Not got a parliamentary majority? In a coalition that might just become unstable? Then why not change the rules to make sure you can stay in power?
That’s exactly what David Cameron is doing. And with the acquiescence of his new best friend Nick Clegg too.
We have a parliamentary democracy in the UK. That means that we elect individual MPs rather than voting directly for a President or Prime Minister. Whether this is the best system or not is perhaps a question for another day.
Governments are formed by whichever political leader can command a majority in the House of Commons. And that government, be it of a single party or a coalition, is then responsible to our representatives. Should the House of Commons pass a vote of no confidence in the government, then it has to resign immediately and call a general election.
But a change has been proposed by our new Conservative and Liberal government that would fundamentally weaken the accountability of the executive to the legislature.
In a section of their joint declaration entitled Political Reform there is the promise that “legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.”
There has not been much made in the media of this, but I see it as a fundamentally undemocratic piece of skulduggery that is designed to enhance government power. And shamefully the so called Liberals are going along with it.
What does this realignment of the political goalposts mean in practice?
At present a vote of no confidence simply requires a majority. So if there are 645 MPs in the Commons (assuming the five Sinn Fein representatives do not take up their seats) then 323 MPs can force the government from office. Or even less if there are vacant seats, MPs who are ill and don’t vote, etc.
But with a gerrymandered threshold of 55% then up to 358 MPs are required to oust the government.
Here’s a scenario to consider.
A situation arises where the two parties in the coalition government disagree fundamentally. There is no way to resolve the matter and so the Lib Dems decide to leave. They go to the House of Commons and a vote of no confidence in the government is called.
Now, for sake of argument, let’s say that every other party agrees with the Liberals that the Tory government should go. And that every MP in the House votes with their party line.
The no confidence vote would look like this:
For a new election: 338 (all non government MPS)
Against: 306 (all Tory MPs)
A clear defeat for the government, right?
Because less than 55% of the House has supported the motion it fails. And so a government that does not have the confidence of our elected representatives is allowed to survive.
In fact, in this scenario, which isn’t the most unlikely I could dream up, the government could never be defeated unless some of its own MPs voted with the opposition!
This may all seem a bit like the rantings of a political anorak.
But it is fundamentally important in a parliamentary democracy that there is a way to dismiss a government that has lost the confidence of the House of Commons. Take that possibility off the table and the power of government is significantly increased at a stroke.
And that should worry anyone who truly believes in democracy.