British Coalition Politics and Royal Prerogatives

By Nash, Michael L. | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

British Coalition Politics and Royal Prerogatives


Nash, Michael L., Contemporary Review


THIS is a time of political flux for Britain coping with the Coalition Government formed by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats after the election in May. Perhaps it has been developing for a long time, but the proposals of the Coalition Government for constitutional change have brought it sharply into focus.

The centre piece of the constitutional shake-up, as The Times reported on July 6th, is a plebiscite or referendum on whether to adopt the Alternative Voting (AV) system in place of the present First-past-the-post method. This would itself impose fixed five-year Parliaments. (Australia is the only major country to use AV and it has now produced the current uncertain election results.)

Fifty MPs would lose their seats under boundary changes to the constituencies, and the number of MPs would therefore be 600 instead of the present 650; constituency sizes would be equalised as much as possible. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, made this a condition of any legislation to introduce Alternative Voting.

Of considerable significance is the proposal that the power to dissolve Parliament, at present exercised by the Prime Minister, using the Royal Prerogative, should move to MPs, who will need a two-thirds majority in a Commons vote to force an election.

This signified the first major U-turn of the Coalition Government. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister, had previously proposed that a 55 per cent Commons majority would be needed to dissolve Parliament after the loss of a No Confidence motion. This proposal had drawn the ire of David Davis, the Tory MP whom Cameron had defeated for the leadership of their party. Davis, writing in The Daily Telegraph, had said that the proposal to alter the circumstances under which a Parliament can dismiss a failing government 'is a massive constitutional change and strikes at the heart of Parliament's ability to hold the Executive to account'. He went on: 'the proposal could even compromise the position of the monarchy and one of the most important roles of the monarch is to dissolve Parliament, in the event that the government can no longer command sufficient votes in the Commons to govern effectively. This is why a vote of No Confidence is fixed at 50 per cent plus one. If you cannot command that number of votes, you cannot deliver either your legislative programme or your budget'.

On the proposals for the new Dissolution rules, both Labour and some Conservative MPs have questioned the need for new rules, that in effect would give a Prime Minister who had lost a vote of No Confidence two weeks to try and stay in power. Then an election would be held automatically if no leader could form a government.

Jack Straw, the Shadow Justice Secretary and a Cabinet Minister in every Labour Government since 1997, said that the two-thirds majority requirement to dissolve Parliament was 'constitutionally superfluous', because either a government enjoys the confidence of the House, or it does not.

Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at the University of Oxford, and author of The Monarchy and the Constitution, said that a majority government could still cut and run by ordering its MPs to vote for a dissolution, citing the German examples of Willy Brandt in 1972 and Helmut Kohl in 1983.

The Times, in a leader, was cautious about the proposals. 'The Times believes in representative parliamentary democracy. We also believe in effective government. The two have increasingly come into conflict with one another under the First-past-the-post system ... (but AV) does not make a truly meaningful step towards PR (Proportional Representation) but it does increase the likelihood of a Coalition administration. (Although) this Hung Parliament is working well, so far, it should hardly be the ambition of electoral reform to produce a system less likely to deliver an outright winner'. It continued: 'There is much political calculation in all three parties' positions. …

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