Wednesday 12 May 2010

"New politics" would have denied Thatcher her May 1979 election

Yesterday was probably not the most dramatic day in recent British political history. The 1997 General Election and the vote of no confidence in 1979 probably pip it at the post.

Yet Margaret Thatcher's vote of no confidence victory by one vote would not have got her the May 1979 General Election under plans proposed by the LibDem-Conservative coalition, with a proposal to legislate so that it will take 55% of MPs to get an election. That might not impress Thatcherites sceptical about the new Con-Lib alliance, but the partisan motivation for a major constitutional change may concern many more.

So it that the new politics? Or a stitch-up in the partisan interest of two parties in a potentially unstable coalition? Peter Hennessy, our most respected constitutional historian told Newsnight that it looks rather like the 'new politics' involves 'doctoring the pitch'.

This also begins as the first ever Tory-led government not to have a majority in the House of Lords. So it is planning to pack the House with 200 new Peers. After all, how could they really be expected to govern on the basis which every single non-Tory government in our history has faced?


In a parallel universe, imagine the LibDems and Labour formed a coalition government. With 315 seats between them, they are 8 short of a de facto majority, but confident that 9 Scots and Welsh Nats, nor another 5 from the Greens, SDLP and Alliance will vote them out.

It sounds very tight - until somebody has a cunning plan.

Why not make it much tougher for 306 Tories and 8 DUP MPs to combine with the smaller parties, by changing the rules?

And so Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg announce that the age-old tradition of the "vote of no confidence" leading to a General Election is to go, that would take 55% of the House of Commons (as many as 358 MPs).

Suddenly, the Lab-Lib coalition has much less to worry about.

But they could surely never have done it. All hell would have broken out.

Yet this seems to be what the Tory-Lib coalition is proposing to do.

This is done in the name of fixed term Parliaments.

Yet the Coalition does not need its new rule to do that. All one needs to do to create fixed term Parliaments is to find a formula to avoid a "fake" vote of no confidence being engineered by a governing party (when the House in fact retains confidence in the government). There are many ways to do that. One could give the Speaker a veto, or a role to the Opposition party leaders, or devise a simple formula - for example, that there need to more Opposition than Governing Party MPs in the no confidence lobby.

BTo put the government beyond a genuine vote of no confidence by a Commons majority - so that a LibDem departure from it due to a genuine loss of confidence is legislated out - is a very suspicious piece of moving the constitutional goalposts.


Unknown said...

I can't believe how little mainstream comment there has been on this development. The 'new politics' does indeed appear to involve some significant goalpost realignment.

Unknown said...

I don't think that anyone understands this fully. Here's my take, and I'm willing to be proven wrong (indeed, I invite it). The 55% is still unspecified, as my bet is that there will be some quorum requirement, so that it can't happen in a snap vote in an empty house. Differentiate first between dissolution and no confidence. This requirement applies to dissolution. That restricts Cameron's ability to go to the queen and ask for a dissolution (and deprives HM of the prerogative to grant such a request). That's all probably good. I don't think that any of this precludes a vote of no confidence, e.g. on supply. If that happened, HM could not call a general election. Instead, she would have to call on another party leader (probably Labour) to try to form a government. Labour and the Liberals, together, could defeat a motion for dissolution supported only by the Conservatives. I think that the bottom line is to preserve the Lib Dems' position as a pivot for 5 years. Anyone??

Sunder Katwala said...


It is not clear. Tories-LibDems can take the election date from PM by announcing, and making it a collective Cabinet decision with a Cabinet minority of three to block it. They could legislate for fixed terms except if no confidence (exceptional: once in half century) with a mechanism to prevent fake no confidence votes by the governing party.

The question of what would happen if no confidence on one vote? The current no confidence rule is dissolution or resign, with the convention being to dissolve.

For example, in 1979, does Callaghan have to resign and tell the Queen to send for Thatcher. Or can he (or, more likely, another minority Labour PM) first do a deal with, say, the SNP or SDLP and get back to a majority of 1 on next confidence vote without resigning. If the first, Thatcher does not have the power to dissolve, and may be forced to have a minority govt, or may also struggle for confidence.

In 2010, with dissolution denied if Tory party (47%: minority has single-party veto on dissolution) then does David Cameron have to resign, and does the Monarch ask the leader of the Opposition? (Could be OK up to a point, but they are not then allowed a dissolution if Tories don't want one). But is Cameron allowed to construct something else before resigning: that would be new. He may also be in a position where he may want to advise the Queen to send for William Hague, not the Leader of the Opposition? If Cameron did that Hague could form a minority government, which the House can not dissolve without Tory permission. (Eg, what if he now buys abstentions on the next confidence vote).

Unknown said...

Thanks Sunder,

1. I wasn't thinking about the cabinet dynamics, but the potential issue seems to me to be desertion by the Lib Dems en bloc, which would mean all five (or a majority of them) resign from the cabinet, leading to an immediate minority government, which I further assume would be defeated repeatedly, including on supply. Hague might form a minority government, but on my scenario (Lib Dems as pivot), he will lose supply too, and her majesty probably shouldn't call on him anyway.

2. Overall, your Callaghan example points to weaker big and stronger small parties during the course of the parliament. Callaghan anticipated no confidence votes by handing out goodies, as when in March 1979 three Plaid Cymru MPs voted against no confidence in exchange for compensation for silicosis-affected quarry workers. And no confidence by one vote is still no confidence. If the statute is in place, her majesty has to try to form a new government (and if it becomes deadlock, surely everyone will vote to dissolve, exceeding the 55% threshold).

3. Do the Tories really have a veto on dissolution under a 55% rule? (Doubtless depends how its counted. This goes to your abstentions issue.) If HM calls on Labour, it's in the interests of every small party (except the DUP) to join in a progressive coalition with the Lib Dems and Labour. They may extract concessions, but that's what coalition government is about.

4. Admittedly government like this is expensive because of all the goodies, but it can conceivably lead to happier people and a more collaborative style of politics.

5. Bottom line: I think that the queen loses power, the PM loses power; the executive (potentially) loses power (to the extent that's not already limited because of the coalition); and so does any large party with less than 55%. The Lib Dems gain (a lot of) power for five years (after which the Tories can campaign for strong government and more than a 55% majority; and redistricting/electoral reform may help them here and needs to be watched), AND Labour gains indirectly during the next five years by providing the backstop for the Lib Dem credible threat of withdrawal from government (which should encourage even Labour to be reasonable and to pull together as quickly as possible). All other small parties gain as well, as shown by my Plaid Cymru example. Big picture: if you like consensual government, this is good; if you like elected dictatorships, it's bad.

Am I being naive or oversimplistic?

(I still wish it had been a Lib Lab coalition; I joined the Fabian Society yesterday.)