In the event, the vote (in the UK House of Commons to call an election) passed like a damp squib. I supposed politicians can’t resist the chance to go out and campaign on doorsteps, rallies and debates. However, when the Prime Minister first mentioned it on Tuesday 18 March, the irony of the need for a two-thirds majority made me smile, ruefully.
The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 was introduced to the House by Nick Clegg, when he was Deputy Prime Minister in the Liberal Democrat – Conservative coalition and was hailed as a remarkable modernisation brought about by that coalition and by the Liberal Democrat influence on policy. It took away the ability of a Prime Minister of the day to call an election whenever he or she wanted, taking advantage of a fair wind for the government’s Party. It was expected to make it easier to govern when the biggest party doesn’t have a huge majority. It reduced the ways that parliament could be dissolved and created a new normality that governments should last the full five-year term for which they had been elected.
Reinforcing the principle that this should be not easily overridden, the Act contained only two exceptions to the full term, both involving votes in the House of Commons. In the first, the House must pass a vote of no-confidence in Her Majesty’s Government. The second is what has happened today, 19 March 2017: the House has passed a motion that there should be an early parliamentary election.
Neither exception is a simple first-past-the-post, one-off vote. If the House passes a vote of No-Confidence in HM Government, MPs then have 14 days to think a bit more about it and pass a vote of Confidence in HM Government. Only if that fails is parliament dissolved. And, for the motion for an early parliamentary election to pass the House it must have the support of “two-thirds of its total membership”, not of those voting but of the total membership.
So, when it comes to having a regular election, which can be repeated again if the right terms are met and, in any case, in five years’ time, there are special rules and higher than usual bars to clear. But, for a one-off referendum that would radically change the direction of the UK and the individual rights of its citizens, a simple majority of those voting was considered appropriate. Fiddle-di-dee!