James Forsyth

The gathering storm over the 55 percent plan

The gathering storm over the 55 percent plan
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There is a massive difference between rebellious talk and actual rebellion. But some of the language surrounding the 55 percent rule has been striking. When I told one senior MP that David Cameron had said on Sunday that he would whip this vote, the MP shot back defiantly, ‘you whip if you want to.’

David Davis’s intervention on the issue on the World at One was particularly significant. Having called the 55 percent rule ‘just a terrible formula for government’ it is hard to see how he can support the measure. It is also hard to imagine that a man who picks his fights so carefully would have marched so far up the hill if he was not confident that he had a critical number of foot soldiers behind him. Davis would not want his reputation as the potential rebel Cameron must fear to be lost in the opening months of the Cameron government.

The 55 percent rule hits several backbench Conservative buttons. First, constitutional probity, a concept that Tory MPs feel Labour trampled all over. They have no desire to be guilty of the same offence, at least not straight away. Second, how the leadership do things without consulting them first (although, to be fair, coalition talks were always going to throw up this kind of problems). Third, their ambivalent feelings about the whole ‘coalition thing’. There is a certain amusement that it is presumed that Nick Clegg, who is in charge of political reform, will have to pilot this through the house.

One way out of this situation would be for the government to say that while it remains committed to the idea that prematurely ending a fixed term parliament must require a super-majority, it is open to the question of what that super majority should be. A commission chaired by some academic or constitutional worthy could then be established to investigate this question, which would take the heat out of the issue. But if both sides decide to treat it as a trial of strength then we are in for quite a clash.