The 55% Question

The Issue of the Moment

Much gnashing of teeth over the coalition’s proposals to introduce the 55% rule. This is the proposal whereby it would require a vote of 55% of MPs to dissolve Parliament.

Parliament is currently dissolved either on the whim of the Prime Minister (witness Gordon Brown’s dithering in October 2007) or following a vote of no confidence by Parliament (a simple majority being sufficient).

The coalition propose a fixed five year term for Parliament. As I said yesterday, I think fixed terms are a good thing (though no doubt in 50 years we might get sick of them and move back to flexible terms). But for fixed terms to work, for there to be stable government, and for coalition politics to work efficiently there needs to be a way of ensuring that fixed terms can stick and, conversely, a method of dissolving Parliament in exceptional circumstances mid-term.

You make it stick by removing the PM’s prerogative to dissolve Parliament – this is what Cameron proposes. And you provide a method for dissolution which requires not the minimum bare majority but actually quite a sizeable one (otherwise, why have fixed terms if they can be terminated by a simple majority). The Scottish Parliament, for example, can only be dissolved mid-term by a two-thirds vote.

Repeat – if you want fixed terms, you need to make it difficult to dissolve Parliament, not easy.

The objections being raised by MPs and others is that the existing method of a no-confidence vote is being over-ruled by the new 55% rule. The coaliton respond by saying that the no-confidence rule remains and it can bring down the Government as before. The difference is that the PM does not then exercise his of her prerogative and dissolve Parliament. Instead, Parliament remains but a new Government then needs to be formed. If Lib Dems were to walk away from the coalition, the most likely result would be a minority Conservative government.

In the Scotland Act, the First Minister must resign if he or she loses a vote of no-confidence. The Scottish Parliament is then given 28 days to form a new government. If it can’t, it can vote (by two-thirds majority) to dissolve Parliament.

If Westminster is to have fixed terms (which I believe to be a good thing for democracy), the question is not whether the threshold should set as high as 55% but why it should not be actually be higher – more like the 66% for the Scottish Parliament. I understand the claims of those who complain that a simple majority should suffice but if you do want fixed terms you must set the bar high or that worthy aim will be easily defeated. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

My colleague James Mackenzie points out of course, that, unlike the Scottish Parliament which has a “constitution” (the Scotland Act), Westminster does not (the UK does not). Any 55% rule will me merely an Act of Parliament which could be repealed by 51%..! But that would be a big undertaking so my view remains that bedding down fixed terms with a, let’s say 60% vote needed to dissolve Parliament would represent a significant improvement to the way we do business.