Theresa May has ruled out an early general election, but that has not stopped predictable calls for her to trigger one on the grounds that her elevation to the premiership without a general election is undemocratic. Robert Hazell suggests that in saying that an early general election is not necessary she is entirely correct: the idea that Prime Ministers need a personal mandate is a misunderstanding of our parliamentary system. Were she to want to hold an election it would not be impossible for her to do so, but the Fixed-term Parliaments Act makes this more complicated than it has historically been and, in the context of Brexit, it is unclear what an early election would resolve in any case.
Does a new Prime Minister need a democratic mandate?
As soon as it was announced that Theresa May would be elected unopposed in the second stage of the Tory leadership race, and so would become Prime Minister, the predictable cries went up that this was undemocratic. No one had voted for her, it was said, other than the 35,000 electors in Maidenhead who voted for her at the 2015 general election, and the 199 MPs who voted for her in the final ballot amongst Tory MPs. The 150,000 members of the Conservative party had been deprived of any choice in the matter, let alone the 46 million electors in the country at large.
Theresa May has herself ruled out the need for an early election. Constitutionally she is entirely correct: the idea that prime ministers need a personal mandate is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of our parliamentary system. Only in presidential systems is the head of the government directly elected. In parliamentary systems we elect a parliament, not a government. Parliamentary elections are a two stage process: after we have elected a parliament, the new parliament then determines who forms the government. And it is not uncommon for the head of government to change part way through a parliament, and not to call a general election.That has happened five times since the Second World War: when Harold Macmillan succeeded Eden in 1957, when he in turn was replaced by Alec Douglas-Home in 1963, when James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson in 1975, when John Major followed Margaret Thatcher in 1990, and when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair in 2007. So far as I can recall, only in the last case was it suggested that the new Prime Minister needed to call a second election.
It would take detailed research to trace when people first began suggesting that a Prime Minister who took office mid term needed a fresh democratic mandate. Having lived through these years, I cannot remember such calls being made when Callaghan succeeded Wilson, or Major followed Thatcher. But I can certainly remember loud calls for a fresh election when Brown succeeded Blair in 2007. One person who made such calls was Theresa May, who said Brown was ‘running scared of the people’s verdict’. In similar vein Labour’s election coordinator Jon Trickett called this week for an early election, saying it was crucial for the UK to have a ‘democratically elected Prime Minister’.
It may be that this is no more than the usual harassment meted out to government by the opposition, not seriously meant. But it has a corrosive effect on public understanding of our parliamentary system, and on legitimacy and trust in government. There was a chorus of people in 2007 saying, ‘But I never voted for Gordon Brown’, reinforcing the belief that every Prime Minister required a direct personal mandate. And this week the broadcasters have sought out interviewees to say that if Theresa May does not hold a second election her new government will somehow be illegitimate, and not deserving of their trust. It is part of the personalisation of politics, which has been driven by the media; and also part of a slide from reliance and trust in representative institutions of government to calls for more direct forms of democracy.
How easy is it to call an early election?
The second myth much touted in the media is that it is open to the government to call a snap election. But the PM no longer has the power to call for an early election. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 that power has transferred to the House of Commons. Parliament can now only be dissolved early in one of two circumstances. The first is, if two thirds of all MPs vote for dissolution; that is a very high threshold, requiring over 100 Labour or other opposition MPs to vote in favour, as well as all 330 Conservatives. The Conservatives would taunt the Labour party as chicken if they failed to accept the challenge of an early election; but if Labour are still in disarray in the autumn, their MPs may prefer to play chicken than lose their seats.
The second route to dissolution is if the government is defeated on a formal confidence motion, and no alternative government can be formed within 14 days. The threshold here is much lower, a simple majority of those voting. It is possible that a government could try to engineer a no confidence motion in itself, but presentationally it would be awkward. A no confidence motion would probably pass, because it would be difficult for the opposition parties not to support it, or at least abstain. But there are risks involved, because of the 14 day period during which an alternative government could be formed; if parties are split, and the political situation volatile, the government risks losing control.
If the government is fearful of the risks involved, an alternative course might simply be to pass fresh legislation to authorise an early election. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is not entrenched: it can be overridden by a subsequent statute. The new statute could simply provide that, notwithstanding the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the next general election will be held on an earlier date, specified in the statute. That might be more straightforward than an artificial no confidence motion, and could be passed by simple majority. It might face a bit more difficulty in the Lords, where the government has no majority; but it would be hard for the unelected Lords to oppose legislation for an early election which had been passed by the lower house.
What would an early election resolve?
A final consideration is whether an early election will necessarily resolve things. Theresa May has ruled out the need for a personal mandate. But she might need a mandate of a different kind if the negotiations expose deep divisions in her own party, or in the country at large, about what Brexit means. She might then call an election to decide what form Brexit should take. But it may be wishful thinking to suppose that all the parties will adopt clear positions on Brexit. Their positions may themselves involve wishful thinking, since the eventual form of Brexit will depend as much on the response of the 27 other member states as on the negotiating position of the UK. And elections are uncertain in their outcome. Like referendums, they may deliver unwelcome or unclear results. For a recent example, look no further than Spain, where the second election held on 26 June produced very similar results to those of the December 2015 election. It resolved nothing, and Spain is still in deadlock.
About the author
Robert Hazell is Professor of Government and the Constitution at the Constitution Unit.