This fixed-term election law is built to last -

This fixed-term election law is built to last

COYNE: To unlock Britain’s election law, you need two keys


I’m quite certain this is wrong:

The mother of all Parliaments has taught Canada a lesson. We have some for her, too.

Britain’s new government has demonstrated that coalition governments are possible, even outside of wartime, in the modern era of Westminster-style parliaments…

New British Prime Minister David Cameron and Liberal-Democrat deputy Nick Clegg have even devised a new plan to ensure stability in a hung Parliament: a five-year fixed term for elections to be set out in law. …

But another part of that agreed law is less likely to fly: changing the convention so that it will take 55 per cent of MPs to defeat the government. That would effectively give Mr. Cameron’s Conservatives, with 47 per cent of MPs, a veto on its own survival….

So the fixed-term bill appears to make it impossible for Mr. Cameron to call an election. But it probably can’t bind Mr. Clegg from splitting away and forcing one – given a pretext, and good polls. And if Mr. Clegg can’t be bound, it’s not impossible for Mr. Cameron to trigger a split by pushing measures the Liberal Democrats can’t accept.

If this were true, that it would take a vote of the 55% of the House to defeat the government — if, henceforth, the standard of confidence would no longer be the support of a majority of the House, but 45% — it would quite literally mean that the Cameron government, with 47% of the seats, could not be defeated. The budget, the Queen’s Speech, its entire legislative program could be rejected, but it could never be removed from office, for the life of the Parliament. The Conservatives could govern as long as they liked, with or without the support of the Lib Dems.

There is no way that any party would propose such constitutionally dubious legislation, and certainly no way that the Lib Dems would agree to it, since it would be signing away the very bargaining power they had just won. It’s nonsensical.

In fact, if you look at the text of the Conservative-Lib Dem accord, it doesn’t say 55% would be required to defeat the government. It says 55% would be required for “dissolution,” that is for dissolving the House and calling an election. This is a crucial difference. Significantly, too, the provision comes at the tag end of the paragraph establishing a fixed five-year term of government. Because it’s the guarantee of it.

What it means is that if the government were defeated in the House — by the usual 50% margin — Prime Minister Cameron could not simply go the Queen and ask for dissolution. He would have to get a vote of 55% of the House to permit him to do so. So he could not wriggle out of the coalition, or the commitment to a five-year term, by engineering his own defeat (still less do what Stephen Harper did, and call a snap election, without even the fig-leaf of defeat to justify the breach).

If he were to propose legislation that was obnoxious to his Lib Dem partners, they could always combine with the opposition to defeat it. But Cameron could not use this as a pretext to force an election, because he couldn’t get the 55% needed for dissolution — not without the Lib Dems. An election would only follow defeat on a confidence matter if the Lib Dems agreed it should; but they might instead decide to enter into a coalition with Labour and the other parties. So Cameron’s power is significantly constrained by the 55% rule, and he can’t get rid of the rule because he’d need the Lib Dems’ votes to do that, too.

For their part, the Lib Dems could not force an election on their own, either: they have enough votes, in combination with the other parties (53%) to defeat the government, but not enough to meet the 55% dissolution standard. Only if both parties agreed (or, more fancifully, if the Tories and Labour voted together) could Parliament be dissolved.

So the two coalition partners could together break their promise of a fixed five-year term, and pay the political consequences. But there is no way one can double-cross the other, and force an election on its own. This isn’t like Canada, in other words. To unlock this election law, you need two keys.

CODA: The Globe story gets this part right, however:

Canada’s fixed-election law had an out, because it had to. Calling elections is the Crown’s power, and our Parliament can’t change that without a constitutional amendment approved by provinces. So the fixed-term law left the Governor-General’s ability to launch elections whole, and Mr. Harper asked for one.

Britain’s similar, but not the same. They have no written constitution, and Parliament can limit the Crown’s powers. Its coalition can pass a fixed-term law.

That much is true. It’s easier to amend the British constitution than ours. It’s not quite true to say, however, that Britain doesn’t have a written constitution. Magna Carta is written down, as is the Bill of Rights 1689 and sundry other documents and laws that together make up the British Constitution. It just isn’t written down in one place. But then, neither is ours. It comprises the 1867 Constitution, the 1982 one, plus all of the constitutional principles, conventions and precedents we inherited from the Brits.