Triggering an early election…

Lord Norton

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…

12 comments for “Triggering an early election…

  1. Ian Coupe
    07/03/2015 at 1:51 pm

    What a terrible piece of legislation! Lumbering the country with lame duck governments when the country will need a new election to sort things out.

  2. Andrew Turvey
    07/03/2015 at 2:07 pm

    Interesting and thank you. Thinking through the scenarios then. Suppose Con+LD no longer has a majority but Lab has not yet managed to agree a coalition. Say UKIP proposes a vote of no confidence. Lab might decide to abstain, not wanting to trigger the 14 day count down, leaving Cameron leading a caretaker government until they are ready. Is that a realistic scenario?

    • Lord Norton
      07/03/2015 at 5:22 pm

      It is one of a great many possible scenarios!

  3. Hal
    07/03/2015 at 6:20 pm

    Here is my “likely scenario” for a minority government getting an early general election after, say, several months of government. I assume that there is no majority for anyone else (else, why would it be a minority government in the first place?).

    The prime minister (let’s call him Miliband) declares that he can’t get his legislation through and wants an early election to go for a proper mandate (like in 1974). His first move is to table a motion for an early general election, stating that if it is not carried, the government will resign and advise Her Maj to appoint the leader of the biggest party voting against the early election as PM (let’s call him Cameron), since obviously he (Cameron) thinks parliament should go on.

    So if Cameron leads his party to vote against the early election and the motion is therefore not carried, Miliband and the rest of the government resigns. Cameron is immediately appointed (for there has to be a PM always) and then Miliband (now the leader of the opposition) tables a motion of no confidence. This is carried, since there’s no alternative majority, and after 14 days there is a new election (with Cameron as caretaker PM).

    Given that potential outcome, Cameron can’t lead his party to vote against the early election (because he does not want the humiliation of immediately losing the confidence vote and being forced into an election anyway). So he and his party have to vote for the early election. The motion gets its 2/3 majority and parliament is dissolved.

  4. Mark D.
    07/03/2015 at 9:31 pm

    A very interesting article – thank you for clarifying the process. Here in Canada, Parliament passed a similar Fixed Elections Act in 2007, with the major difference that it continued to recognize the authority of the Governor General to dissolve Parliament at his/her discretion. There was an early election call in 2008 and there are presently rumours of an election call before the fixed election slated for this October.

  5. maude elwes
    09/03/2015 at 10:28 am

    This thread indicates a general disquiet the electorate has against what is being offered as potential government, taking into account the crock of being stuck with one that is a no go area for most of us.

    With this in mind I felt this link throws some light on what is going on.

  6. Toby Chopra
    09/03/2015 at 11:06 am

    Is defeat on a budget vote equivalent to losing a vote of no confidence? Or can a government be forced to carry on without supply?

    • Lord Norton
      11/03/2015 at 10:25 pm

      Toby Chopra: No, losing a budget vote would not engage any provision of the Act. A Government could choose to resign if it lost a budget vote, but that would open up the prospect of negotiations to form a new government. It would not trigger an election. Only passage of one of the two motions I list could do that.

  7. MilesJSD
    10/03/2015 at 1:35 am

    With so many high experts, top powers, and popular leaders
    “getting democratic governance things wrong” –
    how on Earth can we trust tens of millions of completely disinformed and under-trained lower-educated “People” to sort it out at an Election,

    in either regular five-yearly or ’emergency-no-confidence’ case ?

    We need to be led deeper, to find out what over-all cost-effectivenesses
    and both generic-human-development & environmental-lifesupports-improvements,
    “kick-in” during the queues at Ballot Boxes,

    such that the Big Democratic Blind-Man’s-Bluff Election
    “remains” the Ultimately-Best Judgement
    to keep the Establishment and the Esotericly Benign Secret Oligarchy
    contentedly above the Scenes
    pulling the strings of Politicians, Parliaments, and Peoples alike
    at the cost of both present and future Lifesupports
    and hard-working thrifty People
    themselves ?

    Or in such a UK-[&-The-World] “democracy-self-extinctioning” quagmire
    as is increasingly becoming evident,
    what else than a peacefully-fast bottom-to-top total re-education into Participative-Democratisation
    could save “the best”
    from suddenly becoming exposed as
    “the worst – therefore The People made a bad mistake, and must Vote again”?

  8. Senex
    25/03/2015 at 5:28 pm

    I seem to remember at least one political commentator in 2010 saying that a grand-coalition would have served the challenges ahead far better than the one we ended up with.

    A grand-coalition would make the prospects of calling a GE redundant because the two main parties with their super majority would hardly bring forward a motion that would destroy their own interests.

    Do you have a view on grand-coalitions operating under the act?

  9. Xingjian
    10/04/2015 at 1:04 pm

    Dear Professor, I just knew this Act in translating the last chapter of your Parliament in British Politics, and interestingly read this blog. I can immediately see its importance, but surprisingly, there is no corresponding academic focus on this Act either in my country (I am pretty sure) or internationally (maybe I am wrong).

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