Fixed terms wouldn't prevent a second election

Nick Clegg is wrong to hope that fixed terms in office would prevent another election.

There's something rather cynical about the government's apparent support for fixed-term parliaments. As with Gordon Brown's deathbed conversion to electoral reform, it's all part of Labour's pre-election "love-bombing" of the Liberal Democrats.

Even so, this reform remains as necessary as ever. The shadow boxing between the parties over the date of the election has too often served as a substitute for real policy debate. And just as Bank of England independence ended the manipulation of interest rates for political purposes, so fixed terms would end the manipulation of the election date.

The Independent's story reports that Nick Clegg favours the introduction of fixed terms to prevent a second election, at which his party could be badly squeezed, later this year. Someone should tell the Lib Dem leader that there's no such guarantee.

Fixed terms work well in presidential systems such as France and the US, where the president's position is not dependent on the support of the legislature.

But in Britain, where the executive and the legislature are merged, the prime minister (as in the case of Jim Callaghan and John Major) struggles to govern without a parliamentary majority.

Callaghan was forced to hold an election after his government lost a vote of no confidence in 1979. There would be nothing to prevent such votes taking place under a fixed-term system, meaning that elections could be held more frequently than every four or five years.

Indeed, in Germany, chancellors such as Helmut Kohl have used "constructive votes of no confidence" to trigger an election at the most convenient moment for the government.

Thus, the only way to ensure genuine fixed-term parliaments is to fully separate the executive from the legislature. As a republican, I'm all in favour of this, but I fear it's still just a little too bold for this government.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.