I am working on material for Tuesday’s Second Reading debate on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. The Bill itself was subject to a critical report by the Constitution Committee. The report identified problems with the speed with which the Bill was introduced – there is no obvious hurry – as well as with some of the provisions. One particular problem lies with the definition of votes of confidence – there isn’t one. Under the Bill, if the House passes a vote of no confidence, and it is certified as such by the Speaker, then the Government resigns and if a new Government is not formed within 14 days a general election is held.
Clearly, if the House passes a motion ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’ then there is no problem. However, votes of confidence are not confined to such explicitly-worded motions. There is even a problem if the House defeats a motion moved by the Government expressing confidence in the Government: the House has not passed a motion of no confidence in the Government but rather negatived a motion of confidence. However, the real problem arises with motions which do not include the word confidence. If the Government loses a vote on, say, the Queen’s speech or the Second Reading of - or, more problematic still, a major amendment to – the Finance Bill, does the Speaker certify it as a vote of no confidence? The Bill assumes the elephant definition – namely, you know one when you see one. This, though, has the potential to bring a Speaker’s decision into the realms of political controversy. The Government’s defence is that the Speaker already has the responsibility to certify Money Bills under the Parliament Act 1911. He does indeed – but the difference is that there is a statutory definition of what constitutes a Money Bill. The Speaker will be on his own when it comes to a defining a vote of confidence.
This, I fear, is not the only problem with the Bill….