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.
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.
Following the surprise election of a Conservative government with a small majority, Meg Russell and Robert Hazell offer an overview of the constitutional reforms which are likely to be prioritised and the associated difficulties that may arise.
Now that the election result is clear, it’s possible to start thinking through the likely constitutional reforms on the new Conservative government’s agenda. Some of these items are obvious, and others less so. Many of them are very challenging, as we explain below – and will expand in more detail on this blog in the coming days and weeks.
Scottish and Welsh devolution
The biggest story in this election, including as the results came in, has been Scotland. The challenge for Prime Minister Cameron is to hold the UK together, at the very moment when the SNP has almost swept the board in terms of Scottish seats. The Conservative manifesto, like those of the other UK-wide parties, committed to implementing the recommendations of the Smith Commission to devolve further fiscal and welfare powers to Scotland. The Scottish people have been led to believe that will happen easily and early in the new parliament. But this may be difficult. The Smith proposals were strongly criticised by two parliamentary committees – in both Commons and Lords. The SNP will press for more, in pursuit of full fiscal autonomy; while devo-sceptic Conservative backbenchers may argue for less. The sensible thing may be to introduce proposals via a draft bill, to see whether middle ground can be found.
On 26 March, its final sitting day, the House of Commons rejected government proposals to reform how the Speaker is elected at the start of the new parliament. Here Meg Russell reflects on what this teaches us about parliament, suggesting it holds two lessons. First, that the 2010 House of Commons was more resistant than its predecessors to government dominance; but second, that further reform is still needed to reduce that dominance.
Two weeks ago the House of Commons met for the last time before the general election. A debate had been scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee to allow retiring MPs to make short valedictory speeches. This might have served as the highpoint of the day – a dignified and nonpartisan moment before election hostilities began. But instead the day was hijacked by a completely unexpected and high-profile row, when Commons Leader William Hague brought forward a motion to change the procedure that the new parliament would follow to elect its Speaker. This was widely viewed as an ill-disguised attempt to unseat Speaker Bercow, sprung in a completely underhand manner. In the event, the motion was defeated by 228 votes to 202. This brought an ignominious end to Hague’s own otherwise distinguished Commons career, and saw the Commons break up with an air of bitterness. Nonetheless there was also something to celebrate in terms of the defiant independence shown by Commons backbenchers, which rounded off nicely the independent 2010-15 parliament. Yet these events also pointed towards a reform agenda for its successor parliament.
On 4 March Jack Straw and Sir George Young spoke at a Constitution Unit valedictory event where they considered how parliament has changed since the 1970s. Sam Sharp offers an overview of the discussion.
Jack Straw and Sir George Young have 77 years of parliamentary experience between them – Straw was first elected in 1979, and Young in 1974. With both set to retire in May, they reflected on how parliament has changed since they joined in the seventies. The event was chaired by Tony Wright, while Meg Russell provided a ‘myth busting’ role. Both speakers described a parliament that has changed for the better, in both its culture and efficiency.
For Jack Straw one of the biggest changes has been in the atmosphere of the House of Commons. He remembered previously having to ‘swim through thick clouds of smoke’, with the chamber itself being the only complete escape. Alcohol abuse was also prevalent and Tony Wright recalled actually once carrying a passed out member through the division lobby. In general, parliament was very white and male with a Gentleman’s Club culture and the few women present were very much made to feel like outsiders. Straw argued that the change in the gender balance, although ‘not far enough’, has ‘actually changed how the House feels’.
Last week saw a Westminster Hall debate to discuss the report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. Andy Williamson argues that while concrete steps are being taken to implement some of the recommendations, greater drive will be needed to create a coherent long-term programme for the digital modernisation of Parliament.
Cristina Leston-Bandeira looks back at a year spent considering the options for the use of digital in UK government. She highlights key lessons that emerged from the process and introduces the report published on 26 January 2015.
Last month’s launch of the report of the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission (DDC) marks the end of an extraordinarily interesting year for us Commissioners. The DDC was established by the Speaker of the House of Commons to explore the potential of digital technology to support a modern and inclusive parliamentary democracy. Throughout the year we have collated evidence, listened to people and organised workshops across the whole of the country from all walks of life, as well as internationally. The report reflects this. It shows the diversity of views we have received on many issues from the making of legislation to the language of parliament.
As an academic used to interacting mainly with students, other academics and parliaments (I know, a very secluded world…), it has been a truly fascinating year. To hear what people think (or more likely do not think) of parliament in so many contexts has been a true privilege. From this the main thing I retain is that for most of us parliament is indistinguishable from government; most people assume parliament is government. Although theoretically I already knew this, this past year has made this all the more patent and visible to me.