Did the Fixed-term Parliaments Act fail?

Petra Schleiter, Professor of Comparative Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations

When the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) was introduced in 2011, the coalition government argued that fixed-term parliaments would have a positive effect on our country’s political system: providing stability, discouraging short-termism, and preventing the manipulation of election dates for political advantage. Yet the ease with which Theresa May was able to trigger the early election in light of her 21-point opinion poll lead over Labour over Easter appeared to cast doubt on its ability to deliver these aims.

As a result, many have echoed the view of the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg that ‘the Act can never work’. Others disagree, including Conservative MP, Peter Bone, who said the election call epitomised the Act’s success. In the debate which preceded the parliamentary vote to call the election, he said: ‘This is a good day for parliament. This is another slight step towards parliamentary democracy and away from diktat by the executive. The Prime Minister has not called a general election; it is this House that will decide whether there will be a general election.’ How plausible are these competing views?

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) was introduced by the Conservative-Liberal coalition government primarily to prevent David Cameron seizing the first significant poll lead for the Conservatives to call an early election and win a Conservative majority. Previously, the prime minister had full discretion to ask the Queen for an early election. The FPTA removed that prerogative power and instead placed the authority to call early elections in the hands of parliament. This is why the parliamentary vote on April 19 was necessary to dissolve parliament. Previously, no such vote was required.

It is a common misconception that the act “fixes” the parliamentary term. But the Act does not rule out early elections entirely, and the debate about it is in part fuelled by the fact that the Act’s title is a misnomer. Under the Act, early elections can be triggered in two ways:

· If parliament votes for an early election by a two-thirds majority of all MPs (434). This is the route that Theresa May has taken.

· If parliament passes a no-confidence vote in the government with a simple majority and then fails to express confidence in a government within 14 days.

The FTPA is therefore best understood as an Act that restricts the prime minister’s discretion to call early elections, not as an Act that fixes the parliamentary term. In evaluating whether or not it is effective, it is helpful to understand how and why most parliamentary democracies restrict their prime ministers’ discretion to call early elections.

My research with Max Goplerud shows that restrictions on prime ministerial discretion to trigger early elections are the norm in the OECD and the EU. Our analysis of 39 parliamentary democracies shows that most circumscribe the prime minister’s discretion to dissolve parliament. Typically, the prime minister alone cannot decide to call an early election. Rather, multiple political actors, such as parliament, the cabinet, and the presidential head of state are involved. Often parliamentary dissolution is not allowed for a specific time period (typically six months or a year) before or after parliamentary or presidential elections. Moreover, many constitutions allow parliamentary dissolution only in specified circumstances, such as when parliament cannot form a government, when it fails to pass the budget, or when it has repeatedly voted no confidence in the government within a specific period of time.

Parliamentary constitutions generally allow early elections so that intractable conflicts and gridlock can be resolved by turning the decision over to the electorate. However, most restrict the prime minister’s discretion to dissolve parliament because it gives significant advantages to the incumbent. My research with Margit Tavits shows that prime ministers who can decide the timing of elections realise a vote share bonus of five percent, on average. This use of parliamentary dissolution can have normatively undesirable consequences: PMs who are confident that they will perform competently and strongly until the end of their statutory term have no need to dissolve parliament. PMs that resort to early elections are those who anticipate a future downturn in their performance, which puts their popularity at risk. An early dissolution enables them to prevent voters from observing the decline in government performance, which can help a governments that are less competent than they appear to hang on to power.

The ease with which Prime Minister Theresa May was able to trigger the 8 June snap election despite the FTPA has led some to conclude that the Act is ineffective. Recall, however, that the PM was only able to secure this early election because Labour endorsed it in parliament. The Act could have led to a different outcome. A more confident Labour party might have decided not to support the PM’s election call. Many within Labour argued that the party should abstain. The Scottish National Party did precisely that, which highlights that opposition parties do not inevitably endorse the incumbent’s early election call. There is leeway to frame such choices. Reasons to question the need for an early election were plentiful. Most obviously, the PM faced no major obstacles to justify this election — recall that parliament had just endorsed the triggering of Article 50 with an overwhelming majority.

An abstention by Labour would have prevented the PM from reaching a majority of two-thirds of all MPs, forcing her into the awkward position of taking the second path to an early election envisaged by the Act, i.e., a parliamentary vote of no confidence in her government. This would have required her to instruct her own MPs to vote against her government, highlighting the strategic nature of the election call to voters.

More generally, the FTPA creates the opportunity for parliamentary opposition parties to check the PM. Opposition parties may or may not use this opportunity. But with a more confident Labour party or a different parliamentary arithmetic the Act can be a significant constraint on the PM.

For more information, go to:

Petra Schleiter’s Department of Politics and International Relations profile.

The Oxford University Politics Blog

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