Wednesday 5 May 2010

Tory call to rewrite the rules rejected

The arguments of Conservative frontbenchers who were authorised to brief newspapers that David Cameron wants the rules for governing hung Parliaments to be ignored or broken, about which Next Left blogged yesterday, have been rejected by constitutional experts, as The Guardian reports.

Peter Hennessy, the Attlee professor of contemporary British history at Queen Mary University of London. He said: "Do they want to put a danger of the monarchy being politicised? It is not a good idea to appear to tangle with the palace, is it, and put the Queen in any danger of appearing to be politicised? Clegg and Cameron have had a whinge. It may not seem perfect to them, but I'm afraid that is what the British constitution is. They can't Tommy Cooper style – just like that – the British constitution."

Professor Robert Hazell, director of the constitution unit at University College London, said the convention was not just designed to protect the Queen.

"Yes, it is in order not to leave the Queen in the lurch. But, just as important, it is in order not to leave us in the lurch. What the Queen is there to ensure is stability and continuity. In the old high Tory phrase: the Queen's business must be carried on. We must always have a government. It isn't just Brown's privilege or right to remain in office as the incumbent prime minister. It is actually his duty, because we must always have a government."

A Guardian editorial argues that the Tory demand reported in the same paper yesterday would be "unconstitutional" and that the party has little to gain by challenging the rules, which would resolve the issue within a fortnight or less.

The Conservatives, according to a story in the Guardian yesterday, are growing restless: if they win the most seats, they want Gordon Brown out immediately. But unless they win an overall majority – which by tradition brings about an immediate change of government – that demand would be unconstitutional.

A Telegraph piece by Royal biographer Kenneth Rose stresses the importance the Palace places on the rules which insulate it from political controversy or contested decisions:

A constitutional monarchy cannot afford the corrosion of such controversies. That is why, if the Queen is faced with a hung parliament, rules and formalities are laid down to constrain her influence.

Telegraph home affairs editor Philip Johnston agrees about what the established constitutional rules are, though notes that these will be politically argued over.

There are two fundamental rules of thumb: the government must carry on, and the Sovereign must not be involved. If it is clear that there is a party with an overall majority of 326 seats or more, then Mr Brown will have no choice but to tender his resignation to the Queen, who will ask David Cameron to form a government. If the Tories are short of 326 seats but have more than Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined, that is also likely to precipitate Mr Brown's resignation.

Johnston says that, if there a range of possible combinations in a hung Commons, any post-election attempt to put together a Lab-LibDem deal would be controversial but that "constitutionally, this would be proper. It would be put to the test when the new government goes to Parliament on May 25 with its Queen's Speech". He also argues that a Prime Minister who will not be able to secure Commons' support should expedite matters.

Johnston is right that there are probably several hung Parliament scenarios (such as where the leading party had 310+ seats, or where Labour and the LibDems combined had fewer seats than the Tories) where the outcome would be predictable, and I would expect a Prime Minister to seek to resign on the Friday morning, having secured the agreement of opposition parties and the Palace.

In a less, it is unlikely that it would take a full fortnight to resolve the issues.

The objection is not to the Conservatives being able to argue publicly that they have "won" - that is up to them. They can expect others to argue - especially political reformers - that a victory without a majority of either votes or seats is incomplete at best, and they may yet need to do what their manifesto says and "invite" others to join or support a government after all.

What was absurd about the briefings was the attempt to set up the claim that it would be unconstitutional or illegitimate to follow the existing rules.

Meanwhile, Next Left's widely discussed blog post on this issue has now made it as far as the New York Times news pages today.

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