Over the past few months there has been endless speculation in the newspapers about whether there might be an early general election. In almost every piece written on the subject it has been stressed that it would be very difficult to have such an election because of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. That Act, it will be recalled, was passed on the insistence of the Liberal Democrats during the coalition government. They wanted it, I think, for two reasons. First, lots of foreign countries have fixed election dates and foreigners, in the eyes of Liberal Democrats (rather like adolescent children’s perception) are always better than we are. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for them, the Liberal Democrats saw fixed term parliaments as a way of keeping themselves in power for five years.
The second reason has, of course, gone. But the first is still there. Not surprisingly, however, the Liberal Democrats now think an early election would be a good thing (they can only do better than their dismal performance in the last one). So their admiration for foreign systems has, for the moment, been forgotten. They no longer think democracy demands that elections should only be held every five years.
But the Act is still on the statute book. How was it that Mrs May could make a simple announcement that there is to be a general election on 8th June this year, and everyone accepted it would happen?
The answer is that the Act is, except in times of coalition governments, absolutely meaningless. An early election can be called if two thirds of the House of Commons votes for it. Members of the governing party are, in almost all circumstances, bound to vote with the Prime Minister on such a motion. Similarly, for different reasons, members of the main opposition party would never dream of being seen to be “frit” of the electorate. They will always support a call for an election, even when, as now, the likelihood is that the result will see them losing seats. On the mathematics of the present House of Commons, that is all that is needed. Even if the Liberal Democrats had persisted in their insistence on fixed terms, we would still have had the election. That is so whatever the SNP (who rather like being different and who are likely to lose a few seats in an early election) might do.
There was no need for the Prime Minister to consult other parties before deciding to call for an early election, and she did not do so. She could do it in almost exactly the way it used to be done before the Liberal Democrats’ Act was passed. All that has changed is that we now have to have a formal vote in the House of Commons.
I do rather hope that the Conservative manifesto will contain a promise to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. First, it is never a good thing to have meaningless statutes. Secondly, I concede, there could be circumstances in which the Act was not meaningless. Mostly, those will arise, as with the Liberal Democrats during the coalition, when a smallish (but not insignificantly small) party is sure it would do very badly in an early election (because its popular support has gone right down) and it concludes that it may do better by risking the immediate wrath of the electorate by voting against an election than by going meekly to the slaughter house. Those circumstances may be unlikely to come about in the foreseeable future, but it would be sensible to get rid of the Act now in case they do arise one day.
One slightly depressing announcement was made today. The awful Bercow, whom we hoped would leave at the next election, has said he will stand again, so as to prolong his term of office to 2022 instead of 2020.