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16 May 2008 : Column 1706

That brings me to my next point, which relates to what happens in other countries and elsewhere in our own country. It is true that fixed terms are far from universal. I do not claim that the fixed-term system is the one that everyone else uses, and that we are out of line. There is a division of opinion in mature democracies. In France, for instance, there are no fixed terms: the President can dissolve the Assembly at will. The best known example of a fixed-term system is the system in the United States, which has strict fixed terms with no escape clause. That, however, is not the normal way in which fixed terms are arranged in mature democracies. There is normally a fixed term, but also some mechanism for escaping from a form of political deadlock. If stable government becomes impossible, most fixed-term systems involve some way out of that deadlock, although it usually requires a much broader political consensus than simply a decision by the Government to call an election. In Germany, for example, there is quite a complicated mechanism, whereas in Spain there is a very simple mechanism: a four-year fixed term, and if they cannot get a new Prime Minister within two months of the election another election is held; the Government have no power in the process. There is a similar idea in the Scotland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 2006: the Scottish Parliament sits for four years and the only exception is if a new First Minister cannot be found within 28 days, and there is a similar system for Wales.

There is another type of system, the best example of which is in Sweden. There are regular elections every four years. The Government can call extra elections, but if they do so they do not get a new four-year term; they get only the end of the previous term. Therefore, they cannot cause the regular four-year election cycle to stop, which reduces their incentive to try to take a short-term advantage.

Mr. Randall: I am fascinated to hear about that; is that option used much in Sweden, and what is the purpose of it?

David Howarth: It is not used often, and I fear that Governments might use it to clear out the rebellious Members whom they no longer wish to be in their party, which might be an attractive option for a Whip.

Local authorities in our country offer another example. They are on strict fixed terms, which encourage parties to work together. There is a legitimate question to ask those who favour the current system at national level: why are they not therefore calling for it to be extended to local government? Why not say that the leader of a county council or London borough may call a council election whenever they feel like doing so? That is such an absurd proposition that it throws into doubt the reasons of those people who want to maintain the present system at national level.

The principle of the Bill, which I hope will be endorsed on Second Reading, is simple: that elections should happen on a regular cycle that cannot be changed by purely ministerial action. Everything else in the Bill is detail, which I would be happy to discuss in Committee. I fear that some of the details might not be popular in some parts of the House, but I will be happy to discuss them at a later stage.

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Mrs. Laing: I just want to let the hon. Gentleman know that he has my support at least for one small detail of the Bill. I and most of my hon. Friends would entirely support it if it consisted only of clause 1(1):

We think that that day—if not sooner—would be an excellent date.

David Howarth: I suspected that that might be the case, and I also suspect that the Government might not like that provision at all. I accept that if I were to have the opportunity for the Bill to proceed I might have to give up that date to gain the Government’s support. That provision makes the current Parliament a fixed-term Parliament, but I fully accept that to make further progress I might have to give it up and instead go for making the next Parliament a fixed-term Parliament—although I think we should start as soon as possible.

Another detail in the Bill is that the campaign should be a month long. The Bill controls when dissolutions will happen so we do not have the extraordinary variations in campaign length of the past 20 or 25 years; sometimes they have been two months long, and at other times barely a month.

Mr. Randall: Surely if the date of the election is known, the campaign can start at any time? There have been different lengths of campaign because the date of an election has been called later, but under the Bill the start of the campaigning would be a simple matter.

David Howarth: I consider that to be an advantage of the Bill, although the form of politics that we have reached is arguably one in which there is campaigning all the time. That is true both in our system, where there is no fixed term, and in the US system, where there are fixed terms; a constant campaign seems to have been adopted there, too.

One of the objections raised when I first announced the Bill was that it would prevent the Government, or Parliament, from changing the day of the week on which the election was to be held. I have dealt with that in the Bill; the House of Commons would retain a power to change the day of the week, if it so desired.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Why is the hon. Gentleman keen to have the election in May? Having general elections in May on a fixed-term basis would surely always give the incumbent Government the opportunity for a giveaway Budget shortly before the election started?

David Howarth: That is one point of view, but if the election were held at another time, I suspect that the budgetary cycle could be changed to make up for it.

I chose May, although I am not wedded to it as a principle of the Bill, simply because that was when the previous election took place, and making the present Parliament a fixed-term one required the election to be held in May. One of the things that we learned last year was that late autumn elections are not particularly convenient, especially given the way in which the electoral register is put together, and what happens when the clocks change and the rain starts. There might be an argument for May on general principle.

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Mr. Randall: One of the advantages for an incumbent Government of an autumn election might be that if Parliament did not sit during the summer they would not have had to be scrutinised and the Executive would not have had to sit and listen. There might be some advantage for an incumbent Government in having a September or October election.

David Howarth: That is a very interesting point, which had not occurred to me. My view in favour of May is strengthening as time passes, although I am not tied to these particular details. Another such detail is whether the term should last four years or five. Some countries have five-year Parliaments; the European Parliament has such a term. The principle is for there to be a fixed term, not that it should particularly be for one period or another.

Finally, I wish to touch on the escape clause—the break clause. Avid readers of the Bill will have noticed that it contains no such clause, although there is an implied one. The implied escape clause is that if it was generally thought desirable for there to be an election, because it was the only way to break a political deadlock, it would of course be possible to pass an amending Act. Passing such an Act would simply say, “There shall be a general election, notwithstanding what the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill says.” Such an approach is always possible under our system, which does not have a written constitution. The break clause means that there would have to be more general political consensus—not only here, but in the other place—that there should be an election than simply what the Government of the day believe.

Mr. Randall: The hon. Gentleman just addressed this point; I was just wondering whether this Bill to change the date would be subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament, including an unelected House.

David Howarth: It should be. That is in line with at least one part of our existing constitution, because there is an exception to the Parliament Act that if there is a Bill to extend the life of Parliament, the House of Lords retains its ancient veto. As a safeguard, it should retain that veto in the instance we are describing too, although I, of course, look forward to the time when the House of Lords is fully elected, and, thus, fulfils the promise made to the people of this country by the Liberal Government of 1911.

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman said that Parliament could pass an Act to amend this Bill, should it become an Act. In effect, he is arguing that the Prime Minister of the day could throw out the provisions of this Bill and have a general election whenever he or she wanted within the four or five-year period.

David Howarth: Fortunately, it takes a long time to get Bills through without the co-operation of the other parties. It is easier for a Government to get Bills through this House than the other place, but the combination of the two would mean that it would take so long to get the Bill through that the opportunity to hold an election that might have arisen because of some short-term shift in public opinion would probably have passed. It would also be risky for a Government to try to push through such a Bill to take advantage of a
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short-term opportunity that might have gone by the time the Bill had been passed. If there was a political crisis, and it was agreed by all parties that the only way out of the deadlock was to have an election, a Bill could pass through the Houses smoothly. Therefore, although the Bill does not apparently have an escape mechanism, it does have quite a good one, by implication.

Mr. Randall: Am I right to think that the Government would have to move a Bill of the sort that the hon. Gentleman describes, so if the Government did not want to do so in a political emergency, the Opposition would not be able to do so—as is the case now, as we cannot choose when we want an election?

David Howarth: That is right, and that is in line with the practice in most other countries, although it could be changed by amending the House’s Standing Orders. The Standing Orders in the other place are as great a mystery to me now as they have ever been.

It would also be possible to add another escape clause. I am happy to listen to arguments for such a mechanism in Committee. Although because we do not have a written constitution we can never escape from the possibility that Parliament might pass another Bill incompatible or inconsistent with this one, it might be possible to build into this Bill another way to do that, which might meet the hon. Gentleman’s objection. One could build in, for example, something like the Scottish mechanism of a two-thirds majority in this House on a motion moved on an Opposition day. I would be happy to listen to such proposals in Committee.

The present system led to a farce last October that affected not only the Prime Minister’s reputation but that of the entire political system. The present approach is both unfair and creates bad government. There is a better way. I am happy to argue about the details of how to achieve that in Committee, but I ask the House to endorse the principle that the term of Parliament should be fixed by law and the right to call general elections taken out of the hands of the Prime Minister.

1.48 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) for introducing his Bill in such lucid terms. It is important for the House to consider such issues anew, and he has brought some fresh thinking to bear on the subject. The only merit in the Bill is that it would provide for a general election sooner than we would otherwise get one, and if it gets into Committee, I would be keen to move an amendment to provide for a general election even sooner than 7 May 2009.

The hon. Gentleman’s motivation seems to be to cover up for the bottling out by the Prime Minister last October, but the electorate appear to be making their own judgment about that in fairly harsh terms. Indeed, that is not confined to the electorate, but includes many members of his own party, including those in Parliament. There was a similar situation in 1978, when the Prime Minister, Callaghan, could have gone to the country. He chose not to do so in October 1978, and was penalised by the electorate in 1979, when he did
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not win the general election. People still look back at that period and say that if he had had the election in 1978, he might have won.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman most about the current system giving the incumbent party an enormous unfair advantage. It does, but his system would give the incumbent party an even greater unfair advantage, because it would enable it, from the day that it got into government, to do everything to get the electorate on its side for that fixed date in four years’ time. In the United States, the two years before a presidential election is geared to that election. The consequence of having such a system would be that the Government would ruthlessly use all the tools at their command to their advantage.

David Howarth: I follow the hon. Gentleman’s point, which is important, but the difference is that, in a fixed-term system, both the Government and the Opposition know when the election date is, whereas in our current system, only the Government know.

Mr. Chope: When I was a member of the Government, I did not know the date of the general election until after everyone else seemed to know. When the hon. Gentleman says that only the Government know, perhaps he means that only the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s closest advisers know. I am not sure that that addresses the issue.

Under such a system, everyone would know that there was to be an election on a fixed date in four years’ time, but only the Government would have the resources to manipulate things to their advantage. I am thinking particularly of Government propaganda. The amount of money that the Government spend on advertising has been shooting up, and one can imagine them organising their advertising budget in the three or six months running up to the fixed election date. They would have an even greater advantage under such a system than they have under the present system. It is possible for the Prime Minister to take a raincheck after local elections, in May, and decide whether to have a general election in June. That happened twice in the 1980s, and reflected the opinion at that time. I am not sure that it would work to change the system in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests on the basis that it would make things fairer for everyone.

I also have a difficulty with the claim that the Bill would promote good governance by ending stop-start cycles and boom and bust. I wonder how consistent that is with the policy of the hon. Gentleman and his party of wanting proportional representation, which would make it much less likely that we would have a strong, single-party Government. The likelihood of having a strong, single-party Government—if that is what he is keen to have—would be more undermined by a PR system than it would be helped by the Bill.

David Howarth: One could argue that fixed terms and PR go together, as often happens in other parts of Europe. If there were a fixed term that could be bypassed only with broad political consensus, parties would have to work together more. The hon. Gentleman talks about strong government, but I would talk about popular
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government. The Government would be more popular, more of the time, because they would be backed by more of the people.

Mr. Chope: The hon. Gentleman talks about a Government being popular, but what is important is having a good Government. A Government who are not popular in the short term might often prove popular in the longer term, when the benefits are seen.

I am simply putting down a few markers. I am sure that the Bill will go into Committee and that the Government will be enthusiastic about allowing it to do so, so that it can be amended along the lines I have been suggesting. I am also sure that other Members present would like to contribute to this timely debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having chosen this subject, which is a refreshing change from a lot of the routine that we have on Fridays.

1.55 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) on introducing this important matter. I am not enormously enthusiastic about his Bill, but this issue ought to be discussed and I am very pleased that he has given us that opportunity today. It occurs to me that there is one Member of this House who might have wished that this Bill was already law by this time last year—the Prime Minister himself. Then, he would not have got into the dreadful mess that he got into in the autumn, and which has so fatally damaged his reputation as a politician. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not introduce this Bill in order to help the current Prime Minister, but he has raised many points today that the Minister is no doubt looking forward to addressing.

This is one of those issues that is very much a question of balance. On the one hand, there are the advantages of the present system’s flexibility, some of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, as did my hon. Friends. On the other, there is the enormous political power that the current system gives to an incumbent Prime Minister. As I said earlier, it might be that both the larger parties in this House, which have for the last century formed either the Government or the Opposition—

David Howarth: For almost the last century.

Mrs. Laing: Indeed. It might be that both those parties can see the advantage of incumbency and would like to hold on to that advantage. It is Labour’s now but it will be ours at some point, and so it goes. The Liberal Democrats, I am afraid, have no chance whatever of benefiting from that incumbency, so I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman wishes to introduce a Bill that reduces the advantage given to a current Prime Minister.

I see why the matter arises now—because of what happened, as I said, last autumn. I recall that in its 1992 manifesto, “It’s time to get Britain working again”—it was not the most successful manifesto in history—the Labour party said:

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