Some people have criticised the analysis of the impact on the FTP Act on the power of the executive and accused me of being confused. I am afraid it is they who are confused. Most of their criticism seems to boil down to clinging to old notions of ‘confidence and supply’ and ‘confidence of the House’, notions superseded by the FTP Act.
Lets recall the political circumstances and purposes of the FTP Act. It was conceived by a coalition Government intent on implementing what could be very unpopular austerity policies. They wanted to ensure that they “hung together” lest they “hang separately” for as long as possible – the five years allowed between elections.
They wanted it to be as difficult as possible for (a) them to be turfed out of office and (b) a new election to be forced upon them before their five years was up.
The only serious restraint was they couldn’t frame an Act that made no allowance for either of these things, but they could frame one that made it as hard as possible to achieve either.
In the past defeat of a Government in the House of Commons was often a very grey area – it could or could not be regarded as a “confidence”missue depending on many things, including how the Government chose to interpret it.
It was this that gave rise to the myth that any defeat on “supply” or “finance” motions was tantamount to a vote of no confidence. It never was but it suited Governments to let everyone think it would be, with the intention but not always the effect, of restricting rebellions.
They had to have something in the FTP Act to allow for a Government to be turfed out during the fixed-term so they made it as simple, and as hard, as possible. Hence the well-defined “no-confidence” procedure which removed all the uncertainty of vague “confidence of the House” traditions it replaced. Now the new well-defined motion of “no confidence” was the only circumstance in which the Government would fall.
All other types of rebellions and defeats became irrelevant, except perhaps politically. Thus the Government could be defeated on an issue of war (traditionally one regarded as a “confidence” issue) and carry on regardless (the Syria defeat).
So the new arrangements had the intended bonus of allowing their back benches to let of steam by rebelling, whilst being safe in the knowledge it would not lead to the fall of the Government. Given what they expected would be a fractious Parliament, this was a sensible move.
They had to make it as hard as possible to replace one Government with another during the fixed term. Hence the restricted “no confidence” motion and crucially the fact that a new Government requires a positive vote of confidence. As I explained in my post, this makes it more difficult to replace a defeated Government because it requires a majority to “sign up” to confidence in the new Government, something some of them they may not want to be seen to be doing.
Remember the arithmetic of the 2010-15 Parliament, which is what the framers of the FTP Act were thinking about. If some combination of LD or even Tory rebels, Labour and other parties managed to pass a “no confidence” vote the positive “confidence” requirement would have made it virtually impossible for a Labour plus Government to have been formed (as is discussed is Andrew Adonis’s excellent book on the 2010 negotiations).
The “two-thirds” restriction on a vote to dissolve Parliament was just the icing on the cake.
So the FTP Act was designed, as far as is feasible, to cement the Coalition Government in power for the full five-year term. It will also now make it easier for a minority (Labour?) government to hang onto power after May 7th. But back in 2011 the Coalition partners were mostly concerned with protecting themselves, and weren’t thinking that far ahead. Now they might, ironically, be the victims of the ‘law of unintended consequences’.