My understanding of the Westminster system is as follows:

  1. In a general election, the voters elect MPs to one or both houses of Parliament.
  2. The head of state appoints a Prime Minister who holds the confidence of a majority of the lower house of Parliament.
  3. The PM is required to retain the confidence of Parliament, and particularly must be able to pass supply bills and other basic legislation.
  4. If the PM loses the confidence of Parliament, or just feels like it, they advise the head of state to dissolve Parliament, and a new election is held, restarting the process.
  5. Sometimes something goes badly wrong and people get upset about it.

What I don't understand is why a PM would voluntarily dissolve Parliament under a majority government. If the PM's party formed a coalition which is now in danger of falling apart, it would make sense to try to time the election for maximum political effect. Similarly, if the PM's party formed a minority government with some kind of confidence-and-supply arrangement, that would also have the potential to motivate an early election.

But if there is no coalition, and the PM's party holds an absolute majority of seats, what benefit does the PM gain by trying to hold an election right now? They already have enough votes in Parliament to pass whatever legislation they like, so getting a "mandate" from the voters seems useless. The party itself might fall apart, but that is a relatively rare event while elections are quite common.

Many Westminster-system Parliaments have maximum terms, and the UK itself now has "fixed" terms that can still be cancelled by a no-confidence motion, but historically this has not been the case (admittedly, 17th century Britain is hardly an example of the modern Westminster system).

Is the danger of running out of time and having a possibly inopportune election really the only motivating factor? If so, why has (for example) the Parliament of Canada's four year term never been allowed to expire? I would expect PMs with absolute control of Parliament to try to keep that control for as long as possible, and occasionally to be unable to come up with a "good" time to hold an election, until time runs out and the election holds itself. Why doesn't this happen often or at all?

4 Answers 4


One motivation is to choose a time for the next election that is favourable to the party in power.

If the current term is nearing completion and opinion polls are currently favourable but expected to decline, it makes sense to secure power now for the next five years (or other term).


Exclusive: Tories call for snap general election as polls show Theresa May would nearly quadruple Commons majority

Telegraph. October 2016.

Wikipedia has a list of snap elections which includes examples of majority governments seeking a strengthened mandate.

  • The Wikipedia list also provides another answer: when a government has no majority, or a very small majority, and so wishes to try and increase its number of seats (1966 and Oct 1974 being examples of this). Feb 10, 2017 at 15:43
  • Also, sometimes it is done as an "appeal to the majority" to push through some policy that has heavy public and political opposition. (This ofcourse presumes that they are confident of getting a majority again).
    – sfxedit
    Apr 8, 2023 at 14:28

Doubtless you will recall that, in the 17th Century, Oliver Cromwell continually extended the Parliamentary term every time it came near to expiry, by having it vote a succession of extensions, such that the Parliament elected in the 1640s was still sitting in 1660.

It suffered so much from deaths in battle, and by natural causes, and also from the actions of Cromwell himself, that it became known to history as the Rump Parliament, because only a small 'rump' of the original MPs survived to carry on the business of Government.

In World War 2, elections were not held. The parliament's term was voted to be extended until the cessation of hostilities, and no election was held until the end of the fighting in Europe.

Governments today, whilst the Fixed Term Parliaments Act survives (so not for much longer!), can't choose when to hold an election, because a 2/3rds super-majority is needed to call an early election, and the Government no longer has even a simple majority in Parliament. The Act was introduced to protect David Cameron from being stabbed in the back by the Liberals, in the coalition of 2010, but it makes no sense in a parliament where there is no coalition government (i.e. 99 percent of the past 350 years).

  • 1
    "Governments today, whilst the Fixed Term Parliaments Act survives (so not for much longer!), can't choose when to hold an election". They can't do it unilaterally, so the question becomes what will the opposition do if/when the government tries to call an early election. Last time the government tried to call an early general election the opposition backed them and so the election went ahead. Nov 16, 2018 at 16:18
  • 1
    You are joking? I hope you are. The last time the Opposition voted against holding an election, at which they might gain power, was when? 1802?
    – Ed999
    Nov 16, 2018 at 16:39
  • 1
    Exactly, the opposition backed holding the election in 2017 which made the fixed term parliments act pretty much meaningless. Nov 16, 2018 at 16:41
  • 1
    So, let's get down to some serious violations, and get ourselves moved to chat! Do you believe in the possibility of Teresa May aligning herself with Labour, to make progress in reliance on their votes, and defying the pro-Brexit wing of her own party?
    – Ed999
    Nov 16, 2018 at 16:52
  • So that's where the right in India got the idea for a fixed-term Parliament! British politics continues to screw us long after we gave your king and queen a huge parade and sent them off ... :)
    – sfxedit
    Apr 8, 2023 at 14:32

Early elections are called because the ruling party sees an advantage in having an election

In the UK system the ruling PM can usually call an election whenever they want up to the standard term of a parliament (currently 5 years at most, though it used to be 7).

This was interrupted by the Fixed term parliament act in 2010 which defined fixed 5-year terms. In practice, though, it didn't seem to make it harder. The only election held on that schedule was in 2015. Theresa May called one in 2017, though she had to persuade the opposition to do so (they foolishly agreed). Her successor, Boris Johnson, managed an early one again in 2019, also with opposition support. The act has now been repealed, giving the PM the freedom to call an election when they want it.

Why does any government call an early election?

This bring us the the question of why would a government with a functioning majority call an early election?.

The simple answer is they see an advantage in doing so. But the reasons why they expect an advantage are varied. Some examples are below:

  • Theresa May had a majority but also a fractious party and was unable to get her version of Brexit done. Her party was well ahead in the polls and it looked like she could get a bigger majority which would make her government easier to manage as rebellious backbenchers would be less able to block a larger majority. She was wrong and ended up with a worse majority.
  • Johnson made the same calculation and was proved right. But he also wanted a public mandate for his version of Brexit which would smooth over his ability to get his key laws passed partly because a strong public mandate would weaken the arguments of internal rebels.
  • In the Heath/Wilson years of the 1970s, Heath called an early election in 1974 because he needed a public mandate to continue his fight against unions (who were disrupting the country) and he thought this would strengthen his ability to push policy forward. He narrowly lost. But Wilson, his Labour successor, called another early election in the same year as he didn't have a majority at all (though the Conservatives didn't have enough votes to oust him) and thought he needed one to continue. He got a majority that helped the party last nearly a full term.
  • Atlee won the election in 1950 but with a vastly reduced majority from the landslide he won in 1945. He called another election early because his government was worn out and needed a bigger majority to survive. He lost.
  • In the 1920s and 1930s there were many early elections driven because many governments had no majority or were fractious coalitions. Elections were called in the hope of breaking the deadlocks either problem causes.
  • The radical Liberal government elected in 1906 had a large majority. But they had huge problems passing some radical laws because of opposition from the House of Lords. Partly because of their issues, they called two early elections in 1910 to try to get a public mandate. Despite not getting a majority of seats, they succeeded in pushing their agenda in alliance with other opposition parties.

The key point in all the early elections is that the ruling party sees some advantage in having one. Sometimes this is entirely opportunistic (as with May); sometimes it is forced on them by circumstances (As with the Liberal government or with Wilson's in 1974).

But the specific circumstances vary. Some governments feel they need a clear public mandate on a specific issue (Heath, Johnson and the early century liberals.) Others because they need a bigger majority to continue to be able to govern (small majorities are awkward to manage and can evaporate from by elections). Wilson, Atlee faced this problem.

The key point is whether the PM perceives some advantage. PMs are not always good judges of whether the advantage will materialise (as May found out you can destroy an apparent advantage with a bad campaign). But, since the advantage does sometimes materialise, the expectation of one is a sufficient explanation of why early elections happen.


Reasons why a PM would dissolve the Parliament:

  1. The PM has lost control of his / her party and sees no choice other than declaring a new election (or being forced to step down).

  2. The PM believes his or her party's polling is about to dip, so they have to take advantage of current popularity to win an election and extend their term.

  3. The PM believes that his or her party would increase seat share if an election is held right now, and they believe they need that stronger mandate to carry out their own policy.

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