UK Politics

Q&A: Fixed term parliaments

MPs are debating legislation to introduce five-year fixed term parliaments, part of a series of constitutional changes planned by the coalition government.

Q: What is being planned?

Image caption Under the plans the next election will be on Thursday 7 May 2015

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government wants to set in stone the date of the next general election - which has previously been up to the prime minister of the day to decide. Under their proposals the next general election will be held on 7 May 2015.

Q: Why have fixed terms?

Criticism of the current system tends to centre on the fact it gives an advantage to the prime minister of the day, who can choose to call an election at the most advantageous time for him or her as long as it is within five years of the previous election. It also means there is a period of uncertainty, before an election is called, which some say damages the conduct of politics. A recent example was the feverish speculation that Gordon Brown intended to call a snap election in 2007 to take advantage of a poll surge shortly after succeeding Tony Blair as prime minister. In the end the poll lead was cut and he did not call an election until two and a half years later.

Q: What are the arguments against fixed terms?

Some are worried that knowing the date a long time in advance will lead to longer election campaigns, a lack of flexibility and the possibility of a "lame duck" government limping on longer than it should. There is also the possibility that a government might still find a way of triggering an election when it wanted one by engineering a vote of no confidence and deliberately trying to lose it.

Q: Who wants fixed terms?

A commitment to a fixed-term parliament was part of the coalition deal between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems pledged to introduce them in their manifesto - but they wanted a four-year fixed term. The Labour manifesto also said it would introduce fixed term parliaments, but did not say how long they would be. Fixed term parliaments were not in the Conservatives' 2010 manifesto but David Cameron said in 2009 that his party would "seriously consider the option of fixed-term parliaments when there's a majority government".

Q: Why five years?

Deputy PM Nick Clegg argued that five years was "going with the grain of some of the founding texts of our unwritten constitution" - referring specifically to legislation which set the maximum limit at five years. He also said it followed "the precedent set by the immediate outgoing government" and he said it would "give any government of whatever complexion enough time to govern and deliver a programme of change and reform". But the proposal could prove controversial. Constitutional experts told a committee of MPs examining the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill that four years would be better. Other UK elections to the devolved Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland governments are four-yearly and there might be an argument to have them held on the same day as general elections.

Q: So will there be any way of having an earlier election?

Yes, there are two ways this could happen. An early election would follow if no party or combination of parties could command the confidence of the House of Commons. To avoid allowing a "zombie government" to stagger on for years, unable to muster a majority to pass any new laws, the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill, says an election will be called 14 days after a lost confidence vote if no alternative government is able to show they have the confidence of MPs. Alternatively, MPs themselves could vote for an early dissolution - a power currently in the hands of the prime minister. Under the bill two thirds of the total number of MPs must back dissolution for an election to be called.