With the snap election proposed by Theresa May from a US perspective I was wondering how (un)common such an election is and how "jarring" such an election is. As an American, the Prime Minister calling for new elections seems pretty out there.

Say the US President died (or otherwise vacated the office) so the VP was now president, would it be as disruptive as the new President declaring he wants a new election? Or with the UK's parliamentary system, is it more "par for the course" and understood that these things can happen?

I'm trying to ask this generally, so aside from the whole Brexit angle, or how she/her party is expected to win, I'm just curious if this isn't as jarring as it sounds. I can't imagine a US President asking for a snap election, for almost any reason.

Edit: Understood that the president doesn't call for elections, but I hope the general question is clear. Or is it just too different of a system (UK and US) to really draw a parallel?

  • Wikipedia has a list. Also, the vote passed this afternoon.
    – user11249
    Apr 19, 2017 at 17:43
  • @Machavity thanks, I removed that note from my post.
    – BruceWayne
    Apr 19, 2017 at 17:53
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    One other note, there's no provision for a special Presidential election in the US. We have a long list of successors, should people be unable/unwilling to fill the office. That successor would remain in office until the next election cycle
    – Machavity
    Apr 19, 2017 at 17:55
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    One problem with the American system is that where a President is forced to resign e.g. Richard Nixon, there is no way to elect another one. The Vice President (In that case Gerald Ford, had simply been installed by Nixon a few months earlier) just assumes office, without the formal endorsement of anyone. In Britain, a country where Parliament is sovereign and can dictate anything, including who holds office, this aspect of the American system does seem a trifle wacky. Had Parliament had no say, Neville Chamberlain would have remained in 1940, and Churchill would never have been PM.
    – WS2
    Apr 20, 2017 at 8:10
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    A key difference is that the US president can serve without the support of either House or Senate (eg end of Obama's term), while the PM must have continuous support from the Commons. Which can be eroded by deaths and defections.
    – pjc50
    Apr 20, 2017 at 9:31

3 Answers 3


Prior to the fixed term parliaments act, Prime Ministers were (effectively) free to choose the timing of the election. The Parliament act required that an election would be held at least every 5 years, but holding an election between 4 and 5 years would not be considered a snap election.

There were snap elections in 1923, 1931, 1951, 1955, 1966, two in 1974, but none since then.

There are various reasons for the PM to call a snap election: Generally, you can divide the elections into those where the PM had no choice but to call an election, and those where the PM was seeking some political advantage.

In several of these cases (1951, 1966 and Oct 1974) the parliament was either hung, or the Prime minister had a majority of less than 10 (which is not considered to be a "working majority" in the UK's parliamentary system) and so you can say that they "jumped" to call an election before they were "pushed" by losing a vote of no-confidence. In 1931 there was a governmental split caused by the great depression, in which the Labour prime minister lost the support of his own party.

The PM was seeking political advantage in 1955 after Churchill retired, and his replacement was seeking a personal mandate. And in 1923 and Feb 1974, the Prime Minister was seeking a renewed mandate to enact specific policies (tariff raising in 1923 and to deal with a miners' strike in 1974)

So "snap" elections are not historically rare, but there haven't been any for over 40 years. For an incoming president to seek a special election would be impossible, since it is not provided for in the constitution. The UK doesn't have a written constitution. And snap elections have clear precedents.

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    By doesn't have a written constitution, I mean a single document. Most of the constitution is written but distributed among statutes, case law, treaties conventions, traditions etc.
    – James K
    Apr 19, 2017 at 20:13
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    "The convention was that an election would be held at least every 5 years": not convention; it was required under the Parliament Act 1911. Apr 26, 2017 at 13:05
  • So with the 2011 Parliament Act, the PM can call for an election at any time, but it must be approved by Parliament first? And if the PM doesn't call for a new election, a new election must be held in that 5th year, correct? I'm thinking of a situation where at year 2, the PM is very popular in Parliament, so they just call for an election (which passes the Parliament's vote) to getting reinstated another 5 years, and then repeating forever.
    – BruceWayne
    Apr 26, 2017 at 18:53
  • A 2/3 majority is required. Historically it is very rare for any one party to control 2/3 of the house of commons. And at each election there is the possibility of losing that super-majority. In the past, when a PM didn't need approval from the house, a PM tried to govern for at least 4 years (to complete a 4 year program of government implied in the manifesto)
    – James K
    Apr 26, 2017 at 19:55

Prior to 2011, the law was that an election had to be held at least every 5 years, but there was no minimum time; elections were called whenever the Prime Minister felt they had the best chance of winning.

In 2011 the Conservative/LibDem coalition government passed a law preventing the Prime Minister from requesting a new election before the end of the 5 years, but with provision to allow more frequent elections if Parliament agreed. And indeed that parliament went on 5 years and the election was held in 2015. Now PM May has got parliament to agree to what she wants to do (this afternoon), the election is going ahead.

So this is really back to business as usual. I remember back in the early 70's when I was a lad having 3 elections in under 2 years, I think.

  • Technically, there was and is a minimum time, since an election can't be called at zero notice (IIRC something like six weeks is required). Sep 6, 2017 at 13:03

The accepted answer is wrong - wildly wrong.

The last snap election in the UK took place in May 1979, when the Callahan Labour government fell after losing a vote of No Confidence in Parliament.

But there has not been one since 1979, in theory.

In reality, the most recent snap election was just held, it was called (and lost) by Theresa May immediately after the 2016 Referendum, when she threw away her party's Commons majority in 2017 by calling an unnecessary general election.

However, when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister, during the 1980s, she never allowed herself to get boxed-in. She always called a snap election, when there was still at least a year to go. She acted when her Opinion Poll ratings were strongest. So there was an election in 1983 (4 years on from 1979), and in 1987 (4 years on from 1983).

Tony Blair, too, was too clever to get boxed-in. He also called elections every 4 years: coming to office in 1997, he called an election 4 years later, in 2001, and again 4 years after that, in 2005.

All these were 'snap' elections, i.e. held before the full 5 year term had expired.

1979 was the last time a 'snap' election occurred because of a government losing a confidence vote in Parliament, but many have occurred for other reasons since. Theresa May was the first PM to call one of his or her own choosing and lose it: Thatcher and Blair only called them when the political situation was favourable. They were too smart to call them voluntarily and lose.

Back in history, they were fearsomely frequent. In the 1960s and '70s Harold Wilson was constantly calling them. In 1966 he held one after only 2 years in office, then held another just 4 years later in 1970. And in 1974 he managed the all-time record, calling the October 1974 election less than a year after the one held in February '74. The February one was itself a 'snap' election, too. Heath did not need to call one in the dying days of 1973, he could have legitimately gone on until 1975.

So, snap elections are very common.

Historically, those Prime Ministers who were too timid to call a snap election usually lost: Atlee lost in 1950, Sir Alec lost in 1964, Callahan lost in 1979, John Major lost in 1997, and Gordon Brown lost in 2010: in all those cases, the incumbent allowed himself to be boxed-in by waiting until the last possible moment, where the 5 years were up, and found he had left himself no room for manoeuvre.

There seems to be a 5-in-7 chance of losing if you wait too long: only John Major, in 1992, and David Cameron, in 2015, survived after letting the full 5 years run out on them.

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    Given that these examples predate the Fixed Term Parliament Act, calling them snap when they happen with regularity simply because they could have been called later is wrong. It was the PMs prerogative to call an election at a time that suited them.
    – Caleth
    Dec 18, 2018 at 16:54
  • No, you're wrong. This type of early election has been called a snap election, to my certain knowledge, since at least 1974.
    – Ed999
    Dec 18, 2018 at 17:12
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    Do you have any evidence that this is the correct definition of a snap election? Maybe a reference to a political science text, or official parliamentary document?
    – Stuart F
    Dec 20, 2018 at 12:09

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