Is 55% too low?

There are fears over the Lib-Con government's 55 per cent threshold for a successful dissolution resolution. But this could be overplayed.

Analysis by UCL’s Constitution Unit suggests that fears over the Lib-Con government’s 55 per cent threshold for a successful dissolution resolution. But a fixed-term parliament of five years would be “long by comparison with most other [parliamentary] systems”.

Yesterday’s coalition agreement of the Liberal Conservative government said:

“legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed term parliaments of five years.  This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.”

The Guardian today quotes Scott Styles, a senior lecturer in law at Aberdeen University, who described the move as “dangerous”. He went on to say:

“This is a major and fundamental alteration in our constitution; what is being changed is not a right of the PM but a power of the Commons. The British constitution is very simple: he who commands the confidence of the House is PM, he who loses that confidence must resign.

“I simply do not see how such a rule is credible or can be enforced: a majority is a majority is 51%; not 55% or 60% or 80%.”

Meanwhile constitutional expert Peter Hennessy, of Queen Mary University of London University, told BBC News:

“Fifty-five per cent of MPs needed for a government to lose a confidence vote – I am not sure that’s a very sensible change.

“The tradition is that one [vote] is enough and I wouldn’t tinker with that. I would leave that well alone. It looks as if you are priming the pitch, doctoring it a bit. Not good. It’s meant to be a different politics, new politics.”

But in a briefing note on the proposed changes prepared for Left Foot Forward by UCL’s Constitution Unit, Robert Hazel writes:

“The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition agreement proposes a 55 per cent threshold before Parliament can be dissolved. This is intended to strengthen the hand of the Lib Dems: Cameron could not call an early election without the consent of his coalition partners, because the Conservatives command only 47 per cent of the votes in the Commons.

“Some commentators appear to have confused a dissolution resolution moved by the government, and a confidence motion tabled by the opposition. On no confidence motions tabled by the opposition parties, the normal 50% threshold should continue to apply.”

But while fixed term parliaments are becoming “increasingly common”, five year terms would be “long by comparison with most other [parliamentary] systems”. Robert Hazel writes:

“Australia and New Zealand both have three-year maximum terms. The legislatures of Canada and many of its provinces have four-year fixed terms, as do most Australian states. The devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have four-year fixed terms. Ireland’s lower house has a five-year maximum, as in the UK. So a five year term is long by comparison with most other Westminster systems.”

All this begs the question of whether 55 per cent is too low a threshold for a dissolution resolution. If the point of a fixed term parliament is that the governing party cannot dissolve parliament to suit itself, perhaps the threshold should be two-thirds as in both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

The Constitution Unit of UCL has prepared a longer briefing note on fixed term parliaments.

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