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ANALYSIS: Could we be heading for a General Election?

6 min read

With the new prime minister set to lead a minority government, and the possibility of a motion of no confidence looming, could the country be heading to the polls in 2019? Graeme Cowie and Sandip Samra from the House of Commons Library break down the possible timelines for a General Election

We should know the outcome of the Conservative leadership election on Tuesday 23 July. We can expect this to lead to a change of prime minister shortly thereafter.

The new prime minister will (almost certainly) lead a minority government. Would that government have the confidence of the House of Commons? This is open to question and may depend upon its (anticipated) policy platform. A motion of no confidence may be tabled and voted upon to test whether the House does in fact have confidence in the government. If this happens, and if such a motion passes, the UK may then be heading for an early general election under the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.

Here we give two illustrative examples of how the timetable might operate for an early general election. Scenario 1 gives an indicative timetable if MPs vote on a motion of no confidence after summer recess. Scenario 2 explains what could happen if the votes took place before summer recess. 

Scenario 1: Commons passes a motion of no confidence after summer recess

The House of Commons returns from its summer recess on Tuesday 3 September. If MPs wanted to debate a statutory motion of no confidence that day, the Leader of the Opposition would have to table the motion before the House rose for summer recess (i.e. by Thursday 25 July). The vote would then be expected to take place in the afternoon or evening of Tuesday 3 September – the first day back after recess. If that motion passed, a 14-calendar day statutory period under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 would begin at midnight.

If, by the end of Tuesday 17 September no subsequent ‘motion of confidence’ had been passed in Her Majesty’s Government, an early general election would be triggered.

The date of an early election is set by Crown proclamation. The prime minister advises the Queen what the date should be. In this case, that proclamation could be made no earlier than Wednesday 18 September.

Parliament cannot be dissolved until after the proclamation is made. Dissolution must happen at the beginning of the 25th working day before polling day. The earliest Parliament could be dissolved would be Thursday 19 September, which would mean a polling day of Thursday 24 October had been set by proclamation.

Unless Article 50 is extended again, the UK unilaterally revokes Article 50, or a deal has been ratified by the UK and the EU, the UK leaves the EU by automatic operation of law at 11pm on 31 October 2019. The last potential Thursday polling day before exit day is 24 October. 


Scenario 2: Commons passes a motion of no confidence before summer recess

The Commons rises for summer recess on Thursday 25 July. If MPs wanted to debate a statutory motion of no confidence that day, the Leader of the Opposition would need to table the motion before the House rises on Wednesday 24 July. The vote would likely then take place on Thursday 25 July, and if it passed the 14-day period would begin at midnight.

If, by the end of Thursday 8 August, no subsequent ‘motion of confidence’ had been passed, an early general election would be triggered.

The Crown proclamation setting the date of the poll could be made no earlier than Friday 9 August. Assuming there is no significant delay, one of two plausible polling dates might be set by proclamation in those circumstances: Thursday 19 or 26 of September.

Depending on which one was chosen, Parliament would be dissolved either on Wednesday 14 or 21 August. 


Why have we assumed an election would take place on a Thursday?

There is no legal requirement for early general elections to take place on a Thursday. By default, elections held at the end of a five-year session take place on the first Thursday in May of the relevant year. The last time a general election was held on a day other than a Thursday in the UK was Tuesday 27 October 1931.

It is possible under Scenario 1 that an election could take place later than Thursday 24 October but before 31 October. This might happen if a vote of no confidence is passed later in the first week of September, or if dissolution is delayed by a few days to allow for a period of ‘wash-up’.

Does an election have to happen if a no confidence motion passes?

Passing a motion of no confidence in the government does not automatically trigger a general election. If the incumbent government ‘regains’ the confidence of the House within the 14-day period, or a new government is formed, the House could then pass a ’motion of confidence’. If this second motion is in time, an early election does not take place.

If a resolution of no confidence was adopted just before summer recess (as with Scenario 2) there would be little opportunity either for the current government to regain the confidence of the House, or for another government to gain its confidence before the 14-calendar day period expires. Either the House would need to have agreed to change the summer recess dates before recess starts, or the government would have to ask for a recall of Parliament on or before Thursday 8 August.

Could the election be delayed or set for a later date?

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 gives the prime minister broad legal discretion about when an early general election should take place. Although the Crown sets a date, it is on the recommendation of the prime minister. In Scenario 1, for example, the prime minister could, as a matter of law, recommend a date later than Thursday 24 October, such as Thursday 7 November. 

Could a general election take place earlier?

Yes. If at least 434 MPs (representing two-thirds of the total number of seats in the Commons) vote in favour of an early general election, the Crown does not have to wait 14 days before making a proclamation to set an early election date. However, the date of dissolution must still be no earlier than the day after the Crown proclamation itself is made. That proclamation can only be made once the House has adopted the resolution for an early general election.

This Insight was written by Graeme Cowie, a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in Brexit, and Sandip Samra, Marketing & Communications Manager at the House of Commons Library 



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