The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill will enable the government to call a general election at any point within the life of a Parliament. Is the recent cabinet reshuffle deliberate or merely coincidental timing?
By Joanna George
Research Associate, University of Cambridge
Reshuffling members of the cabinet is like reshuffling of a pack of playing cards before a game of poker; both are based on a calculation of probability, psychology, and strategy. Will the reshuffled cabinet deliver the intended outcomes and wins that the Prime Minister wants? Avid political observers might discern several possible purposes behind a cabinet reshuffle. Firstly, a reshuffle is a way for the Prime Minister to remove poor performers, cherish excellent ones and reward supporters for their commitment. Secondly, it may indicate new policy priorities – such as ‘levelling up’ in the UK – and a new cabinet to reflect that. It might even be accompanied by ‘machinery of government changes’, such as the reorganisation of government departments or the renaming of existing ones, as with the newly minted Department for Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities. Thirdly, it could also reveal that the Prime Minister wants to ‘refresh’ the cabinet to capitalize on opinion polls; a good tactic if preparing for a general election. Is the recent cabinet reshuffle a step towards preparing for an early general election?
The political backdrop could suggest so. Despite the government facing public criticism and backlash on issues such as its handling of coronavirus, free school meals for children in England and, most recently, the new UK-wide tax to fund health and social care reform and petrol shortage, the government has a 4% lead over the Labour Party according to the most recent YouGov survey. Yet this may not last and could possibly decline when looking ahead at challenges such as the financial impact of Brexit, the economic consequences of the pandemic and tax increases which are due to take effect from April 2022. Holding a general election before 2024 before the impact of these challenges are felt by the nation could be a tactically clever move for the Conservative Party.
Constitutionally speaking, this could explain why the cabinet reshuffle is taking place at the same time as the legal progression of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill which is making its way through the House of Lords. The aim of the Bill is to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA); the Bill provides that the maximum term of Parliament shall be five years in contrast to the FTPA which sets a fixed five-year period between elections. It will also enable future Parliaments to be dissolved by the Sovereign on the request of the Prime Minister, just as it was before the enactment of the FTPA. This changes the FTPA which allowed Parliament to vote for an early parliamentary general election – either when two-thirds of the House of Commons voted in favour of an early parliamentary general election or following a vote of no confidence.
As stated in the Bill’s Explanatory Notes, the government committed to repealing the FTPA in its 2019 general election manifesto and the Bill gives effect to that commitment. In practice, the Bill ‘will enable Governments, within the life of a Parliament, to call a general election at the time of their choosing’. The timing of the Bill and the cabinet reshuffle seems more than coincidental with a recent story in The Telegraph stating that Oliver Dowden, the new Conservative Party chairman, told party staff to start preparing for a general election in 2023. Under the rules of the FTPA, the next general election is scheduled for Thursday 2 May 2024 yet under the new Bill a 2023 general election would be permitted.
Are we losing out by scrapping the FTPA? Arguably no, as the FTPA was one of the contributory factors to the 2019 Brexit gridlock and it has faced criticism for its flawed no-confidence mechanism for triggering early elections. One of the key objectives of the Act was to make the electoral system more predictable, yet it enabled the super-majority motion for an early general election to take place in 2017 and when this didn’t work during the Brexit gridlock in 2019 the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019 was enacted to bypass the FTPA. It explains why Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, said to the Procedure Committee earlier this year that ’the Fixed-term Parliaments Act turned out to be anything but a Fixed-term Parliaments Act’.
The importance of the cabinet reshuffle and simultaneous progression of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill should not be underestimated. Neither should the warning from the Joint Committee on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act to ’not repeat the mistakes made in not sufficiently scrutinising the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011’ go unheard as to ignore it may store up political and constitutional problems for the future. One of the most vaunted virtues of the UK constitution is its flexibility. But that flexibility must be tempered by a willingness to think through the potential implications of exploiting it. And, more fundamentally still, it might be asked whether, in the first place, the capacity of a government with a large majority readily to change the rules of the electoral game is a constitutional virtue or a constitutional vice.