LibCon Agreement – constitutional coup or cock-up? (updated x8)

by | May 12, 2010

Key foreign policy elements of the coalition agreement between David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats include:

  • A Strategic Security and Defence Review.
  • ‘Scrutinising’ the replacement for Trident to see if it offers value for money.
  • A strong role in the NPT agreement.
  • Three themes for the relationship with Europe: global competitiveness, global warming and global poverty.
  • No Euro or further transfers of sovereignty to the EU.
  • A floor-price for carbon.
  • A push for full auction of ETS permits.
  • Confirmation of 0.7% target for overseas aid.

The government is also going to reduce its own carbon emissions by 10% over 12 months – a tough ask depending how broadly the target is intepreted (the military? schools? the NHS?).

My prediction is that this will prove the most controversial part of the pact:

The parties agree to the establishment of five year fixed-term parliaments. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government will put a binding motion before the House of Commons in the first days following this agreement stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.

Unless I am much mistaken, that means a government will now be able to stay in power without a majority.

Update: Doesn’t that mean that Cameron (with 47% of MPs) can govern without the Lib Dems?

Update II: OpenDemocracy’s Tony Curzon-Price probably has the answer. The government could still change mid-term (a PM loses confidence of House, Queen asks someone else to see if they form a new government), but the parliament would stay in place.

Could lead to some hellish negotiations though – similar to the ones we saw this week, but without the fresh mandate that leaders enjoyed.

It also makes a full term for this Parliament much more likely than we’d all thought.

Update III: Another suggestion from C4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy is that an election would be triggered if the government lost a confidence vote. The 55% would only come into play if it, itself, wanted to dissolve parliament.

This makes sense, but it would allow a government to find its way around the fixed term provision if it chose to deliberately lose a confidence vote. Perhaps unlikely – but constitutional changes are presumably supposed to cope with all eventualities.

It’s worth also noting that Labour won 63% of seats in 1997 and 2001 – easily enough to vote to dissolve Parliament. Even in 2005, it held 55% of seats – though this margin was eroded throughout the Parliament. Just because this vote was close, it doesn’t mean landslides won’t be common in the future.

I’m still not 100% sure how this is going to work – time will tell.

Update IV: Sure enough, the 55% threshold is now attracting comment. The Guardian:

The fixed-term parliament legislation will take away the power of a prime minister to call an election in these circumstances. But it will also mean that if the government falls the sitting prime minister can try to form a new coalition government from among the opposition parties. If that fails in other fixed-term parliaments, such as in Germany, the head of state can call an election, but in Britain there is no wish to involve the Queen in such decisions.

So they have settled on a threshold of 55% of MPs to force a general election. The 55% figure is significant because the Conservatives have 47% of MPs and it ensures that the Lib Dems cannot simply walk out of the coalition and vote with the opposition to call a general election as they can only muster 53% of the vote.

In the Times, Scott Styles, a senior lecturer in the school of law at Aberdeen University, condemns the proposal as “truly astounding”:

The second and much more fundament problem is the raising of the bar of a no confidence vote in the government to 55% rather than simple majority of those MP’s present and voting. This is a major and fundamental alteration in our constitution and what is being changed is not a right of the PM but a power if the Commons…

As well as being politically unjustifiable the 55% rules raises the question of whether the House’s inherent ability to bring down government’s can be limited by legislation. One could of course always try and pass a bill to reverse this 55% doctrine by a subsequent act of parliament and such a bill would of course only need 51% of MP’s in its favour. However to become legislation obviously it would need to pas through the Lords as well, so in effect surrendering the long stop power to bring down the Government to the Lords!

Styles’s objections may be countered by distinguishing clearly between a confidence vote (opposition brings down government) and dissolution (government chooses election) – but that opens up new wrinkles. See above.

Update V: Andrew Adonis:

I was shocked by the Lib Dem proposal, in our negotiating session with them, that the alternative vote should be introduced before a referendum, as “a big down-payment we need to go in with you” (in the words of one Lib Dem negotiator). The commitment in their coalition agreement with the Tories to gerrymander the fundamental basis of parliamentary legitimacy – proposing that votes of confidence will henceforth require the support of 55% of MPs – is presumably another such unprincipled “down-payment”.

Dizzy dubs it the Cameron Politburo.

Update VI: There’s a No to 55% campaign now (and a Facebook group). Talk Issues lays out pros and cons. MP Tom Harris is fuming.

Update VII: Twitter’s @loveandgarbage points to Scottish fixed term parliaments as a model.

According to the Scotland Act 1998, the Parliament can be dissolved if “not less than two-thirds of the total number of seats for  members of the Parliament” vote in favour.

The First Minister must resign if s/he loses a confidence vote on a simple majority. A new First Minister then has 28 days to put together a working majority. If no-one can do that, then an election is automatically triggered.

So the Scottish model separates confidence (50%) from dissolution (two thirds), while ensuring that the turbulent process of forming a new government after a lost confidence vote can ‘only’ last for a month, before an election automatically kicks in.

Of note, of course, is that the proposed threshold is lower than in Scotland – allowing governments with a comfortable majority (e.g. the first two New Labour terms) to trigger an election at will.

Still think we need more detail on what Cameron and Clegg are proposing for Westminster and how it will follow or differ from the Scottish model.

Update VIIILeft Foot Forward has a briefing note from UCL. More too from @loveandgarbage – a Scottish lawyer, it seems – here. “I sit bemused, wondering why has no-one from the coalition been able to present what is a perfectly presentable case,” he concludes.

I concur. Whether not this is the right constitutional route to take, the communication around it has been awful – convincing a growing number of people that something nefarious is afoot.

[This post has been restructured for clarity.]


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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