Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Parliament or Government?

There seems to be a lot of heat about the 55% dissolution lock, and this seems to arise from confusing a vote “of no confidence” (in the Government) and a vote “to dissolve” (Parliament).

This is probably a reflection of the ongoing confusion in many minds that insists that the UK electorate elects the UK Government; it does not, it elects members of Parliament and the Government continues whilst it enjoys the confidence of Parliament.

So “no confidence” and “dissolution” need not be the same.  With coalition politics a “no confidence” vote leading to dissolution (subject technically to the Monarch’s consent) and a general election is potentially destabilising.  Arguably a Parliament (particularly a “hung” one), should be able to throw out a Government, and form a new one from within their membership – without “going to the country”.  The Government may have made a horlicks of something, but why should the Parliament have to face the electorate – particularly if there is an alternative coalition?

If you support the idea of fixed term Parliaments (and I think on balance I do), the Government should not feel that it can be opportunistic and go back to the people “seeking a majority” when it has rigged the situation to best suit them.  It should take the people’s verdict and do the best that it can with that verdict.  This would tend to say that there should be no dissolutions between fixed period elections.

But, would that lead potentially to deadlock?  Many countries with fixed term parliaments recognise this and have various means of resolving a deadlock (by means of a dissolution and election).  This may be by allowing a Parliament to dissolve itself either actively by means of a vote (The Scottish Parliament can dissolve itself by a 66% vote) or reactively by failing to form a new Government within a certain period (28 days in Scotland) following the resignation of the Government (as a result of a no confidence vote, or possibly collapse of a coalition).

The result is actually not that different to the way things work at the moment.  In theory, if a Government falls, the Prime Minster goes to the Sovereign to resign.  The resignation is usually accepted and a dissolution is granted, but the Sovereign could ask whether there is anyone else who could command a majority, and then invite that person to try to form a Government.  The current “dissolution lock” proposal in effect relieves the Monarch of the need to intervene (or removes from the Monarch from the process, depending on your point of view).

The question is how should the lock be defined?  55% is an odd figure and does rather look like a figure to suit the convenience of the current two coalition parties.  This is not the sort of figure that you want to be regularly revising.  I can’t see what is wrong with the Scottish Lock – but then the Scottish Parliament is a bit more advanced that the UK one – they have been doing coalition and minority Government for longer than us.  Our current coalition leaders seem a bit flat-footed in handling this issue.

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