March 2015 could see a Washington-style impasse in the UK parliament over the government’s final budget proposals. The advent of coalition government, fixed terms in office, and a general resurgence of parliamentary power could combine to overturn centuries of constitutional and parliamentary convention.
It is not hard to see why most people have thus far ignored this possibility. There is a dominant myth in Westminster that governments propose budgets and that parliament has only a “nuclear option” – to accept what is proposed or to reject it and in effect pass a vote of no confidence in the government of the day, precipitating a general election. But this myth is nonsense.
The interesting question is why has this myth become so prevalent that it actually shapes political action, especially the lack of rebellions on tax and spend? And under what circumstances might it change? We may be about to find out.
The 20 or so times there have been revolts in parliament over specific tax or spend measures in the past century have nearly all been “non-party” affairs. The political parties – especially the main two – have not sought, in opposition, to discomfort the party in office. The main reason for this, as with many other aspects of our quasi-monarchical state, is that they hope themselves one day to be in office and operate the “crown prerogative” powers of the executive.
Two factors may be about to change that. The first is the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011. This lays to rest, at least in law, the idea that any defeat on a finance or supply motion is automatically a vote of (no) confidence. It spells out precisely what does constitute a vote of confidence, so there is no longer any ambiguity. Defeat on a finance or supply motion is not a vote of no confidence. It might cause huge problems, but it would not automatically lead to an election.
The second is the advent of coalition government. We have already seen that as a direct result of a two-party coalition government, debates about tax and spending options have moved further out of the realms of the “private government of public money”. It is simply much harder to sustain the “private government” of tax and spend in these circumstances. And as the May 2015 general election approaches, tensions between the Tories and Lib Dems could make this even more the case.
All this is also in the context of the most rebellious parliament in modern history. There have been more rebellions in the three years of this parliament than in the period 1945-66 combined – covering 21 years, six parliaments and six prime ministers.
So here is a possible scenario based on the two changes mentioned above. In March 2015 Chancellor George Osborne proposes a highly political budget that seeks not just to differentiate the Tories and Labour, but also the Tories and Lib Dems. It contains some tax and spending proposals – on welfare, perhaps – that the Lib Dems cannot endorse and certainly do not want to enter the general election having been seen to support.
They know defeating the government on some symbolically important measure in the finance bill or supply motions will not automatically bring down the government. What have they got to lose by moving amendments and trying to get Labour and other parties’ support?
Alternatively the initiative could come from Labour – spotting elements of the budget with which the Lib Dems are clearly unhappy, the opposition could move its own amendments and seek to split the coalition parties, in the hopes of inflicting damage on both of them.
It is even conceivable that some “helpful” back-bench Tories might move amendments designed to discomfort their hated coalition partners.
I’m not sure many MPs have yet registered the implications of the new situation – but some certainly have. None of the above might happen, but all of it could. As the Chinese curse has it, “may you live in interesting times”. We may be about to get our very own version of the Washington shutdown.