Nothing gets the Liberal Democrats more excited than the prospect of constitutional change. You name it, they’ve campaigned for it: direct elections to the Lords, votes for children, UK federalism and, of course, proportional representation.
By 2010, another obsession – removing the right of the incumbent prime minister to dissolve parliament and call a fresh general election at a time of his own choosing – was pretty high up the agenda. The convention was unfair to opposition parties and allowed governments to set an election date that suited them best, it was (accurately) claimed. And so Liberal Democrats up and down the country agreed unanimously that a radical change was needed. Like local government elections, general elections should be held on a strict timetable. No sooner had the last election taken place than the next one could be written in your diary. In ink.
It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. And when David Cameron, following the 2010 general election, made his “big, open and comprehensive” offer to the LibDems to join him in government, they saw their chance. Nick Clegg’s party eyed three major constitutional wins: reform of the Lords, a new electoral system for the Commons and fixed-term parliaments.
Only the last of these was won, and many LibDems today probably wish it hadn’t been. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) is one of the few pieces of legislation ever that made it onto the statute books despite the overwhelming opposition of MPs. Most Conservative MPs disliked it but were encouraged to vote for it as the price of keeping their junior partners on the government benches. Most Labour MPs opposed it because it made the prospect of coalition governments (and therefore electoral reform) more likely by preventing minority governments from calling another election in order to gain a majority, as Harold Wilson successfully did in October 1974, eight months after the previous one.
One of the most surprising aspects of the legislation was the preferred length of the new fixed terms. Never had the LibDems expressed support for terms longer than four years; the only electoral cycle of that length was elections to the European Parliament. And yet, amazingly, once in government, they could see the advantage of longer fixed terms. Funny, that…
Meanwhile, Labour, which originally opposed the legislation, came round to supporting it, five-year terms and all. Perhaps this was predicated on a self-deception that, come the 2015 general election, they would find themselves in government.
And today, all those constitutional chickens are finally coming home to roost. Because it turns out that, not only did the legislation create uncomfortably long parliaments (the average length of a parliament in peace time since 1832 is three years and eight months), it also provided for two relatively unnoticed reforms. The first is that, when a prime minister wants to dissolve parliament early, he has a pretty good chance of doing so, as Theresa May proved (to her cost) in April 2017.
And the second is that a government losing a vote of confidence no longer requires the immediate resignation of the prime minister.
Not that the previous arrangement guaranteed such a thing either. There has been only one occasion since 1945 when a government has lost such a vote, and when the Commons defeated Jim Callaghan’s administration by a single vote in March 1979, the prime minister did not resign. He stayed on for another five weeks, until the day after the general election.
But now, rather than rely on precedent, practice and convention, we have the FTPA to light the way. And the Act, just like in pre-2010 days, does not demand the resignation of a prime minister who loses the confidence of the Commons. At least, not right away. If neither he nor any alternative leader can drum up enough support in the fortnight after the vote of confidence, then an early general election is mandated. The date of that election? That is decided by the prime minister.
All of this is in the legislation. It was debated exhaustively by MPs and Lords in 2010. Warnings about the worrying implications of turning our backs on centuries of tradition and convention – tradition and conventions that had served us well – were issued and duly ignored.
If the FTPA had not been conceded by Cameron in order to please his junior partners, the situation facing the country would be little different. Boris Johnson would still face the prospect – even the likelihood – of defeat at the start of next month. The main difference is that he would no longer have that precious two-week period in which to try to stitch together a new majority; he would have to announce a new general election then and there.
Would he still be able to name a date for polling that meant parliament wouldn’t be meeting until after Brexit day on October 31? Perhaps. But the FTPA, the unwanted love child of the coalition, has written in black and white what, until 2010, required a constitutional expert’s analysis to establish: that Johnson need not resign his office unless and until an alternative figure can prove that he has the support of a majority of MPs.
This is all so disconcerting to Remain-supporting MPs, especially LibDems who so enthusiastically supported the FTPA’s journey onto the statute books. But it is perhaps entirely appropriate that the party that was first out of the blocks, in 2008, with a demand to hold an In/Out referendum on our EU membership, can now take the credit for a constitutional mechanism that all but guarantees Prime Minister Johnson can take the UK out of the European Union, despite the objections of the Commons, on October 31.