An early general election?

Ballot-Paper-300x150What have John Humphreys, Frank Field, and friends of Boris Johnson got in common?  They all believe that a new Prime Minister could call an early general election.  John Humphreys raised the prospect of the PM going to the Palace to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament.  ‘The new Prime Minister’, wrote Frank Field in The Times this morning ‘will call an immediate general election.’  The new Prime Minister, whoever is chosen to succeed David Cameron, may be wonderful, but he or she is unlikely to be able to perform miracles.  The Prime Minister can no longer call an early election.  The power disappeared in September 2011 when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act came into force.  The Queen retains no residual powers in respect of the dissolution of Parliament.

The title of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is something of a misnomer.  It is essentially a Semi-fixed Parliaments Act.  It stipulates that there will be a general election every five years, on the first Thursday in May.  However, an early election may take place if either of two conditions is met:

(1) If the House passes the motion (and, if divided on, is supported by two-thirds of all MPs, not just two-thirds of those voting) ‘That there shall be an early general election’.

(2) If the House passes the motion ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’ and if, after 14 days, a new or reconstituted government has not achieved a motion of confidence from the House.

The first of these ensures an early general election, but imposes a high threshold: basically both main parties have to vote for it.  The second is achievable through a simple majority, but does not automatically trigger an election: there is the 14-day delay, to allow time for a different government to be formed and gain the confidence of the House.

If a Government wished to engineer an early election and do so without the support of the Opposition, it would have to get its own supporters to vote for a motion expressing no confidence in their own Government.  (If the Opposition voted against, necessitating all MPs on the Government benches voting for it, this would entail ministers expressing no confidence in themselves.)  The Government could then use its majority to ensure that the 14-day period passed without a confidence motion being carried in any alternative Government.

A number of people have asked if Parliament could not simply repeal the Act.  Some appear to assume a repeal could take place by a single vote.  The Act can only be repealed by Parliament passing an Act of repeal.  The new measure would state what would replace the 2011 Act.  It could be a reversion to what existed before 2011 or it could be a new system.   The provisions would be embodied in a Bill which would have to go through all the usual legislative stages in both Houses.  Unless there was agreement between the parties, this could not be rushed.  If there was agreement between the parties, then introducing a Bill would seem unnecessary, since one could use the procedure under the 2011 of passing  a motion stating that there would be an early general election.

In short, an early election is possible, but is not straightforward – and is not in the sole gift of the occupant of 10 Downing Street.

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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32 Responses to An early general election?

  1. Nicholas Hackett says:

    Given the Tories could elect a new Prime Minister by the middle of August, the new Pm would also have to recall Parliament to have a vote.

  2. tizres says:

    Lord Norton, as “the United Kingdom’s greatest living expert on Parliament” and “a world authority on constitutional issues” (and these are proper FACTS™), was Boris Johnson’s American citizenship an obstacle to become PM?

    • Croft says:

      “was Boris Johnson’s American citizenship an obstacle to become PM?”

      No. Not in the slightest.

      • tizres says:

        So, The Telegraph’s headline from 2015 was, let’s say, misleading and, as a threat of Boris showing loyalty to ABB is treated with the sort of hypervigilance normally associated with Richard Nixon, are we left with the idea he’s not so keen on paying tax?

      • I think that one could argue that there were conflicts but the precedents for ignoringthem are pretty well established. Winston Churchill was an honorary American Citizen although after the fact, and kings and queens of other countries have never been placed in embarrassing positions by our people. I think few or only one of those ever renounced. Johnson must feel some need however.

      • Croft says:

        We have had non uk born citizens as PM before (albeit commonwealth). But the key thing is there has never been any issue public or political made over Boris’s joint citizenship. So I can’t see the slightest chance it would have suddenly become one.

      • Lord Norton says:

        tizres: I agree with Croft. It has no formal bearing at all.

    • tizres says:

      My work is done.

  3. Nick Hackett says:

    If the new PM is elected by Mid-august then they would have to recall Parliament to be able to have the chance of calling an election.

  4. AndrejNkv says:

    Does the Act as it stands not come with the in-built assumption that the Government of the day does not want an election? In a situation where a Government does want an election – like it may do, come September – it seems that any Opposition would look utterly foolish if they passed up the opportunity, even if they thought they would lose.

    I’ve never liked the Act, but it really is showing itself to be to be very much “of it’s time”, i.e. a constitutional sticking plaster to protect a fragile coalition.

    • Lord Norton says:

      AndrejNkv: It was an Act passed to deal with a particular situation, but was drafted in order to apply in perpetuity, In response to pressure from the Lords, it incorporates a review of its provisions in 2020.

      • AndrejNkv says:

        I didn’t mean to imply that the Act was no longer fit for purpose; rather that it has the lingering whiff of short-term political expediency about it, which never seems to sit well with constitutional reforms. I have to confess I had never read the final provisions of the Act, but I should have expected that the Lords would insist on some form of post-legislative review!

        Rather more egregiously, I should have known better than to misuse an apostrophe in the word “its”, for which I can only humble myself.

  5. Jonathan says:

    What happens after an early general election? Does the next general election still have to be in May, and is it five years from the previous fixed May election, or from the additional one?

    • Croft says:

      At least at the time it passed I seem to remember a minister saying the former.

    • Lord Norton says:

      The clock is essentially reset, the election taking place in the fifth calendar year after the calendar year in which the early election is called, unless the early election takes place prior to the first Thursday in May in which case it is the fourth calendar year.

  6. Neil M says:

    Surely a missed opportunity to remind us of your scholarly article on this subject appearing Parliamentary Affairs last year. Very uncharacteristic!

  7. Pre-legislative reports from select committees of both Houses suggest that an engineered no-confidence vote initiated by the PM would not be in order? Any thoughts?

    • Lord Norton says:

      There is nothing that prevents the provisions being employed in the way that I have detailed. It may appear opportunistic, but what counts is if such a motion is carried.

      • Is it not a case of Padfield incompatibility with statutory purpose? The obvious intention of the Act was to prevent a Prime Minister being able to initiate a general election at whim with only a simple majority.

      • Croft says:

        The FTPA is not a stat instrument. Even allowing for the creeping fingers of the judiciary its for parliament to vote and whatever their reasons its that vote that is definitive. You can JR a vote.

      • Croft says:

        (sighs) Cannot JR the vote.

  8. maude says:

    Reading this thread is interesting indeed.

    I have a link that may give you food for thought.

    http://www.vernoncoleman.com/euillegally.html

    In fact we have no need to do a thing other that get Article 50 in immediately. The EU along with their sinister and secret back room deals have no further punch in our sovereign rule and the quicker they realise this the better. A general election is a must once a leader has been chosen. We are a Democracy.

    The politicians offered to the electorate as possible leaders are peculiar. A woman who cannot make a decision on the welfare of our people in her last job and a Remainer to boot, added to that, a guy who has a childhood fetish of refusing a decent hair cut, along with a two year unknown, who mimics our London mayor and also can’t decide if he wants a beard or not. I ask you. This is a farce.

    What has happened to all the responsible and worthy types who are rightfully ‘Outers,’ akin to Rees-Mogg, Grayling, Davies and numerous others. The group chosen are an insult to our collective intelligence. Do you want the backing of the citizens or not?

    Get used to it, the public voted OUT by a credible majority, seeing as the vote was given to half the world, which didn’t turn into the fix believed had been put in. So, stop the games and pull your finger out. We need a credible group of ‘Outers’ putting in place what the British public called for. Which, unless you have forgotten, was Queen and Country. Not Juncker and pals.

  9. maude elwes says:

    Another comment just made that has gone to the sin bin.

  10. Croft says:

    I guess you might be a few committees light LN soon – no word yet on which committees are gong to work on unpicking the EU provisions in parliament.

    By the way – by chance seeing you in the (lack of) ‘public trust in institutions’ debate last night was I the only person thinking the empty benches were the answer to the question 😉

  11. Bruce Roberts says:

    What happens if the new PM wants to invoke Article 50 with parliaments approval (which I think they should) but cannot muster a majority? Despite being unable to get a majority, they would not necessrily be able to dissolve parliament. Do we not have a stalemate and a ridiculous lame duck government?

    • Croft says:

      No consent by parliament is required to invoke Art 50. So ultimately if parliament obstructs that’s the fall back position.

      Life is going to be complicated where you have 2/3rds of MPs opposed to the public will.

  12. maude elwes says:

    Some more food for thought. Who is being offered to the people as a future PM? Anyone know?

    http://www.breitbart.com/london/2016/07/06/revealed-theresa-may-secretly-met-billionaire-branson-plotted-crush-brexit-vote/

    The two women front runners must be thoroughly investigated now. One the worst HS in decades is our front runner. A person who, for years, hid the Rotherham rapes of white children by Asian men because it may be seen as rac ist to expose them. Who also hides the true figure of immigration from both inside and outside Europe daily. Who wants to remain in the EU after the democratic vote has been cast because we don’t need democracy to rule, the people are too uneducated to understand. On and on year after year. Could it be she is easy to manipulate, even though chubby Ken tells us she is a difficult woman. In what way is she difficult, do tell?

    Then, we have the other one up to run against her. Just to be sure we have the vagina monologues contingent, mustn’t be seen as sex ist must we? This one has a fake CV, never run a company or team in her life, but, well, we can cover that with the Blair uproar. A good day to bury bad news isn’t it?

    Will the real Theresa May and Andrea Leadsum stand up please. Before we find ourselves having to cover for another maniac of the Blair ilk being maddened by power way over their head.

  13. Pingback: Craig Prescott: A ‘Snap’ General Election? It’s Far from a Certainty | UK Constitutional Law Association

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