Election explainer: A simple guide to the next few weeks in UK politics

Wed 29 May 2024
Posted by: Phil Adnett

Last week, prime minister Rishi Sunak called a ‘snap’ general election, which will take place on 4 July.

After weeks of speculation, Sunak gambled that voters will return the Conservatives to power after 14 years in office, while Keir Starmer looks to lead his Labour party back to number 10 for the first time since 2010.

What is the ‘pre-election period’?

Previously called ‘purdah’, the government now refers to it as the “pre-election period of sensitivity”.

Ministers retain their positions and departments continue with their normal business to make sure public services still function. Any major announcements are expected to be deferred until after the election, with ministers advised to exercise “discretion”, unless it is “unavoidable”.

Government resources are not to be spent on party political activity – campaigning – and civil servants have been advised to be cautious about attending events where they will be asked about future government policy.

What’s the difference between prorogation v dissolution?

At the moment, parliament has been prorogued. This means that all parliamentary business was brought to an end on Friday (24 May), with a few bills that had already progressed most of the way through the legislative process being passed into law, and the rest being shelved.

On Thursday (30 May), Parliament will be officially dissolved, signalling the end of this current session. From this time there will no longer be any MPs and all those who previously occupied a seat will lose access to resources.

Unlike in the US system, where the post-election handover period normally takes several months, UK politicians and their staff tend to lose their jobs pretty quickly, often finding out overnight that they will no longer be returning to their previous role.

When will we know what the parties are saying?

Each party will release a manifesto, containing all of their policies and plans.

At the moment, only Reform have issued their draft manifesto.

In 2019, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all released their manifestos within a few days of each other and about three weeks before the election.

Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer have reportedly agreed to the first televised debate, although the date is yet to be revealed.

Other similar contests between the two could be announced – Sunak was reportedly pushing for one debate a week – while televised clashes involving the other parties could also be in the offing. In the past, Scottish and Welsh TV has hosted debates between regional leaders.

Who is running?

Due to the sudden nature of the election, many parties are still looking for candidates in a number of seats, including vacancies created by recently-announced retiring MPs.

After the election was called, several MPs declared they will not be standing again. Each one will need to be replaced with a new candidate from their party.

Recent examples from Labour include West Ham MP Lyn Brown and Sunderland Central’s Julie Elliott, while Conservative MPs Jo Church and James Grundy have also announced their departure within the last week. So far, the majority of MPs who have left are Conservative, with 77 as of 29 May, with 30 Labour, 10 Independent, 9 SNP and 5 members of smaller parties also standing down.

Over the coming days, the political parties will be looking to fill these vacancies as quickly as possible.

What is needed to win?

There are 650 seats in the House of Commons and the minimum number of MPs required for an overall majority is 326. This gives the government sufficient votes to pass legislation.

Complicating this slightly is the fact that Sinn Fein MPs do not take the oath of allegiance and do not sit, reducing the total number of seats needed to effectively govern.

If any party falls short of this, then they can enter into a coalition or a minority government, as happened in 2010 and 2017 respectively.

What happens if a government can’t be formed?

In both 2010 and 2017, negotiations over the next government only lasted a number of days, in countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, they can last months.

Theoretically, if a coalition isn’t possible, then the country can return to the polls for another election shortly afterwards.

This occurred in the UK twice during the 20th century, once in 1910 under then-PM Herbert Asquith and in 1974 under Harold Wilson, but this has happened in countries with parliamentary systems like Spain and Israel as recently as 2019.

When will the result be known?

Polling day is 4 July, which is when all voters will head to their constituencies to vote.

Normal practice is to count through the night, with results slowing trickling through in in the early hours. Shortly after the polls close at 10pm, the BBC, Sky and ITV will release the results of their exit poll.

Exit polls have been highly accurate in the last few elections, with margins of error comprised of only a few seats. The last major miss was in 1992 when a hung parliament was predicted, only for John Major to secure a 21-seat majority.