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Explainer

Calling a general election

Elections have to be held no more than five years apart, but the timing of elections can otherwise be determined by the prime minister.

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The next UK general election is due by January 2025.

When is the next general election due? 

The latest date parliament can dissolve is “the beginning of the day that is the fifth anniversary of the day on which it first met” (17 December 2019), with the election being held 25 working days after that date. This means the latest date for the next general election would be 28 January 2025. 

Can elections be called sooner? 

Yes. The ability to request a dissolution of Parliament and a new election lies with the prime minister. This means that a prime minister can effectively announce an election at a time of his or her choosing.  

Between 2011 and 2022 prime ministers would have had to pass a vote in the House of Commons to call an early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) 2011. This has now been repealed and the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act (DaCoP) 2022 which has returned the ability to call elections to Royal Prerogative. This is how elections were called before 2011.  

Can the King call an election?  

The royal prerogative means that although the power legally lies with the King, the King exercises that power on the advice of his ministers, primarily the prime minister.  

Can the King refuse an election?  

A prime minister ‘requests’ a dissolution, implying that the monarch can refuse that request. The circumstances in which that request might be refused are, however, ambiguous. The government has published ‘dissolution principles’ during the process of enacting the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act. This mirrors advice from the 1950s which set out how a monarch might refuse a request if a parliament remained “vital, viable, and capable of doing its job”, if an election would be detrimental to the national economy or if the monarch can find another prime minister who could “govern for a reasonable period with a working majority in the House of Commons”.   

Can the public force a general election? 

The power to call an election before January 2025 lies with the prime minister. This means that the public, and opposition parties, can only try and put pressure on the prime minister if they believe an election should be held sooner.  

If a majority of MPs wanted an earlier election, they could seize control of the parliamentary agenda and make it clear that they believed an election was needed, for instance, through passing legislation that there be an election on a particular date. Otherwise, the only way an election could be forced sooner by MPs would be if they held a vote of no confidence in the government. If the government lost that, it would have to either resign in favour of the opposition or call an election. As the government still has a sizeable majority, both options would require a section of Conservative MPs either voting for an election or no confidence in their own government. 

What is the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act? 

The Act reverses the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA). Elections will still have to be held no more than five years apart, but the timing of elections can be otherwise determined by the prime minister. The Conservatives committed to repealing the FTPA in their 2019 manifesto, arguing that the FTPA was responsible for the parliamentary deadlock that happened over Brexit in 2019. 

Why did the government change how elections are called? 

The ability to call for the dissolution of parliament and an election used to be a royal prerogative, exercised on the advice of the prime minister. In other words, the prime minister would ‘request’ a dissolution of parliament at a time of their choosing, albeit within five years of the previous election. This allowed the prime minister to threaten to call an election if his party, or the Commons as a whole, did not support him in a vote on an important issue (a "matter of confidence").  

The introduction of the FTPA removed the prime minister’s ability to call an election at a time of their choosing. Under the Act, triggering an early election required the government to either get two-thirds majority support in a parliamentary vote, or introduce a bill which by-passed the FTPA. 

What are the problems with returning to the old way of calling elections? 

In repealing FTPA, the government has effectively restored a royal prerogative. This has not been done before because normally the direction is always in turning historic crown powers into statute. While there has been debate as to whether it was possible to ‘revive’ a prerogative, the government has done so by legislating to make a previous power under the prerogative ‘exercisable again’.   

The major concern is that the government is taking away from the Commons the right to decide when parliament should be dissolved and instead giving the prime minister unconstrained power over elections. The criticism of this is that a parliamentary role protects against an abusive dissolution, for instance, an attempt by a prime minister to dissolve parliament again following an election in which he or she did not get an overall majority. There is also an argument that a system in which parliament calls elections is more democratic, not least because it is parliament that is being dissolved. Research has found that, on average, a prime minister gets a vote share bonus of 6% and a seat share bonus of 12% when they pick the election date, increasing the chances that they stay in office. The new Act also raises concerns relating to the role of the monarch. 

The 2019 prorogation saga, when the Queen felt compelled to grant Boris Johnson a five-week prorogation of parliament (later reversed by the Supreme Court), highlighted the monarch’s difficulty in dissenting from the advice of her ministers. To do so would expose the monarch to allegations of political interference of an undemocratic nature, even if the intention of the refusal was to preserve the good functioning of democracy. This makes for an uneasy role if a future dissolution occurred controversially. 

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