Can Boris Johnson simply repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?

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The Conservative manifesto pledged to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but was silent about what, if anything, would replace it. Robert Hazell argues that it is not enough to simply repeal the Act; new legislation will have to be drafted, parliamentary scrutiny will have to take place, and the options for reform should be properly considered.

Can the Fixed-term Parliaments Act simply be repealed? The short answer is: no. As always, it is more complicated than that. But the commitment in the Conservative manifesto was unambiguous: ‘We will get rid of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act [sic] – it has led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action’ (page 48). And decisive action is what the government hopes to display through early repeal of the FTPA. It does not seem to be one of the issues to be referred to the new Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, since they were mentioned separately in the Queen’s Speech. So — unless the government has second thoughts — we can expect early legislation to be introduced to repeal the FTPA.

The government may feel that it can press ahead with little opposition, since the Labour manifesto contained an equally unambiguous commitment to repeal: ‘A Labour government will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which has stifled democracy and propped up weak governments’ (page 81). But there is no need for urgent legislation: this is not a pressing issue, and with a government majority of 87, we are not going to see motions for early dissolution or ‘no confidence’ any time soon. And there are good reasons for taking it more slowly: not least, that there is provision for a statutory review of the FTPA in section 7 of the Act, due to be initiated in 2020. In anticipation of that review, the Lords Constitution Committee is already conducting an inquiry into the operation of the Act, due to conclude in around March.

The evidence submitted last year to the Constitution Committee (in 14 written submissions, and four sessions of oral evidence) has brought out many of the difficulties involved. These are both political and technical. The main political difficulty is that repeal of the Act would return us to the situation where the incumbent Prime Minister can choose the date of the next election. No one disputes the potential advantage that confers: in Roy Jenkins’s famous phrase, uttered during a Lords debate on 11 March 1992, it is equivalent to deciding ‘to give the pistol in a race to one of the competitors and encourage him to fire it whenever he thinks that the others are least ready’. It also enables the government to time the election when they are doing well in the opinion polls, and to stoke up their support through good news announcements and giveaway budgets. Petra Schleiter’s research shows that this confers a significant electoral advantage: in the UK since 1945, the average vote share bonus realised on calling an early election was around 6%, and it doubled the likelihood that the incumbent PM survived in office.

Electoral fairness is the main argument for fixed terms, but not the only one. Other reasons include better planning in Whitehall because of greater certainty, less risk of losing legislation to a snap election, more clarity for the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators, and for the political parties. It is true that electoral certainty has not been much in evidence in recent years, with two early elections in 2017 and 2019. But it would be wrong to judge the FTPA solely on the basis of the extraordinary Brexit parliaments of 2015 and 2017. It is too early to rush to judgement, and it is too insular: most of the Westminster world, and almost all European parliaments have fixed terms, so there is plenty of wider experience to draw upon. A more balanced approach would ask – as the Lords Constitution Committee has done – whether the FTPA needs fine tuning, and if so what amendments are required, rather than rushing straight to repeal. Continue reading

Scotland, Wales and Ireland point to how governments should be formed in hung parliaments

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Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones have this week been re-elected as First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, whilst two week ago Enda Kenny was re-elected as Irish Taoiseach. In each case the newly elected parliament elected the head of the new government. In a new report Petra Schleiter, Valerie Belu and Robert Hazell argue that a similar procedure should be adopted at Westminster, where currently the Queen decides who should be Prime Minister before parliament meets. Robert Hazell explains why.

This week has seen the re-election of Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones as First Ministers in Scotland and in Wales, following the devolved elections on 5 May. Two weeks ago we witnessed the re-election of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach in Ireland, ten weeks after the Irish election on 26 February. What these three countries have in common is not just that the same leader has been re-elected, but that in their recent elections Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland all saw the return of a hung parliament in which no party gained an overall majority. In these circumstances it does not fall to the Queen to decide who shall be First Minister, or in Ireland to the President; under their constitutions it falls to the newly elected parliament, whose first business (after election of a presiding officer) is to elect the head of the new government.  That is what happened in Ireland on 6 May, in Scotland on 17 May and in Wales on 18 May.

In a report published this week, which I have written with Professor Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu of Oxford University, we suggest that is what should also happen in future at Westminster. Instead of the Queen having to decide who should be Prime Minister before parliament meets, the first business of a newly elected House of Commons should be to select the Prime Minister, who would then be formally appointed by the Queen.

This may seem unnecessary after elections when a single party wins an overall majority, and it is obvious who is going to be Prime Minister: as happened in the UK in 2015. In those cases the election of the leader of the majority party to head the new government would be a formality.  The value of asking the House of Commons to choose the Prime Minister is when it is not obvious who can command confidence in the newly elected parliament. That is always going to be the case in a hung parliament, especially if it is closely hung. We risk forgetting how narrowly we escaped from having such a parliament after the 2015 general election. In the weeks before the election the polls suggested a very close result, with some forecasting a dead heat between the two major parties. Although the Cabinet Manual says it is for the political parties to work out who can command confidence in the new parliament, there is a risk of confusion and uncertainty if there is a standoff, with both main parties claiming to be able to form a government. The only reliable way to determine who can command confidence in such a situation is a nomination vote in the House of Commons. That would be a quicker and cleaner solution than the traditional vote on the Queen’s Speech as the first test of confidence in a new government.

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May 2015: Who forms the UK government in the event of a hung parliament?

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The polls continue to predict a hung parliament after the May 2015 election in which more than one potential government could be viable. In this context, Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu ask how government formation negotiations will proceed and which actors will have a privileged role in the bargaining process?

When several alternative governments are viable, negotiations are in practice guided by constitutional principles that determine which actors are asked to form the government and in what order. These principles are referred to as recognition rules in the field of comparative politics and they are often central in narrowing a range of potential government formation options decisively.

In the UK, the prime minister designate is appointed by the sovereign and asked to form a government. The monarch is expected to discharge this role in government formation without becoming involved in any negotiations. This is not difficult when a single party commands an outright legislative majority so that the prime minister designate is directly identified by the election result. However, in hung parliaments, the task of naming an appropriate government formateur often involves political choices. Moreover, who is selected as the formateur can have important consequences for the nature of the government that forms. In the past, the UK has applied a range of different principles to select formateurs. The problem is that these principles are potentially contradictory. The need to resolve the contradictions is becoming increasingly pressing in the context of long-term changes in electoral behaviour, which make it unlikely that the hung parliament of 2010 will remain an isolated outcome.

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