The Prime Minister has announced that a general election will take place on Thursday 4 July 2024.

This Insight looks at the King’s involvement in the dissolution of Parliament and the calling of a general election.

Dissolving Parliament

A general election takes place when Parliament is dissolved. Dissolution is the official end of a Parliament, and all seats in the House of Commons become vacant. It is a prerogative act, which means it does not have a statutory basis. Dissolution happens either automatically at the expiry of its statutory maximum duration, or by Proclamation, a legal document authorised by the King and issued under the Great Seal.

The Prime Minister “requests” that the King dissolve Parliament. Under the Lascelles Principles, the Monarch could only refuse such a request if Parliament remains “vital, viable, and capable of doing its job”, if an election would be detrimental to the national economy or if the Monarch could find another Prime Minister who could “govern for a reasonable period with a working majority in the House of Commons”.

The Lascelles Principles are now more than 70 years old and disputed. The constitutional expert Sir Vernon Bogdanor has argued that the Crown’s right to refuse a dissolution now only exists if such a request “would be an affront to, rather than an expression of, democratic rights”. The last unilateral dissolution of Parliament by a monarch occurred in 1835.

It was once the case that the decision to request a dissolution was made by the Cabinet, but since the 1920s it has made by the Prime Minister alone, though usually following consultation with Cabinet ministers.

Once the decision has been reached, the Prime Minister seeks an audience with the King at one of his official residences. If the Monarch happens to be abroad, then the Prime Minister communicates with them by some other means. Before the 1966 general election, for example, the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson communicated with Queen Elizabeth II while she was in the West Indies.

Following this audience, the Prime Minister usually makes a public statement outside 10 Downing Street, announcing that the Monarch has granted their request for a dissolution.

Dissolution proclamation

There has not been a dissolution proclamation since April 2010. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, dissolution was statutory, and only a proclamation summoning a new Parliament was required. This Act has now been repealed, so the formalities for the 2024 general election will revert to those which existed until 2011.

A dissolution proclamation is authorised by the King at a meeting of the Privy Council. These are usually attended by a few Privy Counsellors, some of whom may be senior ministers. The Monarch signs the Proclamation and directs the Lord Chancellor to “affix” the Great Seal. This normally happens on the same day the Proclamation is issued.

The text of a dissolution proclamation does several things:

  • It dissolves Parliament and “discharges” MPs and peers
  • Orders the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to issue writs summoning peers to the House of Lords and for the election of MPs to the House of Commons
  • Sets the date for the first meeting of the new Parliament

Election writs

Election writs are the responsibility of the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery (in Great Britain) and the Clerk of the Crown for Northern Ireland (in Northern Ireland). The Clerk of the Crown in Chancery is currently Antonia Romeo, who is also Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice. Writs are sent to returning officers, who are responsible for the conduct of elections in each UK constituency.

Schedule 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 provides the form of an election writ:

Charles the Third by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Our other Realms and Territories King Head of the Commonwealth Defender of the Faith to the Returning Officer for the Constituency Greeting.

Whereas Parliament has dissolved We Command you that due notice being first given you do cause election to be made according to law of a Member to serve in Parliament for the said Constituency.

And that you do cause the name of such Member when so elected, whether he be present or absent, to be certified to Us in Our Chancery without delay.

Schedule 1 of the 1983 Act also sets out the timetable for a general election. This is 25 days. The day on which the dissolution proclamation is agreed and sealed is day zero. Election writs are deemed to have been delivered to returning officers on day one, while polling day is then day 25.

Further reading

Commons Library briefing, The royal prerogative and ministerial advice

Commons Library Insight, How is a Prime Minister appointed?

About the author: Dr David Torrance is the monarchy specialist at the Commons Library.

Picture credit: Mistervlad on Adobe Stock