Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 1 March 2010

Tories dissolving a hung parliament quickly would be hypocrisy

Something I have heard frequently is that if we were to end up with a hung parliament after the general election with David Cameron's party having the largest number of seats then he would quickly go to the country again to try and get a majority.

Firstly, I am nowhere near convinced that this would be the case. If the result was so close as to deliver a hung parliament then there would be no guarantee that Cameron would end up in a better position after a second election. Indeed he could end up in a worse position and perhaps not even have the largest number of seats.

But secondly, let's assume that he does decide to dissolve parliament after a few months, say in the Autumn. Wouldn't this go against everything that the Tories normally say about our electoral system? They say that it gives the public the opportunity to express their clear view which should then be respected. Even though I disagree with our electoral system, to be fair to the Tories they are usually consistent on this and when they have lost in the past they have accepted the "will of the people". They have also of course accepted this will when they have won.

So why would they not accept that the will of the people is to give no one party overall control? There is nothing in our constitution that says one party must have an overall majority. By the Tories usual logic, there is in fact a very strong argument for saying that if there is a hung parliament then that is the will of the people and Cameron should respect that and try to govern as part of a minority or coalition government.

I do not see why Cameron should pick and choose which "clear message" from the electorate he should listen to.


Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

True though this is - "There is nothing in our constitution that says one party must have an overall majority" - it is constitutionally vital that the government can command a majority in the ' Commons to get its business through. When it cannot, it should resign - as governments do when they lose confidence votes, being the devices used to show that the government cannot command a majority.

If Cameron called an election, it would be because he believed that the composition of the 'Commons no loner represented the will of the people. He is entitled, constitutionally and likely for a number of other sound reasons too, to ask the people afresh what is their then current view. And as you point out, the Conservatives have never stood against the will of the people when expressed in an election.

The only extra risk arising from starting with dissolution of a hung Parliament in contrast to one where the government enjoys a majority would be that the people may resent being troubled again so soon. Clearly though, if Cameron thought this was so, he might not act.

Realistically, an early dissolution is probably the only sensible option. Note this is what happened in 1974. The financial position of New Labour and perhaps other opposition parties may give him some encouragement too.

David Weber said...

I think Cameron would probably want a good excuse to dissolve Parliament -- such as a budget being voted down, say.

Of course, the *really* interesting scenario would be the Tories getting less seats for more votes. How the Lib Dems act would be incredibly interesting.

John Q. Publican said...

Cardinal Richlieu: "command a majority in Parliament" is much easier when the commands are autocratic; that's why rigorously whipped parties find it easiest to achieve. When you can literally order a majority of MPs to do as they're bloody well told, you get Thatcher.

Do you really think that there is zero constitutional alternative to Thatcher and Blair, in a country whose previous century of administrations were more often coalitions than not? The "parties" did not look as they do now, but governance happened.

It happened by having to keep a majority of MPs happy with your policy. You'll note that most of Labour's problems have been generated by the fact that not even most Labour MPs supported the policies, but were forced to vote them through anyway by the liberal use of the whip, the leak and the threat of being deselected in favour of someone younger and cuter at the next election.

Mark is exactly right here. If no one party dominates parliament, then our constitution does have an answer; someone needs to do enough deals with enough other people that they can command a majority. And then they have to keep them all happy.

The reason it looks impractical right now is that the tribal, divide-and-rule rhetoric of post-industrial British politics means that it's very difficult for either a Labour politician or a Conservative politician to achieve this. They all hate each other personally, now.

They hate each other so much that even when they fundamentally agree, as they have for the last 10 years, they still fight. Labour have executed a program of moralistic legislation that would have been a wet-dream for a 1970s Tory. That's one reason the Tory grass-roots have been pushed so far to the right; New Labour are camping on what used to be their ideological lawn.

Could the Lib Dems do it? No. Both parties hate them for being viable these days, which 30 years ago they weren't.

Would a hung Parliament be a good thing? Oh yes. The Thatcherite swing away from governance by consent towards governance by fiat has had 18 years of Tory and 13 years of Labour misrule to prove its value to the voter. It has signally failed to do so.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

@ John Q Publican - Of course it is true that commanding a majority is easier with the rigorous whipping - what is why it is done, I had always supposed, and because there is no constitutional alternative to enjoying a majority in the 'Commons as a means of passing legislation.

Coalition government is not prevented by either a whipping system (shown by previous coalitions employing same) nor by the expression of democratic will requiring a 'Commons majority. I do not follow the connection you make to Blair and Thatcher.

Mark's point is mainly that Cameron would be unprincipled to seek a fresh mandate after running a minority or coalition (formal or loose) for only a short while. This is not correct for the reasons I state. It is not a matter that runs to the effectiveness or otherwise of the Constitution (saving I suppose that the Constitution is effective in allowing a prime minister to seek a dissolution at will).

I doubt your analysis of the way political parties operate would be universally recognised, and not at all in a whip's office.