15 May, 2010

Confidence and Dissolution

The election campaign in the UK was very interesting. One thing I was struck by how was how disappointing the final result was for the three main UK parties. Labour received their worst drubbing since the early 1980s, while the Conservatives failed to win enough seats to be able to govern alone. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, failed to achieve the kind of breakthrough result that their early performance in the campaign promised. This is arguably a parliament of the defeated.

The new government is proposing to change the rules regarding when UK elections are called. At present, a prime minister can have an election called whenever he or she likes. A general election also typically follows if the government loses a confidence vote in the Houses of Commons. Under the new proposal, a dissolution would require a 55% vote of the House of Commons.

The proposed new rule for parliamentary dissolutions has attracted much comment, a lot of it ill-informed. Many commentators are seeing it as a plot by the Conservatives to keep themselves in power forever. This seems to arise from confusion between a vote of confidence in the government and a vote to dissolve parliament. Under the new rules, if Cameron loses his majority then he would have to resign as prime minister. It would then be up to someone else to have a crack at forming a government with majority support. If 55% of MPs felt that an election was desirable then they could force a dissolution, but otherwise it would be up to them to form a new government.

In Westminster, this kind of constitutional change is unusual, but it is common elsewhere. Many European parliaments sit for fixed terms, with it being very difficult to bring about an early dissolution. In the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales, it requires a two-thirds majority to trigger an election.

Given that fixed-term parliaments have been a core Liberal Democrat policy for decades, it is hard to see why people are so surprised by the new dissolution rules. There is a certain parochialism among those who assume that the pre-existing Westminster rules are the natural order of things, and a certain fuzzy thinking by those who confuse confidence votes and votes to call elections. But another factor seems to be that some people see the new UK government as fundamentally illegitimate, perhaps because it includes the Conservatives. They were perhaps hoping that the coalition would hang on for a couple of months before being ousted in a new election.

The new rules make it more likely that the government will last the full parliamentary term, because Cameron does not have the option of calling an election if he senses a momentary advantage. However, the Liberal Democrats are probably their real beneficiary. If irreconcilable differences emerge in the government, Cameron would be unable to call an election and hope that the electorate would punish his erstwhile partners. Instead, the Liberal Democrats would be able to open negotiations with Labour on the formation of a rainbow government, possibly including some of the minor and regional parties. An election could only be called if both Labour and the Conservatives wanted one. This is a fairly unlikely prospect, though it might happen if both thought they could wipe out the Liberals.

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