Tuesday, 27 July 2010


I have been complaining about the lack of Bills issuing forth from the Coalition after the Queen's Speech.

Well one momentous Bill has now been published.

The Coalition does not want to be destabilised by a vote of no confidence in the Commons.  The Queen and hence the PM has hitherto had an unfettered power to dissolve Parliament.  The only limit was Septennial Act 1715 which despite its title and after amendment in 1911 requires Parliaments to end after 5 years.  The Queen's powers are confirmed by section 7 Succession to the Crown Act 1707:

Provided always and it is hereby declared That nothing in this Act contained shall extend or be construed to extend to alter or abridge the Power of the Queen Her Heires or Successors to prorogue or dissolve Parliaments

The Govt is rightly concerned that it would be easy for a simple majority of MPs (disaffected Lib Dems and Tories voting with Labour etc.) to vote no confidence in the coalition and convention would then require a resignation and a new general election.  

In an interesting quid pro quo the Queen (in effect the PM) will give up the right to dissolve Parliament on a whim and at a time of her (his) choosing and in return the Commons will only be able to remove a Govt and obtain a dissolution (and a new general election) if 2/3rds of them vote for such an outcome.  In other words there will only be a dissolution if 5 years are up or if 2/3rd of MPs vote for it: see clause 3 of the Bill: 

Dissolution of Parliament
The Parliament then in existence dissolves at the beginning of the 17th working
day before the polling day for the next parliamentary general election as
determined under section 1 or appointed under section 2(6).
Parliament cannot otherwise be dissolved.

Indeed section 7 of the 1707 Act above is amended by the Bill:

Succession to the Crown Act 1707 (c. 41)
In section 7 of the Succession to the Crown Act 1707 omit “or dissolve”.

I don't want to debate the rights and wrongs of this politically - I merely want to observe that this is yet another momentous constitutional change which only requires a majority of both Houses of Parliament (or indeed just the Commons if the Lords prove recalcitrant - as they might) to come into force and which is clearly driven by political expediency.  

If another nation changed its constitution merely to keep its Govt in power and could do so - so easily - by relying upon its majority in the legislature - we would all laugh about such corruption.  But without an entrenched constitution which requires special majorities and procedures to protect it from amendment (say a referendum for changes of this size and importance) we are left with a system which allows Govts to change the constitution to keep themselves in power.  

Whilst it always remained a theoretical possibility that the Monarch might sack her Prime Minister and dissolve Parliament of his or her own motion: It remains an important psychological safeguard against an otherwise unconstrained executive.  The Queen will now be left with the power to sack her Govt of her own motion but without the power to dissolve Parliament - unless the Commons obliges with the necessary motion.  It is just that sort of anomaly which could be and should be put right in a written constitution presaged by a national debate and a referendum - as opposed to this damaging and expedient piecemeal reform.

1 comment:

  1. Could not agree more - this Bill ought not to pass into law. It is dangerous and self-serving. There should always be the requirement that a government which has lost the support of the House of Commons must depart and an election be called. This could be by a single vote and, if that arises, then so be it.

    I think it is also relevant to add that, at the 2010 general election, nobody actually voted for any form of "coalition". People voted for a party of their choice but it produced the "hung parliament". The coalition was then cobbled together by the politicians.

    Keep up the blogging - good stuff here.