There has been much brouhaha from people who should really pay closer attention to the details about the proposals as part of the UK's new coalition agreement for a fixed-term parliament to require a vote of 55% of MPs to dissolve it.
The essential thing to remember is that the government is not Parliament. The government is formed from among the ranks of Parliament, but the two are different entities and the two motions proposed reflect this:
- A motion of no confidence is Parliament expressing a lack of confidence in Her Majesty's Government, and can be passed - as today - with 50% of voting members plus one member. If it passes the government falls and we need to find a new one.
- A motion of dissolution is Parliament expressing a lack of confidence in itself, and in its ability to produce a viable government from among its ranks. It will be able to be passed with 55% of MPs voting in favour. If it passes Parliament is dissolved and a general election is called.
It looks a lot less menacing when phrased in this manner, and what's really inexcusable is the number of MPs who really should already know these kind of details sounding off about how outrageous the 55% threshold is. Is it really? We're looking here at the same parliamentarians who passed the Scotland Act 1998, which defines the parameters under which the Scottish Parliament functions. The Scottish house already has a mechanism to dissolve itself in this manner - but there it requires a two-thirds majority. In other places with Westminster-style parliaments this is not uncommon.
What's really happening is that with fixed-term Parliaments, the Prime Minister relinquishes the right to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament at a time of his or her choosing. There therefore needs to be a new mechanism to give Parliament the ability to dissolve itself - as a no confidence motion only forces the resignation of the government.
In a coalition government or under proportional representation, it's quite likely that there will be multiple coalition possibilities. If the current Con/Lib coalition were to fall to a confidence motion, there would be nothing to stop Labour trying to put together a coalition of its own (perhaps the 'coalition of the progressive' touted last week) and being invited to form a new government by the Queen if it looks like they can make it work. This is essential if we are to move away from a de facto two-party system, but also to prevent tiffs among coalition partners from forcing elections at the drop of a hat. Only if a new Government can't be found would Parliament elect to dissolve itself and force an election, and compared to the countries where 2/3 is the requirement I don't think 55% is an entirely rebellion-proof threshold.