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I read in the news recently that Boris Johnson would need the approval of 2/3 of the House of Commons if he wants to call a general election before 'Brexit Day'. I am curious as to why this is the case. The obvious answer is 'because those are the rules of Parliament'. However, what would happen if he just resigned as Prime Minister and the entire Conservative Party simply refused to do their jobs (i.e. turn up to the commons to present/vote on legislation)? Would that not cause a crisis in Parliament that would effectively force an election anyway?

Perhaps somewhat related: is there any requirement for a quorum to be present in the House of Commons, in order for business to proceed? I am thinking of parallels here with the situation in Oregon recently, where state senators fled the state to prevent legislation they didn't like being voted on.

Edit:

One of the comments below suggests that a general election can in fact be called by a simple majority via an 'ordinary law', bypassing the 2/3 majority requirement. Is that true and if so, why does the media seem to be fixated on this '2/3 majority'?

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    Note that Johnson can supposedly call an election by an ordinary law (rather than by motion pursuant to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) requiring only a simple majority "notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliaments Act" bbc.com/news/uk-politics-49004486 This is because Parliament can overrule its own laws... – Fizz Sep 4 at 13:26
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    @Fizz ok. But then, why is the press seemingly so fixated on this 2/3 requirement? – Time4Tea Sep 4 at 13:27
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    @Time4Tea While the 'simple majority' route to an election is possible, it's much more complicated than a normal election call, and carries significant risks for the PM. The full BBC article linked to above explains why it's probably not a desirable option for Boris Johnson right now. – DJClayworth Sep 4 at 13:40
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If the Prime Minister resigns, then another MP is allowed to try to form a government. This has already been discussed as an option by the opposition, specifically to pass a motion of no confidence, to appoint an interim prime minister (probably a well-respected MP not currently in either government or shadow government). The new PM would then ask for an extension to Article 50 and then themselves call an election. If Boris Johnson resigns, this strategy could be put into action without having to pass a no-confidence motion. So in short: resignation gains Boris Johnson nothing, removes any possibility of a last-minute turn of events saving him, and secures his place as the shortest-serving PM of all time.

EDIT

In reply to the specific question, it is possible for parliament to amend its own laws with a simple majority and thus call a general election with a simple majority. But 'possible' does not mean 'easy' or 'useful'. This BBC article gives the details, in the section header "Does the PM have other options?".

It is not impossible for a government to get round this requirement [for a two-thirds majority]. It could be achieved by introducing a very short law that calls for an election and adds "notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliaments Act". This would remove the two-thirds requirement. This would be easier to pass as it would only require a simple majority of MPs to support it. It could also provide a means of setting an election date in stone[...]. However, it would take longer for this law to pass as it would need to clear the House of Lords, as well as the House of Commons. There's also a risk that the proposed law could be amended - allowing pro-remain MPs to make changes, such as forcing a further Brexit extension.

If the motion to change the rules was amended to include a Brexit delay, then that effectively gives Parliament the ability to vote on a Brexit delay, which is exactly the thing Boris Johnson is trying to prevent. So this route doesn't gain the PM many advantages.

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    It's perhaps also worth noting that since, at Boris's behest, Parliament will be prorogued from September 12th (at the latest) there is also very little time for Boris to get a law removing or avoiding the Fixed Term Parliament Act and calling an election through both houses prior to Parliament being suspended, and an election called after Parliament returns would not take place until November/December. – Jack Aidley Sep 5 at 11:17
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    The quote on this answer doesn't exist in the original source, and is innaccurate – Tom J Nowell Sep 9 at 12:32
  • The BBC made some trivial edits to the article. I've edited to reflected those in the quote. But the sense is unchanged. – DJClayworth Sep 11 at 20:21
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I read in the news recently that Boris Johnson would need the approval of 2/3 of the House of Commons if he wants to call a general election before 'Brexit Day'. I am curious as to why this is the case. The obvious answer is 'because those are the rules of Parliament'.

More specifically, section 2 of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) states:

(1) An early parliamentary general election is to take place if—

   (a) the House of Commons passes a motion in the form set out in subsection (2), and
   (b) if the motion is passed on a division, the number of members who vote in favour of the motion
       is a number equal to or greater than two thirds of the number of seats in the House (including
       vacant seats).

(2) The form of motion for the purposes of subsection (1)(a) is—
   “That there shall be an early parliamentary general election.”

However, what would happen if he just resigned as Prime Minister

By convention, there must always be a PM. The Queen would have to appoint another one, based on who is likely to be able to survive the confidence of the Commons.

and the entire Conservative Party simply refused to do their jobs (i.e. turn up to the commons to present/vote on legislation)? Would that not cause a crisis in Parliament that would effectively force an election anyway?

If the government didn't want to conduct any parliamentary business but still had a majority, they could vote to adjourn the Commons for a long period - or, as we've seen recently, prorogue Parliament.

If parliament is adjourned or prorogued, the government is, in theory, safe from a confidence vote.

Perhaps somewhat related: is there any requirement for a quorum to be present in the House of Commons, in order for business to proceed?

As CoedRhyfelwr mentions in their answer, the quorum for a division is 40*. However, many decisions in the Commons are done by a voice vote, for which there is no quorum. For example, adjournment debates are sometimes attended only by the Speaker (or a deputy), the MP who secured the debate, the minister responding, and a whip. At the end of the debate, the adjournment motion is then agreed by a voice vote - with 4 people present.

(* For a vote for closure (i.e. ending a debate), standing order 37 requires that there be 100 voting in favour of the closure motion.)

One of the comments below suggests that a general election can in fact be called by a simple majority via an 'ordinary law', bypassing the 2/3 majority requirement. Is that true and if so, why does the media seem to be fixated on this '2/3 majority'?

The FTPA, like any other act of Parliament, can be amended by a new act. So a government could attempt to amend this (permanently, or just for one election) by changing the 2/3 requirement. Votes on a bill just require a simple majority, but there is a risk: bills can be amended, and it's possible that the opposition could add clauses to the bill that a government without a majority might not be able to overturn - and that assumes that the government has enough votes to pass such a bill at all.

  • Thanks for your answer. However, I am going to edit my question to ask more specifically if the 2/3 majority is correct. One of the commenters is saying an election can in theory be called with a simple majority, so I am still confused about that. – Time4Tea Sep 4 at 13:37
  • I've seen speculation that the "adjourned or prorogued"-ment of Parliament, with himself as PM, is exactly what he wants, as then it would be unable to stop the impending no-deal Brexit. Even if he loses a subsequent election, the deed will have already been done. – T.E.D. Sep 5 at 15:11
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    @T.E.D. indeed, and that appears to have been the original plan. However, it instead succeeding in galvanising the opposition, and pushing some (now former) Tory MPs to rebel. – Steve Melnikoff Sep 5 at 15:14
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The House of Commons has a quorum of 40 MPs including the speaker for the verdict of a division to be valid, according to standing order 41. This means that it would take truly exceptional circumstances to stop the functioning of the commons in this way, since it would require 621 MPs to fail to appear in the house.

This leads to the question, under what circumstances would it be beneficial for a government to follow this course of action? It would simply allow the opposition to do whatever they wanted, and if there was no government business, there would be nothing to prevent opposition parties from presenting any business of their own to the house. Of course, you are right in saying that this unprecedented scenario would cause a constitutional crisis, but the assertion that this would force an election is false.

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    Wow. I find it rather amazing that the quorum for the House of Commons is so low. I didn't know that, thanks for your answer. – Time4Tea Sep 4 at 13:15
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    40 is the quorum for a division. However, many decisions in the Commons are done by a voice vote, for which there is no quorum. For example, adjournment debates are sometimes attended only by the Speaker, the MP who secured the debate, the minister responding, and a whip. At the end of the debate, the adjournment motion is then agreed by a voice vote - with 4 people present. – Steve Melnikoff Sep 4 at 13:18
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    @Time4Tea In general legislative bodies have fairly low functional quorums, simply because a lot of what gets done isn't actually meaningful in any particular sense. A lot of the US rules involving large quorums only apply in the case that someone actually demands a roll call. – origimbo Sep 4 at 13:19
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    @Time4Tea Quite the reverse, the other part of Standing Order 41 is 41(2) The House shall not be counted at any time. – origimbo Sep 4 at 13:27
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    @origimbo: fun fact: the House used to get around that restriction by voting to sit in private. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, it would have the effect of counting the number of MPs present: publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmproced/753/… – Steve Melnikoff Sep 4 at 13:36
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Other answers have addressed what the effects of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act are, but none really address why it was created in the first place.


For many years, we have been struggling in the U.K. with our first past the post voting system, culminating in no overall majority in the 2010 election and a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition. Over the years, a great deal of dissatisfaction had built up with previous Prime Ministers (both Conservative and Labour) who had arguably abused their Royal prerogative to call a elections at a time which maximised their incumbent advantage.

As such, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was designed to make it difficult for a Prime Minister to call elections at a time of their choosing without the support of opposition parties.

Effectively the Fixed-term Parliaments Act took away a power which only belonged to the Prime Minister because of an accident of history, and returned it to Parliament. This is an example of the 'flexible' nature of the unwritten British Constitution.

From the Wikipedia page:

The previous system had existed for a long time. Reasons for changing the system included:

  • The previous system allowed the prime minister of the day to choose a date for a general election which was the most advantageous for them.
  • The previous system could result in a period of political uncertainty before the possible calling of an early election if such an election was widely anticipated.
  • Early elections necessitate an extra poll and have consequent additional costs to the treasury.
  • Under the previous system it was easier to cut short a parliament and hold an early election in order to resolve political difficulties or remove instability. However, the outcome of the early election would not necessarily make those objectives easier to achieve.

This last one is particularly relevant in the current British political climate.

† Coalitions are generally considered a weakness rather than a strength in the U.K. in contrast to many of our European neighbours.

  • It seems to me that "uncodified" is a more precise description for the UK constitution than "unwritten," since at least some of the UK constitution is in fact written, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act being an example. – phoog Sep 11 at 20:35
  • Though some prefer "uncodified" it is generally referred to as "unwritten" in the U.K. See bl.uk/magna-carta/articles/britains-unwritten-constitution – Mark Booth Sep 12 at 11:44

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