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How are crises managed during a general election campaign?

The UK government remains in place and ministers remain as ministers during an election campaign.

Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull
In March 2010, the ash cloud from the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull led to major disruption to air travel across western Europe which continued up to the general election.

The UK government remains in place during the ‘short campaign’ period, the 25 working days from the dissolution of parliament to polling day. The incumbent government operates under restrictions that prevent new activity being initiated and government resources being used to aid the campaign.

In an emergency or crisis however, there are plenty of ways in which the government can act, but there is no parliament after it has been dissolved and the UK does not currently have a mechanism to recall the outgoing parliament.

What kinds of crises have occurred previously during election campaigns?

The UK has seen various crises and emergencies occur during the short campaign period. In 2017, the Manchester Arena bombing killed 22 people and injured more than 1,000 others on 22 May, two and half weeks before polling day. In 2019, two people were killed in a knife attack on London Bridge. In March 2010, the ash cloud from the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull led to major disruption to air travel across western Europe which continued up to the general election. 

Who responds to a crisis during an election campaign?

The UK government remains in place and ministers remain as ministers during an election campaign. Although they are restricted in initiating major new policy or using government resources for campaigning purposes, they are still able to continue with other government business and can act in an emergency. For example, following the Manchester Arena bombings then prime minister Theresa May called an emergency meeting of COBR and the UK’s threat level was raised to “critical”. 

Other parts of government including public services and agencies all continue to operate during the campaign, though they are restricted in how they communicate to ensure they are not interfering with the campaign. Likewise, devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as local authorities and mayoralties all remain in place. 

The incumbent UK government is similarly able to continue acting in the aftermath of the election if the result does not lead to a party having a clear majority and there are negotiations between the parties. The Cabinet Manual says that in such circumstances ‘many’ of the same restrictions from the campaign period would continue to apply to the government. The prime minister, and other ministers, are expected to remain in place until it is clear who will form the next government. 

A government operating during this period is expected to consult with the opposition if they do need to take major action. In 2010 on the weekend after polling day, the outgoing chancellor of the exchequer Alistair Darling had to vote on an EU bailout to the Greek government to deal with its budget deficit crisis while negotiations were still happening between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. During this period, Darling consulted the Conservative shadow chancellor (and later chancellor) George Osborne and Liberal Democrat treasury spokesperson Vince Cable about the action he was planning to take.

What powers does the government have?

During the campaign period the government is able to act within existing laws. Civil servants also continue to work during the election campaign, and so the machinery of government, as well as intelligence services, the military and public services are all able to respond to crises as needed. 

The Civil Contingencies Act (2004) also allows the government, in the case of events that threaten serious damage to human welfare, the environment or national security, to make temporary emergency regulations to amend existing laws. There are exceptions, for example the regulations cannot amend the Human Rights Act or Part 2 of the Civil Contingencies Act itself. This law is in place for major emergencies only, and Cabinet Office guidance suggests it should only be used as a last resort in the case of a “category three” emergency (their highest level). These provisions have yet to be used by the government.

Can campaigning be suspended?

In case of a major event or crisis, parties may decide, collectively or individually, to suspend their campaigning. This may be for ministers to focus their attention on responding to events, or as a sign of respect for those affected. For example, in 2017 all parties suspended campaigning for a week following the Manchester Arena bombing and the SNP delayed the launch of their manifesto. Following the London Bridge terrorist attack in 2019, 14 days before the election, parties suspended campaigning in London.

Can the election be postponed?

If a general election has been called but parliament has not been dissolved, then it is in the remit of the prime minister to delay.

Once the election has been called and parliament dissolved there are no clear rules on how an election might be delayed, except in the case of the death of the monarch. Under the Representation of the People Act (1985), the date of the general election is automatically postponed by 14 days, with the new Sovereign having the ability (on advice of the prime minister) to vary this date by up to seven days in either direction by proclamation. However, in other circumstances there is no written procedure for delaying the date of an election.

What happens if a candidate dies?

With the large number of candidates standing during a general election (3,327 in 2019) it is not uncommon for a candidate to pass away during the campaign period. The rules for how polling is affected depends on whether the candidate was standing for a party or as an independent. If the candidate was running as an independent, then the election continues as normal. If there were only two candidates, then the election is treated as uncontested. If the deceased candidate wins the election, then a new election will be arranged. 

If the candidate was a member of the party, then the election is rescheduled with a new candidate chosen from that party. The existing candidates do not need to re-register but can choose to drop out if they wish. The new election will be held as if the writs had been received seven days after the returning officer receives notice of the candidate’s death.

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