PM hints at compromise on fixed-term parliaments

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Indy Politics

David Cameron yesterday hinted at a compromise over his plans for fixed-term parliaments in an attempt to head off his first backbench rebellion. Although the Prime Minister stood by the principle of the move, he promised that MPs would get a full chance to debate its detail, which is seen as a sign that the proposal could be amended.

He offered the olive branch as Tory criticism grew of the new coalition Government's policy programme. A former minister accused Mr Cameron of "massively watering down" the Conservative manifesto, while Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, hit out at suggestions the budget for the 2012 Olympics could be squeezed. The plan to require a vote of 55 per cent of MPs before Parliament can be dissolved has provoked anger among senior Tories who are accusing the Government of tinkering with the constitution.

The move underpins its plan for fixed-term five-year parliaments and is designed to stop either the Tories or the Liberal Democrats pulling out of the coalition early and teaming up with opposition parties to precipitate a general election.

But Conservative MPs have lined up to condemn the plan, which they warn will tip power away from ordinary backbenchers, who had previously been able to trigger an election by defeating the government by a single vote in a confidence motion.

Richard Ottaway, who is standing for the chairmanship of the Conservatives' influential 1922 Committee of backbenchers, said it was "constitutionally incoherent" and would "undermine the primacy of Parliament".

David Davis, the former shadow Home Secretary, is expected to join the backlash against the proposal.

However, ministers are stressing that the 55 per cent figure is not set in stone and, during a visit to Scotland yesterday, Mr Cameron promised critics they would get full opportunity to debate the scheme.

He said: "Clearly, if you want a fixed-term parliament, and many people have spoken about the need for it, you have to have a mechanism to deliver it.

"Obviously, that is a mechanism that can be debated in the House of Commons. It can be discussed, but I believe it is a good arrangement to give a strong and stable government."

Many Tory right-wingers, privately aghast at the ground being given to the Liberal Democrats, are holding their tongues in the interests of party unity.

But Christopher Chope, who served on the 1922 Committee executive until the election, launched a wide-ranging attack on the coalition's policy agenda and protested that Conservative MPs had not been consulted over the agreement. "There hasn't been any discussion in the parliamentary party on the contents of that document and when colleagues start looking at the details of that document they will see it's a massive watering-down of what we said in our manifesto on a range of issues."

He cited his party's European policies and its pledge to reform the workings of the House of Commons and also signalled his dismay over suggestions that the new Government could raise the rate of value-added tax.

He demanded that backbenchers were given the right not to support contentious pieces of legislation.

"The Lib Dem MPs have got a number of opt-outs," Mr Chope said. "I would like to see Conservative MPs given a similar number of opt-outs and clarifications because at the moment we're all being kept in the dark."

Boris Johnson also fired a shot across the Government's bows yesterday, warning it would be a "false economy" to cut the Olympics' budget. Jeremy Hunt, the new Culture Secretary, had warned the Olympics was not protected from the search for savings.

"If you think either Londoners are going to pay more or be short-changed, then that's not going to happen. I can guarantee both," Mr Johnson told the London Evening Standard.

Mr Cameron yesterday promised his Government would treat Scotland with "respect". He raised the prospect of travelling to the Scottish Parliament every year to answer questions.

He said: "I truly meant what I said in the election campaign about wanting to pursue a respect agenda. I want to make the devolved institutions in Scotland, in Wales, in Northern Ireland work, and work well.

"And I want a real agenda of respect between our parties, so I want to see Scottish ministers able to appear at select committees in Westminster and if the Scottish Parliament would wish it, I shall appear every year at the Scottish Parliament to answer questions."

Treasury ministers should also come north to talk about budgets, while the Scottish Secretary could appear at Holyrood to tell MSPs about aspects of the UK Government's programme that affect Scotland, he said.