Leading article: A powerful case to answer on the restoration of power

The brevity of this Parliamentary session justifies calls for fixed terms
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The Independent Online

Questions have long been asked about the cost and pageantry associated with the State Opening of Parliament, and those questions have become more pointed as the Queen's Speech – as written for her by recent governments – has become ever thinner in content and more bureaucratic in tone. The occasion pits those who would abolish the whole ritual as outdated against those who see it as a key pillar of our constitutional order, signifying that the government of the day is indeed Her Majesty's Government.

Whatever your view of the State Opening and its merits, however, it is difficult not to agree with the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, when he argues that this year's ceremonial is particularly pointless, coming as it does so soon before a general election. Writing in this newspaper today, he forecasts that the Queen's Speech will be "little more than a rehearsal of the next Labour Party manifesto" and "a waste of everyone's time" that should be "cancelled in favour of an emergency programme of political reform".

To the extent that preparations for the State Opening are well in hand and the Queen's Speech will not be cancelled, this could be dismissed as so much political posturing on Mr Clegg's part. But there is a serious argument here: what is the purpose of the Government setting out a full legislative programme, when a maximum of 70 sitting days remain before Parliament must be dissolved? Would it not, as the Liberal Democrat leader proposes, have made sense for the Government to use its last remaining months to push through laws designed to re-establish the reputation of Parliament, so that MPs start the new Parliament with a clean slate and on better terms with the voters?

In an ideal world that might be so, but the Government is unlikely to rip up its draft of the Queen's speech at this stage and recast it as Mr Clegg suggests. It would be a pity, though, if the next Government, whatever its complexion, did not look seriously at the reforms he is proposing. MPs' expenses might be the most obvious area where change is urgently needed, but it is far from being the only one. A code of conduct for MPs, reform of party funding and a new, proportional, voting system all need to be addressed.

The brevity of the parliamentary session to come means that very little legislation will be enacted; and Mr Clegg is surely right to suspect that much government business will be conducted with an eye to the election. This is self-evidently not a good thing, but the issue has been little discussed recently because it is not since 1997 that a government has gone to full term. Tony Blair, like many others before him, used his prerogative as Prime Minister to ask for Parliament to be dissolved when he chose.

The timing of an election is a powerful tool in the hand of any government and places the Opposition at a disadvantage – unless the Government's unpopularity is such that the Prime Minister chooses not to call an election before time, in which case the balance of advantage is reversed. Introducing fixed-term Parliaments, as Mr Clegg advocates, might mean that a coming election would loom larger over a Parliament in its final year than it does when the Government is free to call a snap election. But it would be a simple way of shifting some power back to Parliament from government, and that is something we, and surely many voters, would applaud.