Constitutional implications of coalition government - Constitution Committee Contents


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.[45]

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 investiture vote

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.[46]

47.  Professor Hazell suggested that an investiture vote would "clearly [demonstrate] that the Prime Minister commands the confidence of the new Parliament."[47] 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.[48] 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.[49] 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.[50]

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.[51] 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.[52] Professor Hazell acknowledged that a departure from the "'removal van' attitude ... might prove uncomfortable" where there was a clear victory for the opposition party.[53] 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.[54]

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,[55] told us that "the coalition agreement has not been approved by the electorate" so should be put before Parliament "for approval and amendment".[56]

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.[57] 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".[58] 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.[59]

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.[60] 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".[61] 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.[62] 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.[63] So approval of the package as a whole could not be assumed to be approval of all of its parts—though 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

46   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

47   Hazell, written evidence. Back

48   Q17. Back

49   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

50   Professor Hazell told us that the Royal Household were keen to stress that the monarch does not possess any remaining discretion (Q17). Back

51   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

52   Q19. Back

53   Hazell, written evidence. Back

54   A similar point was made by Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Q125). Back

55   Between 1974 and 1979 there was a majority government, a minority government and the Lib-Lab pact. Back

56   Q1.  Back

57   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

58   Q138. In subsequent written evidence, Mr Letwin set out how the Government reports on this progress, both publicly and internally. Back

59   For example, Q11. Back

60   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

61   Q11.  Back

62   The wording for this motion is prescribed in section 2(4) of the Act. Back

63   Q11. Back

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