westminster parliament

A fixed term hung parliament means what?

Published: 6 May 2015

Juliet Swann of Electoral Reform Society looks at what will happen after the General Election.

In 2011 the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was passed. Setting aside its merits or demerits, the politics behind its introduction and the decision to fix the terms at five years, it is a piece of legislation whose true impact will only be known after May 7th and analysis of which indicates some disagreement as to its effect.

What complicates this short piece of legislation still further is that it must interact with both longstanding unwritten constitutional conventions, the Cabinet Manual (itself only in draft in 2010) and politics – that is to say how the politicians decide to behave, what they consider to be in their own best interests, whether they think they can win a vote in the House of Commons, and how they perceive the expectations of the public.

Looking at the conventions, the Cabinet Manual and the Fixed Term Parliaments Act it is possible to produce an assessment of what ‘should’ happen in the (very likely) event of a hung parliament following the election.

Unless one of either the Conservatives or Labour wins a majority, this is what happens after the election:

David Cameron is still the Prime Minister. As the incumbent PM he has an opportunity to try forming a Government. Regardless of whether he negotiates a coalition or other deal with another party or parties, he has the right to introduce a Queen’s Speech to the House. If he loses the vote on that Queen’s Speech, it is a constitutional convention that he resign. Of course, if he knows he’s going to lose a vote he might just resign. Equally, if Ed Miliband is perceived to have ‘lost’, he may concede.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband may well have been having his own negotiations and at this point he gets an opportunity to follow the same path.

Now, there is a wee caveat to all this, which is that the Queen can refuse to present a speech, which she may do if she cannot be convinced it will pass. Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy.

If Ed Miliband cannot get his Queen’s Speech to pass either, then (and only then) we enter Fixed Term Parliaments Act territory. The Act sets out two very precise situations where parliament can be dissolved and a second election called. The first is if the House agrees to call an election and that motion passes with a ‘super-majority’ of two thirds of MPs. The second requires a motion of no confidence in the sitting Government to be passed with a simple majority. This triggers a 14 day period in which a motion of confidence in a new (or slightly amended) Government must be lodged and passed. If such a motion is not lodged, or passed, then we go to an election.

Of course, this all rather assumes that the people, the markets, the Queen, and the other parties in the House of Commons, will put up with this potential uncertainty.

What does this confusion teach us? Perhaps most of all, that the voting system of First Past the Post is just not fit for purpose in a multi-party era. A more proportional voting system, designed to produce rainbow parliaments, would mean the conversations about collaboration and possible coalition would be part and parcel of the election campaign, not some ethereal collection of analysis, guess work and hope in politicians behaving sensibly.

Further reading:

The Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/14/contents/enacted

The Cabinet Manual https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cabinet-manual

Professor Adam Tomkins on a fixed term hung parliament https://britgovcon.wordpress.com/2015/05/04/a-fixed-term-hung-parliament/

Carl Gardner on constitutional conventions, a hung parliament and the Fixed Term Parliaments Act http://www.headoflegal.com/2015/04/19/ed-can-enter-no-10-without-nicolas-keys/#comment-702750

Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu on ‘recognition rules’ and the conditions under which it is normatively most appropriate to adhere to a rule which privileges the incumbent, the largest party, or the relative election winner: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/who-forms-the-uk-government-in-the-event-of-a-hung-parliament

Philip Cowley on different post-election scenarios http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2015/04/numbers-not-legitimacy-will-decide-who-enters-no-10/

Philip Norton on the FTPA and votes of confidence http://pa.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2015/03/29/pa.gsv003.full.pdf

Coronavirus and the Constitution

Scotland, the last in line to relax lockdown

Leadership, learning and knowledge: lessons from COVID-19

Why have the UK's governments diverged on easing lockdown?