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18 April 2017

How can Theresa May call an early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?

The prime minister announced an early election on 8 June 2017. But how does it work under the rules about a fixed Parliament?

By Julia Rampen

Ever since David Cameron resigned, and Theresa May took his place, one question has been circling No. 10: Will there be an early election? Now the Prime Minister has confirmed there will be an election on 8 June 2017. But can she actually hold it?

The answer should be no. During his premiership, Cameron specifically introduced measures to prevent governments from tactically calling elections, and instead legislated for a five-year fixed-term parliament, which would make the next general election 2020.

But this was before Brexit. The shock vote catapulted May to power via a Conservative leadership campaign – not the judgement of the populace. So far, the fact May is an unelected leader hasn’t been a problem for her, since opinion polls find that under her leadership, the Tories’ popularity has soared.

Will such a honeymoon last forever? Some in the Tory leadership suspect not. The Sunday Express reported in March that senior Tories, including the party chairman Patrick McLoughlin, chief whip Gavin Williamson and the PM’s private secretary George Hollingbery have been pushing the idea of a May 4 poll.

Downing Street has dismissed such speculation as “nonsense”.

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Why an early election now?

According to the Express, the early electioneers hope they will “kill at least two birds with one stone” by holding a snap poll. The first of these “birds”, is the Tory election expenses scandal, which is nipping at the party’s heels, but is hardly as exciting to report on than a general election. The second is Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum. The Tories hope to swipe some seats from the SNP in the next election and thus undermine the Sturgeon stronghold. Finally, by capitalising on May’s honeymoon period, the PM may escape the curse of another unanointed premier, Gordon Brown. 

With a fixed-term parliament, how could an early election work?

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 scheduled elections for the first Thursday in May in every fifth year from 2010. According to this rule, the next election will take place on 7 May 2020.

According to the legislation, early elections can only be held: 

if a motion for an early general election is agreed either by at least two-thirds of the whole House or without division; or

if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is confirmed by the Commons within 14 days.

In other words, May would have to get cross-party agreement to hold an early election, or be in such dire straits herself that an early election would effectively end her career.

The Prime Minister has already applied pressure on other parties to agree to the poll. Announcing the plan for an early election, she described the opposition parties as divided and blocking Brexit. 

Would Labour vote for an early election?

Labour has reasons to fear an early election – the Fabian Society recently predicted it was too weak to win in 2020, and could lose a catastrophic number of seats in an election.

However, back in December, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he would back a vote to dissolve Parliament. If Labour MPs stay in line, the combined Labour and Tory vote would be enough to call an early election. 

Is there any disadvantage for Theresa May?

For all the speculation, the Prime Minister consistently shot down suggestions of an early election, and she did so as recently as March. This U-turn may undermine her image as a resolute politician.