James Forsyth

A sensible policy change

A sensible policy change
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Tucked away in Nick Clegg’s statement confirming that the referendum on AV was going to be on the 5th of May next year, was the abandonment of the controversial 55 percent rule for a dissolution of parliament. This has been replaced by a far more sensible arrangement. If the government cannot win a confidence vote, there’ll then be 14 days for one that can command the confidence of the House to be formed. If that does not happen, then there’ll be an election. However, if a government wants to dissolve parliament then it’ll require a two thirds majority. But it is still unclear how this rule could be made to bind any parliament as no parliament can bind its successor.

Another thing I hope the Coalition will be big enough to change position on is its current contention that there’s no need to cut the number of ministers by the same percentage as the number of MPs is being reduced by. Chris Byrant, Christopher Chope and Chris Leslie all pressed Clegg on this point and the Deputy Prime Minister claimed — rather remarkably for a very able man — not to understand it. These backbenchers were right to point out that to cut the number of MPs but not ministers would be to increase the power of the executive, something that both parties in the Coalition say they are against.  

The AV referendum date was the main source of controversy today. The opposition benches were making hay out of the fact that the devolved administrations had not been consulted on the dates. While Tory backbenchers worry that the date will lead to higher turnout in Scotland and Wales than England. The date will continue to be a source of contention. I suspect it will lead to a significant but not critical number of Tories to vote against the Bill.

As has happened every time Clegg has spoken in the Chamber, he was barracked endlessly by Labour MPs. (Although, Tristram Hunt deserves credit for a rather clever history question that left Clegg stumped). Again, the Labour jeers drove Clegg into sallies against the Labour party that drew more cheers from the Tories behind him than anything else he said. When Caroline Flint asked a question which included the phrase the ‘next phase of Labour reform’, Clegg roared back, ‘there’s never going to be another phase.’ The current level of bitterness between the Lib Dems and Labour does make it hard to imagine them sitting together in government anytime soon.