Letter to the Chairman of the Committee
from the Cabinet Secretary, 23 February 2010
As you know the Prime Minister announced in
his recent speech (Towards A New Politics2 February 2010)
work underway in the Cabinet Office to create a Cabinet Manual.
The Cabinet Manual will be the first, comprehensive account of
the workings of Cabinet Government and will consolidate the existing
unwritten, piecemeal conventions that govern much of the way central
government operates under our existing constitution into a single
Although considerable work is required, it is
my intention that the Cabinet Manual will be ready for the Government
after a General Election in 2010 (depending, in part, on when
the election takes place). I attach an outline of the proposed
chapters (Annex A).
In advance of my evidence session tomorrow,
I attach an early draft of the chapter on Elections and Government
Formation for your consideration (Annex B). The chapter covers
a range of issues, including the dissolution of Parliament, arrangements
for "purdah" and hung Parliaments. This document is
a work in progress and I would be grateful for your comments in
developing this chapter.
Following my evidence session tomorrow I intend
to share this draft chapter with the leaders of political parties
represented in Parliament for their comments. I also intend to
lay a copy of the final chapter in libraries of both Houses.
CABINET MANUAL: PROPOSED CHAPTERS
1. The Monarchy and Privy Council
2. The Executive: the Prime Ministers and
3. Collective Cabinet decision making
4. Ministers and Parliament
5. Ministers and the law
6. Ministers and the Civil Service
7. Relations with Devolved Administrations
and Local Government
8. Relations with Europe and International
9. Elections and Government Formation
10. Official information
CHAPTER 6: ELECTIONS AND GOVERNMENT FORMATION
This Chapter covers the dissolution and summoning
of Parliament, Parliamentary general elections, Government formation,
hung parliaments, restrictions on Government and other activity
during the electoral period.
Principles of Dissolution and summoning of Parliament
1. Parliaments are dissolved when they expire
after a period of five years under the Septennial Act 1715 (as
amended by the Parliament Act 1911). This five year period is
counted from the date of the first meeting of Parliament after
a Parliamentary general election. No proclamation or other formality
is required for a dissolution under the Act, but a proclamation
will then be needed to summon a new Parliament.
2. The Monarch may also dissolve Parliament
by proclamation at any time before it has expired and the same
proclamation will also summon a new Parliament and name the date
on which it is to meet. Proclamations are issued by Her Majesty
in Council. In practice in modern times, Parliaments have been
dissolved in this way following a request from the Prime Minister.
Finalisation of Parliamentary business
3. The Prime Minister may request dissolution
from the Monarch whether or not Parliament is currently sitting.
4. Parliament often sits for a few days, known
as the "wash up" period, after the announcement of the
election (after the Monarch has granted the Prime Minister's request
for a dissolution). In this period Parliament will be able to
finish any outstanding business. Some business has to be completed
before the dissolution, depending on the time of year. In particular
any money voted to the Government but not appropriated has to
be appropriated by the date of the dissolution, and it may be
necessary to do other business to keep Government working while
Parliament is unavailable because of the dissolution. Other business
will be the subject of negotiations between the parties in Parliament
and is likely to be completed in the limited time available only
if it is agreed.
5. At the end of the wash up, Parliament may
either be prorogued and then dissolved, or just dissolved. Prorogation
brings a Parliamentary session to an end.It is the Monarch who
prorogues Parliament on the advice of Her Ministers. The normal
procedure is for commissioners appointed by the Monarch to prorogue
Parliament in accordance with a royal proclamation. The commissioners
announce the prorogation to both Houses in the House of Lords
and give Royal Assent to any Act.
6. It is not necessary for Parliament to
have been prorogued in order for it to be dissolved. In 1992,
1997, and 2005 Parliament was dissolved following prorogation,
but in 2001 and from 1974 until 1992, Parliament was dissolved
while adjourned but without a prorogation.
General electionsHouse of Commons
7. At the same time as the proclamation which
summons a new Parliament, an Order in Council is made requiring
the issue of writs for the election of a new Parliament (a writ
is a formal written order).Writs are issued under Representation
of the People Act 1983 by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery to
Returning Officers, and require them to cause elections to be
held and to return the writ with the election result for their
constituency. The election is held 17 working days after the proclamation
and issuing of writs. Traditionally, Parliamentary general elections
have taken place on Thursdays.
8. Appendix A to this document sets out the
process and a more detailed election timetable (which derives
from the 1983 Act). Periods of time in the timetable are reckoned
in working days and exclude Saturdays, Sundays, Christmas Eve,
Christmas Day, Good Friday, Bank Holidays in any part of the United
Kingdom and any day appointed for public thanksgiving or mourning.Candidates
must submit nomination papers not later than the sixth working
day after the date of the proclamation. Polling day is the eleventh
working day after the last day for delivery of nomination papers.
Meeting of the new Parliament
9. Recent practice has been for Parliament to
meet on the Wednesday following the election. Previously, there
was a longer interval of about twelve days between polling day
and first meeting.
10. The first business of the House of Commons
when it meets is to elect or re-elect a Speaker and then for members
to take the oath. Normally the Queen's Speech outlining the Government's
legislative programme, will be in the week after Parliament meets
and that is when the business of the new Parliament properly begins.
Government activity between the announcement of
an election and polling day
11. Once the Monarch has agreed to a dissolution
and the Prime Minister has announced an election there are constraints
on the way Government should conduct business. The Government
retains its responsibility to govern and Ministers remain in charge
of their Departments, although when Parliament is dissolved they
are no longer Members of Parliament. Essential business is carried
on. However, it is customary for Ministers to observe discretion
in initiating any action of a continuing or long-term character
once the election has been announced. Decisions on which a new
Government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a
different view from the incumbent Government should be postponed
until after the Election, provided that such postponement would
not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public
12. Other options include making a decision
time-limited or subject to a temporary arrangement, or consulting
with the opposition parties. The observance of discretion does
not involve hard and fast rules: much depends on the circumstances.
As soon as a General Election is announced, the Cabinet Office
issues guidance to Departments on their activities during the
13. Between the announcement of the date for
a general election and polling day, there are also restrictions
on the degree to which some forms of activity may be carried out
by civil servants and Government departments. The guidance to
Government departments issued in 2005 is available at [http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/cabinetoffice/propriety_and_ethics/assets/electguide.pdf].
The principles of Government formation
14. Governments hold office by virtue of their
ability to command the confidence of the House and hold office
until they resign. A Government or Prime Minister who cannot command
the confidence of the House of Commons is required by constitutional
convention to resign or, where it is appropriate to do so instead,
may seek a dissolution of Parliament. When a Government or Prime
Minister resigns it is for the Monarch to invite the person whom
it appears is most likely to be able to command the confidence
of the House of Commons to serve as Prime Minister and to form
a government. However it is the responsibility of those involved
in the political processand in particular the parties represented
in Parliamentto seek to determine and communicate clearly
who that person should be. These are the principles that underpin
the appointment of a Prime Minister and formation of a government
in all circumstances.
15. If an incumbent Government retains a majority
in the new Parliament after an election, it will continue in office
and resume normal business. If the election results in a clear
majority for a different party, the incumbent Prime Minister and
government will immediately resign and the Monarch will invite
the leader of the party that has won the election to form a government.
Details on the appointment of Ministers can be found in Chapter
16. Where an election does not result in a clear
majority for a single party, the incumbent Government remains
in office unless and until the Prime Minister tenders his and
the Government's resignation to the Monarch. An incumbent Government
is entitled to await the meeting of the new Parliament to see
if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons or to
resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to command that
confidence. If a Government is defeated on a motion of confidence
in the House of Commons, a Prime Minister is expected to tender
the Government's resignation immediately. A motion of confidence
may be tabled by the Opposition, or may be a measure which the
Government has previously said will be a test of the House's confidence
in it. Votes on the Queen's Speech have traditionally been regarded
as motions of confidence.
17. If the Prime Minister and Government resign
at any stage, the principles in paragraph 14 applyin particular
that the person who appears to be most likelyto command the confidence
of the House of Commons will be asked by the Monarch to form a
government. Where a range of different administrations could potentially
be formed, the expectation is that discussions will take place
between political parties on who should form the next Government.
The Monarch would not expect to become involved in such discussions,
although the political parties and the Cabinet Secretary would
have a role in ensuring that the Palace is informed of progress.
18. A Prime Minister may request that the Monarch
dissolves Parliament and hold a further election. The Monarch
is not bound to accept such a request, especially when such a
request is made soon after a previous dissolution. In those circumstances,
the Monarch would normally wish the parties to ascertain that
there was no potential government that could command the confidence
of the House of Commons before granting a dissolution.
19. It is open to the Prime Minister to
ask the Cabinet Secretary to support the Government's discussions
with Opposition or minority parties on the formation of a government.
If Opposition parties request similar support for their discussions
with each other or with the Government, this can be provided by
the Cabinet Office with the authorisation of the Prime Minister.
20. As long as there is significant doubt
whether the Government has the confidence of the House of Commons,
it would be prudent for it to observe discretion about taking
significant decisions, as per the pre-election period. The normal
and essential business of government at all levels, however, will
need to be carried out.
Change of Prime Minister or Government during
the life of a Parliament
21. A change of Prime Minister may occur
as a result of retirement, incapacity, death, or resignation.A
change in the party or parties which form the basis of support
for the government in the House of Commons may also occur during
the life of a Parliament. In appointing a new Prime Minister,
as at other points, the Monarch invites the person whom it appears
is most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons
to serve as Prime Minister and formor continuea
government. It is for those involved in the political processand
in particular the parties represented in Parliamentto seek
to determine and communicate clearly who that person should be,
and to find a way to ensure there are arrangements to ensure continuity
while that process finds a successor for the Prime Minister. There
is no requirement for a dissolution and election to occur.
Proclamation summoning new Parliament/
dissolution of old Parliament/issue of writ
|Receipt of writ||Day 1
|Last day for publication of notice of election|
|Last day for delivery of nomination papers/|
withdrawals of candidature/appointment of
election agents (4pm)
|Statement of persons nominated published at|
close of time for making objections to
nomination papers (5pm on Day 6) or as soon
afterwards as any objections are disposed of
|Last Day for requests for a new postal vote or to change or cancel an existing postal vote or proxy appointment (5pm)
|Last day to apply to register vote||Day 11
|Last day for appointment of polling and|
|Polling day (7am to 10pm)||Day 17
|Last day to apply for a replacement for spoilt or lost postal ballot papers (5pm)
|Source: House of Commons Library briefing.|
|The process which brings an end to a sitting in either House (eg at the end of a day or before a recesssee below). The Houses usually adjourn only in accordance with a resolution to do so. In some cases the Standing Orders allow for other methods of adjourning. The Standing Orders may fix the time for the next sitting, or that may be varied by the motion. The expression is also used to describe the period while a House is adjourned.
|Dissolution||The process which terminates a Parliament and, by convention requires the summoning of a new Parliament, so triggering a general election for membership of the House of Commons.
|Prorogation||The process which brings an end to a session of Parliament. Parliament is suspended for a period by a Monarch. Typically Parliament is prorogued annually and then reassembles for a new Session a few days later. It has often been the practice to prorogue Parliament before dissolving it.
|Recess||A period while the House is adjourned between sittings for longer than provided for by the Standing Orders (eg over a holiday periodthe Easter recess, the Christmas recess).
|Wash up||The period between when the Prime Minister is granted dissolution by the Monarch and the subsequent prorogation or dissolution of Parliament.
|Writ||A formal written order.
House of commons select committee on the modernisation of the House of Commons Revitalising the chamber: the role of the back bench member (HC 337, 2006-7) have recommended reverting to the practice of there being around 12 days between polling day and first meeting.http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmmodern/337/337.pdf