Here’s why the prime minister of the UK has the power to call a snap election

theresa may
May is betting that this
move will result in a larger Conservative majority in Parliament
and strengthen her hand for the upcoming Brexit


Theresa May, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, decided on
April 18 to dissolve Parliament and hold snap elections on June
8. The motion easily secured the required two-thirds majority in
the U.K.‘s House of Commons.

The decision marks a stunning reversal and has surprised many people in her own government
and abroad. May had repeatedly denied that she would make such a momentous

In the U.S., we’re accustomed to a fixed electoral calendar. But,
the power to dissolve Parliament is present in many political systems, such as in the
Republic of Ireland, Canada and Japan.

That power is used frequently in some countries like Italy and
rarely in others such as Germany. It can reside in the Parliament
itself, or be held by the head of state. And it is a power that
can be used liberally, or only in specific circumstances.

In this case, May is betting that this move will result in a
larger Conservative majority in Parliament and strengthen her
hand for the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

It also means yet another crucial election in Western Europe in
2017, where France and Germany already have elections scheduled.

A great power

The power to dissolve Parliament dates back to the Middle Ages,
and is deeply ingrained in U.K. politics. It granted the monarch
the ability to dismiss the legislature at any time, limiting
lawmakers’ influence. As authority shifted over time from
monarchs to Parliament and the prime minister, this power

For centuries, prime ministers had to ask the monarch to
dissolve Parliament. In the last century, they used that
privilege to shore up their party’s majority in Parliament, or to
receive a personal mandate.

On paper, that changed with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, which
seemed to curtail the power of the prime minister. The act set a
clear schedule for elections and removed the ability of the
monarch to formally dissolve the Parliament, following the
decision taken by the prime minister. But it also included
two exceptions. Early elections could be held:

  1. if a motion for an early general election is agreed to either
    by at least 434 Members of Parliament out of 650, as happened
    this week;
  2. or, if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative
    government is confirmed by the House of Commons within 14 days.

At the time, Conservative government officials led by Prime
Minister David Cameron argued that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act
would check the power of the prime minister, and prevent them
from triggering elections to seek political gains. May’s
successful push for a snap election shows how easily the bill can
be circumvented.

It was essentially May, not Parliament, who decided to dissolve the legislature. Thus, the
Fixed-term Parliaments Act, as Professor of Comparative Politics
Alan Renwick writes, “only changed the
choreography, not the underlying pattern of power.”

May is making a calculated gamble. Despite the unpredictability
of elections, she likely saw many potential rewards and few risks
in an early vote. The main opposition, the Labour Party, is
languishing far behind in the polls. May’s Conservative Party has
an opportunity to significantly add to its slim majority of 17

Winning an election would provide May with a direct mandate from
the U.K. public, since she was not elected and took over only
after Cameron’s resignation last June. It would improve her hand
with her EU counterparts but also the hardliners in her own party
in the upcoming complicated Brexit talks. And, a larger majority
could help stall a second referendum on Scottish independence.