British Prime Minister Tony Blair just announced that the election to decide whether he will get a second term in office will be held June 7. How do British prime ministers get to choose their election day?
British prime ministers typically are the leaders of the party that has the majority of seats in the House of Commons. Members of the House of Commons, all 659 of them, are elected to five-year terms, with the current term scheduled to expire next May. But in the British parliamentary system, the prime minister can decide to call an election any time within that five-year period. Blair's calculation is that right now his Labor Party is in a strong position to sweep the elections, so why wait? It had been expected that he was going to call for elections to be held this month, but he delayed because the country was at the height of the crisis over foot-and-mouth disease. Technically on June 7, Britons won't be casting their ballots for Blair--well, only those voters in the constituency of Sedgefield, which Blair has represented in the House of Commons since 1983. But if Labor does retain its majority in parliament, Blair will retain his prime ministership.
Calling an election before a term is up is common practice. Margaret Thatcher regularly called for elections at the four-year mark. Because things were going so poorly for John Major during his last term in office (the one Blair ousted him from), he let the full five years run, hoping something would come along to turn his fortunes around. Then there was the case in 1974 when there were two parliamentary elections in a single year. Edward Heath, the conservative prime minister, called for an election in February and lost. Labor's Harold Wilson became prime minister, but his party did not have a majority of seats. So he called for an election in October and won a bare majority.
Once the prime minister decides on a date, he (or she) goes to Buckingham Palace and asks the queen to dissolve parliament, which Blair has done. The queen does retain the power to threaten Blair with her sceptre and refuse, but no monarch in modern times has declined the request. Legally, there must be 17 working days between the time parliament is dissolved and the next election takes place. If Blair's party wins as expected, he will return to Buckingham Palace, and the queen will invite him to form an administration. It is also possible to become prime minister without an election taking place. Major first stepped into office when the Conservative Party forced Thatcher to resign as its head and chose Major in her place.
Explainer thanks Martin Kettle and Benjamin Wegg-Prosserof the Guardian.