Theresa May has resigned as Prime Minister. Some people are calling for a general election.

Clearly this has happened before (her direct predecessor for example, although a general election was eventually called).

I understand that a general election is for electing Members of Parlement, and only indirectly the Prime Minister, but some people would say that the choice of leader is implicit.

What are the precedents here?

How many times has a British Prime Minister resigned their office before the end of the term? How many times did this result in an early general election and what are the constitutional rules? Are these questions connected since the constitution isn't a written one?

  • 3
    As the wiki page might suggest, a better question might be how many have not resigned before the end of their term. Commented May 24, 2019 at 19:27
  • 5
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it belongs in the History SE, and it would be closed over there as trivial. Commented May 24, 2019 at 19:28
  • 3
    This is obviously a question of politics, it could be on topic on History, but it is on topic here too. The answer isn't trivial, as resignation following election defeat isn't "at the end of their term", though it could address the apparent misconception that resignation is unusual. I don't vote to close.
    – James K
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 5:22
  • I have rephrased the question to make it more obvious what the intent was in my original question (which I admit at first glance may have seemed trivial). Hopefully this will be reconsidered.
    – rghome
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 10:36

2 Answers 2


British Prime Ministers always leave office by resignation, unless they die in office.

If their party loses a general election, they resign, although not always instantly. Gordon Brown remained Prime Minister for several days after the 2010 General Election, because no party had a majority of seats, and it took time to form the Conservative-LibDem coalition.

May's situation is unusual, simply because it's rare for a PM to lose control of their party so comprehensively. The legal situation is that the Queen appoints whoever can command a majority in the Commons for a vote of confidence. If a party holds a majority, its leader is appointed PM. At present, no party has a majority, and it's not clear that anyone can command a majority.

May has resigned as leader of her party. The party will now elect a new leader, and May will then resign as PM, and recommend to the Queen that her successor as Conservative leader is appointed as PM. However, given the current membership of the Commons, it is not obvious that a new Conservative leader will be able to command a majority. This will have to be tested with a vote of confidence, and the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland will try to exact a high price for their support. Even if the new Conservative leader gets that, the situation is delicate.

There are 313 Conservative MPs and 10 DUP, making 323. There are 246 Labour MPs and 72 other seats held by opposition parties, making 318. That's not a solid majority. There are also 8 unused seats, one owing to the recall of an MP who will be replaced on 6th June, and 7 to which the Sinn Fein party of Northern Ireland were elected, but which they refuse to take. Clearly, the by-election to replace the recalled MP is going to be important. If the vote of confidence is not passed, there are fourteen days to pass one. If that is not achieved, then the Commons is dissolved for a general election.

The last time something similar happened was when David Cameron resigned as Conservative leader in 2016 after the EU Referendum, and the Conservative party elected May, who became Prime Minister without a general election. Cameron remained PM until May became Conservative leader and then resigned, recommending to the Queen that May should become PM.

The previous instance was in 2007, when Tony Blair resigned as Labour Party leader, the party elected Gordon Brown as its leader, and Blair then resigned as PM, with a recommendation to the Queen that she appoint Gordon Brown as PM.

Before then, John Major replaced Margret Thatcher in 1990, James Callaghan replaced Harold Wilson in 1976, Douglas-Home replaced Macmillan in 1963, and so on back into history. This is normal procedure.

  • 1
    Seven of the 326 opposition seats are held by Sinn Fein, which does not vote in Westminster (or has not to date), leaving 319 effective opposition seats. Commented May 25, 2019 at 12:27
  • 1
    Thanks, error corrected, I misread Wikipedia's summary. Commented May 25, 2019 at 13:03
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    @Jan There are also three deputy speakers. Unlike the Speaker they retain their party membership, but (with some exceptions?) they don't vote. One is chosen from the same side of the house (i.e. Government or Opposition) as the Speaker and the other two are chosen from the other side. So it balances out.
    – owjburnham
    Commented May 25, 2019 at 15:19

In the modern party system (post-1945) there have been 14 Prime Ministers, many of these have resigned other than following a General election loss.

  • Theresa May resigned after failing to deliver a withdrawal from the EU.
  • David Cameron resigned following the EU referendum.
  • Tony Blair resigned following pressure from his MPs over his support for the Iraq war.
  • Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign when she was seen as an election liability and after the poll tax.
  • Harold Wilson resigned for health reasons.
  • Harold Macmillan resigned for health reasons, and waning popularity in his party and the country.
  • Antony Eden resigned in the fallout from the Suez affair.
  • Winston Churchill resigned following a mild stroke.

So 8 prime ministers resigned after losing an election, 4 resigned for political reasons 4 for health reasons or a combination of health and political reasons.

In the era of the modern party system, more than half of the prime ministers have resigned other than at an election. In cases of resignation, no election is called, although when Churchill retired, an election was already due.

The current constitution, as specified in the Fixed Term Parliament Act is clear. Unless a 2/3 majority of the House of Commons approves, the incoming Prime Minister cannot call an early election.

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