Am I alone in missing snap general elections? I miss the breaking news from the steps of Downing Street. I miss excitable political editors with fingers in their ears babbling on as some nervous Prime Minister makes a dash for their car in the middle of some heaving political crisis. I even miss the talk of shrewd political calculation as swaggering Prime Ministers take control of their destiny and remain coy about the day they’ve chosen. Most of all, I miss politics that react to the vagaries of human existence and when political careers are broken by fate.
Fixed term parliaments, on the other hand, remove the human factor from the year to year business of politics, which is itself defined day to day by human factors. Politicians are now servants of a timetable, which doesn’t feel quite right. Give me, rather, the days when Prime Ministers suffered gout and couldn’t call elections in balmy weather or when England might be playing at Lords. Politics should avoid clearly defined cycles which leave us like America, except instead of one lame duck President we have 650 lame duck MPs sitting around Parliament tapping on their state-funded iPads as they pretend to be working.
While I’m about it, I must confess that I’ve never been much taken with the idea of politicians working normal hours. There was a certain romance in parliaments that sat into the night to debate some seriously hot topic. That they have to stop when the crèche closes does not, in my mind, feel quite right, even if it does seem fair. The British Parliament has modernised but at what cost? It was the product of better days before we became mechanised and everything run on a timer. Some traditions are traditions because of something more than mere tradition. They made a deep kind of sense.
It was David Cameron who changed all of that in a pique of selfishness disguised as ‘good of the country’ back in 2011. We now know the lengths to which he would go to hold onto power. If he could gamble the Union and then our membership of the EU for the short term political advantage of silencing the Jacob Rees Mogg wing of the Tory party, then we should know that there’s nothing he wouldn’t gamble. It was foreshadowed back when the Coalition Government thought it would be a good idea to introduce the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Even then it didn’t strike me as being ‘best for the country’ but best for the guy who wanted a proper stab at being Prime Minister.
In my Political Junkie List of Favourite Acts of Parliament, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is probably among my least favourite dozen. Being stuck with any particular government for five years has always struck me as being a particularly bad idea; like agreeing to a blind date but instead of meeting at local cinema you instead agree to share a cabin for a three week cruise around Norway. Sounded like a great idea at first but rarely fails to disappoint…
In the hot sweaty days of the post electoral bun fight, the idea of five years of stable government seemed quite reasonable but surely we can now recognise that it makes no allowance for human behaviour. Not only does it suck out the little bit of fun we once had speculating about the next general election, it forces upon us the kind of situation we’re now facing in which a new party leader argues they have a mandate from the people simply because the Fixed-term Parliaments Act doesn’t allow them to go to the country sooner.
With a fixed term parliament, the political chaos will surely expand to fill the space available. We now have months (it not years, until May of 2020) of parties given the freedom to fill the current political void with internecine warfare. If there was a real threat of a general election, then both Labour and the Conservatives would sort out there messes in double quick time. Most parliamentarians are open to concession and compromise. They believe in politics in which alliances form and deals are cut. To that end, the flexibility of the general election was a primarily motivation.
Except, of course, now there is no flexibility. Parliament could, in theory, call an election with a simple vote. One such vote would be a vote of no confidence in the government but that will always be unlikely when any single party has a majority. The other way requires that parliament agree to a general election but it requires a two thirds majority of the Commons. Again, in all practical sense, it’s impossible to imagine a situation when this could happen. No party would agree to a general election unless they felt like they had a good chance of winning yet any fraction of parliament thinking they could win would be blocked by the remainder who, no doubt, would think that they’d lose.
This is the problem we’re now facing because of this relatively new innovation in our parliamentary system. Fixed-term parliaments were meant to make minority governments more stable; helpful when British politics are fragmented and big single party majorities less likely. The converse to this, however, is that a weak governments might be seen to be acting unfairly. The right to call a general election is not so much one of the government but one of the people. In truth, it has always been a Royal Prerogative but, in practical sense, it’s a power that the monarch exerts on behalf of the people. The mechanism of the general election was a finely set pressure value that balanced the need for stable government with the will of people to change that government. What the Coalition effectively did in 2011 was stick a large spanner on the valve and tighten it to the point where it no longer operates. From the vantage point of 2016 or 2017, it would seem to be decision that was extremely short sighted and mean that the coming months might well be some of the angriest we’ve seen as parliamentary procedure rubs up against public pressure.