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The Fixed Term Parliament Act - Has it outlived its purpose?

Owen Moelwyn-Hughes

17th December 2018

The Fixed Term Parliament Act was passed to give stability to the post 2010 coalition government so that it might stay the course. However, it now seems to have outlived the original purpose and is propping up a divided minority government.

The wise 'IS', apart from spending time whittling an effigy of Willie John McBride with his claymore while humming the Simple Minds, has reflected:

"Amidst all the Brexit debates and disagreements, I don’t think that there will be much divergence from the view UK is in the throes of a constitutional crisis. Even allowing for politicians’ natural and understandable tendency towards hyperbole, we are being told that the UK is facing a worse crisis than the ERM exit in 1992, worse than the year long miners’ strike in 1984 which is the nearest post war Britain has got to civil war, the three day week in 1974, the devaluation of the pound in 1967, Suez in 1956 and so on.

It is indeed a rare event for a Prime Minister to pull a vote in the House of Commons because it becomes clear that her government will otherwise face a humiliating defeat on its key policy, and this is then followed by the Leader of the Opposition declining to put down a motion of No Confidence in the government despite the pledges of support from the SNP and the Liberal Democrats and even hints of encouragement from The Speaker.

What therefore should happen when the government is unable to command the confidence of the House of Commons sufficiently to pass key legislation? Answer: a general election, of course, to broker a new House of Commons with the governing party having received a fresh mandate from the electorate. But this outcome is made more difficult by the advent of the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011. FTPA was introduced on entirely sensible grounds: to cement and stabilise David Cameron’s coalition government. And it succeeded brilliantly, certainly beyond my expectations as I predicted that divisions over Europe would pull the two parties apart well before 2015. FTPA allayed LibDem concerns that the Tories would be tempted to cut and run for an early election if the opinion polls were in their favour, while the Tories could cease to worry that the LibDems as the minority party might pull out when the going got tough.

So the FPTA and the positive personal chemistry maintained within ‘The Quad’ – Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander – at the apex of decision making resulted in a coalition government that proved more cohesive than many single party governments. And I believe that historians will come to judge that as no mean achievement.

But the FTPA should have been repealed in 2015 as one of the first acts of the new Conservative government. Because the FPTA is not designed to prop up a weak minority government so as to allow it to limp along to 2022. It is, of course, still possible to hold an early election, as PM May so misguidedly attempted last year, but it requires a vote of two thirds majority in the Commons. Alternatively the Opposition can put down a motion of No Confidence which if carried no longer leads directly to the dissolution of Parliament, as last happened in 1979, but which heralds a fourteen day ‘cooling off’ period to establish whether the House can find confidence in the government - most probably under a different leader. Only if that motion was not carried would a general election then be called.

So Jeremy Corbyn may be playing a canny game by resisting calls to rush into a vote of No Confidence. He may be biding his time to see whether the Tories can dig themselves into an even bigger hole – the outcome of Wednesday’s party vote of No Confidence in their leader appears to have done exactly that – and he knows that the DUP have stated that they would currently support the government in such a vote. But the DUP’s patience with Mrs May is being tested (how No 10 have managed to alienate the DUP so effectively is the puzzle of the year) and they might reach the point of backing a No Confidence motion if they reach the conclusion that Mrs May is threatening the integrity of the United Kingdom by not fighting hard enough with the EU over the backstop arrangements for N Ireland.

Given the difficulty of securing a general election, which is always the priority for any Opposition party, it is easy to see how pressure is building on Corbyn from within the Labour party to back a second referendum. Why a general election would be far preferable to a second referendum is for another day……"

Owen Moelwyn-Hughes

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