CHAPTER 3: THE GOVERNMENT AND ITS PROGRAMME |
43. Before the 2010 election the
Conservative and Labour parties did not publicly discuss what
might happen in the event of a hung parliament. That was understandable:
both parties campaigned to secure an overall majority. However,
the facts that the coalition was formed in private negotiations
after the public had voted and that the resulting coalition agreement
had not been put before the public have led some to argue that
coalition government formed on this basis is not as democratically
legitimate as single-party government. It is said that no-one
voted for a coalition.
44. The major parties in Westminster
have made clear that they will each put forward their own manifestos
for the next election. As such, any future coalition is likely
to be formed through post-election negotiations producing a new
government programme that has not been put before the electorate.
Two proposals were made to us by academic experts on Parliament
and the constitution for how any shortfall in democratic legitimacy
from this process of post-election government formation could
be countered. In this chapter we examine them.
Proposal for a prime ministerial
45. The first proposal is that one
of the first items of business of the House of Commons in a new
Parliament should be a vote to invest the new Prime Minister.
If the Commons actively nominates the Prime Minister then, it
is argued, that person will have clear legitimacy to form a government.
46. Similar processes are already
followed in Scotland and Wales. After an election to the Scottish
Parliament or the National Assembly for Wales the Parliament or
the Assembly has 28 days to nominate someone as the First Minister.
The person so nominated is recommended to Her Majesty by the relevant
Presiding Officer. Failure to nominate a First Minister within
the 28 days results in another election.
47. Professor Hazell suggested that
an investiture vote would "clearly [demonstrate] that the
Prime Minister commands the confidence of the new Parliament."
He argued that voting at a general election was in effect a two-stage
process: voters elect members of the House of Commons, and the
House of Commons then decides who shall form a government. He
argued that an investiture vote would make that two-stage process
clearer. In the context
of a hung parliament, the need for a vote to invest a Prime Minister
would set a timetable by which the shape of the new government
should be clear.
48. A prime ministerial investiture
vote would be a significant change to the UK's constitutional
processes for forming a government. At present, after a general
election the Queen calls on the person who appears best placed
to command the confidence of the House of Commons. When there
is a single-party majority, that is straightforward. When there
is not, the matter may become more difficult. The first test of
whether a Prime Minister has the confidence of the Commons is
at the vote on the Queen's Speech after an election.
A prime ministerial investiture vote would, in effect, make that
vote the test of confidence, rather than the vote on the Government's
programme set out in the Queen's Speech. Although defeat on the
latter would not automatically lead to a general election (under
the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011), it provides
a strong signal of Parliament's confidence in the government.
An investiture vote would also reduce further any remaining prerogative
of the monarch over who becomes Prime Minister after an election.
49. If an investiture vote were
established, it would presumably be required after every general
election, regardless of the election result. A process would be
needed to govern what would happen were the Commons to refuse
to nominate a Prime Minister; in such instances it might be that
a second general election would follow, as in Scotland and Wales.
Where a party had won a clear majority at an election and the
identity of the next Prime Minister was clear, an investiture
vote might alter the current practice of a change in Prime Minister
the day after the election. Where the Opposition won an election
with a majority it might, in effect, mean a defeated Prime Minister
would stay in No. 10 for perhaps a fortnight after an election.
Professor Hazell acknowledged that a departure from the "'removal
van' attitude ... might prove uncomfortable" where there
was a clear victory for the opposition party.
The public might struggle to understand why a Prime Minister who
had lost an election was able to stay in office when the identity
of the next Prime Minister was clear.
50. Another disadvantage of having
an investiture vote is that it would be a significant step towards
a presidential style of government. Prime Ministers are constitutionally
primus inter pares, and are in post as part of a collective
government rather than in their own right. Parliament's confidence
in the Prime Minister cannot constitutionally be distinguished
from its confidence in the Government he or she leads.
51. A further complication of the
proposal for an investiture vote is that there could be a situation
where an incumbent Prime Minister's party lost an election; a
new Prime Minister took office; that new Prime Minister lost an
investiture vote; so a third Prime Minister would take office
within the space of around 10 days.
52. We do not recommend the creation
of an investiture vote for a Prime Minister after an election.
It would result in our system of government becoming more presidential
and would be a step away from the principle that the Government
as a whole should command the confidence of the House of Commons.
Proposal for Commons approval
of coalition agreements
53. A related question is whether
a coalition government's programme should, in future, be put to
the House of Commons for approval.
54. Were this proposal to materialise
there would need to be clarity as to what document future coalitions
put forward for approval. In 2010 three documents were produced:
a five-page coalition agreement was produced immediately following
the formation of the Government. A more detailed 30-page Programme
for government followed two weeks later. There was also a
short Coalition agreement for stability and reform, which
covered procedural matters.
55. Lord Donoughue, Head of the
No. 10 Policy Unit from 1974 to 1979,
told us that "the coalition agreement has not been approved
by the electorate" so should be put before Parliament "for
approval and amendment".
56. It is argued that approval of
a coalition agreement by the House of Commons would in effect
be a public test of whether MPs support the formation of the coalition.
Such approval may be considered particularly important when a
coalition agreement forms the detailed plan for government policy:
the Minister for Government Policy, Oliver Letwin MP, told us
that the coalition agreement is implemented "extraordinarily
carefully", with officials going through "month by month
every item on it to see how far we have progressed".
He said that he would have no objection to putting a coalition
agreement before the House of Commons, though in 2010 the result
would probably have been predictable. Witnesses did not feel that
the House of Lords should be invited to approve a coalition agreement.
57. Other witnesses questioned what
would be gained by subjecting future coalition agreements to a
Commons vote. A vote on a new government's first Queen's Speech
has the effect of being a vote on whether the Commons approves
of the government's programme.
Lord Norton of Louth, Professor of Government at the University
of Hull, said, "the key point is whether the Government maintains
the confidence of the House of Commons".
If there were to be a vote on a coalition agreement, it is unclear
what the status of votes on a Queen's Speech would be. For example,
there would be uncertainty if a coalition government had its coalition
agreement approved by the House of Commons at the start of a Parliament,
but then lost a vote on their its Queen's Speech.
58. It is also unclear what would
happen if a vote on a coalition agreement were lost by a government.
A general election could not immediately follow: under the Fixed-term
Parliaments Act 2011 an election is triggered only if the Commons
passes a motion expressly stating that the House has no confidence
in Her Majesty's Government, and then a fortnight elapses without
a new government being formed.
It is conceivable that a coalition agreement could be rejected,
but that the House would, in a subsequent vote, express its confidence
in the government. It is also possible that a coalition agreement
could be rejected because the Commons disliked one element of
it, rather than because it disapproved of the coalition as a whole.
Another possibility is that an amendment might be passed disapproving
of one measure in a coalition agreement. If that measure was crucial
to securing a deal between the parties, what would happen next?
59. Even if a coalition agreement
was approved, it could not bind members as to how they voted subsequently
on individual measures.
So approval of the package as a whole could not be assumed to
be approval of all of its partsthough doubtless government
whips would from time to time suggest to potentially rebellious
members that they had already supported a measure by voting to
approve a coalition agreement.
60. A vote of the House of Commons
on the Queen's Speech is a well-established and effective means
of determining whether that House has confidence in the government
of the day generally, and whether it supports its legislative
programme in particular. The vote on a coalition government's
first Queen's Speech acts as a vote on whether the House of Commons
has confidence in the coalition or not. We do not think that a
vote on future coalition agreements would improve the constitutional
position; it could serve only to confuse matters. Accordingly
we do not consider it desirable that future coalition agreements
should be put to the House of Commons for a vote.
45 QQ30-31. Back
The processes are set out in section 46 of the Scotland Act 1998
and section 47 of the Government of Wales Act 2006. A First Minister
has always been nominated in time after the four elections to
each legislature since devolution. Back
Hazell, written evidence. Back
Technically, a motion is proposed by the Government proposing
an humble Address to Her Majesty thanking her for the Gracious
Speech. In the House of Commons, amendments are proposed to the
motion. At the end of the four- or five-day debate on the Queen's
Speech, the motion as a whole is voted on. Defeat on that motion
has been considered an expression of no confidence in the Government,
and so led to either the resignation of the Government or a general
election. The latter is no longer automatically possible under
the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, so the constitutional status
of the Queen's Speech may be unclear. Back
Professor Hazell told us that the Royal Household were keen to
stress that the monarch does not possess any remaining discretion
As the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 made the process for dissolving
Parliament exclusively statutory, an Act of Parliament would be
needed to effect such a change. Back
Hazell, written evidence. Back
A similar point was made by Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Q125). Back
Between 1974 and 1979 there was a majority government, a minority
government and the Lib-Lab pact. Back
In 2010, Liberal Democrat parliamentarians voted in private on
joining the coalition; Conservative MPs did not. It has been reported
that Conservative MPs would vote if coalition negotiations took
place following a future election (see "Conservative MPs
will vote on joining second coalition", The Daily Telegraph,
18 December 2013). Back
Q138. In subsequent written evidence, Mr Letwin set out how the
Government reports on this progress, both publicly and internally. Back
For example, Q11. Back
Subsequent Queen's Speeches may of course contain measures not
foreshadowed in a coalition agreement. In addition, as mentioned
in the previous chapter, it is possible that government-formation
negotiations would not have concluded by the time of the first
Queen's Speech of the Parliament. In this situation, the vote
on the Speech clearly cannot be taken as an endorsement of the
government that emerges at the end of negotiations. Back
The wording for this motion is prescribed in section 2(4) of the