The Prime Minister has announced she will be asking the House of Commons tomorrow to vote for the motion ‘That there shall be an early parliamentary general election’. She correctly stated the provisions of the Act. She is thus ‘calling for’ an election, not ‘calling’ an election. The decision now rests with the House of Commons. A two-thirds majority of all MPs is required for the motion to be passed. That majority is expected to be achieved, given that Jeremy Corbyn has said Labour will vote for it. Indeed, he made it clear some time ago that he would support an early election, thus doubtless aiding the PM in her consideration of whether to seek an election under section 2(2) of the Act.
The Act has only seven sections and one schedule – it is no more than nine pages, including the contents page – and was enacted in September 2011. It is not the most onerous of reads. Yet it appears to have caught the media out in reporting the PM’s announcement. Asking the Commons to vote for an early election is not to ‘override’ the Act, it is utilising one of the provisions of the Act. Nor is invoking the provision a technicality. The Opposition has said it will vote for the motion. The important point is that it is needed in order to pass the motion. The press gallery of the Commons is not likely to be empty tomorrow, even though the outcome of the vote is largely taken as given. It puts the Opposition in a particularly difficult position. It will be difficult to attack the PM for going early to the country (as previously it could have done) when it is a party to the decision. One could envisage situations in the future when a politically astute Leader of the Opposition keeps quiet as to whether the Opposition would support an early election under the FTPA, thus giving a PM pause for thought before rushing into an announcement.
Assuming the motion is passed, the effect is to reset the clock on the timing of the next general election. Under section 1, if an early election is triggered, the next one takes place on the first Thursday in May in the fifth calendar year after the election, unless the election takes place before the first Thursday in May in the calendar year it which it is held in which case it is four years. The five-year provision will apply in this case.
When the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was going through Parliament, it encountered particular criticism in the House of Lords. As a result, section 7 provides for the Act to be reviewed in 2020. It was inserted to stave off a sunset clause. Perhaps the House should have insisted on a sunset provision…