On Monday 22 May the Constitution Unit hosted a debate on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Against the backdrop of an early general election and a Conservative manifesto promise to scrap the Act, Carl Gardner and Professor Gavin Phillipson (Durham) argued the merits of the Act and the potential legal implications of its repeal. Kasim Khorasanee reports.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was enacted under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government to regulate when general elections were held. Previously general elections were required at least every five years but their exact timing was a matter of royal prerogative, in practice exercised by the Prime Minister. The Act fixed the length of each session of the House of Commons, unless an early general election could be called. The Act set out two mechanisms to call an early general election. The first – which was relied upon to call the 2017 general election – required at least two thirds of the Commons (434 MPs) to vote in favour of an early general election. The second was triggered if a no confidence motion was passed by the Commons and not reversed within 14 days.
Carl Gardner, a former government lawyer, led the defence of the status quo ante. He began by highlighting the risks in allowing politicians the freedom to redraw constitutional rules – both in terms of unintended consequences and selfish intent. The Act was a key case in point. Nick Clegg, as Deputy Prime Minister, had made the case for the Act by suggesting fixed terms would bring greater stability to the political system and allow politicians to focus on governing by removing the distracting uncertainty around election timings. In practice the intense speculation over whether Theresa May would call a general election in late 2016, followed by her surprise announcement to do so in mid-2017, had demonstrated the flaws in Clegg’s arguments. Gardner drew attention to David Laws’ book 22 Days in May which underlined the fact that the Act had been drawn up as a calculated political compromise designed to stabilise the coalition government in power.
Gardner went on to argue that the British constitution’s complexity and nuance had been underestimated by reformists. He noted that the Prime Minister had never been able to call elections ‘on demand’, they had always required the monarch’s explicit authorisation to do so. Furthermore there had never been popular discontent at the calling of elections or any suggestion of Prime Ministers ‘abusing’ their powers in doing so. The Act had also introduced uncertainty with respect to no confidence motions. Firstly, it was unclear whether in the 14 days after a statutory no-confidence motion the Prime Minister would be under a duty to resign, or whether they would be free to work to reverse the motion. Secondly, votes which previously might have been understood as matters of confidence – budgets, the Queen’s speech, going to war – appeared to have been stripped of this effect. Whereas Tony Blair understood losing the 2003 Iraq War vote would have meant resigning, David Cameron happily carried on after losing the 2013 Syria intervention vote. Gardner suggested that the duty for Prime Ministers to resign once they had lost the confidence of the Commons had been eroded by the Act.
Finally, on the legality of repealing the Act, Gardner asserted that where common law or prerogative powers were overridden by statute, revoking the statute would have the effect of ‘reviving’ the previous common law or prerogative. In support of this he cited the High Court decision in the famous GCHQ Case (R v The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs ex parte Council of Civil Service Unions and another  IRLR 309 ). Although legislation such as Section 16(1) of the Interpretation Act 1978 appeared designed to prevent this reviving effect, it could be overridden by a clear expression of parliament’s will.