How can a general election happen?

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.

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This entry was posted in Election law.


  • David Allen 12th Dec '11 - 1:13pm

    Miliband could argue – if he wanted to – that Cameron was playing ducks and drakes at a time when the national interest demanded stability. His argument, whether widely believed or not, would soon be forgotten since he would have blocked the election.

  • I don’t know the answer to this question: can you tell me if the Queen still retains a prerogative right to prorogue Parliament despite the Fixed-Terms Act of Parliament?

  • How about the other method? Parliament votes, by a simple majority, to repeal the Fixed-Term of Parliaments Act and Cameron goes to see the queen. Legislation can be enacted very quickly (as in the ‘wash up’) if everyone is in favour.

  • Kevin Colwill 12th Dec '11 - 8:53pm

    Back in the day I got very wound up about this one. With the passage of a few months I don’t see it as such a big deal.

    Fixed terms look good in theory but enforcing them when there is a real will to have an election doesn’t seem worth the hassle.

    Cameron has out flanked the Lib Dems from day one. I’m sure if he really wanted an early election he could do so again.

  • >>>Cameron has out flanked the Lib Dems from day one. I’m sure if he really wanted an early election he could do so again.

    I’m not sure where you’re getting this from – I thought the Lib Dems had won most of the arguments in the Coalition.

  • Andrew Suffield 12th Dec '11 - 11:37pm

    How would Milband justify or not want a general election ?

    Miliband is incapable of agreeing with Cameron on any issue. You could effectively replace him by hanging a wig on a sign that says “I disagree” and propping it on the opposition front bench.

  • I’m not sure how well the electorate would take the necessary shenanigans in order for Cameron to call an early election.

    It would amount to Cameron (and possibly others) saying “See that stability-that-was-required-in-the-national-interest that I promised you and see that fixed-term-Parliament-constitutional-reform-that-would-change-the-we-do-politics that I also promised you. I lied. Please vote for me.”

    I’m don’t see that landing well with the people.

  • RightPaddock 14th Dec '11 - 12:42pm

    Milliband shouldn’t support a call for an early election.

    Cameron & Clegg made their bed, now let them lie in it.

    If Cameron wants an early vote he could do something that would cause the LibDems to terminate the coalition. Cameron would then be relying on the LibDems or Labour bringing on a non confidence motion – if they didn’t he’d have to run a minority government to the full term.

    Tricky stuff – loose coalitions and fixed terms, Cameron should not have agreed to this. But its SitNorm for UK governments, they’re never good at Strategy, short termism wins again.

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