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What has been the effect of the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act?
One of the powers of the British Prime Minister has been to decide when the Queen should dissolve Parliament and the date of the general election.
Prime Ministers were able to call a general election when the opinion polls and economic conditions were favourable, generally about four years after the last election.
In many other countries elections are held on a fixed date every four or five years unless there are unusual circumstances.
The only limit to the Prime Minister’s power was that the Queen might question whether a dissolution was needed if a Prime Minister with a comfortable majority in Parliament asked for a general election after a year or two. But, this was, in any case, highly unlikely to be in the Prime Minister’s interest.
Impact of the 2010 Coalition Government
When the Coalition Government was formed, in 2010, between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, each side had an interest in fixing the date of the next general election.
The Liberal Democrats did not want David Cameron to wait until the Conservatives were doing better in the opinion polls, push them out of the Government and hold a general election.
The Conservatives did not want the Liberal Democrats to pull out of the Government if things got difficult and force a vote of no confidence to bring the Government down.
The result was a Fixed-term Parliaments Act which set the date of the next general election five years from the last one and removed the prerogative power of the Queen to dissolve Parliament on the Prime Minister’s request.
How can an election be held earlier?
There are two ways in which an election can be held earlier:-
* A no confidence motion is passed in the Commons and the Prime Minister is not able to get a motion of confidence passed within 14 days.
* Two-thirds of MPs vote for a general election. This would really require the Conservative and Labour parties to agree that there should be an early general election.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act has clearly reduced the advantage that a Prime Minister with a majority in Parliament had in calling a general election at a time that was to his or her advantage.
In a situation, increasingly likely in an era of multi-party politics, where neither of the two main parties has a majority, the effect is more complicated.
A Prime Minister with a coalition partner who decided to leave the Government and force a vote of confidence, might lose that vote but then find a new coalition partner from a different party before the 14 days are up.
It would also allow a minor party to ditch one Prime Minister and form a Government with a Prime Minister from the other main party without a general election, or even with a Prime Minister from one of the leaders of the same party who they would find more amenable.
It also means that a Prime Minister can continue even if he or she loses the vote on the Queen’s Speech or the Budget which, under the previous convention, led to the resignation of the Government and a general election.
Has the Act been tested?
Yes. The provisions within the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act was used to create the General election in 2017. Parliament took a vote to allow the election to take place.
In reality, the Labour Party did not want to be seen to not want an election i.e running scared. Theresa May, who called the election, ran a disastrous campaign and actually lost her majority in Parliament. Mrs May had to go into a confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) This arrangement complicated her ability to get Brexit done.
This example may perhaps deter Prime Ministers, unless they think it is a national crisis, to call an election early again.