Barely two days into David Cameron's premiership, this blog confidently predicts which will be the first proposed measure to be abandoned by his Conservative-Liberal Democrat (or as he generously calls it, "Liberal Democrat-Conservative") coalition ministry.
As part of their May 11 agreement to govern jointly, and in line with Liberal Democrats' preference for fixed-term Parliaments, the two parties agreed to secure the deal for the full five years of the new House of Commons by undertaking to provide for premature dissolution of the legislature (in other words, an early election) only if 55% or more of MPs vote in favour. Historically the decision to go to the country for a fresh mandate has effectively been the preserve of the Prime Minister, though dissolution is formally the act of the reigning monarch, who may enjoy some discretion in the matter in exceptional circumstances.
The proposed provision is intended to lock the two coalition parties into co-operating for the whole period of their pact. Their reasoning is that in the event of a parting of the ways, neither the Tories nor all other parties combined (including Liberal Democrats) will be able to seek a new majority at the polls, as neither rival bloc could get the 55% in the House of Commons. Since neither can thus "cut and run", each will have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo which alone guarantees each a role in a government enjoying a large majority.
So far, so good. The problem is that should the coalition break down despite its leaders' best efforts and the two parties find themselves on opposite sides of the House, no party on either side would be able to assemble much beyond the barest of majorities. Should some of the smaller parties oppose a successor Administration on key votes while refusing to support its opponents in an alternative governing majority, government business could grind to a halt. And with neither prospective governing bloc able to approach the 55% needed to call a fresh election, in the absence of agreement across the House there would be no way out of the deadlock without effectively nullifying the proposed requirement.
The fundamental problem here is that as it stands, the proposal makes an early election impossible in precisely the circumstances when it's most needed - that is, when no convincing majority can be found for anything. In an evenly-divided Commons, it's a sure bet that should one side favour an election as offering it the chance for more seats, the other will calculate that it's in its interest to stick with the current Parliament and dig in its heels. That's why the 55% requirement is at odds with the very stable government its architects claim to seek.
It's a sloppy proposal, born of two parties' keenness to cement their alliance by pledging their commitment to long-term collaboration. Their agreement not to seek an early dissolution in the absence of an unlikely degree of parliamentary backing is entirely legitimate as an arrangement between them. But in proposing to make their mutual undertaking binding on all parties (probably through a "binding resolution" of the Commons) and then, worse still, to incorporate it in legislation applying to future Parliaments, the coalition partners have confused political expediency with constitutional desirability.
The proposal has already been questioned on grounds of both workability and constitutionality. It does appear to have been drawn up in the heat of the moment as a mutual assurance of good faith between two parties concluding a compact unfamiliar in UK politics. As permanent legislation or even as a resolution deemed to bind the present Parliament, it could prove at best problematical, at worst profoundly dangerous. The governing parties have enough on their plate without fighting on such questionable ground. They should accept that they've already gone to remarkable lengths to pledge themselves to each other, and leave it at that.