Is five years the usual length of a UK Parliament?
Then why were some only four years long, such as from 1997 to 2001 and from 2001 to 2005? Did the Prime Minister call for these early elections, and is there a reason why Prime Ministers often support elections one year earlier?
Is five years the usual length of a UK Parliament?
8You should look at snap elections in the UK as that can provide some information.– Joe WJan 19 at 20:15
The length of parliaments has varied over time based on the laws in force over the years; from 1716 until 1911 the maximum length of a parliament was set at seven years. From the passage of the Parliament Act 1911 to the passage of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, the maximum length was reduced to five years (the exception being during the World Wars).
In practice, however, no parliament has reached the maximum duration under these pieces of legislation, but rather have been dissolved by the Monarch (acting in accordance with the instructions of the Prime Minister) via the Royal Prerogative. This power effectively allows the party of government to choose the timing of the General Election. Generally, the practice has been to dissolve parliament and hold an election in the Spring, so as to coincide with local elections.
Taking your examples, the parliament which first sat on May 7th 1997 had to be dissolved by May 6th 2002. The Prime Minister decided, rather than running the Parliament down to the wire, to call an election in 2001. CNN gave the following reason for his decision:
The prime minister does not need to call an election until mid-2002 but it has been an open secret for months that he wants an earlier vote to take advantage of a buoyant economy.
The election was originally expected for the Spring, but was delayed to the Summer because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak.
In 2005, the terminating parliament first sat in June 2001, so needed to be dissolved by June 2006. The PM decided instead to dissolve parliament over a year earlier, possibly again due to the good economic circumstances at the time.
The Fixed Term Parliaments Act, in force from 2011 to 2022, complicates this somewhat, as it removed the ability for a Prime Minister to call an election unilaterally - instead setting the timing of General Elections to be held on the first Thursday in the May of the fifth calendar year after the last election. The only way around this was for parliament to pass a motion dissolving itself early, rather than the Prime Minister. Part of the intention of the Act was to bring some stability during the Cameron-Clegg coalition government, but during the premierships of Theresa May & Boris Johnson, the Act proved to be rather more of a hindrance than a help.
Most recently, the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022 repealed the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, restored the Royal Prerogative to dissolve parliament, and established the automatic dissolution of a parliament on the fifth anniversary of its first meeting.
So yes, in law, parliaments may last for up to five years before being dissolved. In reality, the Government may decide - and nearly always does decide - to dissolve parliament early. This can be for a number of reasons such as seeking a renewed mandate for controversial issues à la 2019, during times of prosperity for the Government so as to increase or maintain their majority, as Blair's motive was suggested to be, or simply to avoid holding a winter election - we can't really know unless they tell us.
On that last point, the current parliament is set to automatically dissolve in January 2025, but it is widely expected that the next election will be held in May 2024 so as to coincide with the 2024 local elections. Sunak could, however, decide to ask the King to dissolve parliament at any time of his choosing.
The other factor this time around is the boundary reorganisation, of which surprisingly little is being said. Jan 20 at 9:48
1@MichaelKay quite - parliament hasn't exactly helped itself by not letting the boundary commissions do their job over the last decade.– CDJB ♦Jan 20 at 10:29
The 1997 General Election on May 1st was held only three weeks before the last possible date, May 22nd. Sometimes they come very close to the deadline. Jan 20 at 18:08
1@MichaelKay it did exactly that during the 1st and 2nd World Wars. If it happened without such a good reason, I think we'd have to hope that the reserve powers of the monarch to refuse Royal Assent would work. Jan 20 at 21:02
1@MichaelKay: the Parliament Act 1911 (section 2(1)) left the House of Lords with one remaining power to veto legislation, namely: any legislation which would extend the length of a Parliament. So the Commons can't do this alone. (Of course, the PM could appoint hundreds to supporters to the House of Lords, so it's not foolproof...) Jan 21 at 14:49
CDJB's answer explains the legal position well. As far as the decision about when to call an election in periods when the Fixed-Term Parliament Act wasn't relevant, I think the strongest pattern is that governments typically call them after 4 years when doing well, and 5 years when doing badly.
If you expect to win reasonably comfortably, then 4 years is a respectable time where you won't annoy the public by calling it too soon, and it provides a safety margin in case something goes wrong in the final year. Examples of such elections are 1983, 1987, 2001, 2005.
If things are looking bad, then waiting until close to the last possible moment makes sense - 1992, 1997 and 2010 being examples of that. In 1997 and 2010 the government lost, in 1992 they won but it was somewhat unexpected.
The fact that the PM can decide when to call an election gives them a tactical advantage, because they can schedule it for when they think they are most likely to win. But the longer they leave it, the less room they have for manoeuvre. Things have changed a lot since 2010, first with the coalition and then with the instability following Brexit, but before then there was a fairly predictable pattern: after 3 years journalists would start spending more and more time speculating on the timing. A PM who went to the polls early would be castigated for gamesmanship and one who clung on for the full 5 years would be castigated for desperately clinging on. 4 years is often a good compromise.