The Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) of 2011, which fixes general elections on a five-year cycle, will make it very difficult to call an early election.
There are three ways parliament could do this:
1) The first is by a two-thirds majority of the Commons voting to dissolve parliament and call an early election. But it’s unlikely that it will be in the interest of 67 per cent of the House to go to the polls again. The opposition would have to join the government in support of the motion, and presumably the Prime Minister would only put such a motion to the House because it would be in his interest (therefore presumably not in the opposition’s interest) to go back to the electorate.
2) The second is a vote of no-confidence. If the government loses a no-confidence vote, then 14 days are allowed for an alternative administration to be formed. If an act of confidence in a new government isn’t passed in 14 days, then there would be a second election.
But engineering a no-confidence motion would be difficult. Under the FTPA, the definition of no-confidence votes has been narrowed to exclude Queen’s Speeches and budgets (traditionally considered confidence motions). Whereas there used to be no set formula for no-confidence votes, now the wording would have to be very specific: “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”.
It would be very difficult for the government to no-confidence itself to trigger a second election, as the chances are in this scenario that it would be a minority government – and therefore the rest of the House would be able to oppose the motion. (It would be in the opposition’s interest to do so, if the government feels a second election would be to its advantage).
Also, if the rest of the House manages to vote down such a motion, then it may well be able to form an alternative administration within the 14-day window – as parliamentary government expert Philip Cowley puts it, “Why assume no alternative would form? If you are the opposition leader, you would at least try.”
3) The third option is to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. But this would require a simple majority, and a government would only be seeking to repeal the Act if it hadn’t won a majority. However, some point out that it would favour both Labour and the Tories to be able to call an election at any point – and therefore they might unite in repealing the Act.
But it’s not straightforward. As the Institute for Government’s Dr Catherine Haddon explains, the Act wiped out the centuries-old Royal Prerogative to dissolve parliament, so repealing it wouldn’t just automatically revert back to the status quo pre-FTPA. Replacing it with something else would be constitutionally complicated, as whose hands should such a decision be in? If you’re erasing parliament’s power over such a decision, then you’d have to actively legislate for it to be in the hands of the executive, which is a tricky argument to make politically.
Others point out that a clause in the 1978 Interpretation Act could be invoked that means you can return to the status quo ante by repealing a law, if you express your wish to do so. But the Royal Prerogative has never been reinstated before, and constitutional experts are split on the matter.