Elections, Prime Ministers and their Causes – Part 1

The 2015 General Election is one of uncertainties. Who will be the largest Party? Who will work with whom? Who will be Prime Minister? Will anyone be able to get enough support to pass that magic number of 326 (half the seat in the House of Commons +1) and form a Government? What does it mean if they can’t?
With all this uncertainty, the possibility of a SECOND General Election this year has been mooted.

This week, I want to look at these questions in a bit of detail, combining the Legal Framework with the Political Reality of #GE15. Over the course of three posts this week, I will examine “What causes a General Election”, “What ends a Prime Minister” and “What Creates a new one”, all through a #GE15 lens.

Today, I want to look at the first, and possibly simplest of these questions – What Causes a General Election.


Regular General Elections

This is the simplest point to discuss. Section 1(2) of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 [FTPA 2011] appoints the date for the first General Election after the act comes in as 7th May 2015. This is the simple.
Section 1(3) goes on to state that the polling day for each election thereafter will be “the first Thursday in May in the fifth Calendar year” after the last one. So, the next general election is 7th May 2015; the next 7th May 2020; the next 1st May 2025 and so on. Section 1(5) lets the Prime Minister, under Statutory Instrument approved by Parliament, delay the election for up to 2 months, but that doesn’t really mess with things. The next election would still be the 1st Thursday in May five years later.

This is the Best case scenario. Everything goes as it should; there are no disastrous governments; no mass defections; no wafer thin majorities coupled with rebellious backbenchers. This is the mode of almost every government since WW2. But the drafters were no naive to assume there would never be a repeat of the Vote of Confidence in 1979.
There are two ways to hold early general elections.

Early General Elections

The first is best described as the Parliamentary Method.
Section 2(1) compels an early General Election take place if the following motion, laid out in Section 2(2), is passed by a 2/3s majority of the whole House of Commons (i.e. at current seat numbers, 434 MP’s):

That there shall be an early parliamentary general election.

This way of calling an election is unlikely to ever be a possibility in reality. At the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives alone won 310 seats, keeping them safe form this kind of early election. In most cases, the largest party (if they are the ones attempting to form a government) or the party of the sitting Prime Minister (if they are attempting to keep hold of power) would need to have fewer than 227 seats to be unable to stop a motion passing. This has never been anywhere near a possibility since World War 2. eve allowing for a large rebellion, this would be very unlikely to pass if the largest party didn’t want it to.
Of course, there may be situations where a fresh election might be in the largest party’s interests. Two such situations could be:

  1. Where the 2nd Largest Party has had a major mess up since the last election. Perhaps there has been a damning revelation about a leading figure. Maybe coalition negotiations take an unexpected turn?
  2. Where a’worst case scenario has come to pass. Voting SNP really did get Tories. Voting Labour really did get UKIP. Now that the hitherto vague threat has become a reality, people might vote differently and be able to push the largest party over the line, giving it an overall majority – however slim.

These situations are possible – but unlikely. If anything were to happen, it is most likely to be the second method of calling an early general election. This can be called the Governmental method and is more of a two-stage process.

The first step is contained in s.2(3)(a), which compels an early General Election to take place if the following motion, laid out in Section 2(4), is passed by the House of Commons (i.e. more MPs vote for it than don’t):

That this House has no confidence in her Majesty’s Government.

The second step, contained in s.2(3)(b), is that the following motion is not passed by the House of Commons within 14 days of the above motion:

That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.

Provided that there is no counter-motion within those 14 days, then an Early General election is called. This is a much more likely scenario if the Parliamentary arithmetic adds up. In a #GE15 context, it could be that there are more “Anti-Tory MP’s” who, while not wanting to enter into formal coalition, want to end a Tory Government.
All this is much closer to the traditional “Vote of Confidence” we’re used to. But it’s vital to note that nothing in this Act replaces the law regarding confidence in the government.

That’s what we’ll be discussing next in Part 2, “What Ends A Prime Minister?“…

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