Dr Mark Bennister, Reader in Politics, explores the possibility of an early general election being called by the new prime minister
With British political change at present hurtling along at breakneck speed, it is reasonable to expect the unexpected. Since Theresa May became the new prime minister, speculation has increased that an early general election will be called. The reasons seem to concentrate on her criticism of Gordon Brown in 2007 as ‘running scared’ for not calling one after similarly being anointed as an unopposed party leader and prime minister. Commentators have led the calls based on her apparent need for a mandate from the electorate. This chatter has ratcheted up a notch as several opposition parties joined the chorus. There are several reasons why an early election is highly unlikely. Some of these are procedural and some political.
- The Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA), passed in 2011 sets the date of the next election as May 2020. This has taken the decision away from the prerogative powers of the prime minister and placed authority with parliament. As the UCL Constitution Unit stress, no longer is the timing of a general election in the gift of the prime minister.
- The FTPA stipulates the way in which a government can fall, thereby triggering an election. Either a government would need to be defeated on a motion of no-confidence or support for a dissolution of parliament would need to be demonstrated. In the first case a 14 day period is required to see if an alternative government can be formed. In the second case 60 percent of the House must support dissolution.
- Alternatively the FTPA could be repealed, though it is uncertain if the powers would automatically return to the prime minister. Another option, as Robert Hazell points out would be to amend the Act to specify a new date – this would require only a simple majority in the Commons and support from the Lords.
- The politics though make all these options highly unlikely. To use the FTPA the government would have to either engineer a no-confidence vote, and hope that everyone falls into line, or enlist the opposition parties to gain the 60 per cent necessary for a dissolution. Neither option would look particularly good and carries significant risks. With such a small current majority it would not be guaranteed that all Conservatives would support the move and why would the opposition support an election called by the government?
- Repealing or revising the FTPA would be more straightforward, but why bother? We elect governments not prime ministers and although Theresa May has a new team there is no requirement or imperative to call an election. After all staging the referendum was a manifesto commitment and prime ministers do frequently change in mid-term. In fact this has happened 12 times since Lloyd George. Of the post war prime ministers only Anthony Eden chose to call an election immediately after assuming office in 1955 and although he increased Conservative majority his premiership proved a disaster as the Suez crisis forced his resignation in 1957.
The structural obstacles therefore appear to mitigate against any early election. But the politics do too. With such a large in tray, the new prime minister will have enough things to sort out in the short term. Stability and a sense of control after such a turbulent period is the imperative. Although it is tempting to think the new prime minister will try and cash in on the current Labour Party disarray, why risk going to the country? A further option may be to engineer one further down the line when Brexit negotiations are concluded but again why risk it? Having swiftly changed the guard at the top such calls are likely to be resisted, particularly with the complex procedural logistics and uncertain outcome. But we are learning to expect the unexpected in British politics.