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Parliament Act

On Tuesday 18th of April, the prime minister Theresa May said there will be a UK general election on 8 June 2017. In technical legal terms, this should not be for her to decide. It is a decision for parliament. But in reality, the decision is that of the Prime Minister, even though the law states otherwise.

Since World War II, only the 2015 general election has been held at the latest possible date (May 7th 2015). This was the first general election occurring at the end of a fixed-term Parliament.

What is the Fixed-term Parliaments Act ?

The conditions for when a snap election can be called were significantly restricted by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011. The Act of Parliament, which was part of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition agreement produced after the 2010 general election, was introduced fixed-term elections to the Westminster parliament.

Under the provisions of the act, parliamentary elections must be held every five years, beginning on the first Thursday in May 2015, then, 2020, 2025 and so on.

A snap election can only be called when the government loses a confidence motion or when a two-thirds majority of MPs vote in favour.

Prior to the act in 2011, the prime minister had the de facto power to call an election at will by requesting a dissolution of Parliament from the monarch. It was perhaps the Prime Minister’s greatest power: it would hardly be used, but the possibility was enough. The coalition government in 2011, passed a Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The intention was to take the politics out of the dissolution of Parliament. This was supposed to remove the risk of a snap general election. The FTPA provided for five-year parliaments as a norm. The only exception would be an “early election” under section 2 of the act. The exception would apply in two cases. The first would be if the House of Commons passed a motion that “there shall be an early parliamentary general election” with a vote of at least two-thirds of MPs. The other would be a straight vote of no confidence by MPs that was not reversed in 14 days.

When introducing the Bill to the House of Commons, Nick Clegg, the deputy Prime Minister at the time, said that “by setting the date that parliament will dissolve, our Prime Minister is giving up the right to pick and choose the date of the next general election—that’s a true first in British politics.”

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 set the date of the next election to 7th May 2020 and then every five years subsequent to that.

The Queen no longer has the power to dissolve Parliament. This is now scheduled by the Act to automatically happen 25 days before the election date.

Parliament has the power to call for an early general election, on one of two conditions:

  • Via a motion of no-confidence in the current government. It would be unusual for a Prime Minister to call an election in this manner, as it would effectively end her career.
  • Via a vote that carries the agreement of two thirds of MPs. Under current Parliamentary conditions this would be hard but not impossible for the Prime Minister to manage. It would also require the assent of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

It might be easier and more practical for a government to repeal and replace the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and change the election rules.

The FTPA was never an absolute barrier to early elections, but a barrier that could easily be circumvented. In reality, a Prime Minister with a good majority in the House of Commons can still call a snap election, with the only objective of making that majority bigger. According to the Financial times, as an exercise in constitutional tinkering, the check and balance of fixed parliamentary terms has failed. But from a purely non-political perspective, the process has been utilised as it was intended.

Please read this article regarding the FTPA from an expert. If you notice any particular bias, consider it and dismiss or accept it.