The new government is only a day old, and already it’s engaging in constitutional whimmery, even though its formation and existence proves the value and robustness of the constitution we have. The coalition agreement (Part 6, page 3) says this:
The parties agree to the establishment of five year fixed-term parliaments. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government will put a binding motion before the House of Commons in the first days following this agreement stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, 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.
This must have seemed reasonable at the time; it makes sense that the two coalescing parties should want to bind each other in to a fixed-term agreement. I was expecting them to make a public agreement that the Cabinet should have to agree unanimously (or perhaps with a maximum of three votes against, say, bearing in mind the LibDems will have five Cabinet seats) before the PM could seek a dissolution of Parliament. In effect, it would be an agreement to suspend the convention that the decision to seek dissolution is for the PM alone.
This proposed legislation, though, seems to aim at preventing an election even if 54% of MPs want one. That is wrong in principle, it’s undemocratic, and it must be opposed.
What it would mean is that if the coalition broke down, the Con-LibDem administration would end too. Of course. But there wouldn’t and couldn’t be an election. Instead, a minority Conservative government would be able to carry on – its 306 seats giving it a blocking minority of 47% – and as long as it kept discipline it could rule without the confidence of Parliament. Bear in mind that this could happen the moment this new legislation comes into force, which is presumably intended to be soon, so that government could go on, effectively behind Parliamentary barricades, for months or for several years. Even for this to be theoretically possible is, I’m afraid, outrageous and unconscionable. Whatever government we have, it must be accountable to Parliament.
Constitutional reform is one thing. Constitutional whimmery is quite another, and it’s something we’ve had far, far too much of recently, particularly from the Tories, strangely enough – David Cameron came out with a bonkers, half-baked unmanifestoed idea during the election campaign that was almost the exact opposite of this 55% one. Interestingly that idea wasn’t quite the direct opposite of this 55% one; both would protect him, and only him, if he did lead an unmovable Cleggless minority later this Parliament. His whimmery has been consistent in the one sense of being entirely self-serving.
This is a major constitutional innovation, dreamt up in a back-room by politicians and never put to the voters.
I have no hestitation in supporting the new “No to 55%” campaign. I urge you to support it too.