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.


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