The BBC’s Mark D’Arcy has predicted that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 might be marked for repeal if a majority Government takes office in May. That would be a welcome turn of events, as I suspect that Act may turn out to be one of the Coalition’s worst legacies.
The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act was basically an insurance policy for the Liberal Democrats. By abolishing the Queen’s power to dissolve Parliament at any time, they made sure that David Cameron couldn’t ditch them by holding a snap election the moment the polls seemed to favor the Conservatives. Now, every Parliament will run for five years unless the House of Commons passes a motion of no-confidence in the Government, and a new Government can’t be found within two weeks.
But this approach is too rigid and inflexible. Although five years has been the maximum length of a Parliament since 1911, four years has long been the unofficial standard, and some Parliaments have been even shorter (for example, there were two General Elections in 1974). This more flexible approach minimized the chances of a lame-duck Government. In other words, it avoided the precise predicament that the Coalition now finds itself in!
The two-week delay before holding a General Election after a vote of no confidence also strikes me as problematic. For better or worse, Britain is effectively a two-party system. Since one party usually wins a clear majority, the chances of another party (or combination of parties) being able to win the confidence of the Commons are quite slim. For example, this is how the Commons looked after the 2005 General Election:
- Labour: 355 seats
- Tories: 198 seats
- Lib Dems: 62 seats
- Others: 31 seats
It’s hard to see how another Administration could have replaced Labour. Even if the Tories had been able to convince every non-Labour MP to support them (including the Scottish National Party and Sinn Fein!), they wouldn’t have had a majority. They could have tried to maintain a minority Government, but I doubt it would have lasted. Even in a situation where the gulf between the Government and the Opposition isn’t as wide (e.g., the Parliament elected in 1992), the idea that an alternative Administration could have been formed after two weeks of negotiation seems fanciful. As long as Britain remains a two-party system, a General Election will be the best response to a vote of no confidence.
The only real advantage to a fixed-term Parliament is that it provides a level playing field since the Prime Minister can’t manipulate the timing of the election to suit his party. But it’s easy to overstate the benefit this provides, and there are plenty of examples of Prime Ministers who lost elections even though they controlled the timing.
The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act was a solution in search of a problem. Britain would be better off without it, and I hope D’Arcy is right and we’ll see a Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (Repeal) Bill shortly after the Queen’s Speech.