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Where's the Checks and Balances, Mr. Cameron?

[Update: See Barry’s comments, I seem to misunderstand the proposal.]
The New York Times headlines “
Britain’s New Leaders Aim to Set Parliament Term at 5 Years
.” Unlike the US, where we have an executive branch of government, the UK’s executive is the Prime Minister, selected by and from Parliament.

As I understand things, the primary check on the Prime Minister is that if their choices are sufficiently unpopular, their party defects and votes against them, leading to a new election. This threat of government collapse is a major check on the power of Parliament, as evidenced by how both Cameron and Clegg are repeating that “this government will last 5 years.”

So if Parliament will last 5 years, what are the checks on its power?

[Edit: Steps on scrapping ID cards and ContactPoint are very positive, but to my mind, those are symptoms of the already barely-checked power of the Prime Minister.]

7 comments on "Where's the Checks and Balances, Mr. Cameron?"

  • barryd says:

    The cjoint statement can be read at [link no longer works]

    It seems this current parliment would last for 5 years and then after that the rules are a maximum term of 5 years, dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.

    Part of this is probably to give the financial markets some stability. But a binding motion? Well that can be unbound with enough votes anyway – no act of parliament can bind parliament, so, if the LibDems left the collection and brought a motion to dissovle and had enough votes, it’s certainly possible.

    Maximum fixed terms have been discussed as part of electoral reform to stop the incumbents calling an election early, after sneakily preparing and waiting till they were popular, not as a way to cling to power.

    • Adam says:


      I thought terms were already limited to 5 years because of the Long Parliament.

      • barryd says:

        Oh they are, but the current problem is you can call the election as early as you like, keeping yourself in power for an unnatural length of time, assuming you win.

        • Adam says:

          Ahh, so this makes a government last either 5 years, or a vote of no confidence, whichever comes first?

          • barryd says:

            I believe so, that’s certainly the stated intention, however they appear to be legislating that this government will be for 5 years, no matter what.

            However an act of parliament cannot bind parliament. It’s all very weird. Probably it’ll end in fisticuffs and the queen will have to decide over crumpets and tea.

  • caf says:

    Well the _primary_ check on the Prime Minister is that he owes his role to his position as leader of his party. If he’s making himself (and his party) sufficiently unpopular, his party will dump him as leader. If this happens he’s expected by convention to resign his commission as PM, and his replacement as party leader would be invited to form a government. If he tried to cling to the job in defiance of convention, the Queen would simply ask him to demonstrate that he has the support of Parliament; if he can’t or won’t, she is justified in removing him.

    By the way, the executive isn’t only the Prime Minister – it’s all of the Cabinet-level Ministers. The Cabinet (again, by unwritten convention) is supposed to operate by consensus – the Prime Minister is “first among equals”.

  • PHB says:

    The intention is to end the convention whereby the fall of a government necessarily results in a general election.

    Under the current system a successful no confidence vote will be followed by the Prime Minister requesting the dissolution of Parliament and a general election. Under most circumstances the Monarch is required to accept the request.

    Under the proposed system a successful no confidence vote will require the Prime Minister to tender his resignation but he will not be entitled to ask for a general election. Instead the Monarch will ask the leader of the opposition to form a government.

    Where the whole process becomes fuzzy is what happens when the parties are divided as at present and there is only one viable coalition. That part does not seem to be well thought out.

    Under the current distribution of seats, the Tory party could propose something ridiculous and unpopular, have the LibDems bolt the coalition and then block any attempt to hold a new general election until the mandate expires. There could be a California like situation for three or four years where no budget could be passed because the Tories have enough votes with the Scots and Welsh nasties to block anything.

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