Fixed-Term Parliament Act – the reform you may have forgotten about

By Tim Le Couilliard, Public Affairs

I always felt it rather convenient that elections would always fall on years ending in a 5 or a 10 (2005, 2010, 2015, and was meant to be 2020), as it made it easier to remember when political events happened. Just like knowing the Olympics and European Football Championships would be every four years, alternating so that there would be a major sporting event every other year, they marked useful milestones for knowing when things happened. 

Of course, this is not the case anymore as early General Elections have been held in 2017 and 2019. The 2020 London Mayoral Elections have been delayed and even the 2020 Japanese Olympics have been pushed back by a year. It appears that only Donald Trump has been unable to delay his 2020 election as his attempts to push back the November date were quickly disregarded.  

Introduced by Nick Clegg and David Cameron, partly as a Coalition “guarantee,” the Fixed-Term Parliament Act 2011 has recently returned to parliamentary debate. It is legislation that sets in place a default fixed election date for a General Election, with the usual set date being the first Thursday in May of the fifth year of a government. A parliament can call for an early election under the FTPA if the House of Commons votes no confidence in the government (simple majority required) or an explicit vote in favour of an early election, which requires a qualified majority of two-thirds of the House, although in practice, as we saw last year, a Parliamentary work-around that just needed a straight majority was conjured up. 

So, bar any substantial changes to Boris Johnson’s majority of 80 MPs, the UK is on track for the next General Election to be on Thursday 2nd May 2024 you would think. This is all well and good, although that same Prime Minister, committed in his manifesto to scrap the FTPA, and next month is commissioning a committee to review the workings of the Act. Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto too said that it would abolish the law as it “stifled democracy and propped up weak governments.”

Before the Act, Prime Ministers had the prerogative power to pragmatically call elections whenever they like, with permission of the Monarch – something that Johnson would have welcomed when he was trying to pass his Brexit deal through parliament last year. Notably, last night’s controversial vote on the UK Internal Market Bill breezed through the Commons – certainly unlike anything you could have imagined last year, and only due to the overwhelming result of the 2019 election, that even allowed for 30 Tories not to vote, and two to vote against the government. Still, the heavily-criticized Bill passed 340 to 263. 

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has published, this week, a report on this very matter and has stated that whilst the FTPA has gone “some way to achieving some of its aims,” change is needed to prevent a repeat of the paralysis when MPs did not back the Prime Minister’s deal, but also would not vote for an election. Whilst the Committee accepts that there needs to be a change, they intend to keep five-year terms as the “default”, but have argued against a simple return to allowing Prime Ministers to call an election at will, for fear that it could lead to legal challenges. Will Wragg MP, the Chair of the PACAC, has said “whatever legislation replaces the Act it is important that this ‘level playing field’ for democracy is maintained.” Currently making its way through the House of Lords is the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 Repeal Bill, sponsored by Conservative Peer Lord Mancroft, which is yet to have its second reading. Should it make it to the Commons, expect the government to pay particular attention to it – it is a manifesto promise after all. 

This could well be a defining feature of Dominic Cummings’ and the Cabinet Office’s overhaul of government and one that could have a tangible and important impact on the democracy in this country. Expect this one to bubble on for some time under the surface.

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