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How Long Until The Next General Election? It Could Be Longer Than You Think

13/09/2017 16:47 BST | Updated 13/09/2017 16:47 BST
Parinya Suwanitch via Getty Images

This may sound crazy, but I'm about to explain how the current plans in Parliament could allow Government to postpone the next General Election if it sees fit, and for as long as it chooses.

The Government has won two votes in Parliament this week - the second reading of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill (formerly the Great Repeal Bill), and a change to the makeup of Parliamentary Committees. The interaction between these two grants Government powers beyond imagination and reason.

Firstly, a bit of Parliamentary background for those who don't already know it (and aren't already bored stupid by Parliamentary shenanigans).

Statutory Instruments (Sis) are a mechanism by which ministers can make minor changes to existing laws without the full argy-bargy of Parliament. For instance, changing the points system for motoring offences could be done under an SI without taking up parliamentary time. This mechanism is often criticised because it bypasses debate in Parliament and is thus open to abuse (& have been much used by recent Governments for just this reason). Instead of possible amendments and a vote, SIs go to a Parliamentary committee to pass or reject wholesale - and thereby pass into law.

The traditional composition of many Parliamentary Committees is that they contain MPs from the different parties in accordance to the number of seats they have in the House. So a Majority Government would have a majority of places on committees, official Opposition would have fewer places, and so on down. Last night a Government proposal was passed changing this rule to give the Government a majority of places on many committees, despite not having a Commons majority.

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill contains provisions for so-called "Henry VIII" powers, allowing ministers to amend, repeal and improve laws "as they deem appropriate to assist the Brexit process". Under the Bill, changes would take place under "Delegated Legislation", which are in effect Statutory Instruments.

There is an obvious necessity for many EU laws which will be copied into UK law at Brexit time to be changed - for instance, where an EU body oversees some aspects of UK life which will be replaced by a UK body. But the relevant clauses in the Bill do not limit these powers to just EU laws - any existing UK law can be amended. Which brings us to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA).

The FTPA (as anyone who has got this far probably knows) means Parliament will sit for a fixed 5-year term rather than the Prime Minister of the day calling a General Election when it suits them (yes, yes, I know). But it does limit the life of a Parliament to five years.

...except that under the Withdrawal Bill, a minister could argue that the Brexit process is still incomplete (it certainly won't be done & dusted by 2022) hence an amendment to the FTPA is needed to give Parliament more time. That change could be effected through Delegated Legislation and approved by a Government-headed committee. Hey Presto - Government for as long as Brexit persists.

There are safeguards built in to the Bill, the main one being that it applies only for the duration of this Parliament - but we see the obvious problem there. Plus there are 136 proposed amendments lined up for the Bill which of course could change things dramatically. But as it stands it's not a huge leap of imagination to think Government could use the powers they have to extend their stay.

Obviously this sounds mad - how could a Government get away with extending its own tenure, trampling over long-established constitutional principles? There'd be a Constitutional Crisis! Except that is exactly what they are doing now in the name of Brexit.

The Withdrawal Bill gives ministers powers far in excess of what many believe they need, and bypasses Parliament in ways not seen for hundreds of years (they're not called Henry VIII powers for nothing). Government argued that these powers are necessary to allow Brexit to proceed without becoming "bogged down in Parliament" (i.e. by allowing Parliament Sovereignty over UK law). Clauses in the Bill even allow Government to change the scope of the bill itself after it's been passed.

The proposal for changes to Committee makeup used the same argument, that Brexit-related law changes could otherwise be rejected by Committee. Which is precisely what they are there for - to prevent bad law making.

One final change introduced in this Parliament, the annual Queen's Speech outlining the Government plans (with a Parliamentary vote which could topple a Government if defeated) have been shelved. The Queen is literally being pushed out of the way in the name of Taking Back Control.

In debates, Government has said "Trust us - we won't abuse powers in this Bill". So if you trust Government not to overstep their authority in this way, we've nothing to worry about.

If.