Why fixed terms parliaments are a nightmare for leaders and a gift for rebel MPs

Our Chief Political Commentator says that Conservative MPs can plot and stir because the next election is still years away

Share

Of all the Coalition’s many reforms one in particular unsettles both David Cameron and Ed Miliband. The innocent sounding measure also makes the future of the Coalition more fragile than it might have been. The new law was passed without the noise and fury that accompanied others, yet the change is proving to be an unexpectedly big leap into the unknown. No one in politics, the politicians or the media, has fully adapted.

The reform in question is fixed-term parliaments. Their introduction was supposed to stabilise the wild rhythms of British politics. For once everybody would know the date of the next general election years in advance and we could all calm down. The measure has had precisely the opposite impact, making this year in particular a precarious one for Cameron, a very tense one for the Coalition and a dangerously awkward time for Miliband.

Mortality

The current parliament is already nearing the end of its natural life. Symptoms of mortality take many forms. In terms of policy Cameron has made waves recently with two big announcements. Both apply to the next parliament and not this one. His proposals for a referendum on Europe and high speed rail take effect after the next election. The more immediate agenda in the Commons is of little significance compared with those post-election policies and the near revolutionary measures placed before MPs in the Coalition’s early unprecedented flurry of reforming zeal.

Only the innovative Speaker, John Bercow, ensures the Commons can still buzz sometimes with vibrant topicality by asking for regular ministerial statements on pivotal news stories of the day. The so-called Urgent Questions can disrupt ministerial diaries, but help make the chamber more connected with the real world. Most of the time, though, the Commons is nearly empty. The only recent excitement involved a vote on Tuesday about constituency boundaries for the next election, another signal that minds are moving beyond this parliament. Yet the election is more than two long years away.

The defeat of the proposed boundary changes is generating intense anger from Conservative MPs. They knew it was coming, yet the loss felt more painful when it happened, watching the perceived treachery of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems as they voted with Labour to deprive them of seats next time. The tensions in the Coalition get deeper and this time the Conservatives are the wounded ones. The Lib Dems have been more often the martyrs to the Coalition’s cause, losing out on electoral reform and Lords’ reform. Now the Tories have  been dealt a terrible blow. This partnership formed over an economic policy that is not working is supposed to continue until 2015. It may have no choice but to continue, but a sense of a creative compact is fading fast with nearly half a parliament to run.

Meanwhile Tory MPs are getting more restive. Normally at this stage MPs’ attention turns to the next general election. Suddenly they discover a loyalty to their leader they did not know they had. Before fixed-term parliaments it was assumed that a Prime Minister would call a general election after four years. Even if it did not happen the assumption that it might would concentrate minds. After the first two years of a parliament a Prime Minister could calculate that at least an affectation of unity would replace insurrectionary instincts.

But this year is different. There will be no election in 2014. After the next 12 months there will be another whole year before the election moves fully into view. There is still plenty of time to be disloyal, to speak up for principled conviction, to plot and plan against a leader. This has some danger for Clegg. But Cameron is the main victim as news surfaces of a plot to install a successor (Adam Afriyie, pictured above) if he loses the election. Such plots happen for many reasons. One is that Conservative MPs have time on their hands, lots of it. They will rally round next year, but not this. The fixed-term has made prime ministerial life less secure rather than more.

Failure to adapt

Miliband struggles to make sense of the new rhythms too. He has been quite open about his reluctance to announce too much policy detail yet. He half-joked with me in a recent interview for a Radio 4 documentary “When I speak to previous leaders the one piece of advice they don’t give me is that I need more policy”. Miliband and his senior shadow cabinet members see little advantage announcing policies now, when the government can steal the popular ones and there is still half a parliament for the others to be scrutinised to the point where they become outdated or unpopular.

But the media fails to adapt too. When Miliband gave a New Year interview to the BBC virtually every question related to what his “tax and spend” policies would be at the general election. His refusal to make such commitments now looked evasive, even if it is impossible to take pivotal decisions when the economy could be in an entirely different place by 2015. Other shadow cabinet ministers wonder whether they should keep their powder dry given that there is so long to go, aware that if they do so they risk the persistent and lethal question: ‘How can you attack the Coalition when you don’t know what you will do?’

An effective line of attack from Cameron is to argue that on every front, from schools to hospitals, the Coalition is introducing radical change and no one knows what Labour would do about it. One reason for this, although in some cases not the only one, is that the long race towards the next election is only half completed and the Labour leadership want to be closer to the finishing line before declaring too much.

Constitutional reform only happens if it suits the interests of those implementing it. Presumably Cameron thought that in the unusual circumstances of a Coalition a fixed-term would bring stability. But most fixed-terms in other countries last a maximum of four years. Five years is far too long. And of those five this is much the most dangerous for leaders hoping to flourish when the still distant election finally arrives.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Support Technician - URGENT - Graduate, Windows, MS Office

£30000 per annum: Harrington Starr: My client, a researcher of investment idea...

MQ Unix / Linux Systems Engineer - URGENT - Unix, Linux, MQ

£63000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A market leading provider of technology dr...

Service Desk Analyst - ITIL, Windows, Active Directory

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A world leading brokerage is looking for a...

Trade Desk Specialist - FIX, Linux, UNIX, Windows,SQL, Graduate

£55000 - £65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading global exchange is look...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The legal definition of terrorism threatens to criminalise us all

Mike Harris
A Jewish worshipper takes part in a special prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City for the well-being of Israeli soldiers in Gaza  

Israel is attempting to deal rationally with an enemy crazed with lust for our death

Ayelet Shaked
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game