Supporters of fixed term parliaments, like Unlock Democracy director Peter Facey (formally Charter 88), have been quick to claim that those of us opposed to raising the bar for a parliamentary dissolution vote are misguided. We fail to understand the 55 per cent lock-in is necessary to guarantee fixed-term parliaments; in fact, it should be higher. They call this an ‘enhanced majority’. It is also a proposal for an enhanced monarchy; bizarrely leading democracy campaigners seem okay with that.
They point out that the Scottish Parliament requires a two-thirds majority. This is true. But it is also true that the Scottish Parliament has 28 days to select a First Minister or be dissolved. Moreover, the First Minister cannot succeed to office without securing a simple majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament; it would be possible for a simple, but determined, majority of MSPs to force a dissolution.
This flags up an important difference between the UK and Scottish parliaments. The Scottish Parliament appoints the First Minster, but the Prime Minster is appointed by the Queen.
If the current coalition were to fail, either because the Lib Dems pulled out or were sacked by David Cameron using powers reserved to him, the 55 per cent rule would protect the new minority Conservative government from dissolution. A simple majority of MPs could pass a vote of no confidence in that administration, but it is unclear what effect that would have.
The danger to our democracy is that the Queen would be forced to decide on Cameron’s successor and that this process would lead to a politicisation of the monarchy.
Amazingly, Peter Facey is unconcerned by the unintended consequence of rushing through poorly thought out legislation for fixed term parliaments without consultation. By text he writes; ‘Under convention the person she feels can command support in the House. This what nearly happened in Canada last year. I agree we need better rules, but you don’t get them by doing nothing.’
But bad legislation may not be better than nothing, especially when 55 percent would often be too low to stop the PM at the head of a majority government from dissolving parliament to suit party interest. That the Tories have 47 percent of the seats in parliament, just enough to block dissolution, is especially suspicious and makes this look like legislation designed with just this election result in mind.
By email Peter Facey says:
We have already proposed prior to the election along with organisations like Democratic Audit that the PM should be elected by Parliament rather than use the Queens Speech as the way of confirming a government.
What you are pointing out is the difficulty of our unwritten constitution that depends on convention.
This is a so what. The current proposal appears not to include a reduced role for the monarch and a PM elected by parliament. It is unlikely the Conservatives would support a move against the monarchy.
Removing incumbent Prime Ministers’ ability to call an election at a time to suit themselves is desirable, but we must be alert to the unintended consequences of such a move. A politicised monarchy is too high a price to pay. Given that neither our upper chamber nor head of state are elected, it appears we simply don’t have the democratic infrastructure to support fixed term parliaments.