What 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.