In the month of November, Boris Johnson’s government will most likely instate a committee review of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) with the ultimate goal of fully repealing it. This Act, introduced in 2011, was supposed to fix the date of the general election to be every five years. Its planned repeal is part of a number of sweeping constitutional reforms that would empower the British executive over Parliament, which the Conservative Party vowed to push for in its 2019 electoral manifesto. With the ongoing global pandemic and the protracted Brexit talks with Brussels, the Conservative’s plan to repeal the FTPA have largely flown under the public’s radar. Yet if a repeal goes through, it would have a significant impact on how the government of the United Kingdom operates.
The Tory’s push for full repeal is grounded in a belief the FTPA ‘has led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action,’ as the government can no longer call for early elections when it is incapable of securing a parliamentary majority. Similarly, Labour also vowed to repeal the Act in their 2019 manifesto, as it ‘has stifled democracy and propped up weak governments.’ This political consensus is not as surprising if you consider that the Act itself calls for a comprehensive review of its efficacy by a committee no later than November 30, 2020. With that date looming, a move towards repeal by the incumbent government should be expected soon. Still, we can ask if these claims of paralysis and weak governments induced by FTPA are rooted in reality and what consequences could a full repeal have for the UK.
The FTPA was introduced in 2011 as part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement to ensure some governing security for the Lib Dems as the minor coalition party. Whereas prior parliamentary dissolution and subsequent re-election was a prerogative power held by the executive, the FTPA sets the date of the next general elections five years on from the last. Under a coalition government, the old model allowed the chief executive party to call for an election as soon as they believed themselves to be able to secure a majority in a new Parliament and thus no longer needed a coalition partner. Nevertheless, with the FTPA instated, early elections can only be called if supported by a supermajority in Parliament, or after a vote of no-confidence in the incumbent government, thereby securing the position of the minor party in a coalition government.
After nine years of governments operating under the FTPA, has the Act indeed contributed to their weakness and subsequently incited paralysis? It is true that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition has been the only government to date to complete the five-year term the FTPA was supposed to ‘fix.’ The next Parliament was dissolved early by a vote of the supermajority in 2017. Back then, Labour supported the Tory motion for an early election as not to seem hesitant to face the electorate. In 2019, the subsequent Parliament voted to pass the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019 with a simple majority, which overrode the FTPA and dissolved that Parliament early. As such, one could argue the FTPA might not be living up to its name of producing fixed terms, but not that it necessarily encouraged weak governance. That is until the current government. During the highly divisive months of finalising the Brexit bill towards the end of 2019, the FTPA empowered Parliament to continuously reject a call for early elections pushed for by the Johnson government in a last ditch effort to strengthen the executive’s position. So, the only true protracted paralysis seen because of the FTPA was with the Brexit bill, ironically months after the manifesto statements denouncing the FTPA were made. It would be quite hasty to say that this single instance is enough grounds to repeal the whole bill altogether.
This Brexit bill example shows that outside of coalition governance and in highly divisive times, the FTPA has empowered the legislature over the executive to the point of a paralysis. In turn, this forced the executive to amend proposed policy to be in line with preference of a majority of elected officials in Parliament. When considered in this context, paralysis might be a significant obstacle to government, but it has certainly not ‘stifled democracy.’ Regardless of the sense the FTPA makes democratically during the rare event of executive paralysis, the Johnson government is unlikely to get comfortable in this disempowered role and will remain set on reinstating Lijphart’s dominant executive once again. In Lijphart’s work, he models a type of democracy—majoritarianism—on the UK system, which is characterised by single party governments and weak parliaments. It should be said that it was an unprecedented move for the UK to introduce an institutional rule like the FTPA that is more characteristic of another of Lijphart’s theorized archetypes of democracy— proportional representation. This form is characterized by a proportional representative electoral system and frequent coalition governments present in countries like The Netherlands. Therefore, one could argue that the FTPA was bound to create dissonance with the UK’s existing constitutional practice. However, that would be mistaking a remedy for the pathology.
The United Kingdom has not had the majoritarian institutions Lijphart wrote about in 1999 for a while now. The party system has been fragmenting and third party support is on the rise. There even was a coalition government for the first time since the Second World War from 2010-2015. This all preceded the introduction of the FTPA in 2011. Research by the DPIR’s own Professors Schleiter and Green suggests that this decline in majoritarianism in the UK has been going on for decades. The probability that a general election will produce a single party majority is a lot smaller than it once was. Fully repealing the FTPA in this context could result in significant governance deadlock in the future. Without the FTPA, smaller parties will not have the security to join the main executive party in coalition government. In which case, a minority government is the next most feasible outcome. If the UK executive thought the paralysis was bad before, minority governance will be an unpleasant surprise.