How can a general election happen?

Moments of political turmoil still regularly produce a flurry of comment about how the Prime Minister might / should / will / must call an early general election, written as if the rules on calling a general election have not changed.

But they have, for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 is now in force and the sorts of calculations that were relevant during previous political excitements are no longer relevant. Put simply, a Prime Minister can no longer simply call an early general election because they want to.

Instead, there are only two circumstances in which a general election can take place earlier than the scheduled five years after the previous one.

The cover of the Fixed Term Parliaments ActFirst, the House of Commons can vote for one – but the number of votes for must be equal to or greater than two thirds of the number of seats in the House (including vacant seats).

In other words, even if a Prime Minister has a single-party majority, they cannot simply summon up an early general election. Only a Prime Minister in possession of a massive landslide or cross-party agreement could vote one through under this provision.

(This means that during both the 2010 and 2015 Parliaments, a ‘snap general election’ could not simply be called by the Prime Minister, despite some pundits who should know better liking speculating that they should or were about to.)

The second route is if the House of Commons passes a vote of no confidence in the government (by a simple majority) and then fails within fourteen days to pass a motion of confidence in a new government.

In other words, if a Prime Minister were to demand an early election, call a vote of no confidence in themselves and even get his own party to vote for the motion – there is no general election. Instead, the leader of the opposition would get the chance to form a government first. It is only if they  – and everyone else – fails that there is then an early general election.

It might appear there is a third route: repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, but that’s not the simple step it sounds.

It has two problems. First, repealing legislation requires both the Commons and the Lords (in which no one party has a majority) to vote for it. That means even if a Prime Minister sorts the votes amongst MPs, they still have to persuade peers of other parties to vote for repeal – and it takes time for legislation to get through both Houses of Parliament if there isn’t cross-party agreement to speed it through. You don’t get a snap election if you need the Lords to vote through repeal.

Second, repealing the legislation may well not work. There is a weighty legal argument that simply repealing it does not restore the Royal Prerogative under which the PM used to have the power to call a general election whenever they wanted. Which means you need new legislation.

Which in turn means you need a majority in both houses, including the House of Lords, and it takes enough time to make it far from a ‘snap’ election. If the Lords indeed even does decide to vote for the new legislation. If it doesn’t, the government can of course still use the Parliament Act to force the new bill through. But its one year delay on top of the time spent debating and voting on the legislation makes for not a snap election, nor a lethargic election, but a distant election.


Hat-tip: Thanks to Richard Morris for the idea for this post.

14 responses to “How can a general election happen?”

  1. It would be very difficult for Labour, however, to oppose a motion for an early general election – especially as they did not accept the principle of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Miliband could abstain – which would have the same impact in this case as a 'no', but without the responsibility – but it would extraordinarily weak.

    • Robert – imagine the scenario: Cameron resigns, demands an election. Would it really be hard for Labour to say: "OK, resign if you want to, but the law says we get a chance first to form a government so that is just what we will do"? I don't think so at all, and the end result of Cameron's action wouldn't be an election but Miliband in No.10.

    • Mark Pack But that would rely on almost every other party supporting him, wouldn't it? And if that is not likely, as it isn't, surely the Queen wouldn't appoint him to then find that out? She simply wouldn't appoint him, so Cameron still gets his election I think. [the barrier to me seems public opinion in that kind of behaviour, but I think you could probably make the case]

    • Matthew Turner Cameron only falls if the Lib Dems vote against him. So for an election the Lib Dems would need to vote against Cameron and then also decide they didn't want Miliband (as Lab + Lib Dem + others would in this circumstance win at least the confidence vote – however unstable the government might then be). Can you really imagine the Lib Dem MPs saying "we don't want either" – and not being wiped-out as a result? Pretty hard I think. Not impossible, but my point is that if Cameron tries to call an election by quitting he may well find instead that Miliband is in No.10 and no election. We can debate what percentage number to put on "may well", but whatever the number it's a lot bigger than it was under the old rules, viz zero.

    • Mark Pack I definitely agree with last sentence, but the Conservatives only need to find 10 MPs from other parties who don't want a Labour led govt. So definitely there's a risk, but presumably some of the regional parties might want an election as much as the Tories. Furthermore, in a normal majority situation it would be relatively easy (unless I suppose someone like David Davis did a deal and could bring over some Tories).

  2. Wholly true and utterly relevant. Tory MP Mr Reckless was giving the 'none of us would want a general election, would we?' line on PM tonight on Radio 4, apparently forgetting that it is no longer up to Cameron. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act may prove to be the key achievement of the coalition (On this see Matt Cole's chapter in 'Prime Minister Boris', which foresees just this situation).

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