By Jonathan Isaby
During Tuesday's proceedings on the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill, amendments were tabled by Plaid Cymru – and also backed by Labour and the SNP – that would reduce the proposed term limit of this and future Parliaments to four years, and not five, as the Government proposes in the Bill.
Two Tory MPs gave speeches in favour of the four year term. Richard Shepherd began by quoting Asquith's speech from 21 February 1911 on the Parliament Bill which was to change the Septennial Act 1715:
"In the first place we propose to shorten the legal duration of Parliament from seven years to five years, which will probably amount in practice to an actual legislative working term of four years. That will secure that your House of Commons for the time being, is always either fresh from the polls which gave it authority, or-and this is an equally effective check upon acting in defiance of the popular will-it is looking forward to the polls at which it will have to render an account of its stewardship."-[ Official Report, 21 February 1911; Vol. XXI, c. 1749.]
"Asquith's reasons have been borne out in all the years since then. The average length of a Parliament is not far off four years, and his points relate to the electorate. None of the constitutional proposals of the Deputy Prime Minister-who I again note is not following his own Bill on the Floor of the House of Commons-strengthens the position of the electorate versus the Crown as represented by the Government. The proposals are therefore abandoning the principle that a Government have the authority to govern but must be mindful that there is a time after which the electorate should make a judgment on the actions, activities and success of that Government. That is all being cast out for what I believe to be a profoundly cynical purpose: the entrenchment, or attempted entrenchment, of a particular Parliament for five years."
"What distresses me most about this constitutional arrangement, and the actions of the coalition Government, is that they think that we are all back-of-the-envelope legislators who set aside the traditions and history of our own constitution. They are trying to legislate for something that I believe is unnecessary. A Government last for as long as that Government can command a majority in the House of Commons: that is a fundamental constitutional proposition in the Parliament Act."
Then there was a contribution from Brigg and Goole MP Andrew Percy:
"I have no academic or study to quote on the four-year term; I just feel in my gut that it is the right length of time for a Government. A four-year term is better because it would fit with local government elections and devolved assemblies. The Canadian Government changed from five to four years a couple of years ago, and we have heard about the three-year terms that exist in Australia and New Zealand. For me, four years would be a more appropriate term for us to be in office. There is an acceptance that after being in power for five years, we tend to be a little too detached from the electorate, and consequently end up making bad decisions.
"However, I cannot support the three-year term proposed by my near neighbour, next door but one, in Great Grimsby. That would throw us into a perpetual state of elections. It is often said about US congressional elections that American Congressmen are in a perpetual state of election, which is why they have so many earmarks and pork barrelling; they have no sooner got themselves to Washington DC than they have to run back to their electorates to try to gain election."
The Cabinet Office minister steering the Bill through the Commons, Mark Harper, defended the five-year term:
"The Government strongly believe that a five-year fixed term is right, not only for this Parliament but for subsequent Parliaments, as it will provide the country with the strong and stable Government that it needs.
"The statistical evidence shows that if we exclude the three very short Parliaments since the war, the average length of Parliaments has approached four and a half years… Some Members, in trying to argue that four years is the norm and five years is only for Governments who are clinging on to power, have pointed to examples of Parliaments that have lasted closer to four years than five. That completely overlooks the fact that elections that are called early, before the five-year term is up, are often those where the Prime Minister of the day thought that doing so might give their party a political advantage. It was not that they somehow thought that four years was the more constitutionally appropriate length of time for them to hold office."
"Advocates of three or four-year terms are using as their strongest argument the very enemy that the Bill is designed to combat, which is political expediency at the expense of national interest. The right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), who is no longer in her place, asked why Labour did not think of the idea in 1997. I can tell her that it was because the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, wanted to preserve his ability to cut and run and seek an election at whatever opportunity he thought best."
Shepherd, Percy and Philip Hollobone all supported the amendment to limit this Parliament to four years and hold the next general election on May 1st 2014 (The move was defeated by 315 votes to 242).
A second vote on an attempt to make subsequent Parliaments last four years was backed by Percy and Hollobone but again was defeated by 313 votes to 246.