Changing constitutional conventions

Lord Norton

The Constitution Committee of the House has today published its report on Constitutional implications of coalition government.  You can read the report here.  Among its recommendations are that as far as possible the convention of collective responsibility should continue to apply under a coalition government and that, where parties in a coalition cannot agree, there should be a clear process in place to govern the setting aside of collective responsibility

In my evidence to the committee (pp. 70-85 in the evidence volume here) I covered both the impact of coalition government on collective responsibility and the implications of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.  The two points are not unrelated in that the terms of the Act mean that  the Prime Minister can no longer advise the Queen to call a general election.  He therefore loses a major weapon in enforcing loyalty on the part of coalition partners and his own backbenchers.  The Committee report touches upon this aspect in discussing a vote on the Queen’s Speech, which it notes is a way of demonstrating confidence in the government of the day.  The problem now is that if the Queen’s Speech is voted down, that by itself cannot force an election.  Under the 2011 Act, there are only two ways in which an early election can be triggered.  One is by passing the motion ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’, with no new government then being formed and winning a vote of confidence within 14 days.  (The other is if the House votes by a two-thirds majority for an early election.)  The terms are quite precise.  Losing a motion traditionally regarded as one of confidence – as on the Queen’s Speech – is not sufficient to meet the terms of the Act.  There are thus significant implications flowing from the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act which have not yet been fully comprehended.

11 comments for “Changing constitutional conventions

  1. Dave H
    13/02/2014 at 4:31 am

    It’s a reflection on how laws are pushed through for political reasons without considering the knock-on effects. Isn’t this what the House of Lords is supposed to do?

    The law of unintended consequences can’t be repealed.

  2. Gareth Howell
    13/02/2014 at 8:25 am

    “Prime Minister can no longer advise the Queen to call a general election. He therefore loses a major weapon in enforcing loyalty on the part of coalition partners and his own backbenchers”

    Like falling on your own sword.

    “problem now is that if the Queen’s Speech is voted down, that by itself cannot force an election.”

    Like a bee resting on the back of a beekeeper’s hand. No problem.

  3. maude elwes
    13/02/2014 at 10:37 am

    I read as much as I could in one sitting of the document LN put up for us to digest. Which is extremely interesting and gives enormous insight into the machinations of Parliament at work. Informative, real and quite invigorating.

    However, what struck me as I plowed through, was why, rather than centre on what to do ‘if,’ they didn’t work on how to make sure what they fear didn’t happen again. And how you do that, is by taking what you already are fully aware of and know inside and out, yet refuse to address or change, is the will of the people.

    If political parties offer policies that people respect, regardless of how it will affect them personally, they will vote for it en masse. More so if they believe it to be an honest attempt to bring their country back to a stable economy with an acceptable morality. Which is, first and foremost, to put the UK and its people first. After all, this is what you are elected to do.

    This would be the first step toward election of strong government without the need to rely on ‘precedent’ should you be, once again, faced with no definitive result.

    Democracy is rule by majority and our majority do not want what is on offer from any of the LIB, LAB, CON, policies we are faced with. Therefore, why not change your mantra to that of ‘captivity’ by the will of the people? Is that really so difficult? And if so, why? How is it that when politicians run for office they spout what they believe we want to hear, but, once in said office, return to the failed and despised policies relentlessly followed for decades? What is going on?

    ‘Our adversarial system is counter to the working of a functioning coalition’ so how can that sit well with action needed to change what people will no longer accept? ‘Any ‘programme’ of government would still need approval of the nation if democracy is to continue.’ Are you expecting this to appear with ‘any’ future coalition? Perhaps you have in mind repetitive referendum and Direct Democracy as a sideline? Otherwise that doesn’t strike me as a realistic view of the future should we see other unresolved ballots.

    Who takes over in the interim is an absurd dilemma. For example, the US goes to the polls to elect the next President in November of their electing year and the new administration doesn’t take over until January following. Are you really suggesting this could not be the simple solution here? Why the need for all this cringing, ‘what if’ wrangling? Surely it can’t be that offensive for a leader running a country to the point of general election to remain in office for a few weeks whilst clarification for the next admin to set up office takes place? How small minded to assume otherwise.

    Minority government cannot be described as Democracy. Therefore, without a mandate no coalition has authority to rule. So, if this is to continue as a form of acceptable government in this country, regardless of precedent, you have to openly explain to the nation we are no longer in a position to call ourselves an open democratic society. You also have to explain that in so doing, any administration can follow whatever ideology it chooses under the auspices of their position to rule no longer being regarded as subjugation.

    • Dave H
      14/02/2014 at 3:31 am

      “Surely it can’t be that offensive for a leader running a country to the point of general election to remain in office for a few weeks whilst clarification for the next admin to set up office takes place? How small minded to assume otherwise.”

      Isn’t this what happened last time? Gordon Brown and his ministers remained in post until it was clear that he was not going to be able to form a government, at which time he went to see the Queen to resign and pave the way for her to appoint someone else.

      I mentioned elsewhere recently that it is not necessary in law to be an MP or peer to be a minister, and that’s how the government functions while the election machinations rumble on.

      • maude elwes
        14/02/2014 at 11:30 am

        @Dave H:

        Clearly, you did not read the discussed document referred to. Or, if you did, you missed the voicing of this issue.

        I was simply offering dismay that this should remain a dilemma for an ongoing topic at debate. And, perhaps you didn’t pick up on the discontent of the outgoing PM at the time this came up. If my memory serves me well, it was toys out of pram time.

    • Honoris Causa
      14/02/2014 at 5:50 pm

      It was only by seeking advice from Frau Merkel that they knew precisely what to do at this last election, so it is scarcely surprising that Baroness Jay, Lord Irvine,Earl Howe, LN and others want to get it right in the entirely possible event that it happens again.

      It does seem a lot of time to spend on such an issue but the Constitution Committee has several other irons in the wordsmiths’ fire as well. The “whatif” scenarios in which they
      and LN specialize, include the consequences of a Scottish referendum “yes” vote, which the Westminster bureaucracy will certainly advise on, effectively, but crystallizing opinion
      is the chosen responsibility of the Committee.
      LN’s Hull advisers also put their minds to it, for the benefit of all.

      • maude elwes
        17/02/2014 at 1:52 pm

        The Scots have been hit below the belt in this last escapade on first, the use of Stirling and then the EU’s mouthpiece tellin them they won’t be part of Europe should they dump the right wing government they haven’t wanted for 50 years or more.

        Seems odd to me that a referendum of in or out was agreed by Westminster and allowed to roll on, until they realised they are likely to be knocked out of the ‘colony’ altogether.

        Here is a discussion on the issue of Scotland that isn’t often heard. It also covers a lot more than that with regard, to political policy and reality.

        • Dean B
          19/02/2014 at 1:38 pm

          To be fair, I don’t think that any UK politicians dispute that Stirling would be part of an independent Scotland.

    • Rhoderick Gates
      21/02/2014 at 6:54 am

      “Surely it can’t be that offensive for a leader running a country to the point of general election to remain in office for a few weeks whilst clarification for the next admin to set up office takes place? How small minded to assume otherwise.”

      Because in that regard a government that’s been given the boot by the electorate doesn’t firmly feel that boot.

      They can be asked by their successors for advice and so on anytime.

  4. Daedalus
    17/02/2014 at 5:01 pm

    The recent House of Lords reform bill was defeated in the Commons because its members feared that primacy might be given over to the upper house. So what is it about the House of Lords that members of the lower house fear so much?

    Likely it’s the independence of peers that deny whips the power they have in the Commons. This was the nature of English democracy for over 650 years until Parliament in 1911 awarded an MP salary of £400; immediately members lost their independence and the whips gained enormously in power. Parliament for the first time had abandoned a long established wisdom.

    It’s the nature of such wisdom to deny the very thing that created the wisdom in the first place. So Parliament was pushing against an open door. Nobody could really find a reason why the wisdom existed so the resulting vote became an act of blind faith by some and not by others. A political reason however would be created that would later allow many to abandon democracy.

    As the century progressed the politics of negative democracy weak at first would strengthen. In 1937 MP salary was raised to £600, in 1946 to £1000 and in 1957 to £1750. But notice that members many who had faith the original wisdom are trying to observe it as best they can.

    By 1971 most of the preceding generation in Parliament had gone and with them their influence. The Top Salaries Review Body (TSRB) like Parliament in 1911 cannot see any reason why salaries cannot be increased. As they do, the politics of negative democracy finds increasing expression as more and more registered voters abandon the polls.

    MPs’ are lining their pockets at democracy’s expense and democracy cannot defend itself by placing its mark on a ballot paper.

    Come 2010, the country is on its knees brought about by the very same political parties that successfully challenged a long established wisdom a century ago. A General Election: for the first time the politics of negative democracy really sees expression resulting in this coalition government. Thousands have abandoned the polls.

    Under this foreign democracy that has established itself in the Commons it’s honourable to do nothing because you risk bring ruin down up someone who serves your best interests. How can a very ordinary person such as your MP get a job paying £66,536 year if democracy sacks them? And what can be said of those that do vote; are they French? Under English democracy it was far too precious a commodity to give anybody a political excuse for abandoning it.

    • Rhoderick Gates
      21/02/2014 at 1:15 pm

      Daedalus, you seem to be criticising M.Ps for having a salary. No offence, but that’s not the topic.

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