Fixed Parliaments and the Prime Minister’s power

Fixed Parliaments and the Prime Minister’s power

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act was a radical constitutional reform. It has already changed the way parties campaign and plan. But its design was rooted in the survival of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition and its real effects are yet to be felt. It will in fact strengthen the hand of the next Prime Minister, regardless of the strength of his mandate.

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act took the power to call elections away from the Prime Minister. The new threshold it introduced for a no confidence vote meant that even if things in the coalition got tough, nobody could force an election.

This had two immediate effects. First, it put the UK into a five year political cycle, something only seen three times in the last three decades. MPs looking at a threadbare legislative agenda have been complaining that it seems like a year too long.

Second, it has meant campaigning has been spread out over a longer period. Indeed, a long campaign is baked into the legislation. The conventional wisdom was that a confident Prime Minister could push for a short period between dissolution and the ballot, whereas an incumbent with ground to make up would spin it out as long as possible.

The Act adopts the longer period and we are in for a full five and a half weeks of official campaigning. Whether the public benefits from this is arguable. The Prime Minister is doing his best to prevent TV debates, potentially ending the one feature of the election that genuinely captures interest (although part of the reason for this is that he wants to give more salience to classic campaigning).

Politicians and the media are thus going to have to work increasingly hard to engage voters in this seemingly endless election campaign. What comes after the campaign is all over might though be more interesting.

The Act in effect gives even a minority government, or the smaller party in coalition, a veto on an early election. Short of a massive backbench rebellion, such a vote is only likely to be triggered by the ruling party calling for an election. And no opposition leader, confronted with the opportunity to go to the polls, can possibly turn down the opportunity and retain credibility.

In other words, the power to call an election still lies with the Prime Minister. Whether that Prime Minister has a majority or not, the power is in his hands to stick out the full five years or go to the country early. It’s likely many will consider the Act less of a good idea by 2020.

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