The Fixed-Term Parliament Act of 2011 removed the right of a prime minister to call a general election whenever they liked.
For good or ill, the act formalised the length of a UK parliament to five years. Gone were the days of snap elections, or two elections taking place in quick succession, or any of the will-they-won’t-they speculation that dogged the likes of Jim Callaghan and John Major in the final months of their premiership.
Or so we thought.
For the act does not in fact preclude the holding of snap elections, or two elections taking place in quick succession. And this is crucial, because should the election on 7 May fail to produce a majority government, or some kind of coalition, a minority government is the only alternative – and a second election may prove necessary sooner rather than later.
The model example is 1974. The general election in February of that year resulted in a Labour minority government, which lasted until October when prime minister Harold Wilson called a second general election in the hope of winning a majority – which he did (though by only three seats).
Might we see a similar scenario in 2015? The Fixed-Term Act was intended to prevent just such a sequence of events. But there are actually two ways a general election can take place before the end of the fixed term:
1. If two-thirds of MPs vote to force one (including any vacant seats, which means 434 votes out of 650)
2. If a government loses a vote of confidence and no other government can be formed within 14 days.
In other words, if a government loses a formal vote of no confidence then an election is called automatically after 14 days, unless some of the parties in the Commons agree to form a new government that can win a vote of confidence.
It’s a convoluted process, and would require a government to first lose a vote of confidence, and then for the other parties effectively to sit on their hands and do nothing for a fortnight in order to trigger the election.
Conversely a sitting government could decide to “lose” a vote of confidence by assembling a simply majority in parliament to, in a sense, defeat itself, then dare the other parties to come up with a new government that could be argued to have no legitimacy.
This is a prospect that both the Tories and Labour must surely be contemplating, as the polls continue to suggest a hung parliament, and the business of forming a stable coalition may prove to be far more fraught and protracted than in 2010.
But there’s another problem. It’s one identified by Professor Philip Norton of Hull University as being the conundrum at the very heart of the Fixed-Term Act. He told the Hansard Society:
There is no provision for a government that implodes but is not voted out. You could get internal conflict in the government and it might not be able to govern. We could be in a situation where we have no government but no general election… what is sometimes known as ‘The Belgian Situation’.
If it all sounds torturous and a bit messy, it’s meant to be.
But politics in 2015 could end up being torturous and messy on a grand, sustained scale, so we better get used to it.