Why fixed terms parliaments are a nightmare for leaders and a gift for rebel MPs
Our Chief Political Commentator says that Conservative MPs can plot and stir because the next election is still years away
Hold on! Surely that’s what a true Independent would wish? And … err … yes, it somehow reminds Malcolm of …. Ah, yes! —
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion…
If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?
Indeed, the authentic Burkean voice from the College Historical Society of Trinity College, Dublin (founded 21st March 1770), of which — much later, and far less oratorically polished — Malcolm’s alter ego was once a minor officer.
Richards’ Big Thing amounts to this:
The current parliament is already nearing the end of its natural life. Symptoms of mortality take many forms. In terms of policy Cameron has made waves recently with two big announcements. Both apply to the next parliament and not this one. His proposals for a referendum on Europe and high speed rail take effect after the next election. The more immediate agenda in the Commons is of little significance compared with those post-election policies and the near revolutionary measures placed before MPs in the Coalition’s early unprecedented flurry of reforming zeal.
In other words, the health of the body politic depends on a renewal of the parliamentary mandate in the short term, not in May 2015.
Yet, as he makes clear, with little to do, and at a time when MPs should be honing their knives for re-election, it’s all gone deadly, flatly dull. The death of the Bill to change boundaries was the last straw, which is why (even after Clegg slit its throat) the Bill was kept in suspended animation while all kinds of pressures were brought to bear:
- Over the weekend, were the DUP really told they could exempt Northern Ireland, if only …
- Why does James Kirkup (who should know better) and other susceptible post-adolescents keep afloat the notion that the Bill can be revived?
And, for the Satan’s Blood (“800,000 Scoville units”) in your political chilli, muse on what MPs get up to, when otherwise not exerted. Why, they plot, of course! Or, as Richards renders it:
There will be no election in 2014. After the next 12 months there will be another whole year before the election moves fully into view. There is still plenty of time to be disloyal, to speak up for principled conviction, to plot and plan against a leader. This has some danger for Clegg. But Cameron is the main victim as news surfaces of a plot to install a successor … if he loses the election. Such plots happen for many reasons. One is that Conservative MPs have time on their hands, lots of it. They will rally round next year, but not this. The fixed-term has made prime ministerial life less secure rather than more.
Even so, Malcolm has another gripe with Richards’ piece, particularly so in the rest of that final paragraph:
Constitutional reform only happens if it suits the interests of those implementing it. Presumably Cameron thought that in the unusual circumstances of a Coalition a fixed-term would bring stability. But most fixed-terms in other countries last a maximum of four years. Five years is far too long. And of those five this is much the most dangerous for leaders hoping to flourish when the still distant election finally arrives.
As Malcolm recalls, the LibDems, suspicious that Cameron and Osborne would dump them were an electoral opportunity to open, inserted the time element in the coalition agreement. Now, what could possibly have provoked that partisan fear into the pre-nup?
Second, Richards is absolutely correct. Five years was, is and always will be too long. Malcolm’s Pert Young Piece had considerable difficulty in explicating the five-year term, at the Anzac Cove gathering, 2012, to a band of highly-dubious antipodean democrats. It’s also been commonly accepted, nearer home, ever since the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill was first out there in the wild. Anyway, consider:
- The “ones-we’re-bound to lose” (Macmillan-Home in 1959-64; Wilson-Callaghan in 1974-79, Major in 1992-97; Blair-Brown in 2005-10) went into a fifth year;
- To which might be added the “one we miraculously didn’t lose” (Major, 1992) which also went to the wire.
- the ones “we can win” (Thatcher in 1983, 1987; Blair in 2001, 2005) which took advantage of the opportunistic electoral windows.
On that basis alone, the 2010-15 government had given away its main electoral advantage: the chance for any prime minister to exploit a particular moment, one when the economic and electoral cycles could be matched. So, a Malcolmian prediction, when the next parliament assembles, if there’s a majority government, the 2011 Act will be repealed in short order and shall hear no more of fixed -terms.
In short, there’s that gross misunderstanding: in the unusual circumstances of a Coalition a fixed-term would bring stability. Richards, wisely predicates that with the weaselly “presumably”. Consider the normality of UK politics: in the forty years from Wilson to Cameron we will have had just three governments defenestrated — in 1979, 1997 and 2010. The success of Gordon Brown was that the expected Tory take-over didn’t happen (and, in Malcolm’s book, history will be very much kinder to Brown than current poison has it).
Burke, whom we had above, had the Fixed Term Parliaments Act bang to rights, and as far back as 1780:
Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny. In such a country as this they are of all bad things the worst, worse by far than anywhere else; and they derive a particular malignity even from the wisdom and soundness of the rest of our institutions
Let’s add a word to the wise:
The people can recognise them. And resent them