I was first elected as an MP in February 1974 – the last time that Britain saw a hung Parliament. But even for a seasoned political veteran, this has been a rather unusual week.
A left-leaning Lib-Lab pact was briefly cobbled together, before swiftly collapsing. Today it is the Conservative Party that has reached an agreement with the Liberal Democrats – but on completely different terms. Rather than doing a deal for our own short-term partisan advantage, we have put together a serious attempt to create a sustainable government that has the stability to deal with Britain’s deep financial and social problems.
The mechanism that we have proposed to achieve that stability is set out in the coalition agreement, which states that the Government will “put a binding motion before the House of Commons in the first days following this agreement stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, legislation will be brought forward to make provision for fixed term parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour”.
Few people appear to disagree that a fixed term parliament is an idea whose time has come. For too long, Prime Ministers have been able to rig the electoral cycle for their own political ends – giving the incumbent Government an unfair advantage and leading to speculation and uncertainty that destabilises the business of government and markets. Last year, David Cameron indicated his support for fixed terms; and it has long been Liberal Democrat policy.
Despite Gordon Brown’s infamous attempt to use the threat of an election as a political weapon to destabilise the Conservatives in September 2007 (which backfired badly), a fixed-term Parliament was also shoe-horned into Labour’s recent manifesto.
Obviously this is a new idea for the UK Parliament, but fixed term Parliaments are perfectly normal around the world and require a mechanism for dissolution. Different countries have different mechanisms for achieving this. In Scotland, for example, Parliament can be dissolved if 2/3 of members vote for it – a mechanism created by the previous Westminster Government.
The mechanism for a no confidence vote in the government is unchanged but what our proposals would do is give Parliament a new power to dissolve itself, a power currently only exercised by the Prime Minister.
The proposal is not for a fixed term for the Government; but for Parliament. It makes it harder for the Prime Minister to call a snap election for his partisan interest and instead ensures that the decision is in the hands of MPs.
Labour politicians have wasted no time in weighing in to describe these proposals as “gerrymandering” (Lord Adonis), a “fix” (Jack Straw), and a “perversion” (Tom Harris). It is hard to take lectures on constitutional vandalism from a party that over thirteen years in government marginalised the Commons, put the House of Lords in limbo and imbalanced the Union by failing to address the West Lothian Question.
Fixed term parliaments are undoubtedly a major constitutional change and it is proper that people should express their views. That is why there will be a Bill with full and proper debate in Parliament. Indeed, because I have pledged to abolish programme motions for legislation – known as ‘guillotines’ – Parliament will have more time to scrutinise this Bill than they would have done under Labour.
As Professor Robert Hazell, the Director of UCL’s Constitution Unit said this morning, this “isn’t some constitutional monstrosity”. As we know from this week, the country wants strong and stable government. We are determined to deliver that stability with a lasting coalition.