority of MPs, vote for it. It seems reasonable to assume that a major change, such as the highly desirable move to a fixed term for parliaments, should involve other consequential adjustments. If the prime minister is no longer able to bully his critics into line by the threat of a dissolution (or, strictly speaking, asking the monarch for a dissolution) than smaller parties, or even individual MPs, should not be able to blackmail an administration by a similar threat.

I believe that in Scotland, which also has fixed term parliaments, the barrier is set at 66%. Compared with this 55% seems modest. The rule would not mean that a government defeated by only one vote would necessarily remain in office. Theoretically the government so defeated would resign and the monarch would invite another leader, or maybe even the same leader, to try to form an administration with a different composition which could command the support of the existing parliament. It would be interesting to see these circumstances tested in practice before such rules are codified in a written constitution (which doesn't, at the moment, appear to be on the agenda)

In the event of deadlock, without a written constitution with safeguards requiring a higher majority for constitutional changes, there would be nothing to stop a parliament overturning the 55% rule by a simple majority, and then the prime minister asking for a premature dissolution.


  1. I realise of course that we have always directly elected a parliament and never a government; despite that fact, I sense a lot of the British public would be quite angry if halfway through a Parliament, the governing party were to change - let's say, for argument's sake, that it became a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, and thus suddenly a much more left-wing than a centrist coalition. Although we have never directly elected a government, a lot of voters "feel" that they do, and such a circumstance would see a very radical shift in the government's direction - would this be tolerable? It seems this new method of doing this would effectively disconnect a vote of no-confidence from a general election; whilst constitutionally they've never been bound, historically isn't that what we've always expected?

  2. You raise a good point, Chris. Although governments often change without another election following soon (eg Callaghan, Brown and perhaps Major (I can't remember) these haven't involved a change of party. I haven't enough history at my finger-tips to say when was the last change of governing party within a parliament. However, having made the fundamental change from flexible to fixed term parliaments we need to learn to operate the system according to different rules. During the 4th Republic the French frequently changed government without an election, and I suspect that will be true of other countries with multi-party politics. I think the 55% clause is a useful method of ensuring that we do not revert to the old sytem by the back door.