October 6th 2010
We are heading for fixed-term five-year parliaments.
Well, not quite. If the government of the day loses a “confidence” vote in the House of Commons and if another party or parties are unable to muster sufficient numbers to form a government within 14 days then Her Majesty will dissolve parliament and there will be a General Election whenever, inside five years, the government falls.
Otherwise, if the Fixed Term Parliament Bill, which has now received its Second Reading, becomes law then the Prime Minister will have surrendered his right to call a snap election at any time within five years that suits party-political advantage. As an alternative to a “No Confidence” vote it will be possible for two-thirds of the Members of the House of Commons to vote for the dissolution of Parliament but as no one party has ever held two thirds of the seats and as turkeys do not tend to vote for Christmas that is unlikely. So, unless the coalition collapses the next General election will be held on 7th May in 2015. Mark the date in your diary now!
There are those that feel that five years is too long but that is the maximum length of a current parliament and three of the last UK parliaments have, in fact, run full term. There has also been some criticism of the decision to abandon the November 2011 queen`s Speech a State Opening of Parliament and to transfer the State Opening to the Spring of 2012 and thereafter to hold the event annually in the Spring. While I do not, personally, like the idea of the executive juggling the parliamentary timetable to suit its own convenience there is no denying that, following the May General Election and the formation of the coalition government we gave ourselves more than enough legislation to keep us busy for another eighteen months.. Unless, therefore, the coalition fragments and the government loses a confidence vote there is no particular reason for dragging Her Majesty to the Houses of Parliament prematurely and, in these straitened times, it might just save a little money!
The recall of parliament for the first two weeks of September has been seen by some commentators as an unnecessary gesture simply designed to deflect the press from the “they’re all taking three months holiday” line which, while fictitious, is regurgitated every year. The recall certainly costs a lot. The minute that MPs leave Westminster in July the Palace goes into deep maintenance. The carpets are taken up and the pictures are taken down; the protective screens are erected and an army of builders moves in to repair the ravages of the previous year and to make structural changes that may (or may in some cases not) have been authorised by the listed buildings and heritage authorities. To reinstate all of that for just a couple of weeks before then taking it all up again for another fortnight in order to finish the work during the Party Conferences is not efficient or economical. (It would, I suppose, be a heresy to suggest that the dwindling Party conferences should be brought forward so that the House could sit at, say, the beginning of October but it`s perhaps worth raising the thought!)
This year, though, a lot of the constitutional legislation – most particularly the Alternative Vote Referendum and Boundary changes and the Fixed Term parliaments bills have been launched and that means that the committee work and further stages can roll on when the House sits again next week. And it also means that the decks will be a little clearer to accommodate the results of the spending review and the political activity that will flow from it.