by Henry Hill
Friday, 25
March 2022
Analysis
17:15

The Tories finally repeal a bad law

The end of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act should inspire Conservatives
by Henry Hill
Did he just… do something good? (Jeff Gilbert – Pool/Getty Images)

Yesterday marked a milestone moment in British political history: the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. With the passage of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act (DCPA), the power to dissolve parliament has returned to the Sovereign.

If you’re a constitutionalist, this represents a significant victory for defenders of the Royal Prerogative — powers exercised, with a few exceptions, by the Executive on behalf of the Crown.

A large school of thought has long maintained that the Prerogative cannot be revived once it has been superseded by statute law passed by Parliament. This has now been done.

But the significance of the moment extends beyond such arcana, important as they are. For the mere sight of a nominally Right-wing government repealing anything is all too rare an occurrence.

Too often, conservatives get themselves stuck in a doomed rut wherein they fight this or that reform tooth and nail until the moment it passes, whereupon they simply give up. When they eventually gain power again, they don’t go back and try to undo the damage but start drawing more pointless lines in the sand.

Such an approach puts the Right at a serious disadvantage. If their intellectual case on a given topic (the ‘nanny state’ being an obvious example) is no more than a reflexive defence of the status quo, it doesn’t spur them to any positive action. They then squander their time in office.

Meanwhile, their progressive opponents are spared the need to fight any defensive battles and can concentrate all their resources on pressing the attack.

There are signs, at its best moments, that elements of the Conservative Party are starting to shake off this thinking. From devolution to the Supreme Court to the Human Rights Act, there is a growing body that aspires to do more than stand sentinel over New Labour’s constitutional cuckoo eggs.

But it is still a minority pursuit. Elsewhere, the Tories remain bafflingly incapable of undoing things. How many times have we been promised a ‘bonfire of the quangos’, for example?

Yet twelve years since the Conservatives first took power, the deep state Tony Blair built is largely intact. A bold Government would simply legislate to increase political accountability for bodies which usefully discharge state functions and abolish the rest.

But that would require sustained, structural thinking about the State and a positive vision for what it ought to look like, and more often than not the Tories simply don’t put in the work.

As a result, how noisily they complain about something like the BBC is pretty much in inverse proportion to the odds of their actually reforming it. Speaking softly is the privilege of those with big sticks, after all.

Nonetheless, the repeal of the FTPA — which I honestly did not think I’d see — shows what a Conservative Government can achieve when the vision and the political will are there. Hopefully the next generation of Tory lawmakers will take inspiration from this rare example of their party getting something done.

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Michael J
Michael J
3 months ago

Exactly, the Conservatives, who are so in name only, seem determined to squander their advantage in Parliament by spending time on passing left-wing policies rather than undoing the damage wrecked by New Labour.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 months ago

Just the Equality Act, the Climate Change Act, and the Net Zero legislation to go, then. Oh, and most of the crap New Labour put onto the statute books.

I won’t hold my breath.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Precisely. Plus the convening of a Capital Court to try the 412 MPs (serving & retired) who voted for the Iraq War.
Sadly only two, yes two, Tory MPs*had the temerity to vote against the Iraq War.
Just as today, the Tory Party was riddled with armchair Lance Corporals.

(* Earlier incorrectly stated it to be six!)

Last edited 2 months ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
R Wright
R Wright
3 months ago

For conservatives they tend to conserve not very much

Last edited 2 months ago by R Wright
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 months ago

Excellent point. Whether you agree or not with this or that act, the idea that, once the goal it was formed to bring about has happened, then you can’t ever go back, is truly poisonous thinking. It’s simply the alter-ego of the socialist idea of “inevitable progress”. I often wonder how many Tories even know who Edmund Burke even was, let alone what his philosophy was, and I think that’s a shame, because his ideas can go toe to toe with any of the drivel you might read from the likes of Paul Mason and leave him for dead intellectually. If the Tories started selling actual, reasonable, one-nation conservatism, I think they’d sweep the boards.
Of course, that’s not quite as easy as I’ve made it sound. It would require an internal revolution within the party itself. Johnson and his vacuous Etonian superficiality would have to go, and people like Rees-Mogg (and I know this is going to hurt) would have to either can the cod-aristocratic claptrap or else get out of politics. Both of these guys might be ok for rallying a mob, but neither of them are the kind of inspirational figure a country at a crossroads really needs.

Andrea X
Andrea X
3 months ago

Honestly I don’t understand what’s so wrong about a fixed term parliament.

Peter LR
Peter LR
3 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

It means that if you have minority government then the Parliament grinds to a halt for 5 years because it’s really difficult to pass legislation. If Parliament becomes paralysed then an option is a General Election which the FTPA would not have allowed.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
3 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

We saw what was wrong with it during the Brexit debacle, when a minority government had no ability to govern properly but was unable to go to the polls to ask the electorate to fix the situation. The fixed terms act had no real gain that I could see personally

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Yes, but the government could have resigned and, as no government could gain the confidence of the house, there would have been an election anyway.

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

You misunderstand. The fixed term act forbids that. We are stuck with the same MPs until the fixed term expires. The Lib Dems insisted on the fixed term act precisely to stop them having to face an unexpectedly early election. It made sense from their point of view, but it was constitutional gibberish.

Last edited 2 months ago by polidori redux
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

No because there couldn’t have been another election before the date unless 2/3 of MPs agreed to do so. So as you’d still be stuck with the same MPs you’d more likely end up with an either smaller minority government from the opposition with even less ability to govern or they’d have to cobble together a majority from all the other parties and independents in the house which would be extremely unlikely

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Isn’t the gain that the government doesn’t have an unfair advantage? If the government can call an election at the time most advantageous to itself, it will. So, if the economy is turning down (perhaps due to the policies it has implemented) better to call an early election, before things get worse, and catch the opposition off guard – they won’t know the election date in advance and won’t be ready for the campaign.

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 months ago

By the same token, if the date of an election is fixed in advance then the Government can spend four years ensuring that all the numbers line up, before the utterly predictable reckoning with the electorate. I believe that this is what happens in the US.
Under the original UK arrangement a parliament lasts for a maximum of five years, or until no one can form a government that can command majority support. .

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

It was done as a condition of coalition with the LibDems in 2010. They wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be booted out as soon as Cameron felt that he had another shot at getting a proper majority. In the end, of course, they made themselves unelectable as soon as people saw the effect that reality had upon the fairytale world of LibDem politics.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

What did for the Lib Dems was the raising of VAT to 20% and the tripling of tuition fees despite being against it in their manifesto. Clegg sacrificed almost everything they’d campaigned on simply to get near the corridors of power, and that loss of trust has never come back.
Since then they’ve moved much further left than they were at the time, they only really enjoy support in richer cities

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Correct, but ultimately due to the bovine stupidity of the Great British Public (or great ‘unwashed ‘) if you prefer, who failed to give David Cameron a clear, unambiguous victory.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

As well as the problem with an actual minority government, there is also that of a weak one with little effective authority. We benefit if the government can go to the country to gain a stronger mandate.
In the unlamented FTPA specifying the procedure for a vote of confidence effectively stopped any substantive measure becoming such a vote in itself. This undermined the seriousness of such votes, letting in frivolity and grandstanding by MPs that could all be rowed back in the VoC itself.
However, the recent experience with Covid shows that the bigger problem is the lack of independent thinking amongst MPs or between parties.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 months ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

If you were part of a weak government with little effective authority, would you call an early election? I think you would hang on for as long as you could. I don’t quite get this fear of minority government in Britain – minority governments can work very well and when they do they actually deliver for more of the population. Negotiation and compromise can be quite democratic. First past the post electoral systems seem the least representative, even if they do produce ‘strong’ governments.

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 months ago

You appear to misunderstand the parliamentary system of government. If there is, literally, only a minority of MPs supporting the government then the remaining majority would vote down its measures at leisure. A government cannot remain in power without majority support from the H of C – There is no other source of authority available to a government. A Prime Minister and all his/her Ministers are simply MPs themselves. They are not elected separately, as in the manner of a President. This is what the term “parliamentary sovereignty” actually means – It isn’t a fancy form of words, it expresses the reality.
PS: I didn’t mean to sound rude. Apologies if I did. – I was simply trying to be concise.

Last edited 2 months ago by polidori redux
Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 months ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Obviously any government has a majority of support in the House. But why does one party have to have that majority? In Australia the conservative governments are usually a coalition of the larger Liberal Party and the smaller National Party – the National Party bargains for some things it wants in exchange for its support. The Greens usually support the Labor Party, also in exchange for things they want. So, in a sense more voters are represented in the government. We also have preferential voting, which means more people’s intentions are represented in the election outcome.

polidori redux
polidori redux
2 months ago

The last Tory government did exactly that with the Lib/Dems. In exchange for their support on a raft of issues, Cameron agreed to introduce fixed term parliaments. Fine, until that majority disappears, which it could easily have done – It wouldn’t have taken many MPs from either the Tories or the Lib/Dems to withdraw their support from Cameron over some unexpected issue. You would then need an election – but the law would stand in the way. This was Boris Johnson’s problem with Brexit – He ran a government that couldn’t command a majority in the HofC on that issue, and was stuck in office, but not in power until he could “engineer” an election. The bottom line is that if no party or group of parties can command a majority, and you can’t hold an election, you are totally b*ggered

Last edited 2 months ago by polidori redux