Alex Massie

The 55% Dissolution

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Earlier I suggested that this new rule, requiring that any motion to dissolve parliament must be backed by 55% of MPs was "daft, questionably democratic and should be quietly shelved." That seems to be the majority view. Which means, naturally, it's time to reconsider.

Tom Harris
and Hopi Sen are correct to suppose that if a Labour-Liberal coalition had proposed this the right would be in uproar. However plenty of conservatives are unhappy with this anyway. See Iain Martin for instance. Or Dizzy. Or Pete.

But, unless I am hopelessly confused about all this, the provision has nothing to do with confidence votes. The government would still be brought down by losing a confidence motion on a simple majority. But, now that we have fixed-term* parliaments, this wouln't necessarily trigger a general election. That would only happen if it proved impossible to form a new government and, then, 55% of MPs voted in favour of dissolution and fresh elections. 

Iain Roberts
has a good piece making the case for why this provision may be a little less irksome than many presume. He points out, correctly, that constitutionally-speaking new elections are not in fact triggered by the government losing a confidence vote. The Queen retains the power to ask someone else to try and form a government.

I assume that this new 55% rule is also designed to make it harder for the sitting government to engineer a dissolution of parliament at a time that suits them and, consequently, make a nonsense of the switch to fixed-term parliaments.

It's worth pointing out, perhaps, that such provisions are common where there are a) fixed-terms and b) often coalition or minority goverments. Consider Section 3 of the Scotland Act (1998):

(1) The Presiding Officer shall propose a day for the holding of a poll if—

(a) the Parliament resolves that it should be dissolved and, if the resolution is passed on a division, the number of members voting in favour of it is not less than two-thirds of the total number of seats for members of the Parliament...

At Holyrood, if the First Minister resigns the parliament has 28 days in which to agree to a successor or face new elections. Losing a confidence motion does not automatically trigger elections.

So I'm wondering if my earlier criticism of the 55% provision was a little premature and based on an unfortunate degree of ignorance. It looks bad and it's certainly possible that the public might not fancy the idea of the government changing between elections but it's not obvious that this measure actually undermines parliament. In one sense it may even be said, or argued at least, that it strengthens it by making it more clear than ever that the Prime Minister must command a majority in the House.

Again, however, this seems to be a consequence of moving to fixed-term parliaments, not necessarily a bid to game the system to protect the incumbent coalition. (Though, yes, it is convenient that the Tories currently hold 47% of seats and there is the worry that future governments will fiddle with the arrangements in a fashion that suits their particular needs.)

In other words: I have an open mind on this. What do y'all think?

*I'm against them actually, largely on the grounds of custom not logic or anything else. But custom matters too.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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