When's the deadline for Rishi Sunak to call a May general election?

election London, UK. 13th Mar, 2024. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street for Parliament to take Prime Minister's Questions in London. Credit: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News
Rishi Sunak has dismissed the idea of an election on 2 May. (Alamy)

A general election is increasingly likely to be called in the second half of this year – but a new poll suggests that voters don't want to wait that long.

Rishi Sunak and chancellor Jeremy Hunt have said in recent months that the “working assumption” is that the country will go to the polls later on in 2024.

Rumours persisted though and, on Thursday, Sunak finally ruled out holding a general election on 2 May, when voters are set to go to the polls for the local elections

A poll by More in Common published hours before Sunak's announcement suggests that voters may not be happy with that, with four in 10 wanting the election to take place within weeks – on the same day that local elections take place in May. Less than 30% said they wanted Sunak to wait until the rumoured date of November to call the election, according to The Independent.

Sunak would likely face resistance from Tories if he attempted to take the country to the polls early, due to the current low support for the party. Polls all show them sitting far behind Labour, with one Savanta poll putting the Tories at an historic low.

Four years of polling shows how Labour has transformed its fortunes. (YouGov)
Polls show that the Tories consistently behind Labour. (YouGov)

How is a general election called?

It is up to the government to call a general election – but it must do so within the guidelines of the maximum parliamentary term of five years. The governing party will usually call an election when it is most beneficial for them do so – such as when they have high approval ratings or when the opposition party is performing poorly.

With the Tories currently in charge, it will be up to Sunak to call an election at a time of his choosing. He will meet the King to recommend an election is called and, if agreed, parliament is dissolved. The prime minister announces the election to the country on the steps of Downing Street.

Between 2011 and 2022, the prime minister needed the permission of parliament to ask the monarch to dissolve parliament. However, this was scrapped with the Dissolution and Calling of Parliaments Act 2022 – meaning Sunak alone can decide.

King Charles III, right, and Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shake hands during their meeting at Buckingham Palace, London, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (Jonathan Brady/Pool Photo via AP)
Rishi Sunak must recommended to the King that parliament should be dissolved and a general election called. (PA)

When is the deadline for a May election?

Time was running out for Sunak to call an election that could take place on 2 May. Electoral law states that parliament must be dissolved 25 working days before a general election is held.

This means that if Sunak had wanted the country to go to the polls on 2 May, dissolution must have taken place by 26 March at the latest. However, Sunak would likely have needed to call it even earlier than that. Parliament needs a few days’ notice of dissolution so that MPs and peers can decide to approve and remaining pieces of legislation.

There is also a tradition that the House of Commons holds a “valedictory debate” just before a dissolution, during which MPs who are standing down are given time to make a farewell speech. More than 90 MPs have already said they won’t be standing again at the next election, meaning this debate could take longer than in previous years.

Had he gone ahead with the 2 May, Sunak would have needed to call an election several days before dissolution actually takes place - perhaps on 21 or 22 March.

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