In ten years’ time, the current government will be remembered for a number of legislative moments: ring-fencing the banks, capping both benefits and social care costs, and of course the infamous pasty, bedroom and granny taxes. However, few will mention the Fixed Parliament Act 2011.
Although less known, this piece of legislation has changed British electoral politics forever. Until 2011, the Prime Minister always had the de facto power to dissolve government but this is now out of his hands, as the election date is set in stone every five years.
So why did David Cameron surrender this power? It is no coincidence that this Act passed under a Coalition. With both the Opposition and media circling and looking for weaknesses, any disagreement between the partners would have fuelled rumours of a defunct government and led to calls for a snap election.
The Act also removed the temptation for disgruntled backbenchers to undermine the Coalition from within. Lastly, beyond party politics, the fixed term also provided stability and certainty which, in 2010, was in short supply elsewhere in the stumbling global economy.
Already, backbenchers are spending more time in constituencies, as ministers and senior figures vacate the Commons to woo donors, placate unions and sit down with their Australian and American election strategists.
For the 2015 General Election, this Act is a game changer. Whereas previously, election campaigns would normally only have at most 2 months to mobilise, the British public are now seeing the parties going into war mode a full year ahead of the polls opening. This has had an impact on how parties have undertaken messaging, strategy and structure.
For Labour, the fixed term has been a mixed blessing. The time frame has given them time to organise their front bench, and familiarise the public with their ‘One Nation’ and ‘Cost of Living Crisis’ messaging. However, the fixed term has enabled the Coalition to hang on for at least a year longer than the average government, enabling it further benefit from the recovering economy.
The Liberal Democrats have benefited from the statutory protection offered by the Act to the minority partner, but as seen in the 2011 AV referendum, the Conservatives have no issue with broadsiding their partners on the campaign trail. With the fixed date, the Tories now will be able to follow a timetable of taking credit for the Coalition’s successes, and pinning the failures on their minority partners.
David Cameron saw the Act as a means of protecting the coalition but one look at the sparse legislative calendar tells us that it has also created a zombie year of government. As happens in the U.S, policy ideas are now being written for manifestos rather than for government bill teams.
Already, backbenchers are spending more time in constituencies, as ministers and senior figures vacate the Commons to woo donors, placate unions and sit down with their Australian and American election strategists. Given that the Bill was created to ensure a productive and stable parliament, it’s ironic that the extra time is being used to plan the next government rather than make the most of this one.