Can David Cameron call a second election? How does that fit with the Fixed Term Parliaments Act?

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Robert Hazell outlines how the Fixed Term Parliaments Act restricts the new government from calling a second election. He writes that if Cameron wanted to take a gamble to boost his slender majority, he would have to work within the confines of the Act given the likely complexities of any attempt to repeal it.

Now that David Cameron has won, but only with a slender majority, speculation will turn to whether his government will last a full five years; and whether he could improve his numbers by calling a second election. In the run up to the election there was talk of the new government calling a second election after a year or so, as Harold Wilson did in 1966 and again in 1974. This kind of speculation is wild. It is no longer possible for the Prime Minister to seek an early dissolution, because the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament was abolished by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011. It is now up to Parliament to decide whether there should be an early election. Under the Act there are only two ways in which Parliament can be dissolved early:

  • By a motion ‘that there shall be an early parliamentary general election’ passed by at least two thirds of the House of Commons (s 2(1))
  • By a formal no confidence motion, in the statutory form prescribed in the Act (that ‘this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’), passed by a simple majority of those voting (s 2(3)). If no alternative government can be formed within 14 days which can command confidence, Parliament is dissolved and an early election held.

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The Nineteenth Amendment is a constitutional milestone in Sri Lanka’s ongoing political development

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At the end of April, the Sri Lankan President’s 100-day programme of governance reforms culminated with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment to reduce the powers of the presidency. Asanga Welikala reviews the progress that has been made since January, and argues that despite difficulties and necessary compromises, the Amendment represents a change for the better in Sri Lanka’s governing arrangements.

With the election of Maithripala Sirisena to the presidency in January 2015, Sri Lanka embarked on a 100-day programme of constitutional and governance reforms. The promise of far-reaching changes to abolish, or at least substantially reduce, the powers of the executive presidency had been the keystone of Sirisena’s presidential campaign. The previous President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had not only constitutionally extended the powers of this already over-mighty institution, but had also extra-constitutionally instituted a control regime based on nepotism, clientelism, ethnic chauvinism, and corruption. Sweeping away this institutional apparatus of authoritarianism and its more informal – but also more ingrained – network of patronage and protection through constitutional reforms brought together the otherwise disparate coalition of political forces that supported Sirisena’s candidacy.

While reforming executive presidentialism was the centrepiece of the 100-day programme, it also included a raft of other proposals, including freedom of information legislation and reforms to the parliamentary committee system, as well as economic reliefs. This collection of policy proposals did not make for the most coherent of programmes, and neither did it seem realistic within a 100-day period. Predictably perhaps, the government’s energies have been focused on the presidential reforms and other proposed measures have fallen by the wayside, bar some measures to ease the cost of living, and some small but symbolically significant steps toward ethnic reconciliation. Corruption prosecutions in particular have been conspicuous by their absence. However, the excesses of the Rajapaksa regime had been such that the majority that voted for its ouster has been willing to settle for progress on the main issue.

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Scotland has voted for the union and for distinctiveness. Delivering both could present acute challenges

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After a dramatic referendum and UK general election, the Scottish remain divided on both independence and on whether to increase tax and public spending, while the English are becoming increasingly vocal in the devolution debate. Jim Gallagher considers the possibilities of a constitutional relationship that will satisfy Scottish aspirations and also be acceptable to the UK as a whole.

This is the second in a series of posts based on the Unit’s latest report, Devolution and the Future of the Union, published here.

Within the last year the Scottish people have said two apparently contradictory things. They want to stay in the United Kingdom, and they want to be represented by the SNP. In Holyrood, the SNP exercise dominant control over both Parliament and government. In Westminster, they will be the overwhelming Scottish voice, but will control nothing.

The partisan politics of the general election have been extraordinary. The Labour vote collapsed, and the SNP showed remarkable skill in building a coalition of voters, some for independence, others perhaps against austerity. But this tells us less about overall Scottish attitudes on either question than meets the eye. Scotland remains divided on both independence and on whether to increase tax and public spending, and not on the lines you might expect. Many independence supporters are anything but high spending socialists.

Constitutional challenges

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Will plans for a British bill of rights be reduced to a bill for England only?

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Opposition from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales could pose a serious challenge to Conservative plans to scrap the Human Rights Act. Robert Hazell and Bob Morris write that if the new government tries to push ahead regardless, it may only be able to create an English bill of rights, with potentially negative consequences for the UK as a whole. 

This is the first in a series of posts based on the Unit’s latest report, Devolution and the Future of the Union, published here.

The Conservative manifesto, building on pledges in previous manifestos, contained these statements about replacing the Human Rights Act with a British bill of rights:

  • We will scrap Labour’s Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights which will restore common sense to the application of human rights in the UK. The Bill will remain faithful to the basic principles of human rights, which we signed up to in the original European Convention on Human Rights (p.73)
  • The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights. This will break the formal link between British courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and make our own Supreme Court the ultimate arbiter of human rights matters in the UK (p.60).

We have not yet seen the detail, and the draft bill which the Conservatives promised to publish before the election never materialised. The plans are likely to raise a whole series of difficulties, with the judiciary, with the House of Lords (where the bill will have a very difficult passage – see here and here), and with the Council of Europe, if the UK tries to remain in the ECHR but somehow leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. But this blog concentrates on a further difficulty closer to home, which is opposition from the devolved governments and assemblies.

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UK elects most diverse parliament ever but it’s still not representative

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Jennifer Hudson and Rosie Campbell assess the diversity of the new parliament and write that while the Class of 2015 has more female and BME MPs, it is still a long way from being descriptively representative of the population it serves.

Ahead of the 2015 election, broadcaster Jeremy Paxman argued that voters were being given a choice ‘between one man who was at primary school with Boris Johnson and one man who was at secondary school with him – both of whom did PPE at Oxford’.

Throughout the campaign, we’ve been gathering data on the parliamentary candidates to see if this lack of choice plays out across the board. Do the people elected to represent the UK, bear any resemblance to the public they represent?

Women on the rise

This year saw 48 more women elected that in 2010 – bringing the total number of women MPs to a record 191. Women make up 29% of newly elected MPs, up from 22% in 2010.

The Green party had the highest percentage of women candidates selected at 38%, but with chances in only a handful of seats, they had little chance of affecting parliamentary gender balance.

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A five-point plan for Cameron to win an EU referendum

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The politicians hardly mentioned Europe during the campaign, yet the most important consequence of Britain’s general election will be a referendum on EU membership. Charles Grant offers five suggestions that would allow Cameron to manage Conservative hard-liners and keep Britain in the EU.

Prime Minister David Cameron plans to negotiate reforms to the EU and then hold an in-or-out referendum before the end of 2017. What does he have to do in order to win a referendum on keeping Britain in the club? What is he likely to ask for, in terms of reform? And what would be the impact of ‘Brexit’ on the rest of the EU? 

The voters defied opinion polls and delivered a shocking result: the centre-right Conservatives performed much more strongly than expected in England, the centrist and pro-EU Liberal Democrats lost most of their seats, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) won almost every seat north of the border. The anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won 13 per cent of the votes but only one seat. The centre-left Labour Party – which according to the final opinion polls had a good chance of forming a government – finished almost a hundred seats behind the Conservatives.

At least three factors explain the Conservatives’ triumph: Cameron was a more convincing leader than Labour’s Ed Miliband; the economy’s recent strong performance strengthened the Tory reputation for economic competence; and in the closing stages of the campaign, the Conservatives played on fears that a Labour government propped up by the SNP would be bad for the English.

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Cameron’s parliamentary challenge #2: Managing the Lords

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As the fallout from the general election is dissected, some commentators have noted the challenges facing Cameron’s new government in managing the House of Commons with such small majority. But Meg Russell warns that his challenges in managing the House of Lords could be even greater.

The country is now adjusting to a Conservative majority government that none of the general election polls (bar, broadly interpreted, the exit poll) predicted. The Conservatives are jubilant having increased their number of Commons seats, and now look forward to governing on their own. Senior figures no doubt hope for a more straightforward period of government than under coalition, subject to less negotiation and with greater ability to navigate policy through parliament. The challenges of governing with a narrow Commons majority have attracted some comment (with various references to the difficulties of managing rebellious backbenchers and reminders of the challenges of the Major years). But what most commentators have completely overlooked so far is the much greater challenge facing Cameron’s new government in managing the House of Lords.

Much of my research in recent years has focussed on the changing nature of the Lords following the 1999 reform that removed most hereditary peers. That reform was transformative: the previously Conservative-dominated chamber became one of ‘no overall control’, in which the balance of power was held by the Liberal Democrats and numerous non-party Crossbenchers. Peers became both more confident, and more able, to inflict government defeats – of which the Blair and Brown governments suffered over 450 during 1999-2010. The key ‘swing voters’ in that period were the Liberal Democrats; had they voted differently, over 90% of defeats would have been averted (as first shown here, and updated later here). Hence the 2010 coalition had a rather easier time managing the Lords – these swing voters having been absorbed into government. While Labour could defeat the coalition in the Lords if it joined forces with sufficient Crossbenchers or government rebels, defeats became less common – with just 51 during 2012-15. But this week’s move to single party government marks a return to something like the status quo ante – that is, a far more similar position to 1999-2010.

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