Monday, 27 April 2015
What’ll the Romans ever do for us?
I had intended to write a piece under this title, reviewing the proposals in the various party manifestos that are relevant to town and country planning, but they are all so vague that it is pointless to waste time on them. There are various proposals for more house-building, including the possibility of ‘garden cities’, plus further encouragement to develop brownfield sites, but on the past performance of all three main parties over the past 20 years one has to treat these proposals with a considerable degree of scepticism, especially as none of the parties seems to have any idea of how they are going to deliver these extra houses in practice, having conspicuously failed to do so in the past.
Proposals relating specifically to planning reform are rather thin on the ground, and we may be in for a rather quieter time in that regard compared with the stream of significant changes made by the coalition government in recent years. But if the civil servants in De-CLoG are not going to be kept busy with preparing new legislation, they may turn their minds to a consolidation of the primary planning legislation. This was last consolidated in 1990, and so we are perhaps overdue for a further consolidating Act. I won’t personally welcome this, as it would mean that we would have to re-learn all the section numbers with which we have become so familiar over the past 25 years, but I would have to agree that it would make administrative sense.
The final factor which dissuaded me from writing a review of the election manifesto proposals is the extreme uncertainty as to the outcome of the election. I have a strong feeling that all the party manifestos will be just so much waste paper on May 8, and quite a few of the bright ideas put forward by various parties will have to be jettisoned in the course of the intense negotiations that are likely to follow an inconclusive election result.
Incidentally, it has become increasingly obvious that journalists commenting on the likely scenario after 7 May are pretty clueless as the constitutional law and practice that will govern the course of events in the aftermath of the election. The first thing to bear in mind is that all the members of the present coalition government are still in post, and this will remain the position on the morning of 8 May (even if some of those ministers no longer have parliamentary seats). I dare say ministers are not spending much time at their desks right now, being too busy campaigning around the country, but they will still be receiving their red boxes, and the business of government is still being carried on.
There is no rule or constitutional convention that requires a Prime Minister to ‘concede defeat’ and resign after losing an election. If the outcome of the election does not give any single party a Commons majority, it is in fact more sensible for the PM (and the rest of his government) to remain in post until it becomes clear whether a new administration can be formed, led by one party or another. Each of the two main party leaders (Cameron and Miliband) will no doubt urgently explore the possibilities in talks with other parties, and if Cameron, as the incumbent PM, thinks he can carry on, then he is free to meet the new House of Commons and to put forward his programme, and see whether the Commons will support him or not.
One thing that has become clear is that in these circumstances, when it is likely to remain very unclear as to which party could in fact form a viable government, the Queen has no intention of becoming embroiled in what is likely to be a messy political situation. HM is therefore unlikely to open the new parliament in person – it can be done by a commission, in the same way as Royal Assent to Bills and the Prorogation of Parliament. There would be no Queen’s Speech, and Cameron (if he decides to adopt this course of action) would simply have to set out his programme in the Commons. Sooner or later, he would be obliged to table a motion of confidence, and if the government loses that vote, the provisions of the Fixed Parliaments Act will kick in.
On the other hand, it may become clear on 8 May that the game is up for the Tories, and that Cameron stands no chance of commanding any sort of Commons majority, no matter what way the cards are cut. In that case (while Cameron remains in post at least as a caretaker) it will be up to Miliband to see if he can come to some arrangement with other parties (however informal it may be) which would allow a Labour or Labour-led government to function with the support of a majority of MPs in the Commons. If or when he signals that he has reached a position where he believes this is possible, Cameron would then resign, and Miliband would be invited by HM to form a government. I don’t propose to speculate as to how that government might be composed and, in particular, whether any members of one or more other parties might or might not be invited to join it. In any event, the viability of this government would probably have to be tested, sooner or later, by a confidence vote in the Commons, and if it is lost then (as I mentioned earlier) the provisions of the Fixed Parliaments Act would come into play.
There has been some wild talk in recent days about the ‘legitimacy’ of a government formed by a party which does not have the largest number of MPs in the Commons, but this is complete nonsense. It has always been the position that any party leader who appears to be in a position to command a Commons majority (whatever its make-up) may be called upon to form a government. Loose talk about whether a government does or does not have a ‘mandate’ is also just hot air. All that matters is that the government, whatever its political composition, and whatever the composition of its various supporters in the Commons, is able to carry on the government of the country with the support of the House. Teresa May’s assertion that such a scenario would be the worst constitutional crisis since the Abdication has been greeted with the derision that it deserved.
To be coldly objective, it seems extremely unlikely that David Cameron will be able to cobble together a Commons majority after May 7, whereas it appears that there could quite possibly be a comfortable Centre-Left majority for a government led by Ed Miliband, always provided that some of the perhaps rather rash statements made by him, by Nick Clegg and by the Scottish Nationalists as to whether or not they would be prepared to reach some sort of understanding with various other parties can be put aside, and that they can find a way of co-operating with each other to carry on the government of the country.
© MARTIN H GOODALL