What happens if a general election is called - voting, changes, timeline, who is in power

Marking X on a ballot
What happens if a general election is called? -Credit:peter dazeley / Getty Images

Once a general election is called there are several next steps that take place from preparing for voting, to party campaigns but what is the timeline and who is in power. It’s a confusing time for everyone, with a few temporary changes in place until a new PM is called.

The UK uses the First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system, lending favour to the two biggest parties: the Conservatives (led by current PM Rishi Sunak) and the Labour Party (currently led by former head of the Crown Prosecution Service, Keir Starmer).

Our voting system means we vote not for who we want to lead the nation, but instead for the party we want. Any misunderstandings can be found below.

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Voters queue outside polling station
The UK uses the First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system -Credit:Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images Images

What happens in Parliament once the date’s announced?

It leads to a period called ‘wash up’. Here, Parliament is either dissolved, or prorogued (before being dissolved). Parliament is in-effect frozen until the ‘wash up’ period comes to an end, meaning any proposed bills cannot be given Royal Assent and won’t be entrenched in our law during this period.

The length of the ‘wash up’ is decided by the PM, the longest period being seven days in 2017 when Theresa May was in charge.

In short, ‘wash up’ is the time between the election being announced and Parliament being dissolved.

What happens once Parliament is dissolved?

This power falls under the Royal Prerogative - powers handed to the PM by the monarch - other examples being commander of the armed forces. After dissolving the chamber becomes vacant as there are no MPs.

However ministers stay in post until a new government is formed. The election happens 25 days (excluding weekends and bank holidays) after Parliament’s dissolved. Elections are traditionally held on a Thursday.

The Houses of Parliament in London
The government enters what is called the ‘pre-election period’ -Credit:PA Wire/PA Images

What happens in government once the date’s announced?

The government enters what is called the ‘pre-election period’, and activity is limited during this period. This serves to ensure the public purse isn’t used to fund the party-in-power that day, and also to ensure the civil service remains neutral. The period typically kicks in after Parliament has been dissolved.

When do we see manifestos and televised debates?

It’s down to the party and there’s no set date. But since 1997, Labour and the Tories have launched their manifestos between 18 and 29 days before polling day.

TV debates have only really been a thing since 2010. The way they're presented is agreed between parties and broadcasters.Sometimes they consist of just labour and Tory leaders, while others have included other groups across the political spectrum. However there is no obligation to have them.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer speaking during a visit to Dover
TV debates have only really been a thing since 2010 -Credit:PA Wire/PA Images

What happens on election day?

Polling stations are open between 7am and 10pm. After 10pm an exit poll is announced. This is a survey of in-person voters taken from 150 constituencies in England, Wales, and Scotland. They have been a thing since 1974 and have been correct each time.

What is a landslide?

This is when the victorious party wins by an overwhelming margin. Sir Tony Blair won the UK’s biggest ever landslide victory in 1997, bringing 18 years of Tory rule to an end.

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