It is surprising that we see so little comment on the implications of the fixed term parliament introduced by the Coalition Government.
An important part of the Coalition Agreement entered into by the Tories and the LibDems in 2010 was the introduction of a fixed term parliament. Previously the Prime Minister of the day could ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament and call an election at any time. Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011, this is no longer possible. This Act provides for an election to be held after five years, i.e., on 7th May 2015, unless the House of Commons passes a ‘no confidence’ resolution or at least two thirds of MPs vote for an early election.
The Fixed Term Parliament Act has substantially changed British politics:
A reduction in the Prime Minister’s discretionary power
– It has removed the power of the Prime Minister to call an election at a time of his choosing. In practice, this has not always been a useful power. Jim Callaghan delayed calling an election until May 1979 when he may have won an election the previous autumn (before the ‘Winter of Discontent’), resulting in the election of the Thatcher government. In a similar way, Gordon Brown passed up an opportunity to call an election in 2009 which Labour might have won. On the other hand, Prime Ministers have frequently exercised their power to dissolve Parliament well before the end of the maximum five year term, securing re-election as a result, for example Margaret Thatcher in 1983.
An end to speculation about the timing of the next election
– The fixed term parliament has hugely reduced the speculation about when the next election would occur, which was a staple of British Parliaments before 2010. Politicians and the press typically became fixated on whether and when another election would be called from the end of the third year of a Parliamentary term. We have had hardly any of this speculation during the current Parliament.
Government has been freed to concentrate on a long-term economic program
– In theory, legislating for a fixed term parliament should have freed the government to address a wider range of issues and pursue a long-term legislative program. That has arguably been the case in terms of the Coalition Government’s economic policies. Following on the financial meltdown of 2008/9, it was able to plan a program of tax increases and spending cuts requiring several years to implement. Whereas a previous government might have been forced to call an election before such a program “bore fruit”, the Coalition Government has been able to survive until the economy has shown at least some signs of improvement.
Legislative and policy exhaustion after a flurry of activity at the outset of the current Parliament
– The fixed term parliament has however had a clear downside. The Coalition Government has shown increasing signs of exhaustion over the past year or two. Little new legislation has been introduced and the major parties appear to be increasingly focussed on their policies for the post-2015 election period. Policies included in the original Coalition Agreement have either been implemented or abandoned (e.g., the AV Referendum and House of Lords reform) and there has been little appetite for agreement on new policies. The Tories and LibDems are increasingly concerned to appeal to their core voters and neither party seems to feel that its interests would be served by agreeing on new policies. The government has continued to function fairly well on a day to day ‘management’ basis, but there is less and less new policy impetus.
The ‘creeping’ start of the next Parliamentary campaign
– Another downside of the fixed term parliament is the ‘creeping’ start of the next election campaign. Whereas campaigning proper did not start in the past until an election was actually called, we have seen all parties gradually setting out their 2015 election “stalls” over the past several months, a very long time before an election that will not be held until May 2015. MPs are increasingly appealing to their core voters with policies that permit little if any further agreement between the Coalition partners. Hence it appears that little more of any substance will be achieved by the current Parliament in the period leading up to May 2015.
– While a fixed term parliament may have been necessary in the wake of an economic crisis that required a firm government response, it will not necessarily be needed after future elections. It will therefore be interesting to see whether the next UK government, of whatever party complexion, decides to continue the fixed term parliament experiment.