In praise of 5-year fixed-term parliaments

by Stephen Tall on June 5, 2014

Houses of Parliament and Westminster BridgeConventional wisdom is that one area where the Lib Dem influence in Coalition has been weakest is political reform. The party’s “four step” manifesto plan to “hardwire fairness into British society” included the pledge “to clean up politics”. Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister famously promised the “biggest shake-up of our democracy” since 1832. That claim has come to seem hollow since first electoral reform, then later an elected House of Lords and the constituency boundary review, all went down in flames.

Yet one reform which was successfully introduced – fixed-term five-year parliaments – is perhaps the most far-reaching. Its impact is still under-estimated by politicians and journalists alike.

Power in the hands of Parliament not the PM

There are still some on the right who, the moment the Conservatives are within sniffing distance of a poll lead, talk up the chance of David Cameron cutting-and-running by calling a snap election. Yet the Prime Minister no longer has that sole power: instead he has to persuade two-thirds of the House of Commons to agree with him.

Yes, Mr Cameron could instruct his own MPs to fall on their swords and vote for a motion of no confidence in the Coalition government. If the no-con motion were passed, Ed Miliband would then have 14 days to put together an administration. If he succeeded (where Gordon Brown failed) he would become Prime Minister… which would torpedo Tory plans to ridicule the notion of the Labour leader as a PM-in-waiting. It’s amazing how much more plausible people become once they’re actually doing the job.

Memo to Tory/Labour MPs: You want a minority government? Seriously?

It also makes the prospect of minority government even less attractive than it was before, as Chris Huhne astutely pointed out a few months ago:

The fixed-term act introduces a further difficulty for minority governments, because the timing of an election would now be in the hands of the combined opposition majority. Any loss of a vote of confidence would trigger an election if the government could not scrabble together a majority. A minority government would constantly be at risk of an election being called at a time of the opposition’s choosing.

The opposition strategy would then be clear: let the government flounder. Deny or amend ministerial legislation. Maybe even deprive the government of money. None of this would cause it to fall, because the fixed-term act requires a specific vote of no confidence. When the administration was looking truly shambolic, you force and win a vote of no confidence, calling an election at the point of the governing party’s maximum disadvantage.

What if Ed Miliband and David Cameron begin to dislike the fixed term? What if they were jointly keen to re-establish the prime minister’s prerogative to call general elections? They could, of course, combine to do so. But why would the opposition to a minority government want to hand over control of the timing of the next general election to its principal opponent?

All of which tells me that minority governments will be less popular in future, and that coalitions are more likely to be the response to a hung parliament.

I don’t pretend fixed-term parliaments are a big doorstep-selling achievement: only political nerds like me care. (I was part of the online campaign for them to be introduced in 2008, alongside Iain Dale and OurKingdom… ah, memories!) But that doesn’t mean we should forget its significance or its likely future consequences.

Why I think 5 years is better than 4

There is still a legitimate debate to be had on the right length of a fixed-term parliament. The early assumption was they would be four-year terms; late in the day, George Osborne amended the Coalition Agreement to create five-year terms (perhaps anticipating the length of time it would take for the economic recovery to kick in).

Personally I quite like five-year terms. It reduces the temptation of government ministers to resort to “initiative-itis” as they know there’s a fair chance they will actually have to live with the consequences of their reforms and be responsible for their successful implementation (or not). Yesterday’s quiet Queen’s Speech wasn’t just a reflection of a Coalition Government that’s run out of reforming steam, it was also a recognition that legislating for change doesn’t necessarily make it so.

It isn’t just five-year parliaments which has created stability, though: it’s Coalition Government itself. Almost half the Cabinet (14 of the 29 ministers eligible to attend) has remained the same throughout the first four years of this Parliament. Perhaps that’s down to the quality of those in post. But, to be honest, it’s just as likely to be because reshuffles in Coalitions are tricky affairs.

The usual pattern, pre-fixed-term parliaments, would have been for cabinet ministers to have two years in post; then a mid-term ‘scapegoat’ reshuffle; followed by another two years in a different post leading up to an election. It’s a recipe for poor government. I’m not saying that having the same ministers in post for 4-5 years guarantees good government, by the way (the names of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove spring to mind). But at least there’s clear accountability: it’s hard to blame your predecessor for the failure of your policies if you’ve had a whole parliament to get it right.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

photo by:


[Duncan]