By Jonathan Isaby
During the latest proceedings on the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill yesterday, Bill Cash led an attempt to make a pre-full term general election subject to a motion passed by a simple majority of MPs, rather than two thirds of MPs, as the Bill proposes.
Moving his amendment to clause two of the Bill, which was also signed by Ed Miliband on behalf of the Opposition, he explained:
"The clause is the turn of the screw by the coalition into our democratic system of government, which, at its essence, is about the individuality and votes of conscience of MPs, irrespective of the Whips and the patronage system. It creates a permanent constitutional change through a passive, silent revolution—the most silent revolution since our Parliament began. It is being done without a mandate of any kind for any party, in any manifesto, in any part of the political system."
"My amendment 4 is based on a simple point of principle, namely that a motion can be passed by a simple majority of one, as has been the case from time immemorial—from the very inception of our parliamentary process in what is sometimes described as the “mother of Parliaments”. That is now being changed in a manner that will seriously alter the method whereby a Government may fall."
"Why have I tabled this amendment? It is because I object to the new-fangled idea that an early election would result from a motion, perhaps proposed by the Opposition, any MP or even the Government themselves, that requires—this is contrary to all constitutional precedent and history since our Parliament first sat representing the electors of this country—the support of two-thirds or more of those eligible to vote as Members of Parliament. In other words, we are talking about seats and not the persons present in the House of Commons. That is a profound and dangerous doctrine."
"The coalition originally proposed 55%, but that was so manifestly absurd that the coalition agreement was then torn up and the figure was replaced with two thirds. If not 55%, why two thirds? The Scottish Parliament—I am using this analogy because it has already been raised, but I think that it is completely irrelevant—does not form Her Majesty’s Government. Decisions in time of war, a Finance Bill or any of the other great levers of power are issues are determined, and will continue to be determined, by the United Kingdom Parliament. One such great exercise of power at a most important time was the confidence motion of 10 May 1940, which was passed, as it happened, by the Government, and it led to the demise of Neville Chamberlain’s Government, because everyone knew he had to go. I do not regard the Scottish parliamentary experience as relevant. If not two thirds, why not 75%, 60% or any other number that Harry Potter’s wand might conjure out of thin air?"
He then moved on to the issue of votes of confidence, which the Bill would still make subject to a simple majority, but rather than causing an immediate general election, there would be a fortnight for a new government to be formed which could command the confidence of the Commons, before a new election had to take place:
"In that 14-day period, with shenanigans worthy of Lord Voldemort and the servants of the Dark Lord, an attempt would be made to keep in power a Government who had lost the confidence of the House of Commons—that is, the representatives of the electorate. That attempt would keep the Government on their feet, while the public would be left watching the spectacle of streams of members of the Cabinet and prospective members of the Cabinet from the Opposition parties striding up and down Whitehall, in and out of offices, all under the baleful influence of the Cabinet Secretary, as they tried to hatch yet another coalition agreement, no doubt based on very different principles from those for which the electorate had voted, in accordance with the parties’ respective manifestos or—dare I use the words?—their promises."
"What does such innovation say about the coalition? It certainly demonstrates its determination to stack the cards firmly in favour of the coalition and the Whips. There may well be one third whom the coalition cannot take for granted or persuade, but I fear that that attitude is taking power away from Parliament—which, after all, is made up of the representatives of the people—and not giving it back. If the same principle were followed for any other motion, Parliament would simply not be able to carry out its business. I fear that what is proposed is not modernising, but is a reactionary measure. It is not progress, but a step backwards, along the primrose path, undermining the constitutional principles that have governed our conventions and been tested over many centuries. The proposal has been conjured out of thin air, for the ruthless purpose of maintaining power irrespective of the consequences. In my opinion, it is a great shame that it has been put forward on the proposition that—as was said in the general election and at the conference that took place recently—we are supposed to be “Working together in the national interest”. I fear that on this Bill, on this matter, we are working together against the national interest."
"It is because we want to provide for fixed-term Parliaments that the Bill specifies that an early general election can be triggered only if there is a majority of at least two thirds. If it were possible to have an early general election by way of a motion that gains a simple majority, we all know that in most circumstances that would mean that we have given the power back to the Prime Minister. If he felt an early general election was in the interests of the governing party and that view was shared by the governing party, the motion would be passed and we would have a general election, and we would therefore not have fixed-term Parliaments."
"I am not surprised that my hon. Friend has tabled this amendment as it is clear from his speech that he does not like the concept of fixed-term Parliaments at all, and that instead he is happy with our current arrangements, which he is entitled to be. However, given that the Opposition have said they are broadly in favour of fixed-term Parliaments—albeit maybe for four years, not five—I cannot understand why they have supported the amendment because, as I have said, it drives a coach and horses through the entire proposition."
"I think that amendment 4 is flawed. If it is pressed to a vote, I urge my hon. Friends to oppose it. The Government’s position is very clear. We want fixed-term Parliaments but we want there to be two circumstances in which there can be an early general election: when there is a traditional motion of no confidence, in which a simple majority is enough to say that a Government have lost the confidence of the House; and when the House uses its new power to force an early election, which is decided by two thirds of the Members of the House. The same provision is in the Scotland Act 1998 for the Scottish Parliament."
When put tot the vote, the amendment was defeated by 314 votes to 235, with a total of nine Conservative MPs rebelling agaisnt the whip and backing the measure:
- Peter Bone
- Bill Cash
- Chris Chope
- Bernard Jenkin
- David Nuttall
- Jacob Rees-Mogg
- Laurence Robertson
- Richard Shepherd
- Andrew Turner