Despite Britain having an uncodified constitution, which is reliant on a variety of sources, it cannot really be doubted that Statute Law is the dominant source of the UK constitution. This is because it is the source on which constitutional change is primarily bought about. This has been true since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which cemented the notion of a limited monarchy. Indeed, the Bill of Rights of 1689 recorded in Statute the requirement for parliamentary Freedom of Speech and Frequent Elections.
But what does the term ‘frequent’ elections mean? In the United States, the Constitution clearly outlines that a Presidential Election will take place every four years and Congressional Elections take place every two years. However, in Britain, Parliament could only be dissolved by the monarch (although, this was increasingly on the advice of the Prime Minister). In 1715, Parliament passed the Septennial Act. This said that Parliament would automatically be dissolved if seven years had passed since it was assembled. The Parliament Act of 1911 reduced this period to five years. However, although these pieces of legislation set a maximum amount of time before elections, they did not indicate when the next election would be. This is because Prime Ministers could dissolve Parliament before this point as one of their Royal Prerogative Powers.
This gave enormous power to Prime Ministers, who could plan for an election before the opposition, as only they knew when it would be called. When a Prime Minister called an election suddenly it was called a ‘snap election’. This could give a Prime Minister a huge electoral advantage, although not all used it particularly well. A notable example of this is the case of Gordon Brown. Tony Blair resigned after 10 years as Prime Minister in 2007. His Chancellor, Gordon Brown, replaced him.
Although he had become PM, he had not faced a leadership challenge within the Labour Party. Some people believe that this lack of a mandate limited him. He also had a surge in the polls upon becoming leader. People expected Brown to call a ‘snap election’. Had he done so he would almost certainly of won a slim majority. Instead, he dithered and failed to call an election. This is despite opinion polls suggesting Labour would win. Gordon Brown’s image of a decisive leader was shattered, starting with a particular session of PMQ’s on 10th October 2007:
This was one of the most one one-sided Prime Minister’s Questions of all time. It was a humiliating episode for Gordon Brown and, looking back, may have been the beginning of the end of his premiership. In May 2010, when the election was called, the Conservatives were the largest party, albeit without an outright majority.After the 2010 election, with no clear majority for any party, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed a coalition. To do this, they agreed to the Coalition Agreement.
Essentially, this was a compromise on the policies of the two parties. There were numerous elements of constitutional reform proposed–including the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act was passed in 2011. It was a relatively simple piece of legislation. It guaranteed that an election would be held every five years, beginning in 2015.
However, there were two provisions that allowed for an early election to be held:
- A Vote of No-Confidence in the Government could still trigger a General Election.
- A General Election could be called if a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons called one.
To many, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was a cynical piece of electioneering. Some suggested the Lib Dems were simply ensuring that they could not be kicked out of the election by the time the Parliament finished in 2015. On the face of it, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is a major piece of constitutional reform. However, events in 2017 showed how limited it is. After becoming Prime Minister in 2016, Theresa May promised there would be no early election. She consistently said that there next election would be in May 2020. However, looking at polling numbers that suggested a significant majority would be won if an election was held, she was persuaded to call one.
In reality, it was quite simple to do. Despite the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the Prime Minister could use her authority to ensure that Conservative MPs voted for an early election. Although a two-thirds majority was required, and therefore Labour also needed to vote in favour, in reality what could they do? If they voted against, they would look weak, look as if they were running scared and therefore lose credibility. In the end, the House of Commons voted for the election by 522 to 13 votes! However, the subsequent election did not go as the Prime Minister had planned.
So, in summary, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act may appear to be a major constitutional change which limited the Royal Prerogative, but in reality, it is still easy for a incumbent government to call a General Election when they want to hold it.