Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA), if the government tabled a motion for an early election, it required at least two thirds of all MPs in the Commons (434 MPs) to vote in favour. Prime minister Theresa May used this mechanism on 19 April 2017 to trigger the election on 8 June 2017. May’s sudden announcement after the 2017 Easter break showed that snap elections were still a feature in UK politics despite the FTPA.
The second route to an early election under FTPA was more complicated. If the government lost a motion that "this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government", it would have started a 14-day period in which either a second vote was won that the "House has confidence" in the government, or an election is triggered.
Although the FTPA required a two-thirds majority for an early election, it could be by-passed through a short bill which set aside the provisions of the FTPA to allow an election on a specific date. Such a bill only required a simple majority to pass – although it would also need to pass the Lords and would be open to amendment. In 2017, Theresa May explored this option when she called a snap election. The short bill option was used by Boris Johnson in 2019, after three attempts to get an early election using FTPA. Following the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019, the election was held on 12 December 2019.
One of the problems with the FTPA is what was supposed to happen during the 14-day period between confidence motions. It could have seen the same government trying to pass a second vote, having been defeated in the first motion. It could be a new Conservative prime minister, elected by Conservative MPs, attempting to pass a second vote. Or, in theory, it could have allowed for a government to be formed by the opposition and attempt to pass a confidence vote, but that would require the incumbent prime minister to resign. This is important because there will sometimes be circumstances when an alternative government might need to be formed without an election taking place – for example, if a prime minister had attempted but failed to form a government after a hung parliament result and the opposition formed an alternative government without needing a second election.
As well as confusion about how the 14-day period would work, the FTPA also bred confusion about how confidence motions worked. In the past, ambiguously-worded motions of no confidence or censure could lead to a government resigning in favour of a new government, without an election being needed. It had been considered a possible loss of confidence if a government could not pass a budget or a Queen’s Speech. Instead, under the FTPA, there was uncertainty about whether only an FTPA-worded confidence motion mattered or whether a government would also be forced to resign if it lost a Queen’s Speech or another major confidence motion, even though these did not trigger an early election.
From the government’s point of view, the FTPA meant that if parliament did not want an election and the government did not want to resign, a government would be forced to remain in office with little ability to get its business through the Commons. The government argues that such a ‘zombie parliament’ is what happened in the autumn of 2019 when parliament feared that Boris Johnson would use a dissolution of parliament to force through no-deal Brexit without their say.
In the run-up to the 2019 election, both the Conservative and Labour party manifestos committed to repealing the FTPA.