Fixed-term Parliaments (Repeal) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:52 pm on 6th March 2015.

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Photo of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan Conservative, Rutland and Melton 1:52 pm, 6th March 2015

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, with effect from 8 May this year which, as everyone will know, is the day after the general election. A short-term fix can do long-term damage. So it is with the decision to introduce fixed-term five-year Parliaments. It might have been good for now, but it will turn out to be bad for the future.

Until recently, general elections were governed by the Parliament Act 1911, which allowed for a maximum parliamentary term of five years. Crucially, though, it afforded the sitting Prime Minister the authority to call an election at any time. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 changed that to a rigid five-year term, with no easy mechanism for shortening that period. Consequently, everyone has known for years that the date of the next election will be 7 May 2015.

The Prime Minister’s power to dissolve Parliament under the historic royal prerogative has—at least for the time being—lapsed. The new fixed term of five years can only be curtailed if two thirds of MPs vote for Dissolution, or if the House of Commons passes a vote of no confidence in one Government, but fails to pass a vote of confidence in an alternative one within a fortnight.

We can all see why that was agreed. The only way a viable government could be formed after the 2010 election was for Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to join as one to create a parliamentary majority. Let us be honest about it: the Liberal Democrats needed to guard against being wrong-footed by a Conservative Prime Minister exercising his historic right to pick the election date and choosing to do so at the worst time for the Liberal Democrats. A deal to agree how long the Government should last was therefore an essential part of the glue that bound the Coalition together. The agreement to stay the course has served the country well, but a permanent constitutional change will not.

A fixed term in office and predetermined election dates might suit a presidency, but they do not, in normal circumstances, suit a Parliament. Unlike a presidency, where the top person remains one and the same, Parliament is an organic institution. Its characteristics and composition can change in one year, let alone five. Some MPs will die or resign; others may cross the Floor, and in the course of our history, parties have split or merged. Between elections, the nature of Parliament, which underpins the energies and legitimacy of the Government, can change dramatically. The pressures and changes in the Commons can be at their most acute when there is a tiny majority for the Government or, worse, when there is no straightforward majority at all.

There have been many occasions in our history when it has been best for the country to have a general election at moments that would have been nigh-on impossible had we this Act. After the February 1974 election, Ted Heath tried unsuccessfully to hang on as Prime Minister before accepting that the arithmetic was against him. The Wilson Government that took over felt obliged to return to the polls just a few months later, achieving a wafer-thin majority. Jim Callaghan’s Government fell once the Scottish and Welsh nationalists deserted the Labour Government after the devolution referendums of 1979. John Major governed with a very slim majority between 1992 and 1997—don’t I remember—with by-election defeats making the Government live on an ever sharper knife edge.

The point is that all these Prime Ministers had the option, when the make-up of Parliament changed, to pull the plug and seek a stronger mandate from the voters. Even when they chose not to, the House of Commons had the power to force their hand with a simple vote of no confidence, as in 1979. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act, however, erects new hurdles that make it harder to dissolve Parliament midway through its term, and as a result, it is a recipe for political horse trading and coalition manoeuvrings, which, I maintain, will weaken, not strengthen public confidence in our politics and Parliament.