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The 2010 UK Coalition Government and Constitutional Change

The UK Coalition Government which comprised of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats after the 2010 General Election was as active as New Labour in pursuing changes but, mainly because of conflict between the two parties, was less successful at getting changes through.

Proposals for changing the electoral system for general elections to the Alternative vote were defeated at a referendum in 2011.

Plans for an elected House of Lords did not get the support of enough Conservative MPs and in retaliation the Liberal Democrats failed to vote for Conservative proposals to reduce the number of MPs to 600 and make constituencies almost exactly the same size.

The Conservatives would have liked to pursue the idea of a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act but the Liberal Democrats effectively vetoed this.

Fixed Term Parliaments

The most import change carried out was the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011.

This took away the Prime Minister’s power under the Royal Prerogative to call a general election at a time of his or her choosing and sets general elections for every five years with the next election determined under the new rules as 7th May 2015.

Earlier elections in the five year cycle can be called by the House of Commons either:

  • Through two-third of members voting for or no one opposing a resolution to that effect
  • If the Government loses a vote of no confidence by a simple majority and if a new Government is able to get a vote of no confidence passed within 14 days.

The implications are more complicated than might appear. This effectively removes the Queen’s personal prerogative to refuse a dissolution if she feels that it is unreasonable and the Queen’s power to dissolve Parliament and recall Parliament are also removed (the Lord Chancellor will recall Parliament.

It may still be possible for a Prime Minister with a majority to put forward a motion of no confidence and get it passed to force an early election.

Equally a minority government might resign but the opposition parties could combine to prevent a general election.

The Constitutional Convention that a Government resigns immediately after a no confidence motion is modified by giving a Prime Minister 14 days to find an alternative. Where no party has an overall majority this might allow a Prime Minister to switch coalition partners without an election.

Other Actions

The Scotland Act, 2012, following the recommendations of the Calman Commission devolved a number of financial and some other powers to Scotland

The Localism Act, 2011 removed important legal restrictions on local authorities and gave communities and very local councils the power to bid for services and take over buildings and create their own local land use plans. It also required referendums on whether to have elected mayors in the big cities. The regional development agencies were abolished. Elected Police and Crime Commissioners were created in 2012 thus introducing more direct political control over the police.

Impact on Constitutional Conventions

Because the Constitution was based on a two party system the Coalition caused problems for constitutional conventions:-

How would the Salisbury Convention, that the Lords do not reject legislation stemming from the Government’s manifesto, work in relation to a Coalition Agreement that the two parties drew up after the election as a basis for legislation.

This is not the same as each party’s manifesto and contains proposals that were not in either manifesto. The Convention depends on the idea of the will of people but the voters had not voted on the Coalition Agreement.

The Convention of Cabinet Collective Responsibility was a problem when there were two parties in Government who wanted to keep separate identities on policies and explain to party members why they do not like some policies that they have had to accept because of the other party.

The Convention requires ministers not to criticise Government policy in public but Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business, Innovations and Skills Secretary, kept up a running critique of the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer’s economic strategy.

The decision by David Cameron to submit the proposed attack on Syria to a vote in the House of Commons has more or less created a new Constitutional Convention.

The Executive has been able to declare war by means of the Royal Prerogative without the agreement of Parliament. Blair asked for a vote on Iraq but knew he would win because of Opposition support and even though it was probably only on the insistence of Robin Cook as Leader of the House. For Cameron also to ask for a vote and lose set a clear precedent.