The Fixed Term Parliament Act was introduced in 2011 by demand of the Liberal Democrats to prevent their senior partners in coalition government, the Conservatives, unilaterally calling an election when the timing suited them. The Act requires 2/3 of MPs to vote for an early election, thereby preventing any one Party calling an election purely for their own benefit.
Although the FTPA was a very useful tool to cement trust between coalition partners, the longer term ramifications of the Act are potentially farcical. In preventing governments from unilaterally calling opportunistic elections, the authors of the legislation failed to consider the possibility that a government may find itself in a position whereby it is absolutely necessary to call a General Election but that opposition parties would be the ones acting opportunistically in order to prevent it.
Within a few days we may find ourselves in the following position that would not be out of place in an episode of The Thick Of It:
Parliament is blocking a 'No Deal' Brexit
Parliament is blocking a deal (it has already done so repeatedly by failing to vote for Theresa May's deal)
Parliament is blocking a new government (if it fails to vote no confidence in the current one, despite the current government potentially voting no confidence in itself)
Parliament is blocking a General Election
Opposition MPs and Conservative Remainer rebels could thus lock us interminably into limbo until 2022 on Brexit, with no purpose beyond rendering the government impotent. There is no positive alternative offered up that honours the democratic mandate handed down by the referendum result, only a persistent rejection of all options. Indeed, the FTPA makes the unreasonable rejection of all outcomes more likely by making it less easy for obstructive politicians to be removed via an election.
I should add that any enforced limbo persisting until 2022 is incredibly unlikely; the coalition of nay-sayers, Europhiles and opportunists will not survive longer than a few months due to competing ambitions, interests and levels of impatience. It may not happen at all and perhaps Labour would vote for a General Election if Boris goes down that route (though I doubt it given the pressure they are under from Remainers to not allow any escape for the government until after another Article 50 extension has been agreed). But merely the potential of imposing limbo for any length of time on an issue of over-riding national importance is reason enough to recognise that something is badly wrong. Governments need to be agile, not inert, and there always needs to be at least one avenue open to them to break an impasse, a General Election traditionally being the ultimate recourse.
Any legislation like the FTPA that has the potential to render our government impotent in times of crisis is not fit for purpose. Any government must have the capacity to return to the polls if a Parliament is incapable of breaking a deadlock and if that occasionally means opportunistic rather than necessary General Elections then so be it. The FTPA may have been a useful tool for cementing trust between coalition partners, but any future coalitions should achieve this via a legally binding agreement between the two Parties, not through legislation that will remove an important weapon from the armoury of future governments until repealed.
Authored by: Mark Russell (Deputy Chair, Blackburn Conservatives)