"But Holmes," I ejaculated. "The 55% rule hidden in the coalition agreement. Surely it’s the end of democratic accountability as we know it."
"Hah!" he cried. "You see Watson, you see but you do not observe. The hysteria of people who ought to know better about the 55% rule is an attempt to disguise their real concern about fixed term parliaments."
I found this hard to follow. Holmes observed my confusion.
"Watson – fixed term parliaments were supported by Labour and Liberal Democrats at the election. They have been introduced for the devolved parliaments and assemblies – but some people are concerned that they do not work. They may encourage artificial manipulation of economies, and deals mid-parliament to change governments. But those in favour believe that taking the power to determine election dates out of the hands of the Prime Minister prevents possible abuses of the political system."
I nodded – my mind addled.
"If people do suppoert fixed term parliaments then you need a mechanism to deal with issues where the government may change during the term (for example, through by-election defeats, or because a coalition breaks down). In those cases where there is a fixed term parliament there needs to be a mechanism to change the government without necessarily requiring an election."
"but how would you change the government?" I enquired exasperatedly.
"Watson, under our current rules (where there are no fixed terms) a vote of confidence brings down the government, AND it is argued forces a general election (although to be honest Watson it is not clear that there is a rule to that effect for the resignation of a government if satisfied that a new leader would have the confidence of the Commons would mean the Queen need not grant a dissolution)."
I cast my mind forward to Mr Callaghan. Could Michael Foot really have formed a government if Mr Callaghan had resigned? I shook my head.
"In a fixed term parliament, the rationale for the fixed term is that it cannot be used for political advantage. Thus fixed term parliaments need to distinguish between the vote of confidence (which forces down the government and gives the opportunity for the creation of a new government) – and the vote to dissolve the parliament and hold a general election."
Two distinct ideas? I might as well be back in Afghanistan. What was the alchemy of which Holmes spoke? Two distinct concepts? I was confident that a Glasgow Member of Parliament would be wilfully unable to pick up the nuance.
"But the two can’t be separated, Holmes," I protested.
Holmes dismissed me peremptorily. "That distinction between the confidence vote and the vote for dissolution is embodied within the british constitution already my dear Watson. In Scotland. In the Scotland Act 1998. Under those rules a first minister can be dismissed and appointed by a simple majority in the parliament (50% plus 1 of those who vote). If the first minister is dismissed then section 46 provides that a new first minister (and government) has to be appointed within 28 days. If there is not, then section 3 provides that a new election must take place."
"So a confidence vote can force an election?"
"Yes. If no new government can be formed."
"So what about Parliament forcing a new election?"
"Well, Watson in addition section 3 of the Scotland Act provides that the usual fixed terms for elections can be displaced by a 2/3 majority of votes in the Parliament."
I started to see that confidence and dissolution could be separated. But surely this was beyond the wherewithal of the Glasgow Labour MP. But perhaps he was attempting to use this for political advantage? I dismissed the thought. Surely not even a West of Scotland Member would do that.
"So, Holmes," I asked, "What is the 55% rule?"
"My dear Watson it is found in the coalition agreement and the wording there is quite clear that it only applies to dissolution. It therefore does not affect a vote of confidence, although the detail has not yet been expressed. I deduce though from the general position of fixed parliaments elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere around the world."
"So, " I asked, "a vote of confidence can still remove the government?"
"But what then?"
"A palpable hit Watson. For we do not have the details as to what happens then."
Holmes paused and clasped his fingers together.
"The general approach in other systems with fixed term parliaments would be to have something like the Scottish model and provide that a government would need to be formed within a fixed time period ( 28 days, or perhaps fewer) otherwise there would be an election."
I had almost grasped it.
"Do you understand Watson?"
I sat impassive. Then clasped my hand and pushed it into the arm of my easy chair. "No, Holmes. I don’t."
Holmes grinned, and picked up some buttons Mrs Hudson had left lying loose.
"Let’s say the Purple party is in power in Utopia with 43% of the seats." Holmes scattered purple buttons. "The Brown party has 40%." He scattered brown buttons. "And 17% of the representatives are from the Black party." More buttons were placed on the table. "The Purples sit as a minority government with a confidence and supply arrangement with the Blacks." He gathered the purple and black buttons together. They created a larger pile than the browns. "The Browns then change their leader in the second year of Utopia’s four year fixed term parliament." Holmes threw a brlown button into the hearth, and picked up a large brown button from Mrs Hudson’s box. "The new leader introduces new policies. Let us say, Watson that the Browns are in favour of jam today." Holmes laughed. "The Blacks are a fickle bunch. They like this. So, the Blacks and Browns then pass a no confidence motion against the Purples who only promise jam tomorrow." Holmes rearranged the buttons. The combined pile of black and brown buttons appreciably outnumbered the purple buttons. "The effect of this is that the government of the Purples will be forced out. But the key point in fixed term parliaments is that the confidence vote impacts on the government, but it does not force the calling of an election."
I looked bemused.
Holmes sighed. "This is because, unless two of the parties get together to vote for dissolution then the parliament will not be dissolved as there is a threshold in the fixed term parliament that prevents a majority government abusing its power and calling an election.
"But what happens to the government?" I asked. "They have been defeated.
"Well, Watson, now the Blacks pledge that they will support the Browns in government on a confidence and supply basis."
Slowly I realised, "The Browns become the government?" Holmes nodded. "They barter (as their predecessors had) in passing legislation. They rely on the support of the Blacks in issues of confidence."
And Holmes exclaimed, "On expiry of the fixed term of 4 years the election is held."
"But why 55%?"
Holmes thought. "I think this is cynical opportunism. The figure is just beneath the percentage of the coalition parties and would allow them to force an election contrary to the spirit of the fixed term rules."
"So what would you do Holmes/" I asked.
"If the purpose of fixed term parliaments is to stop prime Ministers taking political advantage and call elections and taking account the reality of politics at Westminster and the fact that many parliamentary majorities in recent years have exceeded that 55% threshold the threshold is potentially too low allowing a majority party to use the power to dissolve parliament whenever it liked – ignoring the fixed term."
I sat bemused, wondering why has no-one from the coalition been able to present what seemed from Holmes a perfectly presentable case. And why had they struggled when interviewed by journalists?
Holmes ended, "If people are against fixed term parliaments – let that lie at the centre of their argument. Some are in favour of them, others are against. I, Watson, remain unsure. But the 55% rule (or some higher variant of it) is an inevitable consequence of fixed term parliaments. Let people argue about the real point of principle – the fixed term parliament – and consider its advantages and disadvantages – rather than focusing on a red herring."
Holmes lay down, his arm theatrically raised to his face.
"Leave me now Watson."
I prepared to retire, but urged Holmes, "Please ensure that if you are taking that stuff this evening you avoid the 55% solution."