The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has important implications for British politics. What is remarkable is how few politicians and commentators appear to know its provisions, particularly in respect of when an early election can take place. Some still seem to think that the Prime Minister can ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament and call an election. The Queen no longer has a role. The provisions of the Act stipulate the conditions under which an early election can take place. I have previously detailed these in a post on my own blog, but people still continue to get them wrong. On the Today programme this morning, my colleague, Lord Baker, said that an early election can only take place if a vote of no confidence is carried by a two-thirds votes of all MPs. He was wrong. In an article in the New Statesman, Simon Heffer claimed that if a Cameron government faced the House of Commons, lost a vote on its legislative programme and resigned, an election would take place if a Miliband government could not then get a Queen’s Speech through within 14 days. Wrong again. Lord Baker was conflating the two conditions under which an election could take place. Simon Heffer failed to grasp that the 14-day provision under the Act, within which a government has to get a vote of confidence from the House (otherwise an election does take place), is only triggered following the passage of an explicitly worded motion of no confidence. Defeat on any other motion has no relevance for the purpose of the Act. A government may resign in the wake of a defeat on an important vote, but that has no bearing for the purposes of the Act. No election is triggered.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was amended quite significantly during its passage through Parliament. The measure as enacted is quite clear. A general election takes place every 5 years on the first Thursday in May. An early election is only possible if (a) the House of Commons passes (by a simple majority) the motion ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’ and, within 14 days, a new or reconstituted government has not achieved passage of the motion ‘That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’; or (b) the House, by unanimity or, on a division, by a two-thirds majority of all MPs (not simply two-thirds of those voting) passes the motion ‘That there shall be an early general election’.
The wording of the motions are specified in the Act. No other wording would have an effect. The Queen has no role in the process. The only conditions under which an election can otherwise take place is if the Act is amended. So long as it remains on the statute book as it stands, an early election is only possible if one of the two conditions outlined above is met.
Readers may wish to note occasions on which commentators still get it wrong…