Boris Johnson will today launch a fourth attempt to go to the country early, by putting forward a short bill to put aside the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and setting the date of the next election for 12 December 2019.
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, an early election can only be secured via a two-thirds majority of MPs – in practice, that means that unless the governing party and the main opposition party agree to hold one, an election cannot be secured under the act.
The measure proposed wouldn’t repeal the Act, and the law will continue to apply, setting the next election date at the first Thursday in May 2024, unless the next parliament triggers an election under the terms of the Act or passes a similar short bill. What it will do is temporarily circumvent it by passing the election date into law.
Does that mean the Fixed-term Parliaments Act doesn’t matter? Well, yes and no.
The main purpose of the Act – which had been a policy objective in every Liberal Democrat manifesto since the party’s foundation in 1989 – is to take the power to set the next election date outside of the Prime Minister’s hands and into the hands of Parliament. That remains the case. Of course, at most elections in recent times, the Prime Minister of the day has enjoyed a legislative majority, so the matter does not arise.
The most important policy achievements of the Act remain in place. An unpopular Prime Minister cannot bounce his or her party into an election in order to head off a coup against them – before the Act came into law, Theresa May would have been able to seek another election in the face of her Brexit defeats. Instead, her MPs were able to set their party’s direction, not have them enforced from above.
And an opportunistic Prime Minister cannot hold an election at a time that suits them alone. Before the Act was passed, Boris Johnson would have been able to dissolve parliament and force through a no deal Brexit during the 25 working days required by an election, or seek an election at a time of a choosing. Now, if he gets an election, it will be through negotiation with other parties.
Far from being a failure, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is fulfilling its purposes from a liberal perspective – it is limiting the power of the executive to act as it wishes and has relocated power in the elected parliament. The tragedy is that the Act may not survive the next Conservative majority government.