Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), passed in 2011 and amended in 2013, Parliament was automatically dissolved Monday, 25 working days before the first Thursday in May, when the country goes to the polls. Nonetheless, several major news outlets managed to confuse their readers and viewers by reporting that David Cameron had to request a dissolution from the Queen (as was the case before the FTPA was passed).
There are more important parts of our constitution than the precise mechanism used to dissolve parliament. But this is just one of a number of misconceptions likely to confuse voters in the run-up to and days following the election, particularly if there is another hung parliament. Even the Government’s Cabinet Manual, created expressly to clear up confusion about such matters, has not been kept up to date and incorrectly states that the election occurs 17 (rather than 25) days after dissolution (at page 96).
In our new report, we seek to correct some of the main misconceptions, and set out suggestions for how Westminster should adapt to the new age of multi-party politics. If there is a hung parliament, one significant misunderstanding that may arise concerns who gets to become Prime Minister. Despite likely claims to the contrary, the leader of the largest party has no automatic claim to the keys of Number Ten.
Smaller parties may also confound the confusion – as Nick Clegg did in 2010, and Peter Robinson of the DUP did just this week – by suggesting that they are somehow obliged to speak first of all to the largest party in the event of negotiations. This may be a sound political strategy, but in constitutional terms having a plurality of seats has no particular significance, other than making it easier to put together a majority. The UK has a so-called ‘unordered’ government formation process, meaning any party can speak to any other, all at the same time if they choose to.
The test is who can best command the support of the House of Commons (parliamentary confidence). That could be the leader of the second party, if smaller parties choose to support him. This is how the first ever Labour government was formed, in 1924, when the Liberals backed Ramsay MacDonald to become Prime Minster rather than Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative incumbent.
The role of the Queen in selecting a Prime Minister is also likely to be misreported. Here the confusion is slightly more understandable, as unlike dissolution the formal position remains that this is a decision for the Head of State. But the reality is that the Palace will seek to keep as far away from the political discussions as possible – with the Queen herself expected to spend the post-election period in Windsor, returning only to anoint whoever emerges as Prime Minister.
It is for the parties themselves to resolve the matter and determine who is best placed to govern. The first formal test of parliamentary confidence involves a series of votes in the Commons after the Queen’s Speech (scheduled to take place on 27 May, leaving 20 days after the election for the parties to conclude their negotiations).
If things remain uncertain even after three weeks, then the votes on the Queen’s Speech may be more than the usual formality, with the result potentially determined by minor parties or dissatisfied backbenchers. Here too the procedures are not designed with clarity in mind. Technically the votes are on a motion that MPs “beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty” for the speech she has delivered on behalf of the government. MPs wishing to oppose the formation of the government must then file through the No lobby, effectively saying no thanks to the Queen.
We favour a clearer process where the first business of parliament is an explicit vote on who should become Prime Minister (as in Scotland). But assuming there is no change in the process in 2015, then the media will need to report this set of events carefully to avoid muddying the waters.
Another important constitutional point is that the incumbent Prime Minister and his ministers remain in office in a “caretaker” capacity while a new government is formed (or the old one re-formed). For slightly obscure reasons, the government refuses to use this C-word, but the core principle is that ministers in this situation should avoid taking any major decisions with lasting implications. If a decision must be taken, then there should be consultation with opposition parties (especially the ones expected to form the next government).
In 2010, there were unfortunate press reports criticising Gordon Brown for what they labelled his “squatting” in Downing Street, yet remaining in office until it became clear that David Cameron was able to form a government is what he was required to do. If there is a repeat situation in May 2015, one can only hope that the media adopt a more informed tone, although the muddled coverage of dissolution this week does not bode well.