The government has published its bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. If passed, it will mark the first time in British history that a power, claimed by parliament for itself, is passed back to the executive.
For that reason, as someone who philosophically prefers the executive’s powers, particularly its powers over the legislature, to be as limited as possible, the repeal of the Act is a shame. I’m also concerned that the long-term effect of the Act will be to normalise the idea that parliaments “usually” run for five years.
Until 2010, most prime ministers have observed the idea, which Harold Macmillan advanced in his diary, that the fifth year should be used “as a reserve”, with only the governments that feared an electoral reckoning opting to cling on that long. I’m particularly concerned that the new Act adds an extra six months on to this parliament’s maximum term, by extending the 2019 parliament’s expiry date from May 2024 to December 2024. I am particularly uncomfortable with this precedent because it seems to me that the only circumstances in which the government would choose to hold the next election in December 2024, rather than May 2024, is when they expect to lose and are holding on in the hope something will turn up, just as the Conservatives did in 1992 and 1997, and Labour did in 1979 and 2010.
However, in practice, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act did not have all that great a practical effect. It did not prevent the sitting prime minister from holding a snap election to no one’s benefit but her own in 2017 (that Theresa May’s gamble backfired spectacularly is neither here nor there), and in 2019 it did not prevent an early election either, though it did delay it from October to December. Nor did it even free up backbenchers from the threat of an early election, because the Act was so poorly understood that large numbers of Conservative backbenchers in the 2017-19 period did not understand they had been handed the power to veto an election that was not of their choosing. The Act existed in the worst of all possible worlds: it entered right-wing demonology in both the Conservative Party and the right-wing press as a major change to our system, while in practice it provided little in the way of meaningful constraints on the executive.
What can people who want to bind the executive to the legislature learn from this experience? Parliament is currently reviewing the Act, as well as repealing it, and it may be that this process provides a series of useful recommendations. But as a start, it is clear the various hurdles – the two-thirds majority required to trigger the Act – in addition to not providing much of a hurdle at all, were not well understood by MPs. It is easier to have a simple majority of the whole House, underlining the power it gives to backbenchers, and to have a more representative electoral system so that governments can’t win majorities with only a plurality of the vote.