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I wrote about prospects for a minority government if no party gets an overall majority at the General Election, and some of the things that might need to change at Westminster if it’s to work. Moves away from its majoritarian and adversarial culture to one based much more on negotiation and mediation, compromises and trade-offs, and an acceptance of a more dominant role for Parliament as against the government. But will such a Parliament last?
Traditionally the Prime Minister asked the Sovereign for a dissolution. In the modern era such requests were always granted. Sometimes the government had lost the confidence of the Commons (1924 and 1979), run out of steam (1951), or politics had been turned upside down and the new arrangements needed popular endorsement (1931). But in most cases in the past 100 years the decision was in the hands of a PM who was looking to call the election at the best time for their party, as when Harold Wilson in 1966 and 1974 went to the country to gain a bigger majority. That is no longer the case. The date of the election on 7th May was set down in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) and, so long as that Act remains in force, all future elections will take place on the first Thursday in May in the fifth year after the last election – subject only to two special circumstances that are in the hands of the House of Commons.
The first is that MPs vote for an “early parliamentary general election” by a special two-thirds majority of the whole membership – 434 members or more. The second is a vote of no confidence in the government. If that happens there is a breathing space of 14 days in which an alternative government can seek the confidence of the House – if that occurs, the early election is off.
The question is this: if the numbers in the Commons are anything like I used as a basis for my previous piece (Con 275, Lab 275, LD 35, SNP 40, UKIP 5, Green 2, Speaker 1, all Northern Irish 17) what is the likelihood of the Commons voting for an early election?
The first way to get an early election is to gain the votes of 434 MPs. If the numbers are as I set out or any other likely mix and if MPs vote on party lines it would need the Conservatives and Labour to join forces to vote for an early election. That might happen within a few weeks if a government cannot be formed and a mood of general despair develops. But once a government is formed, whether a majority coalition or a minority government of one party or more, it seems very unlikely that 434 MPs could be found to bring it to an early end.
Among the smaller parties, only the DUP may be gung-ho for another election – after all it’s what they live for and most of their seats are safe. A large SNP block won’t want to ruin their new position of influence, the Liberal Democrats who have squeezed back won’t want to go again, and neither will the other odds and ends. The (main) governing party will only want a new election if the polls say they will win it, in which case the other large party won’t agree. And vice versa. It’s possible that as the Parliament goes on, a sense of inertia and shambles (or major crisis) might lead enough people to think an election is needed though it would have to be clear that an election would not make things worse.
A vote of no confidence with a simple majority may be a lot easier to achieve, but to what purpose? The same constraints will apply. A minority government might manipulate a no-confidence vote (at the risk of looking silly) but they would then face the prospect that the other main party may build a one-off majority and take over. People will simply have to work out and accept ways of coping with government defeats without triggering “no confidence” hysteria.
The other way that MPs can overcome the provisions of the FTPA is by scrapping it. There is some loose talk in the media – for instance Simon Heffer described it in the New Statesman as the “ill-conceived” and “ill-considered” Act “which senior politicians in all parties now wish to repeal”. Perhaps, or perhaps not. In practice it’s unlikely because the same restraints will still apply – why should opposition or smaller parties give this extraordinary power to whoever happens to be PM when he can use it against their interests?
It seems to me that the sooner the parties and the media start to think about how they can make the new No Overall Control Parliament work beyond the short term – and possibly for a full five years – the better we will all cope with the aftermath of this election.
First published by Liberal Democrat Voice on 12th March 2015
Original article: http://www.libdemvoice.org/tony-greaves-writescant-poll-wont-poll-44966.html