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The booby trap. Prime Ministers under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011

September 29th, 2019

We are used to American presidents dominating their country’s politics.  “Commander in chief” can be understood in more than one way, given how the role has developed. It was not always thus. For most of the nineteenth century, American presidents were chiefly distinctive for their lack of distinction. In the sixty year period between Andrew Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt, only Abraham Lincoln really stood out for his achievements. Taken as a group, they were strikingly anonymous.  

Taking the very broadest view, the USA did surprisingly well from this sustained mediocrity. Yes, it had a bloody civil war and yes, its treatment of its indigenous peoples in this period was atrocious, but it transformed into a major world power in that time. It seems that strong leaders are not prerequisites for a successful country. This does not seem to be a popular view at the moment.

The British commentariat has pretty much unanimously agreed that the nation is groaning for a new Parliament to enable us all to benefit from the smack of firm government but the Fixed Term Parliaments Act has left it unable to escape its shackles.

As with many consensus views, it’s absolute rot. There is nothing wrong with the system under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. The problem is with the politicians who haven’t figured out how to work with it.

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act has changed both more and less than seems to be understood. Let’s look first at the stuff it hasn’t changed. To get things done, a government needs to command a majority in the House of Commons. When one party has an overall majority, that’s straightforward enough. Then, the main constraint of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act is to prevent early elections without the House of Commons’ blessing.

There isn’t a problem in a hung Parliament either when a majority is formed by a stable coalition. The government did just fine between 2010 and 2015.

For the last two years, however, we have had governments that have decided to dispense with seeking to form any stable majority and instead have sought to use their executive authority to get their way. In a system of Parliamentary sovereignty, this is not so much adventurous as reckless.  

Theresa May at least vaguely saw the problem. She cobbled together a supply and confidence arrangement with the DUP and, despite knowing that her party was divided and that she might have future differences with her new chums, hoped that would prove sufficient. It didn’t.

Boris Johnson didn’t even try. So far from conserving and building it, he has burned through his voting support. He has built a reliable majority against himself and in the process demonstrated his noisy impotence.

It turns out that if you want to get your way in the House of Commons, you need to have more votes than the other side. Who knew?

What the Fixed Term Parliaments Act has changed is how a Prime Minister who has lost his or her majority then leaves office. Defeats even on a central plank of policy do not evict the tenant of Number 10. A Prime Minister declaring that a matter is a vote of confidence does not do the trick – Boris Johnson tried that, but on losing declined to resign.

A Prime Minister leaves office alive only in one of three ways: he or she resigns; he or she loses a vote of no confidence and does not win a vote of confidence within 14 days; or a general election is called (whether by effluxion of time or in accordance with the provisions of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act).

This means that a Prime Minister who has lost his or her authority in the Commons rapidly loses their dignity too. They are trapped in office until their opponents decide to stop toying with them. Political opponents have a strong interest in destroying your reputation. Theresa May discovered, as Boris Johnson is discovering, that they are ready to take it.

How can would-be Prime Ministers in a hung Parliament avoid this fate? Here are a few simple tips.

  1. Construct a stable majority

This worked well for David Cameron between 2010 and 2015. It would work well again. Aim for full coalition rather than confidence and supply. That way the rascals have less scope to cause trouble.

Of course, that entails serious compromise up front. That’s the bit that most people find hard. Is that such a terrible thing in a Parliament where opinion is evenly balanced though?

  1. Don’t try to do too much

If your coalition spans a wide range of opinion or is fragile, keep your agenda focussed. Do less but do it.  

That is also a problem for politicians who want to launch eye-catching initiatives. That’s probably no bad thing either.

  1. Let someone else do the hard work

The most influential politician in a hung Parliament is very often pulling the strings rather than being the marionette. So often in life, you can either be the one who solves the problem or the one who is the problem. In my experience, being the problem is a lot more fun.

So if you’re influential and smart, always consider sticking someone else in the top job.  Let them wrestle with the challenges while you pose them. If they don’t oblige you, you can probably torture them until they accept your control. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” has a new meaning now.

Alastair Meeks