By Alex Briggs
The Fixed term parliament act was established in 2011 by the Conservative/Liberal Democrats Party Coalition. It set general elections to take place every 5 years and transferred the power to call an early election from the Prime Minister to the MPs.
Then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said, “For the first time in our history the timing of general elections will not be a plaything of governments”, when he introduced the act in 2010.
The law was also developed, at least in part, as insurance for the Liberal Democrats to make sure that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron could not hold a snap election to dismantle the coalition if it suited his party.
It was meant to be the first in a series of government reforms by the coalition, but later stages were never formed. According to Professor Meg Russel, director of University College London’s Constitution Unit, the legislation was “rushed”.
“The government took out a whole chunk of the bill while it was in the Lords and replaced it with whole new measures, which therefore didn’t have full time for scrutiny, and I think that may be where some of the problems come from.”
Russel claims that the Fixed Term Parliament Act was a “misnomer” as despite the promise of fixed election terms, there were always provisions to allow for earlier snap elections, which is exactly what Theresa May used in the 2017 elections.
Johnson has attempted to ask MPs to back an early general election three times using the provisions of the act and has been rejected with each request.
Several MPs have criticised the Act. Former Conservative MP Alan Duncan said it was only useful to keep the coalition together but now: “Its effect is now to trammel this government and our prime minister in a very Kafkaesque trap. He is finding it very difficult to govern but is unable to call a general election”.
Others are weary of the repeal. In an editorial the Guardian says the act “stopped a prime minister arrogating the crown for partisan ends. Mr Johnson wants that weapon restored to his arsenal, with only his word as guarantee that it would not be abused. His word is a flimsy thing.”
Both the Conservative and Labour party manifestos have stated that they will repeal the Fixed Parliament Act, likely spelling its end.
Meg Russel however states that such a repeal would not see the end of the debate over who should be able to call general elections; the Prime Minister or Parliament.
“They [the government] are trying to recreate a prerogative power, which is something that lawyers’ questions whether that’s even possible,” she says.
“It is possible we might see recommendations that some of the stuff in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act should go, but what you could have is a bill whereby a simple majority the House of Commons support is required to endorse an early general election.”