11 January 2009

Does a failed Budget mean a new Election?

Much has been made of the SNP stating that, if its Budget is rejected, it will resign. Opponents are deriding this as grand-standing.

But here's the thing: whether it's grand-standing or not, it's the right thing to do.

The Budget is the Government's proposals to spend the money allocated to it for the coming year. That money is, therefore, used to discharge Government policy. If a Parliament rejects the Budget, it rejects the Government's policies completely. If a Parliament does that, it's saying that it no longer wants that Government in office. A Stage 1 rejection would rule out any co-operation with the Government under any circumstances. A Stage 2 rejection is highly unlikely - the worst-case scenario would be all five Opposition members of the Finance Committee ganging up to amend it to death, and that won't happen: Derek Brownlee will probably win a few bonus concessions and vote for the amended package, meaning that with Andrew Welsh's casting vote, it's going through. Labour might win a few points - we shall see - but Jeremy Purvis will walk in looking angry (it doesn't suit him, and neither does the facial hair), demand a 2% cut in income tax that everyone including the Tories - the natural tax-cutting party - are baulking at, and go in a huff when they vote him down, by seven to one. A Stage 3 rejection isn't impossible, however, and would show that despite the best efforts of the Parliament and the Government, members and Ministers just aren't on the same page.

At that point, any Government has to go. If Iain Gray reckons he can do any better, then let him: even with a pact with the LibDems, he'd still come up short of a majority, putting him in a similarly risky position when his Government were to table its spending plans.

And what about forcing an election?

A First Ministerial resignation on its own can't force an Election. Parliament can vote to dissolve itself, but that requires a two-thirds majority. That means any party with 43 members can block an Election. In the current Parliament, the SNP and Labour share control of this mechanism: there can only be an election held this way if they both agree to it, and if they do, it's guaranteed to happen.

But there's another way: the "28 days later" scenario. Parliament would have four weeks to replace the First Minister. It would therefore be down to the Parliamentary Bureau to schedule an election. The Bureau consists of representatives from any Party with five seats or more in the Parliament: Bruce Crawford for the SNP, Michael McMahon for Labour, David McLetchie for the Tories and Mike Rumbles for the LibDems. They each have a voting strength equal to the number of seats their respective parties have in the chamber: Crawford carries 47 votes, McMahon 46, McLetchie and Rumbles 16 each. As they plan the Business of the Parliament, they determine when a vote for a First Minister is held. Control over the continuation of Parliament, and the timing of a new Election would, in effect, pass from the SNP and Labour in the Chamber, to the Bureau.

And in the Bureau, there is no two-thirds majority rule. Further, with the Greens and Margo MacDonald out of the equation, there are a total of 125 votes available, with 63 needed for a majority: the SNP and one other party - any other party. If the SNP can secure Tory (or, less likely, LibDem) support for a new election, it can be triggered by a combination of the First Minister's resignation, with Messrs. Crawford and McLetchie voting to let time run out.

Of course, it's plausible that the Tories could vote to have the vacant First Ministership filled in those circumstances, but then they would face an odd choice: vote to re-instate the Government whose Budget just fell, or vote for Iain Gray as First Minister, with likely LibDem support. Not a choice any Tory would fancy, I'd imagine.

So if a Budget isn't possible, it's absolutely right that the Government should quit, and it's fair enough for Ministers to flag up the possibility: this wasn't an issue before May 2007, now with no guaranteed majority, there is the possibility of a Budget being rejected and it's right for Ministers to spell out what will happen as a result of that. And anyone thinking that a failed Budget won't cause a new election is wrong: it takes only a few easy steps - the Budget fails, the FM resigns, the Bureau fails to schedule a new vote, the 28-day time limit expires and bingo.

Remember: the Bureau holds the veto.


James said...

Good explanation, but last year the view was doing the rounds that Ministers would have until the end of the financial year to get a Budget through. The fact is, if this one falls, they get to try again with amended proposals if they wish.

Trying again would look more appropriate for tough economic times than an election, much as I love campaigns..

Anonymous said...

If there is an election, William, what do your predict the outcome will be!?

Will said...

James, I would agree, but what concerns me is that a Stage 1 rejection would show that any negotiations would have been futile and that carrying on is pointless. A Stage 3 rejection would - one assumes - have been subject to all sorts of amendments either at that stage or Stage 2, and a satisfactory way forward would not have been found, and any further wrangling would prove fruitless, and a waste of time. An election under the current circumstances might be exasperating but it might prove the only way to clear the impasse.

Except - and this is to answer Anon - I don't think it will be: I think a campaign would once again be polarised, and the result just as inconclusive, with the Tories and (especially) the LibDems squeezed and, I would guess, no suitable coalition option.