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Explainer

General election 2024: what happens when an election is called?

The general election took place on Thursday 4 July 2024.

Rishi Sunak calling the election
Rishi Sunak braves the Downing Street rain to announce the date of the next general election to the public.

On 22 May 2024, Rishi Sunak announced he had requested permission from the King to dissolve parliament and called a general election to be held on 4 July. Parliament was prorogued on 24 May and was dissolved on 30 May with the vote taking place 25 working days later. This process was carried out in accordance with the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act, which in 2022 replaced the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.

The prime minister had the flexibility to call the general election at a time of his choosing, up until 17 December 2024 – which is five years after parliament first met after the last general election.

A timeline to show what happens next now that a general election has been called for 4 July 2024. Prorogation of parliament takes place on 24 May, while dissolution will happen on 30 May.

What happens in parliament once the election is called? 

Parliament continues to sit until it is prorogued (and then dissolved). It is normal for Parliament to be prorogued before dissolution. This final period is known as ‘wash-up’.

At the 2024 election, parliament sat for two days after the election was called and then prorogued on May 24th, meaning wash-up only lasted for two days.

Wash-up is the opportunity for parliament to get through any unfinished business before dissolution. There is usually a rush to rapidly pass legislation through parliament to get it onto the statute book, normally requiring cooperation between parties to agree which bills they will support through this expedited legislative process. Any legislation not completed by the end of ‘wash-up’ will not enter into law and most cannot be continued into the next parliament.  

The length of wash-up is decided by the prime minister and can vary. The two-day wash-up period ahead of the 2024 election was the joint shortest since 1992 (2010 was also two days), while the longest was in 2017 when parliament sat for a further seven days after the election was called.  

What happens once parliament is dissolved? 

Dissolving parliament is a royal prerogative, exercised on the advice of the prime minister. At this point, all business in the House of Commons comes to an end and every seat in the House of Commons becomes vacant, meaning there are no longer any MPs. Government ministers, however, remain in post until a new government is formed after the election. Members of the House of Lords retain their positions but all business in the House ends.

Polling day takes place 25 working days after parliament is dissolved. Weekends, Christmas Eve and bank holidays (anywhere in the UK) do not count as working days. This means that at this election, there were a total of 35 days between dissolution on 30 May and polling day on Thursday 4 July. 

Polling day has been on a Thursday since 1935, but this – unlike for Scottish Parliament elections - has no basis in law and the prime minister could hold the election on any day of his or her choosing.

What happens in government once the election is called?

Government activity is restricted during the campaign, in what is known as the ‘pre-election period’ (previously known as purdah). This is to ensure public money is not used to support the campaign of the party in power, and to maintain the impartiality of the civil service. Often, these restrictions come into force once parliament has been dissolved, but the pre-election period can begin before this (as in 2017). This time, they came into force on 25 May, the day after Parliament was prorogued. 

What happens to MPs' constituency work?

At dissolution MPs cease to be a member of Parliament therefore they cannot continue to pursue the interests of their constituents in parliament. However MPs’ staff can, under limited circumstances, continue some casework, for example if there are appeal dates for casework coming up that cannot be moved. MPs’ staff maintain access to network accounts, email access, and stored files and data during the dissolution period in order to carry out any remaining casework. Staff time, the parliamentary network, email accounts or other parliamentary resources cannot be used for political or campaigning purposes. 

What happens to MPs’ staff?

MPs’ staff are employed by the MP, not by parliament and are paid for through the MPs’ staffing allowance. They can continue in post throughout the election campaign but cannot be used for political or campaign purposes. 

If an MP is not re-elected or has chosen to stand down there are provisions for a four month winding up period to allow sufficient time for MPs to close down their parliamentary and financial affairs. MPs can employ staff throughout this period to assist with winding up. Staff will be issued with redundancy notices, and if they meet the qualifying periods and are entitled to statutory redundancy they will receive redundancy pay.

When are manifestos launched and TV debates held?

There is no set date for manifestos to be launched – it is decided by the parties. Since 1997, Labour and Conservative manifestos have been launched between 18 and 29 days before the election, typically within a few days of each other.

manifesto timing launches

Televised debates with party leaders, or other politicians, are a relatively new feature of UK election campaigns. Though the possibility of holding televised debates has been discussed since the 1960s, it was only in 2010 that an agreement was reached and the first TV debates took place.

TV election debates have taken place in some form at every general election since then. Their format and timing are negotiated between political parties and broadcasters. They have varied from a head-to-head between the two main party leaders to seven-way debates featuring a wider range of parties. There is, however, no obligation on parties to take part. In 2017, for example, Theresa May ruled out taking part in any television debates.

What happens on polling day?

Voting can be done in person at polling stations, or before this by post. Polling stations open at 7am and close at 10pm. In 2024, for the first time in a general election, photographic ID was required. 7 www.electoralcommission.org.uk/voting-and-elections/voter-id  (Photographic ID was required for local elections in 2023 and 2024.) 

Once voting closes at 10pm, an exit poll is announced. This is a survey of in-person voters taken at a sample of around 150 constituencies in England, Scotland and Wales. Exit polls have taken place in various forms since 1974, and have correctly predicted the largest party on every occasion. 8 www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/exit-polls-election-results-come-out-uk-what-are-they-how-work-explained-a7779821.html

exit poll and final result 1992 to 2024

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