Why would we have an early election?
Prime Minister Theresa May has called for a vote on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) on 19 April to be able to trigger an early election on 8 June 2017. The process for triggering an election mid term is not so straightforward.
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. So now it’s up to Parliament.
How is an election called?
There are two ways in which an early election can be called: the Commons votes for a new election, and a vote of no confidence in the Government.
The Prime Minister has indicated that she will go with the first option of a Commons vote. If at least two-thirds of the House (434 MPs) vote for a dissolution, that would trigger an election. This would require both Labour and the Conservatives agreeing to call an election. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said that he will support this, and so it can be assumed that the two-thirds will be achieved. However, these mechanisms have never been tested and there are questions about how they would occur.
If this two-thirds of the House is not achieved, then there are other ways that Theresa May could engineer an election. 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 set off 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. Or it could allow for a new government to be formed and attempt to pass a confidence vote. In either scenario, a majority of MPs would need to provide their support for the second vote of confidence. Alternatively, 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Can the FTPA be repealed or changed?
There has been much discussion about whether the FTPA should be repealed or amended.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 appear to be seeing it work, questions still 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 current Government’s majority, but it depends on the Government getting its MPs to agree.
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?
Theresa May is clearly banking on a two-thirds majority. Labour has indicated it will support her in voting for an early election. This is the first time that the FTPA has been used, and it seems to be working as it should. However, it may not survive the election and could be amended during the next Parliament. The Prime Minister's announcement shows that snap elections are still a key feature in UK politics.
This Brexit Explained was updated on 18 April 2017.