Debate rages about the 55% rule. Last night's Newsnight amounted to a LibDem confession that it was politically motivated in arithmetic and design; yet some constitutional experts like Robert Hazell say there is little to worry about, since this distinguishes dissolution from confidence, so that no confidence votes can continue as before.
But can they? That seems to me much too sanguine until we know much more about the detail of how the consequences of a no confidence vote would now change. So here are questions which the Coalition should answer - along with my constructive proposal as to how advocates of a 'new politics' might propose that the Coalition seek to regain trust in their intentions over this contentious proposed constitutional reform.
1. The convention is that the Prime Minister dissolves the House or resigns if defeated in a confidence vote.
Would David Cameron promise that he would resign as Prime Minister if he lost a no confidence vote, and was either unable to unwilling to propose a dissolution? Or does he believe he could and should stay as Prime Minister after a no confidence vote was lost?
My reading of the Coalition arrangement is that the latter is the case, so that the Prime Minister could not only remain in a caretaker role, but could secondly take the first opportunity to construct a 'new' government after losing the confidence of the House. What is the government's view of this?
2. The Prime Minister, if they were to resign after a no confidence vote, would have to advise the Queen as to who might have the ability to form a government.
Does David Cameron believe it would, if resigning after losing the confidence of the House, be as legitimate to recommend a party colleague in preference to the Leader of the Opposition?
Even if Cameron believes he could survive a no confidence vote, there might be political reasons why the PM might feel they should follow established practice and resign. My understanding is that he would keep open his options - depending on what could be agreed, he might tell the Queen to send for George Osborne, William Hague, Nick Clegg or for the leader of the official (Labour) Opposition.
If a No Confidence vote can neither secure an election, nor necessarily secure an opportunity for the Leader of the Opposition to form a minority government either, then the route to getting a government out if it does not believe it should go in a stalemate situation is much more opaque than before. (In 1924, both Baldwin and then MacDonald advised the King to send for the Opposition Leader; Rosebery also did so in 1895 even though there remained a Liberal majority in the Commons when the government lost the 'cordite' confidence vote, allowing the Conservatives to govern and then dissolve the House).
3. Does the government believe it could enjoy the right to stay in office indefinitely in a caretaker role, after a no confidence defeat, if no alternative government were agreed between parties? Or will they commit to introducing a mechanism to prevent the possibility of an indefinite "zombie government" carrying on to the end of a Parliamentary term, even where it did not have the confidence of the House?
In Scotland there is a clear time limit of 28 days to appoint a new Prime Minister after a no confidence vote, at which point a dissolution takes place.
At Westminster, if a government lost the confidence of the House, would there be a mechanism to trigger a dissolution if no alternative government with the active confidence of the House were formed? The coalition implies not. On the existing principle that "Her Majesty's government must continue", this suggests a government without the confidence of the House would remain the government for a period of days, weeks or months if negotiations did not form another government. (There could be a dissolution, because everybody wanted one, but what is new is that the minority Conservatives would have a veto over this).
The Coalition may reply that the Conventions on No Confidence votes are themselves not necessarily absolutely clear, though that only really becomes a live issue once one seeks to remove the practice of dissolution from confidence, since there is little doubt about the current "dissolve or resign" essentials.
Earlier this year the Cabinet Office produced rules and guidance how to handle a Hung Parliament, which proved rather important and avoided an enormous legitimacy dispute last week (once everybody decided they would play by the existing rules after all). The Coalition's proposal makes similar guidelines on no confidence votes essential.
So, a suggestion:
4. Will the government now ask the Cabinet Secretary and Speaker of the House to lead a a non-partisan process, involving Parliamentarians as well as external constitutional experts, to record the existing conventions and rules, and to set out options and guidance for how they could be incorporated in a new fixed term agreement?
The draft guidelines should be debated and endorsed by Parliament before any draft legislation is produced or voted on over fixed election dates and, were to remain the government's policy, the new 55% rule.
Could any proponent of the 'new politics' seriously disagree with that as a way forward?