Both the Conservative and Labour Parties have promised to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA), which determines when general elections usually take place.

Conservative and Labour Parties on the FTPA

We will get rid of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – it has led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action” – Conservative Party Manifesto 2019

A Labour government will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which has stifled democracy and propped up weak governments” – Labour Party Manifesto, 2019.

The Prime Minister also has a legal duty to arrange a review of the FTPA in 2020.

The review may recommend the repeal of the Act. However, it may not be possible to do so without first putting in place alternative arrangements for dissolving Parliament.

What does the Act do?

The FTPA sets a five-yearly interval between general elections. Scheduled elections take place on the first Thursday in May.

Early general elections can take place if: 

  • At least two-thirds of all MPs vote for an early general election; or  
  • After a vote of no confidence, the existing government or an alternative government does not secure the confidence of the House of Commons within 14 days. 

Previously, Parliament was dissolved by Royal prerogative. Instead, the Act put the dissolution of Parliament on a statutory footing. Under the Act, Parliament is dissolved 25 working days before election day. Previously the Prime Minister could request a dissolution, and the consequences of losing a confidence vote were determined entirely by convention. 

Why was the Act passed?

The 2010 Coalition agreement included a commitment to “establish five-year fixed-term Parliaments”. A fixed-term Parliament offered the Coalition Government a certain amount of stability as it created an expectation that Parliament would run for a full term.

It was also argued that the legislation removed “the right of a Prime Minister to seek the Dissolution of Parliament for pure political gain.

None of the governments since the FTPA has served its predicted duration.

What effect has the Act had?

The 2010 Parliament in which the Act was passed continued to its full term. But the two subsequent Parliaments were brought to an end earlier than expected (see chart showing duration and expected duration of recent Parliaments). The 2015 Parliament ended in April 2017, after the House of Commons agreed to a motion for an early general election by 522 votes to 13.

The 2017 Parliament ended in November 2019, after the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019 was passed. The next election is scheduled to take place on 2 May 2024, as if the election in December 2019 had been set by the FTPA.

Before this happened, the Government failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed for an early general election on three occasions (4 September, 9 September and 28 October 2019).

Review of the FTPA

Between June and November 2020, the Prime Minister has to arrange for a committee to carry out a review of the Act. He has to publish the committee’s findings. The committee may recommend that the Act is repealed or amended. A majority of members of the committee have to be MPs.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee announced its own inquiry into the FTPA in July 2019. The committee received written and oral evidence but did not finish its inquiry before dissolution.

Can the prerogative of dissolution be restored?

It is generally accepted that when an Act abolishes a royal prerogative, it cannot be restored by simple repeal of the Act. If the prerogative has only been put into abeyance, on the other hand, it can be restored. Experts who gave evidence to the Lords Constitution Committee disagreed about whether the royal prerogative of dissolution could be restored if the FTPA was abolished.

Unless this question can be resolved, it may be safer to replace the FTPA with new statutory provisions on dissolution, rather than attempt to restore the prerogative power of dissolution.

Has the Act affected existing confidence conventions?

Before the Act, if a government lost the confidence of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister could resign or request a dissolution, leading to a general election.

The FTPA sets out a specific procedure for demonstrating no confidence.  Following a motion of no confidence, a 14-day period begins. In this time, a new government may be appointed or the existing government may regain confidence. If neither happens, a general election is triggered. Parliament is then automatically dissolved 25 days before the general election.

The May Government argued that non-statutory no confidence motions are no longer binding. Parliament would need to consider whether to replace the no confidence procedure in the FTPA with a new statutory procedure. One option would be to replace the FTPA’s two triggers for an early general election with:

  • A procedure to force a change of government without triggering an election; and
  • A single procedure for triggering an early election.

Has the power of the Prime Minister been reduced?

The House of Commons now determines whether early general elections take place. The power to request dissolution is no longer the Prime Minister’s. However, the Prime Minister can still initiate and press for an early election under the FTPA and, if one is triggered, set the date.

Concern has also been expressed that a Prime Minister could refuse to resign during the 14-day period after a vote of no confidence. This would lead to a general election, rather than a change of government without an election.

Further reading

Insights for the new Parliament

This article is part of our series of Insights for the new Parliament. This series covers a range of topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.