Forming Governments and the Fixed Term Parliament Act

23 April 2015

Article by Alys Thomas, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Picture showing the door of 10 Downing Street
Image from Flickr by UK Ministry of Defence. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

Coalition or minority Government?

As the polls stand, it seems that no party is likely to emerge with a working majority in the 2015 UK General Election and there is much speculation about various combinations of parties working together. The four main options open to the larger parties include:

  • Coalition with one or more of the smaller parties;
  • The larger party forms a minority Government but enters into a Confidence and supply  arrangement where the smaller party, or parties, agree to support a larger party on its budget and any confidence votes other parties propose to bring it down. This was used by the 2007 SNP minority Government in Scotland and is a feature of New Zealand Governments.
  • The larger parties form a minority Government and smaller parties offer their support on an issue by issue basis;
  • The two larger parties agree to form a “Grand Coalition”, which has happened three times in Germany since the Federal Republic came into being in 1949.

There are various degrees of stability to all these options, with the minority government relying on issue by issue votes being the most vulnerable.

The previous wisdom was that coalitions in the UK were unstable because the Prime Minister (usually from the larger party) was able to call an early election at a point which suited his or her party in order to gain a majority. This has been turned on its head to a certain extent by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, introduced by the Coalition Government following the last election.

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 provides for the next general election to be on 7 May 2015, with subsequent general elections to be held on the first Thursday in May every five years. There are two provisions that trigger an election other than at five year intervals. These are:

    • a motion of no confidence is passed in the Government by a simple majority and 14 days elapses without the House passing a motion of confidence in a new or re- constituted Government, or
    • a motion is agreed by two thirds of the total number of seats in the Commons (currently 434 out of 650) including vacant seats that there shall be an early election.

The Act makes a number of other provisions, including:

  • allowing the Prime Minister to propose delaying the date of the election by up to two months, in which case a draft statutory instrument proposing the delay must be laid before and approved by both Houses, and
  • requiring the Prime Minister to make arrangements in 2020 for a Committee to carry out a review of the operations of the Act, and consider making recommendations for amendment or appeal, if appropriate.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee considered the impact of the Act on Government formation. It asserted ‘During the negotiations following the 2010 election, the proposal to introduce fixed-term parliaments formed an important part of the proposed agreements between the Liberal Democrats and each of the other parties’. David Laws MP, one of the Liberal Democrat negotiators in 2010, told them that it gave ‘both sides assurance that this was an enterprise that was going to last the period of time and one side would not suddenly pull the rug out from under the other after a short period’. The Committee suggested this might mean larger parties would be more reluctant to seek one of the minority Government options ahead of a coalition arrangement.

An early election?

In his blog parliamentary expert Lord Norton has pointed out that commentators who argue that the largest party could go for an early election were often confusing elements of the Act. For example, an early election would not be triggered if the House of Commons voted down a Queen’s speech. The motion of no confidence referred to above is specific and any other motion is not relevant for the purpose of the Act. A Government may resign in the wake of a defeat on an important vote, but that has no bearing for the purposes of the Act. No election is triggered. To clarify, Lord Norton states:

‘The wording of the motions are specified in the Act. No other wording would have an effect. The Queen has no role in the process.’

What next?

At the end of the last parliament some MPs were calling for the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act arguing that it restricted democracy. Sir Edward Leigh stated:

‘…the Act we are talking about today moves against the spirit of the idea that one Parliament cannot bind another. That is rubbish anyway, because if somebody gets a majority in the next Parliament, they can simply repeal this Act in an afternoon. All the checks and balances are meaningless in any event, because one Parliament cannot bind another.’

As parliament is currently dissolved it remains to be seen what the composition of the new one will be. If a hung parliament is the result, a further delay will take place as negotiations take place between political parties regarding the formation of a Government. It is only then that we will see whether the Act is a one–term wonder.

View this post in Welsh
Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg

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