Why Theresa May cannot call another election

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A rare sight: Queen Elizabeth II delivering the Speech from the Throne in the Canadian Senate chamber in 1977

Most Canadians are probably aware that, like BC, the UK has just elected a hung parliament — a parliament in which no single party has an overall majority. The governing Conservatives, under the leadership of Theresa May, have struck a confidence and supply agreement (the same kind of alliance the NDP has formed with the Green Party) with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, hoping to continue in power as a minority government. The two parties have a combined majority of seats, but the Mirror has reported that Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, thinks he may still be able to muster enough votes to oust May in the vote on the Queen’s Speech (the British version of our Speech from the Throne), perhaps with support from Conservative backbenchers. The Mirror article goes on to say that the government’s defeat “could trigger another election as the Tories would face a confidence challenge.”

That brings us to a major difference between the constitutional contexts in BC and the UK. In our case, there would be no new election because there is a clear alternative available if the governing party is defeated. But if it seemed that no party could win the confidence of the house, the lieutenant governor would grant a request for dissolution and a new election. Until relatively recently, this was also the case in the UK. But it has not been the case since 2011, when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (hereafter the FTPA).

The FTPA replaces convention-based limits on the prime minister’s right to advise dissolution (and the monarch’s power to grant it) with strict legal limits. The timing of regular scheduled elections is defined by law. An early election may only be called in two kinds of circumstances. The first is if a motion calling for an early election is passed in the House of Commons by an absolute majority of two thirds (i.e. there must be two thirds as many votes as there are seats in the House of Commons, not just two thirds of MPs present for the vote). The second is if the House of Commons passes an explicitly worded motion of no confidence (the exact form of which is defined by the FTPA) and does not pass a similarly explicit motion of confidence within fourteen days (that is, if no alternative government can be formed within the following two weeks).

Assuming that the convention treating the vote on the Queen’s Speech as a matter of confidence survives in the post-FTPA era, then, the Mirror is mistaken. The government’s defeat cannot possibly trigger another election. The government would be forced to resign, having failed to win the confidence of the new House of Commons. But there would have been no motion of no confidence, so the fourteen-day countdown would not be triggered. In all likelihood, Corbyn would be asked to try to form a government. But if he too was defeated in the vote on the Queen’s Speech, he would not have the option to request an election either. Barring some ridiculously unlikely arrangement like a grand coalition of the major parties, the Commons would have to vote to dissolve itself in order to resolve the deadlock.

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One thought on “Why Theresa May cannot call another election

  1. Pingback: Clarifying the confidence convention in fixed-term parliaments | Popcorn Machine

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