5 year Parliament

One of the main constitutional innovations the new coalition government wishes to bring in is a fixed term 5 year Parliament. Apparently the Lib Dems were especially keen to have this, as they feared the Conservatives would use their support until the polls suggested the Conservatives could win an overall majority and then go to the country at a time of their choosing. Of course any looser agreement between the two parties also left the Lib Dems free to dictate the date of the next election as well, as they could withdraw their support at any time.

There are two main reasons why we have not in the past had fixed term Parliaments. The first is the Leader of the governing party has valued the ability to decide when to hold the election in the political interest of his party, and majority parties have usually thought that a good idea. A coalition obviously takes a different view. The second is that binding a Parliament to five years does not allow for accidents which could fail to produce a majority for any government. The right to hold an earlier election could be needed if, for example, a government with a small majority loses that majority through deaths and defections, or it could be needed if the governing party split apart on a big issue.

In practise, the Parliament which enacts a Fixed Term Parliament Act could also repeal such an Act. So if the Lib Dems did wish to end the coalition early and had the support of Labour and others for doing so, I guess they would just move the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. It is a lock on the door, and finding the key would be difficult, but not impossible. There is some talk of weighted majorities to repeal, to try to make such a course even more difficult. We will have to see whether these are either technically feasible or desirable.

It is a fairly safe assumption that we have a five year coalition government stretching ahead. Senior Lib Dems have decided to surrender some independence of thought for the opportunity to influence a government, and may well like the experience. The UK does need stable and strong government. Having a majority of around 70 and saying you will legislate for a 5 year Parliament gives you as strong a platform as you can create in the cirucmstances. What matters now is what they do – and events.


  1. Gnostic
    May 12, 2010

    PR? Fixed term government? It’s a damning indictment that what is driving this unnatural coalition is not how to get this country back on its feet but by what means they can stay in power. What the hell has happened to tackling the mounting defecit and “putting the nation first”? How is making shabby deals putting the nation first?

  2. botogol
    May 12, 2010

    I don't understand how this works at all, or how it can possibly be a good idea.

    Let's imagine that in two years time the Lib-Con coalition falls apart over something serious, and Cameron loses a confidence vote.

    What happens then – does the queen ask the labour party to form a government? what if they then lose a confidence vote? Would we have to continue for three more years, without a government? Or to have an election needs a constitutional change?

    Simpler than a fixed term would be that only parliament can dissolve parliament. In that way whenever a majority of MPs wanted an election, we would have one.

    1. A.T.
      May 12, 2010

      I was thinking on similar lines – that the rule could not be binding on a future parliament which could always reverse it. Except – one of the situations where a PM might wish to dissolve the parliament is when (s)he no longer commands a majority.

  3. Andrew Duffin
    May 12, 2010

    I don't understand how this can work.

    What would happen if (when?) some of the Lib Dem members decide this coalition is not for them, and start to vote against the government?

    What is the point of having a fixed-term parliament if the governing party/coalition/stitch-up cannot get anything passed in the House, not even a confidence motion?

    Surely such a government must fall. Surely elections must then be held.

    Someone please explain what I'm missing here.

  4. Norman
    May 12, 2010

    An interesting last paragraph that strikes at the heart of the matter. Conservative MP's are now placed somewhat between a rock and a hard place.

    If you say that coalitions can produce stable, firm governments able to take action during the most trying of times (as these are) and then later, during any referendum, come out as saying that 'Yes, coalitions work but really single Party rule is better' it will smack of self-serving hypocrisy, denying other Party's a Parliamentary voice.

    Of course, this is trumped by the last two words 'and events'. It is unexpected events, such as the financial crisis, during which a coalition may find itself torn apart. If such events do happen then the 5 year rule may prove quite a hindrance.

  5. HK
    May 12, 2010

    What happens if the LibDems get their referendum on AV, the Conservatives campaign against it (having voted as promised for the referendum) and the people say no, stick with FPTP. (And after the last few days, why would the people want anything which made a hung parliament more likely?)

    You would then have no prospect of further voting reform, so nothing to bind the LibDems into the coalition. So no cooperation and, as botogol said, a complete mess.

    And realistically, this would also be the case after a yes vote to AV as well, because by then the LibDems would have got what they want.

    1. Y Rhyfelwr Dewr
      May 12, 2010

      after the last few days, why would the people want anything which made a hung parliament more likely?)

      You'd be surprised. A lot of that pro-PR bunch sem to cling to the principle with a quasi-religious zeal. Lay bare the flaws of PR, demolish all the arguments for its merits, demonstrate its utter appallingness and render its supporters defenceless, and they still maintain that it must, in some way they can't identify, still be "fairer"

      Talk about wishful thinking!

  6. Mark
    May 12, 2010

    A disadvantage with 5 year Parliaments is that they entrench an exaggerated business cycle, as government inevitably is encouraged to engineer a boom for the election (just as Brown has done as an overlay to our present economic decline), which equally inevitably has to be punctured by the incoming government. Lots more boom and bust.

    Fixed 5 year Parliaments also row back from Cameron's on the hoof idea that a new mid-term PM should call an election within 6 months to seek endorsement. We now have the prospect that this could amount to Vote Cameron – Get Clegg – i.e. a totally different, minority party.

    I do think we need the constitutional safeguard that ultimately the Monarch can dissolve Parliament, and that Parliaments can't simply vote to perpetuate themselves indefinitely.

    Let's face it, this idea was only cooked up to give an illusion that the coalition stands a good chance of surviving 5 years of the present Parliament. The reality is that Lib Dems (or even 30-40 rebellious Tory backbenchers) cans still bring it down when the going gets tough, and there is no option other than to foment such a rebellion even when it might be to the electoral advantage of both parties to seek a fresh election.

    The Lib/Con coalition may be a little more stable than other alternatives, but in reality it will prove fragile when the really tough cuts start to bite and social unrest mounts. It would be much better to concentrate on identifying the damage Labour has done (what really is on the BoE balance sheet? just how bad a deal is PFI? what bombs primed to explode have been laid?) – making them unelectable – and then secure a proper Tory majority, while offering Lib Dems the chance to form a national anyone-but-Labour coalition to sort out the mess.

    There is no mandate for what needs to be done from this election, because it simply hasn't been put to the people. The government will seem increasingly undemocratic if it proceeds without securing a proper mandate. No-one has even voted for the mish-mash combination of manifestos that is emerging – except for Lib Dem politicians. This provides an unfortunate legitimisation for Labour opposition when they really should be being buried, never to rise again as a party of government.

    1. Y Rhyfelwr Dewr
      May 12, 2010

      Surely, the bill would have to contain a provision allowing an election to be called earlier in the event of the government losing a vote of no confidence, or changing its prime minister. That a prime minister is permitted to refuse to call an election until he thinks he can win it does strike me as perverse.

      I shouldn't have thought it would affect the business cycle much. Governments already operate on an assumption that they will need to call an election within about four or five years, and structure their policies to reflect that and yield dividends within that time frame. This is what leads to the "mid-term blues" isn't it — where a govenment tends to lose support about two or three years into a term of office, and then wins it back again in its final year?

  7. English Pensioner
    May 12, 2010

    If we are to have electoral reform, to me one of the main issues is to have equal population sized constituencies. These vary quite widely within England, and with the Scots and the Welsh having their own legislatures, there is no argument whatsoever for having smaller constituencies (and thus greater voting power) in either Scotland or Wales.

    1. Y Rhyfelwr Dewr
      May 12, 2010

      As a Welshman, I wonder whether, in fact, we shouldn't give the English their own legislature. Westminster would remain the seat of national government, but the country could operate more on an American model, with the different nations subject to a central authority that coordinates policy, administers common interests, and holds the ultimate say, but with extensive powers devolved to each nation taking responsibility for its day-to-day affairs.

      I wonder if this might not be an antidote to nationalist groups demanding more power, as well as the valid point that the Conservatives have been comprehensively defeated north of the border.

      1. English Pensioner
        May 13, 2010

        A good idea which I support, but we already have far too many layers of government.
        Where I live, we have a Parish Council, District Council & County Council. We also have an unelected South East Regional Council which seems to dabble in everything.
        All these cost money and result in buck passing, particularly if something goes wrong!

      2. Robert George
        May 13, 2010

        No English legislature thank you, the last thing we need is another wannabe's talking shop.

        Personally, I would be happy to allow the Scots and the Northern Irish an independence referendum, provided the English could vote too. I suspect that is the only way they will ever achieve separation!

        The Scots have been bought by Brown's Nanny State. The real politik is that the English have nothing to lose by cutting their share back to equal, after all it will not hurt the English nor will it harm the Tory vote, in fact if the Scots had their funds cut that would improve the Tory vote in England.

  8. Neil Craig
    May 12, 2010

    I don't see how a fixed term Parliament can work without a Presidential system. If the government loses its majority but no new government can gain one you need an election to get a government.

  9. A.T.
    May 12, 2010

    How is this going to map out ? Cameron is going to have to run a centrist government to keep the LDs on board. Will he use this to shift the party further to the centre? If so, where does that leave those holding traditional tory values ?

  10. A.Sedgwick
    May 12, 2010

    The procedure should remain the same except the maximum time should be 4 years. 1945-50, 1959-64, 1974-79, 1992-97 and 2005-10 all showed tired Governments passed their sell by date and we were stuck with them far too long. If PR for the Commons is a step too far this sort of change is badly needed, together with no unelected PMs and the losing PM gets out the day he's lost.

  11. William
    May 12, 2010

    I think something needed to be done about the length of a parliament, which shouldn't be at the whim of the PM. But constitutional reform should'nt be decided over a weekend for party advantage or expediency. In fact, Dave may have found the flaw in his previous argument to call an election after a change of PM. Suppose, for example, John Smith had been PM at the head of a coalition when he died.

    My gut feeling is that 5 years is too long, and 4 would be more natural. Governments often run out of steam after three and then limp on for two more. Popular PMs tend to run to the country after four years, so we have no experience of a five year parliament which retained public support.

    I would suggest two changes, basically for four-year parliaments which will normally run their course.

    1. A four-year maximum.

    2. An understanding that the monarch will normally refuse an early dissolution unless the government cannot reasonably continue, or needs to make significant changes in policy. I think it will be clear whether a PM is making a necessary request, rather than merely taking advantage of favourable polls.

    Of course, this would work just as well for five-year parliaments.

  12. Lindsay McDougall
    May 12, 2010

    I shudder to think what would have happened had the February 1974 parliament been forced to endure for 5 years. The Wilson minority government would eventually have been supersed by a dreadful Heathite 'government of national unity' and the country would have been utterly b______d.

    Let's face it; 5 year fixed term parliaments are complete and utter nonsense, and if they were not in the Conservative manifesto there is no mandate for them.

    The only reason that the American system works is that the House of Representatives is re-elected every two years, the Senate every six years, and the President every four years. Even so, checks and balances have taken centuries to evolve and are to this day imperfect.

    Because the House of Commons is our primary chamber and the House of Lords has only delaying powers, it is a positive help that the Lords has an undemocratic component. I would get rid of Life Peers and have a mixture of hereditary peers and elected representatives. If we convert the Lords to an all elected Senate, constitutional clashes are inevitable.

  13. Tim Skinner
    May 12, 2010

    If there is a mandate for this coalition government, it can only be for those areas of policy on which the Conservatives and Lib Dems agreed during the election.

    The constitutional changes proposed are simply a (further) stitch-up of the British people. Parties which wish to see them should fight, and decisively win, an election on them. They should not result from back-room deals between the parties outside an election, where we are held to ransom by a minority party with minority support.

  14. Provocatio
    May 12, 2010

    This fixed term is a declaration of intent from the Conservatives. The danger for the Lib Dems is that we are the bigger party and could, if we wished, spring a snap election on a wave of popularity and return with a majority. “ An alliance with the strong is never to be trusted”. The fixed term reduces that risk.

    Let's remember the Lib Dems are taking a risk with their voters coming with us (Most of the non Tories out there still believe the lies that Labour have been peddling for the past 13 years).The vote in Thirsk and Malton is going to be interesting. I hope the Lib Dem electorate there don't punish the Libs for doing the right thing.

    Anyway…. the fixed term is symbolic; Parliament cannot be bound by a previous Parliament…

    Interesting days ahead.

    Very Happy we are back.

    Have a nice day


  15. APL
    May 12, 2010

    JR: "There are two main reasons why we have not in the past had fixed term Parliaments."

    I agree. In actual fact there are fixed term parliaments the maximum term a government may govern is five years, however if the government resigns before that period there should be an election.

    The hue and cry for fixed term is largly from people who have little understanding and no sympathy for the established procedures of this country.

    Why is AV the only form of PR on the agenda? In the referendum – will there be a cast iron guarentee? – can we have a option that we are satisfied with the current system?

  16. botogol
    May 12, 2010

    strikes me cameron is repeating tony blair's unfortunate habit of making consitituional changes on the hoof. Abolition of Lord chancellor, reform of house of lords, national parliaments – all these quite attractive ideas in themselves but made up and announced without being properly thought through.

    5-year terms sounds like another one of these half-baked ideas…

    .. the sort of ideas John Redwood would normally be demolishing in two or three incisive paragraphs. John – I hope we haven't lost your 'voice' now that you are in power and being properly whipped.

  17. Robert George
    May 12, 2010

    We have fixed 4 year terms in the State government in Sydney Australia where I live half the time. The fixed terms were imposed as part of a power sharing deal with a left of centre minority some ten years ago.

    It is hopeless, currently we have a government which has proved completely inept and corrupted , but we have to wait another 12 months for their fixed term to be up. We have gone through 2 unelected premiers in the last 12 months.

    Don't buy it, it does not work.

  18. Katy
    May 12, 2010

    I've long thought we need fix term governments in this country. It will avoid some of the pitfalls and in fighting that Labour endured with Brown under pressure to call an election.
    Now it seems we're set for momentus change – new parties, new style of government, constitutional reform and a new generation of leadership. The latter is particularly interesting. This article in the Independent last week explains the importance of the "passing of the generational torch" from Baby Boomers to Generation Jones. The latter being a hitherto lost generation between Boomers and Xers, which includes Cameron and Clegg. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators

  19. John Hatch
    May 12, 2010

    It now looks as if the coup against Iain Duncan Smith, with no reference to the rank and file, was a rehearsal for the coup d'etat by the two Cs.

    I cannot imagine that many Conservative supporters envisaged they were voting for Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister. They have now been told they will not be able to vote on the matter for five years.

    (Personally, I feel hugely relieved that I voted for UKIP in Oxford West and Abingdon to avoid the risk of feeling a huge sense of betrayal and anger if I had voted Tory. In addition, if the Cons and Lib Dems were to be in coalition, the sitting Lib Dem – Dr. Harris – was plainly far better qualified than the young Con – Nicola Blackwood – who won the seat).

    If the right is now to embark on civil war, we shall need the Alternative Vote (AV) system and the Scottish MPs removed from Westminster.

  20. Mark
    May 12, 2010

    I've seen a suggestion that a confidence motion might require a 55% anti vote. That is a recipe for a lame duck, not a legislature.

  21. Richard
    May 12, 2010

    Sorry to detract from the general mawkish coverage of Mr Brown's going but I do not think the Labour Party has shown any grace in defeat. It is notable how dominated they are in the media (and apparently in negotiations) by such unelected figures as Lords Mandelson and Adonis and Alastair Campbell. Mr Campbell says lots of Lib Dems are now joining Labour. But I should think rather more Labour voters will go to the Lib Dems if they prove themselves a serious party of Government. Could be in future elections it will be Conservatives vs Lib Dems with Labour a minority statist rump, just like it used to be. Socialism could be finally dead and buried.

  22. botogol
    May 12, 2010

    Here's how it will work – text from the Coalition Agreement

    6. Political Reform
    The parties agree to the establishment of five year fixed-term parliaments. A Conservative-Liberal
    Democrat coalition government will put a binding motion before the House of Commons in the first
    days following this agreement stating that the next general election will be held on the first
    Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, legislation will be brought forward to make
    provision for fixed term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution
    if 55% or more of the House votes in favour.

    the 55% – in practice that means whenever they like. Most often the governing party has 55%.
    Even in this parliament it's hard to imagine a scenario where the Conservatives put up a motion to dissolve parliement and have general election and all the other parties are so frit they vote it down…

    (and a binding motion? no parliament can bind itself. It will always take only a simple majoirity to pass a reversiong law?

    1. alan jutson
      May 13, 2010

      That is exactly as I understand it as well.

      Only a five year fixed parliament until you vote against it with a small majority

  23. DennisA
    May 12, 2010

    Sounds like they had some advice from the famous consultant on parliamentary democracy, Hugo Chavez, aided and abetted by Robert Mugabe. It is quite disgraceful to say that they cannot be got rid of, come hell or high water, for five years.

    It will be interesting to see if any of the other "liberal" ideas on civil liberties come to fruition.

    1. Mark
      May 13, 2010

      You may be grateful for the liberal idea that protest is permissible – then hell and high water can visit Parliament Square if needed.

      1. DennisA
        May 13, 2010

        At the moment…
        A fixed term is not democratic no matter how you dress it up.

  24. BillyB
    May 12, 2010

    Bye bye Mandelson… not sorry to see you go !

  25. John C
    May 12, 2010

    "The first is the Leader of the governing party has valued the ability to decide when to hold the election in the political interest of his party"

    That is exactly why a mechanism should be in place to stop the PM having such a power.

    Since the Brown 'bottled' election in 2007 we have had endless speculation on when he was going to call an election.

    This can only cause political and potentially financial instability.

    Of course a government can repeal the legislation. Don't you think the electorate would have a view on this?

    BTW: Congratulations to all members of the conservative party on how this whole process has been handled. Let's hope this "grown up" politics will last.

  26. Mike Fowle
    May 12, 2010

    Why not be a little more constructive? Surely a fixed term parliament is a good idea in principle. It takes away from the sitting Prime Minister the damaging speculation as to when he might be going to the country and reduces an unfair advantage. By all means question the detail when known but this speculation in advance seems a little pointless. It seems to work pretty well in the US.

    1. botogol
      May 13, 2010

      @Mike Fowle – the situation in the US is very different as they have separated the executive and the legislature.

      The president has a fixed term and if he resigns/dies, there is the the VP, and if he resigns/dies there is [the next guy]. You are never left presidentless.

      In the UK it's different: if the governing party loses control of parliament then…. in the absence of an election what? does the the queen ask some other party to govern? which one? what if none of them have a majority? Would we have to continue in a state of confusion perhaops for years until a new election was allowed?

      this proposal is not thought through.

  27. Gordon 4ever
    May 13, 2010

    To partially contradict Richard, I think some Labour politicians have shown grace in defeat and saved us from government from Stormont. John Reid and David Blunkett have gone up my estimation. To quote J.K. Rowling, it takes a special courage to stand up against one's friends.

    Also to be devil's advocate, I have a feeling that hung parliaments work better with PR than with FPTP. This is because the minority parties in FPTP tend to be regional and not national. Though, I want to make it clear, I am not an advocate of either.

    My feeling on the fixed term parliament is that there is bound to be an awkward period when the Lib Dems and the Conservatives start electioneering. Once this happens, the parties will want to start criticising the other. My guess is that the unity of the coalition will be tested some time before the 5year term. And what happens if the referendum on Electoral Reform is lost, the Lib Dems will feel that there is nothing left go gain from being in the coalition.

    1. alan jutson
      May 13, 2010

      Gordon 4ever

      Think many Labour Politicians from the real old school of Labour thought the same as John Reid.

      A number during Power thought it wrong that their views were silenced by the spin doctors who seemed to be in charge of the Party, so their silence and unease was the cost of holding onto power. This week that cost was thought too high, as unelected people sought to remain in positions of power at almost any cost.

      Too bad they did not speak up sooner, when Brown was ushered in without any form of challenge, or when Immigration was going through the roof.

  28. botogol
    May 13, 2010

    An excellent analysis by head of legal.

    john – really interested to hear your views ? you CANNOT be in favour of this half-baked idea, surely?

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