The Fixed-term Parliaments Act did not cause the Brexit impasse

Next week MPs debate the government’s bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. One argument frequently deployed for scrapping the Act is that it generated gridlock over Brexit. But, Meg Russell argues, no clear counterfactual to support this claim has ever been presented. In fact, when considering the possible scenarios, it seems likely that the situation would have been made worse, not better, had the Prime Minister retained an untrammelled prerogative power to dissolve parliament in 2017–19.

Next week MPs debate the remaining stages of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). It proposes to reinstate the pre-FTPA position, whereby the Prime Minister would effectively control general election timing using prerogative power. A key argument deployed by those seeking repeal of the FTPA is that it helped to cause the Brexit deadlock of 2019: that the FTPA, as the Conservative manifesto put it, ‘led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action’. But to what extent is this really true?

While suggestions that the FTPA created the Brexit deadlock are commonplace, most experts who contributed to the three parliamentary committees that have considered FTPA repeal (the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Lords Constitution Committee and Joint Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) argued that the deadlock resulted from other factors. Most obvious were the post-2017 combination of a minority government, the need to deliver on a contested referendum result, and deep divisions within the governing party. These problems were clearly serious, and it is very far from clear that the FTPA could have resolved them.

A careful reading of the evidence presented to the three parliamentary committees, and of the Commons second reading debate on the bill, finds that most claims against the FTPA over Brexit are distinctly vague. No clear counterfactual is offered. This particularly applies to events during Theresa May’s premiership, when the most intractable problems arose. The situation did change in the autumn of 2019 under Boris Johnson (as discussed below), but the FTPA’s targeting as a causal factor dates back far earlier than this. Likewise, during interviews with a series of senior figures for a current book project on parliament and the Brexit process, I have asked several critics of the FTPA how, if Theresa May had been able to trigger an early general election without parliament’s consent, things would have turned out differently. I have yet to receive a convincing reply.

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The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill – a return to constitutional normality?

Alison Young argues that the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill transfers power from parliament to the government, and not to the people, and that it is wrong to place the blame for the extraordinary events of 2019 on the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) has not had a good press. So much so, that a promise to repeal the Act was included in the 2019 manifestos of both the Labour Party and the current Conservative government. However, as the second reading of its replacement, the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill demonstrates, the apparent consensus ends there. There appeared to be two strong themes to the debate. First, how far does the FTPA’s replacement transfer power from parliament back to the government, or from parliament back to the people? Second, to what extent did the FTPA cause the difficulties – however defined – for the then Conservative minority government in 2019?

Turning back the clock

The FTPA placed the prerogative power of the dissolution of parliament on a statutory basis. It fixed the terms of the Westminster parliament to five years, setting the dates for general elections. It provided two ways in which parliament could be dissolved earlier. First, it was possible for two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons to vote in favour of an early parliamentary general election. Second, dissolution could occur following a vote of no confidence, if, within a two week period, it proved impossible to form a government which had received the backing of a vote of confidence from the House of Commons.

The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill aims to return the Westminster parliament to the position prior to 2011. It repeals the FTPA (section 1) and ‘revives’ the prerogative power to dissolve parliament and to call a new parliament (section 2). However this is interpreted, it is clear that the bill’s intention is to ensure that parliament can be dissolved and recalled ‘as if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 had never been enacted’ (section 2). Fixed terms of five years are now replaced with a maximum five-year term (section 4). Moreover, the bill seeks to make the dissolution and calling of parliament non-justiciable (section 3) – arguably making the prerogative powers even less subject to judicial review than was the case prior to 2011.

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A question of confidence? The Constitution Committee’s view on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011

Nine years after the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, both government and opposition have expressed a desire to repeal it, following two general elections: one brought about about using the provisions of the Act and another by circumventing them. The Constitution Committee has produced a report setting out what any replacement legislation needs to address. Its Chair, Baroness Taylor, discusses the Committee’s conclusions below.

On its introduction in 2011, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) was heralded by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, as a ‘constitutional innovation’ that would no longer allow the timing of general elections to be a ‘plaything of Governments’. Nine years on, it is safe to say that the FTPA has not had the effect that he and others envisaged. The FTPA has been stress-tested and found wanting by political parties and commentators alike. 

The FTPA sets the length of parliaments at five years and requires the approval of the House of Commons for an early general election. It removed the longstanding prerogative power of the monarch to dissolve parliament at the request of the Prime Minister and instead vested this authority in Members of Parliament. In 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May proved that a government that wanted an election could secure one using the provisions of the FTPA. In 2019, at the helm of a minority government that was thrice denied an early general election under the FTPA, Prime Minister Boris Johnson sidestepped its requirements with the Early Parliamentary General Election Act.

These events prompted proposals from both the Conservative and Labour parties to repeal the FTPA. The current government has reiterated that commitment since taking office. However, repealing the FTPA is not straightforward, given its constitutional and legal implications. It is in this context that the House of Lords Constitution Committee published its report on the FTPA on 4 September, exploring its effects and the questions that need to be addressed for any future reform.

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Should we codify the royal prerogative?

com.google.Chrome.vxw6lk.jpgThe recent controversy about the unlawful attempt to prorogue parliament and the judicial review that followed has given rise to renewed calls for the codification of the royal prerogative or the enactment of a written constitution. Anne Twomey argues that there are benefits to a looser prerogative power, and that experience in other countries has shown that codification should be undertaken with caution.

The recent controversy about the prorogation of parliament and the judicial review of its exercise in Miller No 2 (also known as Cherry/Miller) has again given rise to calls for the codification of the prerogative or the enactment of a written constitution.

A written constitution is not necessarily an antidote for ambiguity or interpretative discretion. The same issues that arose in Miller No 2 could also arise under a written constitution. For example, section 5 of the Australian Constitution confers upon the Governor-General of Australia the power to prorogue the federal parliament. In doing so, however, it does not delineate the scope of the power to prorogue and whether there are any internal limits on it. The term ‘prorogue’ would have to be interpreted in its historical context, as a prerogative power, and in a manner that is consistent with the principles that are derived from the constitution, including the principles of responsible and representative government

So what would happen if an Australian government requested the Governor-General to prorogue parliament for a significant period, in circumstances where it appeared to have lost confidence and to be seeking to frustrate the ability of parliament to fulfil is legislative and accountability functions? It is likely that Australian courts would face exactly the same issues as the UK Supreme Court did in Miller No 2, regarding justiciability, the scope of the power to prorogue and the application of fundamental constitutional principles. Simply setting out the existing power in legislation or a written constitution does not, of itself, resolve all questions as to its application.

While most prerogative powers have now been abrogated by legislation, there is usually a good reason while those that have survived as prerogative do so. It may be because of the need to exercise them in a quick and decisive fashion. Sometimes, codifying prerogatives in legislation, particularly where prescriptive conditions are included, can exacerbate problems about their use. Disputes are likely to arise about the interpretation of the application of the conditions, courts are likely to become involved in enforcing them, and the delay involved in litigation is likely to exacerbate any political crisis. Continue reading

The Supreme Court ruling in Cherry/Miller (No.2), and the power of parliament

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgThis week’s Supreme Court judgment against Boris Johnson on parliament’s prorogation has shaken British politics and will be looked back on as a landmark case. Yet at the same time, Meg Russell argues, it simply reinforces the core principle of parliament’s centrality in our constitution. There has long been a myth of executive-dominance in the British system. Perhaps after this case, the fact that the government gains its power and authority from parliament will be better recognised – by those both inside and outside the system.

The Supreme Court’s judgment in the prorogation case was damning. Short of deciding that Boris Johnson had misled the Queen (which would be difficult to know, given private conversations) the court issued the strongest possible condemnation on all counts. The government had argued that prorogation was non-justiciable: i.e. not a matter in which the courts could get involved. The justices instead ruled it justiciable. Having established that, they then ruled it to be unlawful. Then, rather than leaving any loose ends regarding remedies, they explicitly quashed the prorogation, declaring that ‘Parliament has not been prorogued’. To cap it all, the decision was a unanimous one by all 11 justices who sat in the case. The prorogation was hence not just ‘improper’, as argued previously on this blog, and in a letter to the Times signed by 22 constitutional experts, but also found to be unlawful in the most powerful possible terms.

In some respects this feels like a constitutional earthquake. Few at the outset expected such a resounding result. On the basis of the High Court’s judgment, the first hurdle of justiciability was in doubt. Many who watched the proceedings, and the careful forensic analysis by Lord Pannick, representing Gina Miller, will soon have started thinking otherwise. This can only have been reinforced by watching the presentations by the government’s lawyers, who claimed that the issue of prorogation should be resolved politically rather than through the courts. Their suggestion that parliament could somehow defend itself, when the very point of the case was that parliament had been shut down, rang hollow.

The court’s judgment confirmed that advising the monarch to prorogue ‘will be unlawful if the prorogation has the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature and as the body responsible for the supervision of the executive’ (para 50). That flows, the judgment suggested, from two principles at the very core of the UK constitution: the sovereignty of parliament, and the accountability of the government to parliament – exercised, for example, through questions and committees. Continue reading