Today is polling day for national elections in Wales & Scotland, council elections in much of England, the Leicester South by-election, and the Referendum on a new electoral system for the House of Commons. As all the political commentators are saying, it is the first major electoral test of the coalition; and all the parties are frantically trying to downplay their chances so that whatever the results, they can be spun as a success.
I am not going to indulge in speculation on the result of the voting, but I am interested in the speculation on what happens if the Libdems get the kicking in the ballots that everyone expects. Will it trigger an early general election?
The premise of much of this speculation is that Cameron will emerge strong, having not had too many losses at a council level and having decisively got the result he wanted in the referendum. By contrast Ed Miliband will have lost Scotland and the referendum, and perhaps not scored the thousand plus council seat gains being expected. Worst of all is Nick Clegg, ending the process even more weakened. With all of this, and a rebellious rump of right wing MPs, the speculation supposes that the Prime Minister would be best off going for an election that he might win, rather than limp on with a lame duck deputy who wants to further aggravate the Tories with Lords Reform.
What this forgets is the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill that is currently completing it’s electoral journey.
This Bill will soon be law and would make it illegal for the Prime Minister to ask the Queen for a dissolution in those circumstances. My understanding is that there are only two ways of having an early election before the end of the five year fixed term. Either two thirds of MPs vote for early dissolution, or the Government loses a vote of no confidence and then no alternative government emerges after 14 days.
This makes the options much more interesting for everyone except the Prime Minister and Nick Clegg. A two thirds majority means it needs both Labour and Conservatives to want a dissolution, as things stand in this Parliament. That seems very unlikely. But the dynamic around the vote of no confidence gives much more power to disgruntled Libdem activists.
Much as happened in 1932 when the National Liberal Federation pushed the Liberals out of coalition, activists could turn on Nick Clegg and force him to lead their party out of Government. Or find a new leader who will.
The assumption has been that this will never happen because David Cameron would respond by calling an election when the Libdems would get wiped out. But under this new bill, this can’t happen without the collusion of Labour in the dissolution vote, or by Cameron forcing a vote of no confidence. If he forced such a vote, a Libdem abstention means Cameron wins the confidence vote and has to continue as a minority government, until the Opposition parties are ready to combines and defeat him. The other option of the Libdems doing a deal with Labour to form a new coalition seems a little unlikely right now, even if it fits more naturally with most Libdem instincts.
Either way it seems that Royal Assent for the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill might backfire on the coalition who saw it is a way of supergluing them together. Far from it. It may give unhappy Libdem ex-councillors the real possibility of forcing the party out of government and into a short period of Opposition whilst a weakened David Cameron limps on at the head of a minority government.