Events such as last week’s European summit still regularly produce a flurry of comment about how Cameron might / should / will / must call an early general election, written as if the rules on calling a general election have not changed.
But they have, for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 is now in force and the sorts of calculations that were relevant during previous political excitements are no longer relevant. A Prime Minister can no longer simply call an early general election because they want to.
Instead, there are only two circumstances in which a general election can take place earlier than the scheduled five years after the previous one.
First, the House of Commons can vote for one – but the number of votes for must be equal to or greater than two thirds of the number of seats in the House (including vacant seats).
In other words, even if Cameron had a single-party majority, he could not fix an early general election. Only a Prime Minister in possession of a landslide or cross-party agreement could vote one through under this provision.
The second route is if the House of Commons passes a vote of no confidence in the government (by a simple majority) and then fails within fourteen days to pass a motion of confidence in a new government.
In other words, if Cameron were to demand an early election, call a vote of no confidence in himself and even get his own party to vote for the motion – there is no general election. Instead, Ed Miliband would get the chance to form a government first. It is only if he – and everyone else – fails that there is then an early general election.
Hat-tip: Thanks to Richard Morris for the idea for this post.