One of the significant reforms announced in last night’s coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was to have a fixed-term parliament. So the next British election will be the first Thursday in May 2015. It is not clear if this is just an indication by the party leaders that they intend to serve for a full term, just as Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney had done here, or something more. If it’s just indicating an intention, this might be a good confidence building measure that should reduce tensions.
Or, as it’s billed as a reform, it might be a constitutional change which will have the force of law. Will it disallow a prime minister from dissolving parliament (or request its dissolution)? The threat to call an election is an important tool in the PM’s armoury, one that John Major used explicitly to good effect in forcing the Maastricht Treaty past his sceptical party. Election timing also becomes something of a strategic tool for the PM to gain electoral advantage – though there’s limited evidence that it has any great effect. Now it could be that the right to call an election transfers to parliament, which would weaken the PM but may not do much else.
But if no one is allowed call an election, moving to a fixed-term parliament could lead to legislative gridlock and an inability to deal with new crises. What if this government splits on a new issue that we cannot now foresee? The government loses the confidence of parliament. In the absence of parliament’s ability to form a new government without recourse to an election, a minority government could be forced to limp on until the fixed-term ends. An election on such an unforeseen issue might be the most democratic and effective way to deal with such a crisis. That could be impossible under a fixed-term parliament.
Addition: Here’s the text of the agreement. “The parties agree to the establishment of five-year fixed-term parliaments. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government will put a binding motion before the House of Commons in the first days following this agreement stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed-term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.”
There are many complaints about the specification that 55 percent is needed rather than a simple majority. It is assumed that this is a ruse by the Tories to ensure that they can head up a minority government in the case of the LibDems pulling out.
The Tories would effectively be free to head up a minority government without the 55 percent rule. The only way they could head up one is with the support of another party on a case-by-case or more permanent arrangement. So we’d presumably expect that if the Tories wanted to have a minority government they would have to have some arrangement of support in order to get legislation through parliament.
While there is the possibility of a government with no support having to limp to the end of the parliamentary term, it should be easy to achieve the 55 percent needed to call an election. The fear that it’s a Tory conspiracy is misplaced.