Politics

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The end of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act

Mike McCartney

7th March 2021

An opportunity missed for important constitutional reform?

I expect many students are aware of the fact that the government is steering a bill though the Lords to repeal the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA).

Of course, the original item of legislation removing the right of the PM to call an election at a time of their choosing, was fitted the pattern of many constitutional reforms that have taken place on these shores. That is, it was not the outcome of deep political thinking (ok, it is is true that all three of Britain's main parties promised as part of their manifestos), but one that occurred as a short term political fix. Other constitutional reforms we can think of that have been implemented in order to solve intra or inter party splits include the first use of the referendum at national level (in the 1970s Labour party factions were deeply divided over UK membership what was then the EEC), and also the last time it was used (for Labour in the 1970s, you then had the Tories from the 1990s onwards). Or for inter party competition we can see that devolution to Scotland was designed to neutralise the growing support for the SNP (not that it seems to have the desired effect, but that's another story).

For a bit of background on Boris Johnson's government's plans to return to the status quo ante, read here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-...

By the way, there is also a link to a radio broadcast from the Westminster Hour - and by the time many readers have seen this, it will have been broadcast and should be available for download.

Yesterday's Guardian editorial wasn't very happy about the plans, calling it a "royal power grab":

'Cross-party consensus that the FTPA was flawed creates a rare opportunity for constitutional reform, which is squandered by resuscitating ancient prerogative power. Many things about the way Britain is governed need updating. It reveals something about Mr Johnson’s character that he should choose to make a priority of this one measure – the one that lets him play at monarchy and dissolve parliament on a whim.'

Read more here: https://www.theguardian.com/co...

Without getting too bogged down in the technical detail, there are important differences about how fixed term elections work in theory and in practice.

For instance, before the detail of the bill became known, this backgrounder looked at the general arguments: https://www.theweek.co.uk/elec...

There is a more subtle analysis here, taking into account how the FTPA has actually bedded in: In defence of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act | The Constitution Unit Blog (constitution-unit.com)

This blog entry asserts that repeal of the FTPA could well mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater: The FTPA is a bad law – but it should not be replaced with something worse | The Institute for Government

This excellent briefing paper from the House of Commons Library should provide answers to any and every question one might have on the topic: The Fixed-term Parliaments Act

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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