Early election

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Who calls an election?

The ability to call for the dissolution of Parliament used to be a Royal Prerogative power that was exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister, but the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) in 2011 removed the Prime Minister’s ability to call an election at a time of their choosing. It is now up to Parliament.

Under the FTPA, an early election requires at least two-thirds of the Commons to vote in favour.

How is an election called?

There are two ways in which an early election can be called: the Commons votes for a new election or a vote of no confidence in the Government. 

Prime Minister Theresa May used one of the two clauses in the FTPA on 19 April to trigger the election on 8 June 2017. This required at least two-thirds of the House (434 MPs) to vote for a dissolution.

The situation now makes another election more complicated. In theory, there could be a vote of no confidence in the Government. If the Government loses an explicit vote of no confidence (a motion worded in a specific way and set out in the Act) this would start a 14-day period in which either a second vote of confidence is won or else an election is triggered.

The FTPA provision has never been tried, so this would be new territory. It is not at all clear what the 14-day period is meant to achieve. It could be the same government trying to pass a second vote, having been defeated in the first. It could be a new Conservative Prime Minister attempting a second vote. In theory, it could allow for a minority Labour government to be formed and attempt to pass a confidence vote, but that would require the current Prime Minister to resign.

In any scenario, a majority of MPs would need to provide their support for the second vote of confidence. Alternatively, the Government and MPs could allow the 14-day period to pass and allow the election to be called.

Can the FTPA be repealed or changed?

There has been much discussion about whether the FTPA should be repealed or amended. Though we have now seen it work, questions remain. There are legal and constitutional difficulties in repealing it entirely, but MPs could try to amend the FTPA.

Constitutional experts have debated at great length whether something set out in statute could revert to a Royal Prerogative power. The easiest solution would be to amend it so that only a simple majority is required to call for an election. This would again mean that a majority government could call an election at a time of its choosing.

How could the FTPA be amended?

Only a simple majority would be required to make amendments to the FTPA. This is possible with the combined Conservative and DUP votes, and was in the Conservative manifesto, but with the volume of legislation on the agenda for this two-year parliamentary session, something like amending FTPA seems like a lower priority for the Government.

If circumstances dictated, it would be entirely possible for a government to achieve this change quite quickly through emergency legislation, though this still rests on the Government getting a majority in both houses.

Is the FTPA an effective instrument for calling a general election? 

The 2017 General Election was the first time that the FTPA has been used, and it seemed to be work as it should, requiring cross-party support for an early election. However, the Prime Minister's sudden announcement after the Easter break shows that snap elections are still a feature in UK politics.

For the time being a new election would most likely only come about because the Conservatives tabled a motion for the two-thirds FTPA vote or the Opposition tabling and winning a vote of no confidence against the Government and triggering the 14-day period. There are concerns that FTPA allows a weak government to remain in office.

Update date: 
Friday, March 29, 2019