The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (c. 14) (FTPA) is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that received Royal Assent on 15 September 2011, introducing fixed-term elections to the Westminster parliament for the first time, as a result of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition agreement which was produced after the 2010 general election. The Act sets out the timetables for parliamentary general elections and dissolution of parliament. Under the act a general election is scheduled for the first Thursday in May of the fifth year after the previous general election, although there are situations where an election can be called earlier.
The two most important situations where a general election can be earlier are a vote of no confidence in the government, and a vote of two-thirds of the House of Commons.
Before the Act was passed the power to determine whether a general election should be held early was exercised by the Prime Minister (PM). The Act transferred this power to Parliament. The constitutional academic Philip Norton has argued that as a result of the Act the PM no longer has the power to call a snap election, since the opposition can prevent an election by abstaining in the vote. In contrast the lawyer and journalist David Allen Green and the university lecturer Andrew Blick have both argued that the Act has changed little in practice, since the PM can still, so long as at least a portion of the opposition agrees, call a snap election.
This held true when Prime Minister Theresa May called for a snap election, which was ratified by the necessary two-thirds vote in a 522–13 vote in the House of Commons on 19 April 2017, leading to the general election 2017. However, the next attempt to call an early election failed. On 4 September 2019 Prime Minister Boris Johnson attempted to call a snap election. There were 298 votes for the motion and 56 against, but this was well short of the two-thirds supermajority required under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, due to mass abstention by the opposition.
Before the passage of the Act, Parliament could be dissolved by royal proclamation by virtue of the Royal Prerogative. This originally meant that the English, and later British, monarch decided when to dissolve Parliament. Over time, the monarch increasingly acted only on the advice of the prime minister; by the 19th century, prime ministers had a great deal of de facto control over the timing of general elections.
Apart from special legislation enacted during both World Wars to extend the life of the then current parliaments, Parliament was never allowed to reach its maximum statutory length, as the monarch, acting on the advice of the prime minister of the day, always dissolved it before its expiry. The longest Parliament preceding the Fixed-term Parliaments Act not exceptional in this way, 51st Parliament of John Major 1992–1997, lasted 4 years, 11 months and 2 days.
The five-year maximum duration referred to the lifetime of the parliament and not to the interval between general elections. For example, while John Major's government lasted 4 years, 11 months and 2 days; the period between the 1992 and 1997 elections was 5 years and 22 days.
Reasons for changing the previous system
The previous system had existed for a long time. Reasons for changing the system included:
Main parties' views on need for change, fixed terms and frequency
Prior to the 2010 general election, the Conservative Party manifesto made no mention of fixed-term parliaments. The Labour Party manifesto said it would introduce fixed-term parliaments, but did not say how long they would be. The Liberal Democrat manifesto included a pledge to introduce four-year fixed-term parliaments. The 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament, with the Conservatives having 306 MPs and the Liberal Democrats 57 MPs. The two parties negotiated a coalition agreement to form a government, with a commitment to legislate for fixed-term parliaments included in the coalition deal. The journalist John Rentoul has suggested that one of the subsequent coalition government's motives for passing the legislation was a concern about its own potential instability. In this view the legislation was intended to make it difficult for either coalition partner to force an early election and bring the government down.
Section 3(1) of the Act originally stated that Parliament should be automatically dissolved 17 working days before a polling day of a general election. This was subsequently amended by the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 to 25 working days. Section 1 of the Act provides for such polling days to occur on the first Thursday in May of the fifth year after the previous general election, starting with 7 May 2015.
The Prime Minister is given the power to postpone this date by up to two months by laying a draft statutory instrument before the House proposing that polling day is held up to two months later than that date. If the use of such a statutory instrument is approved by each House of Parliament, the Prime Minister has the power, by order made by statutory instrument under section 1(5), to provide that polling day is held accordingly.
Section 2 of the Act also provides for two ways in which a general election can be held before the end of this five-year period:
- If the House of Commons resolves "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government" (a motion of no confidence), an early general election is held, unless the House of Commons subsequently resolves "That this House has confidence in Her Majesty's Government". This second resolution must be made within fourteen days of the first. This provision recognises that in a hung parliament it might be possible for a new government to be formed, commanding a majority.
- If the House of Commons, with the support of two-thirds of its total membership (including vacant seats), resolves "That there shall be an early parliamentary general election".
In either of these two cases, the Monarch (on the recommendation of the prime minister) appoints the date of the new election by proclamation. Parliament is then dissolved 25 working days before that date.
Apart from the automatic dissolution in anticipation of a general election (whether held early or not), section 3(2) provides that "Parliament cannot otherwise be dissolved". The Act thus removes the traditional royal prerogative to dissolve Parliament, and repeals the Septennial Act 1715 as well as references in other Acts to the royal prerogative. The royal prerogative to prorogue parliament – that is, to end a parliamentary session – is not affected by the Act.
Under section 7(4)–(6), the prime minister is obliged to establish a committee to review the operation of the Act and to make recommendations for its amendment or repeal, if appropriate. The committee must be established between 1 June and 30 November 2020, and the majority of its members must be members of the House of Commons.
When introducing the bill to the House of Commons, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg, said that "by setting the date that parliament will dissolve, our prime minister is giving up the right to pick and choose the date of the next general election—that's a true first in British politics."
The government initially indicated that an "enhanced majority" of 55 percent of MPs would be needed to trigger a dissolution, but this did not become part of the Act, being replaced by the two thirds requirement.
Proposed amendments that would have limited the fixed terms to four years, backed by Labour, Plaid Cymru, SNP were defeated. This was in the Liberal Democrats manifesto but superseded by coalition agreement.
Section 4 of the act postponed the Scottish Parliament election that would have been held on 7 May 2015, moving the election day to 5 May 2016 to avoid it coinciding with the general election in the United Kingdom.
Critiques of the Act
According to the political scientist Colin Talbot, the Act makes minority governments more stable than in the past: events that previously might have forced a government out of power—such as defeat of a Queen's Speech, or loss of supply, or defeat of other important legislation, or a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister rather than the government as a whole—cannot formally do so.
The lawyer Alastair Meeks, writing on the PoliticalBetting.com website, has argued that as well as removing the Prime Minister's ability to set the election date at a time of her or his choosing, the Act has significantly affected the British constitution. It has removed the ability of the PM to make a vote on a policy a matter of confidence in the government, a tool which minority governments and governments with small majorities have used in the past to ensure legislation is passed in the House of Commons. This puts such governments at risk of being able to remain in power without adequate ability to legislate, increasing the necessity of coalition government.
Andrew Blick, Senior Lecturer in Politics at King's College London, argues that the Act's use of a supermajority requirement for the House of Commons, rare in UK law, represents a move towards entrenched clauses in the UK Constitution.
Uses of the Act
The 2015 general election was held on 7 May 2015, the first use of the Act to dictate the timetable.
On 18 April 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May announced her intention to call a general election for 8 June 2017, bringing the United Kingdom's 56th parliament to an end after two years and 32 days. She required two-thirds of the Commons (at least 434 MPs) to support the motion to allow it to pass. Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition and the Labour Party indicated he was in support of an election. The motion was passed the following day by 522 votes to 13 votes.
As the Act requires scheduled elections to take place on the first Thursday in May, the date of the next general election after the 2017 election (assuming no earlier election is called) will be 5 May 2022, meaning that the term is one month short of five years.
Attempted and contemplated uses of the Act
On 17 December 2018, the Labour Party tabled a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister, Theresa May. As this was not a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government in the form set out in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, its passing would not have resulted in a general election being called. Arguing that this would have no effect because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act Theresa May was able to call it a stunt and deny it any time for debate.
The SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party submitted an amendment to the motion which, if passed, would have changed the motion to meet the requirements of the act. The government subsequently announced that the motion would not be given parliamentary time.
The following day (18 December 2018), the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party tabled a new motion of no confidence in the Government in the form set down in the act. This was the first such motion to be tabled under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition, tabled a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government on 15 January 2019, after the House of Commons rejected Theresa May's draft agreement on Brexit. Ian Blackford, the Westminster leader of the SNP supported the decision. The motion failed, the ayes having 306 and the noes 325. Nigel Dodds, Westminster leader of the DUP which had a confidence and supply agreement with the government, expressed the opinion that it was in the national interest for his party to support the government in the motion.
On 3 September 2019, the Johnson government tabled a motion under the Act to trigger an early general election, requiring the votes of two thirds of MPs. However, the Labour Party leadership said that they would not support the motion until legislation to delay a no-deal Brexit was passed. On 4 September there were 298 votes for the motion and 56 against, but this was well short of the two-thirds supermajority required due to mass abstention by the opposition. On 6 September four opposition parties – Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP and Plaid Cymru – agreed not to support any parliamentary vote for a general election until the next European Council meeting which was scheduled for 17–18 October 2019. On 10 September, another motion for an early election was tabled by the government; it failed 293–46, with 303 abstentions. Parliament was then prorogued until 14 October.
Other effects of the Act
In 2016, in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal, a petition was created on the Parliament petitions website that called for a general election after former British Prime Minister David Cameron revealed that he had had investments in an offshore trust. After the petition had passed the threshold of 100,000 signatures, the government response cited the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in its reply, and stated that "no Government can call an early general election any more anyway".
In 2017 the journalist John Rentoul writing in The Independent newspaper argued that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act indirectly caused the election loss of Theresa May's majority in the 2017 election. Technicalities made her choose an election campaign of seven weeks, 2–3 weeks longer than usual, which, Rentoul argued, lost her the majority.
Losing the parliamentary vote that follows a Queen's speech has traditionally been seen as having the same consequences for a government as losing a vote of no confidence. Although this is no longer the case under the Act, the consequences of losing a vote on the Queen's speech are still thought to be significant. Theresa May delayed the Queen's speech that was expected in Spring 2019, partly as a result of concerns about the prospects for winning a parliamentary vote on it.
The Conservative Party manifesto at the 2017 general election proposed repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. However, Theresa May's government failed to win a House of Commons majority at that election and did not attempt to repeal the act.
Repealing the Act would require a new Act of Parliament. If the duration of parliaments is to be limited, arrangements for this would need to be included in the new Act because the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 repealed pre-existing legislation governing the duration of parliaments.