What is dissolution?
Dissolution is the formal term for the end of a parliament. It occurs ahead of a general election for a new parliament.
How does dissolution differ from prorogation, recess and adjournment?
Dissolution brings a parliament to a close.
Prorogation signals the end of a parliamentary session – the parliamentary ‘year’. This brings nearly all parliamentary business – including most bills and all motions and parliamentary questions – to a close. Parliament then reconvenes when a new session starts – marked by a King's Speech, which outlines a new programme of legislation. The main difference between dissolution and prorogation is that, after prorogation the same ‘parliament’ (including the same MPs) reconvene, whereas after dissolution, an election takes place and a new ‘parliament’ is formed.
Adjournments are routine breaks in parliamentary activity. Parliament usually adjourns every night and over weekends. They do not affect the usual business of parliament.
Recesses are breaks during the year when a House of Parliament does not meet. These are technically a form of adjournment, and are formally called ‘periodic adjournments’. In both Houses, the government proposes recess dates which MPs or peers must approve through a vote. While MPs and peers will not meet in the main chambers during recesses, other parliamentary business, such as select committee work and the tabling of parliamentary questions, can continue.
When is parliament dissolved?
Following the repeal of the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) in 2022 (by the Dissolution and Calling of Parliaments Act 2022), the latest that any parliament can be dissolved is “the beginning of the day that is the fifth anniversary of the day on which it first met”, with the election to be held 25 working days after that. This means that the latest an election could be held is in January 2025.
However, the government also has the ability to dissolve parliament and seek an election earlier than this, if it wishes.
This effectively means that the system for dissolving parliament and calling elections that was in place before passage of the 2011 FTPA has been restored.
While the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was in place, it required parliament to be dissolved at the beginning of the 25th working day before a general election. It stated that parliament could not be dissolved at any other time.
The Act also governed when general elections could take place. Ordinarily, general elections would be held every five years. It was only possible for an early election to be held if either:
- two thirds of MPs agree to a motion for an early election, or
- MPs vote down a government in a formal vote of no confidence under the FTPA and do not pass a vote of confidence in a government within 14 calendar days.
During the period in which the FTPA was in place, early elections took place in 2017 (when two thirds of MPs agreed a motion for an early election) and in 2019 (when MPs passed a piece of primary legislation allowing an early election).
Parliament may also be prorogued before it is ‘dissolved’ prior a general election, to wrap up parliamentary business early and allow MPs to focus on the election campaign. If parliament has been dissolved, it cannot then be prorogued, as there is no longer a parliament to be suspended.
Who decides when parliament is dissolved?
Following repeal of the FTPA, the ability to dissolve parliament is once again a royal prerogative, exercised on the advice of the prime minister. This means that the prime minister can ‘request’ a dissolution at a time of their choosing, though it must be within five years of the last general election.
Under the FTPA, the prime minister’s ability to call an election at a time of their choosing was removed. While the Act was in force, 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 does dissolution mean for MPs?
When parliament is dissolved, every seat in the House of Commons becomes vacant. This means there are no longer any MPs. Those who were MPs before dissolution cease to represent their constituents and lose access to parliamentary facilities and resources. They no longer refer to themselves as Members of Parliament.
The Speaker’s parliamentary seat also becomes vacant, and they must stand for re-election as an MP. However, by convention, the ‘Speaker seeking re-election’ stands unopposed by the main political parties.
What does dissolution mean for parliamentary business (including legislation)?
When parliament is dissolved, all unfinished parliamentary business falls – including any bills that have not received royal assent. Bills cannot be carried over from one parliament to another, reflecting the convention that no parliament can bind its successor. This differs from prorogation, where the government can choose to carry over bills between parliamentary sessions.
To prevent unfinished parliamentary business falling, governments will usually try complete as much unfinished business as possible in the time between an election being called and parliament being dissolved (or prorogued) – known as the ‘wash-up’ period. Fast-tracking legislation during the wash-up requires the co-operation of opposition MPs and peers, and it is not uncommon for bills to be amended to remove contentious elements and increase their likelihood of passing. For instance, in 2017 over half the clauses of the Finance (No2) Bill were removed to ensure its passage before dissolution, and other contentious bills – like the Prison and Courts Bill – were dropped entirely.
The length of the wash-up period varies. Ahead of the 2017 election, the wash-up period lasted 13 days, during which 13 government bills received royal assent. The repeal of the FTPA means that there is less certainty over the date of general elections, making it harder to schedule parliamentary business with election dates in mind—and potentially increasing the need to rush through unfinished parliamentary business during a wash-up ahead of an early election.
What does dissolution mean for government?
Government ministers remain in post and continue to run their departments when Parliament is dissolved. They are only replaced when a new government is formed following a general election.
By convention, dissolution also marks the start of the pre-election restrictions period (historically referred to as 'purdah', the time during an election campaign when there are restrictions on what the government can do – both in initiating policy and in the use of official resources.