What’s Next For The Fixed Term Parliaments Act?

The 56th Parliament of the United Kingdom came to an end yesterday after just two years. It was supposed to last until 2020, but the British will be going to the polls early after MPs backed Theresa May’s call for an early election.

Section 2(1) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 allows for an early election if 2/3 of MPs vote in favor of a motion to that effect. The outcome was never really in doubt, as Labour announced that they would back May’s motion for an early election. In the end, she won by a landslide (the final tally was 522 to 13).

It’s not hard to see why May wants an early election. With Labour stuck in the doldrums, the Conservatives appear poised to gain a sizable majority. But this is a blatant violation of the spirit of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Before it became law, the Queen dissolved Parliament at the request of the Prime Minister, and nothing prevented a Prime Minister from calling a snap election whenever it looked like their party might pick up seats.[1] Many thought was unfair. When the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was going through the Commons, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, argued that “no Government should be able to dissolve Parliament for their own political advantage.[2]

Nevertheless, it’s striking how easily Theresa May got her wish. She announced her desire for an early election on 18 April, and within hours, Jeremy Corbyn had made it clear that Labour would support the Government. When MPs debated the matter on 19 April, only a handful spoke against an early election, and the overwhelming majority of MPs ultimately joined the Government in the Aye lobby.

May’s decision to call an election was nakedly opportunistic, yet MPs supported it. This raises questions about the viability of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Section 2(1) of the Act is supposed to check the Prime Minister’s power, but it will be rendered moot if MPs keep deferring to the Executive. While it’s tempting to dismiss this election as an aberration caused by Brexit, the fact that May prevailed without any real difficulty could encourage future Prime Ministers to call for early elections whenever they think the country needs ‘strong, stable leadership.’ And the Opposition may have little choice but to go along with it. As Jacob Rees-Mogg pointed out during the debate on the early election, “[n]o Opposition can sensibly say that they would prefer a Government they oppose to continue in office, rather than having a chance to defeat them.[3]” Saying no to an early election could easily make the Leader of the Opposition look weak and scared, and that is likely to be a strong inducement to cooperate with the Government. If that turns out to be the case, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act won’t be worth the vellum it’s printed on.

NOTES

[1] However, dissolutions were not automatic. The Sovereign could refuse a Prime Minister’s request in exceptional circumstances.

[2] HC Debates, 13 September 2010, col. 628.

[3] HC Debates, 19 April 2017, col. 697

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