What is the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and why does it matter?

Boris Johnson is planning a general election for 15 October following his Tuesday night defeat in the Commons, which handing control of business to the House.

MPs voted 328 to 301 to take control of the Commons agenda, meaning that they can vote on a bill ruling out a no-deal Brexit by delaying the UK’s exit date from the EU, says the BBC.

Boris Johnson made a statement to the House immediately after the government defeat, saying: “I do not want an election. The public do not want an election. I do not believe [Jeremy Corbyn] wants an election.

“But if MPs vote tomorrow to stop negotiations… that would be the only way to resolve this. I can confirm that we are tonight tabling a motion under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.”
To call a general election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, Johnson has to get the backing of two-thirds of the Commons – 434 MPs.

After rebel Tory MPs refused to back Johnson in last night’s vote, the prime minister ejected 21 parliamentarians from his own party, and one MP defected to the Lib Dems. That means Johnson is now without a majority, and has just 289 Conservative MPs.

What is the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011?

Simply put, it is the legislation that introduced fixed-term elections to Westminster for the first time, creating a five-year period between general elections. The only circumstances in which elections may be called prematurely are if either the Commons passes a motion in which the “number of members who vote in favour” of dissolving parliament is “greater than two-thirds of the number of seats in the House,” or MPs back a vote of no confidence in the sitting government and 14 days elapse without any administration gaining – or regaining – that confidence.

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Why was it introduced?

The coalition government introduced the legislation in 2011 to “underpin its stability by making it hard for either party to bring the government down and force another election”, says The Independent’s John Rentoul. 

But it was also enacted in order to stop “opportunist prime ministers ever again calling snap elections to capitalise on hefty poll leads”, writes James Morrison of the Oxford University Press. Ironically, he adds, “it has proved itself wholly incapable of doing any such thing”.

Despite the stated aims of the act, a prime minister wishing to call a general election could, as Boris Johnson is attempting to do with Jeremy Corbyn, dare their opposite number to refuse a general election – something widely believed to be electoral suicide.

For this reason, “as an exercise in constitutional tinkering, the check and balance of fixed parliamentary terms has failed”, wrote the Financial Times ahead of the 2017 general election.

What does it mean for Boris Johnson?

In the past, parliamentary convention meant governments would resign if they failed to win key votes, such as today’s vote delaying the UK’s Brexit date. Not so these days, says Colin Talbot, professor of government at the Universities of Manchester and Cambridge.

“Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the only thing that constitutes no confidence is what’s set out in the act itself,” he says. In other words, a majority of MPs must pass a motion saying “this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”.

Stephen Bush in the New Statesman agrees, saying the act has vastly narrowed the definition of what constitutes a confidence vote. “The government can lose any number of votes – over the legislative timetable, over Brexit, over its core programme as set out in the Queen’s Speech – and it won’t fall,” he says.

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But falling and jumping are two different things, and Boris Johnson says he is now ready to fight a general election to avoid an extension to the Brexit deadline.

But he won’t get an election unless he achieves significant support for the plan from outside of the Conservative Party.

With just 299 Tory and DUP MPs in the Commons, Johnson is more than 100 votes short of the 434 needed.

That means Johnson will need the backing of opposition members to support the action – and Labour are reluctant to go to the polls.

Corbyn has said that the legislation extending the Brexit deadline must pass before he supports holding an election, to guarantee that no deal is “off the table”.

He said: “There is no majority to leave without a deal within the country.”

Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon warned that, without a guarantee, Johnson could call an election for 15 October but change the date afterwards so there is no time to block no deal.

“We want it bolting down that a no-deal Brexit can’t occur, and once that’s done, we want a general election as soon as possible,” he told the BBC.



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