Archive for the 'Fixed Term Parliament Act' Category

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

Sunday, 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




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Small minds and Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s latest gambit

Thursday, August 15th, 2019

His letter’s a strategic mistake

The real fight starts here. Jeremy Corbyn has written to other opposition party leaders suggesting that if he calls a vote of no confidence in the government, he stands ready to lead a temporary government to obtain an extension to the Article 50 notice and then call a general election.

Perplexingly, this ecumenical offer has met with a cool reception. The Lib Dems have given him the thumbs down on the ground that he would lack the necessary support. The Greens are willing to vote for him but have asked him whether he would support someone else if he failed to gather the necessary support. The remnants of Change UK, who still comprise 5 MPs, have described this as a stunt (given they weren’t copied in on the letter, you can understand why they were miffed).

Jeremy Corbyn stakes his claim to lead such a government on the basis that he leads the second largest party in Parliament. It is his only claim to that role.  

He has shown all the leadership on Brexit of a damp dishcloth. He has dismayed his party with his reluctance to entertain the idea of revisiting the referendum result. The Labour leadership’s policy contortions have led them to the position that they would renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and put that to a referendum, while reserving the right to support or oppose it. The EU might see a negotiation where you are maintaining the right to oppose it in a referendum as bad faith, but that is evidently a secondary consideration to the perceived need to triangulate on Brexit.

He has already lost control of his Parliamentary party, especially on Brexit.  Tom Watson is already working with the Lib Dems. He no doubt does so with the backing of many of his fellow Labour MPs.

He is catastrophically unpopular with the public. If Boris Johnson wanted a poster child for the opponents of Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn would be that man.  Leavers are prepared to countenance the break-up of the union, the destruction of the Conservative party and the slaughter of the first-born in order to secure Brexit. The one thing they are not prepared to countenance is Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. He would be delighted to go into a general election after such a temporary coalition. His opponents would be shackling themselves to a corpse.

So even the most ardent Corbynite is going to struggle to keep a straight face when arguing that the only conceivable leader of a government to extend the Article 50 notice is Jeremy Corbyn.  

The whole debate is in any case misconceived. The small minds are discussing people. Let’s get back to the idea, which is what great minds should be discussing. The idea is to stop a no deal Brexit taking place without a mandate. If all those arguing are serious about stopping a no deal Brexit without mandate, the person to get the top job should be the person most capable of ensuring that.

If that is accepted, the question should then be who that person would be.  The reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s kite-flying has shown that it is not him.  

Jeremy Corbyn has made a strategic mistake writing his letter now. He must have been aware that he would struggle to put together a rainbow coalition behind him. He has made his gambit too early and as such he has made it too easy for others to move onto alternative candidates and ask Labour figures why they would be unable to support them. If he had written his letter on the return of Parliament, he may have been alternativeless.

So who might act as a suitable placeholder for temporary Prime Minister? The critical point to note is that if it is not going to be Jeremy Corbyn, any candidate who is going to succeed in commanding a majority in the House of Commons is going to have to be someone who is acceptable to him. He is going to have a lot of agency. We can immediately on that basis exclude Jo Swinson (a dangerous political rival) and any leading Labour figure who might eclipse him in the role. You can safely lay her on Betfair at anything like current prices.

The possibilities are therefore unthreatening leaders of minor parties or clapped-out grandees. Jeremy Corbyn has good relations with Caroline Lucas and there would be the collateral advantage that if the Greens did well it would be at least partly at the Lib Dems’ expense. You can back her at 66/1 with Ladbrokes for next Prime Minister (I previously backed her at 100/1).

You can get 200/1 on Liz Saville-Roberts, leader of Plaid Cymru at Westminster. Ladbrokes haven’t yet listed Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP at Westminster, but you might take a punt on either of these if you can at suitable odds – both might represent experienced politicians who seem lacking in danger for those they need to corral. The truly adventurous might consider Lady Sylvia Hermon at 200/1, who doesn’t even have a party. She is not, however, a fan of Jeremy Corbyn and since he is a man to bear grudges, this is one long shot bet I don’t fancy.

More likely, it is going to be a grandee. Jo Swinson suggested Ken Clarke, which is almost certainly the kiss of death for his chances.  I wouldn’t touch him at the current odds of 25/1 (and have laid him on Betfair). It’s hard to imagine Jeremy Corbyn supporting any Conservative.

So look to senior Labour figures.  Margaret Beckett or Ed Miliband (both so far unlisted by Ladbrokes, though you can back Margaret Beckett on Betfair at 55 at the time of writing) are both possibilities. Much will depend on personal affection, I suspect. Insiders are at a definite advantage here.

In truth, such a government remains unlikely. If it is going to happen, it needs Labour support and some flexibility from them. So plan your betting accordingly.

Alastair Meeks




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Can we end this “snap election” speculation – TMay, like Dave before, simply does not have the power to call one

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

Everybody seems to be ignoring the Fixed Term Parliament Act

In the latest PB polling matters podcast we hear that polling has been going on asking the public what they think of the idea of having an early General Election. The responses are interesting but they ignore one pertinent fact:

    The prime minister, unlike all those before Cameron, does not have the personal power to go to the monarch and seek the dissolution of Parliament. The Fixed Term Parliament Act has changed that.

This legislation came about as part of the 2010 coalition deal between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. It was pressed for by the yellow team because they didn’t want to get into a situation where the Tories could just govern for a year or so and then go straight to the country when circumstances appeared most right ditching them.

The Act remains in force and will do so until such time as it is repealed. But that process of itself might not necessarily return the discretion to the prime minister. In any case a repeal act would have to go to both houses of parliament and it is highly possible that the measure could run into trouble in House of Lords which could delay it.

There are two provisions in the act for early elections and both present enormous hurdles. Firstly there can be one if two-thirds of the entire House of Commons votes for one. The proportion is based on the total legal number of MPs and would including vacancies, abstentions and, of course, the Sinn Fein representatives who do not take their seats.

    In the current Parliament 434 MPs would have to back the measure. That would mean getting Labour agreement so the choice would be in Mr. Corbyn’s hands.

The the other way a snap election can be held is if there is a vote of no confidence in the government which is not rescinded within 2 weeks.

So the Tories could have a contrived vote of no confidence in themselves which if passed would mean Mrs May would have to go to the palace and tell the Queen that the Commons had no longer any confidence in her government and she would have to resign.

In this case the sovereign would probably call the alternative Prime Minister in waiting, the leader of the opposition, to see if he could form a government.

Clearly that would be very difficult but there is just a possibility that Mr Corbyn could become Prime Minister for a very short period even if he lost a confidence vote himself a few days later.

    A reason why Labour MPs might not back a Commons motion calling for an early election is that it is so much better for them if they force the government to go through the vote of confidence process.

No doubt Mrs May has taken her own legal advice on this issue. One of the reasons why she has steadfastly ruled out an early election is that she knows the difficulty.

If you don’t mind locking money up for three years bet on a 2020 general election.

Mike Smithson