This week we find Parliament in an unprecedented mess. It cannot agree on any way forward in the Brexit process other than to extend Article 50 indefinitely. Many agree now that this Parliament is the most disorganised since the one Cromwell dismissively told: “In the name of God, go!”. But we cannot break this deadlock and hold a general election next month because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 (FTPA). The Act was passed in an effort to keep the then coalition government together by preventing David Cameron from calling a general election if he was ahead in the polls.
The Act allows for a general election to take place every five years; there are also two mechanisms by which an early general election can be called. The first is a successful motion of no-confidence in Her Majesty’s Government followed by 14 days of time in which an alternative government can be formed – if this does not happen then the country goes to the polls. The second route is a motion for an early general election, which must pass with a two-thirds majority. This is how Theresa May was able to call the 2017 election; she banked on the fact that the Opposition would not refuse an early poll. However, last week the Labour Party made a mockery of our constitution and their role as the Opposition by voting against a general election. The nature of our adversarial system requires that the Opposition not merely critique government policy, but also be ready to form a government at a moment’s notice – not in 5 years’ time, but immediately.
Prior to the FTPA, the power to dissolve Parliament was a royal prerogative. It was one of the executive powers left with the King after the 1688 “Glorious Revolution”, which established parliamentary supremacy as well as a separation of powers. In the years after 1689, the monarch would act as head of the executive, but over time this role was vested in the Prime Minister who effectively wielded royal executive powers with the consent of the monarch, who by convention would always grant requests made by them. So, if the Prime Minister lost the confidence of the House of Commons, he would seek to dissolve Parliament and call an election. It was this balance between executive and legislative power that allowed for stable governments to be maintained, and any lack of confidence in them swiftly resolved by a general election.
The FTPA upsets this balance of power which took many centuries to develop. In practice, Prime Minsters would seldom call early elections if they thought they were ahead in the polls, but only if they lost the confidence of the House. Repealing FTPA would not revert the power to the royal prerogative, as power which is taken from the Crown cannot be given back unless Parliament specifically legislated to do so (which is unlikely), and some alternative arrangement would have to be found. The lesson we should learn from FTPA is that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”