When is the general election? Key dates and everything you need to know

Rishi Sunak taking part in a BBC leadership programme
Rishi Sunak taking part in a BBC leadership programme in York on June 20

Rishi Sunak has announced a general election for July 4, as the country prepares for its first national vote since 2019.

Here, The Telegraph examines the processes involved, including how votes are called and who can take part.

When is the general election?

The general election will take place on July 4 as the country heads to the polls between 7am and 10pm to have their say on the next prime minister.

It had looked likely that Rishi Sunak would wait until the autumn to call the next election, but the Prime Minister announced in a rain-sodden speech outside of Downing Street on May 22 that July 4 was the chosen date.

Many assumed Mr Sunak would want more time for the new Rwanda deterrent and recent tax cuts to take effect, having described a ballot in the second half of the year as his “working assumption”.

But speculation reached fever pitch in Westminster when the Conservatives refused to rule out an election being called that day.

That afternoon, an umbrella-less Mr Sunak announced his snap election decision and set in motion the vote to happen six weeks later on July 4.

The choice means that Mr Sunak will have been in No 10 for 618 days by the polling date and has been called a “mistake” by figures like Prof Sir John Curtice, the polling expert.

Why is there an election now?

Tory figures close to general election planning had also been working under the assumption there was not going to be a summer ballot, but that all changed on May 22.

Lord Cameron cut a trip to Albania short in order to return to a Cabinet meeting and Grant Shapps delayed a flight to a Nato meeting two hours to be there.

On the day of the announcement, news came that the rate of inflation had fallen even further than expected, which Mr Sunak hailed as a sign that “everything is heading in the right direction”.

With the Government’s record perhaps at its strongest on the economy, the Prime Minister was keen to use the news as a launchpad for triggering the election – but what else played into his decision?

Key factors for the Prime Minister would have included whether economic statistics was continuing to improve, and whether polling and focus group research suggested that voters were feeling the positive effects of the National Insurance cuts, crediting the Tories for the boost.

Getting Rwanda deportation flights off the ground also strengthened the case for going to the polls in the summer, along with a steady decline in the NHS elective waiting list.

It had been rumoured that figures in Downing Street were mulling over whether it would be in the Tories’ interests to trigger a ballot sooner rather than later, despite being way behind Labour in the polls.

Why was the general election not on the same day as the local elections?

The general election could have been called on May 2 - the same day as the locals - but Mr Sunak made the decision to avoid a spring poll.

The Institute for Government pointed out that a spring election would avoid the risk that “a heavy defeat in the local elections could increase pressure on the Prime Minister – including from within his party – and make it difficult to regain momentum ahead of an election that would by then be less than a year away”.

However, that opportunity passed. On March 14, the Prime Minister ruled out a national ballot on May 2, confirming there “won’t be a general election on that day”.

It was thought that heavy losses at the locals could tempt restless Tory MPs to mount a challenge against their leader.

However, despite a dire set of results for the Conservatives, resulting in hundreds of council seats lost, the rebels appear to have backed off for now.

What happens next? 

Following Mr Sunak’s announcement on May 22, Parliament was prorogued and dissolved eight days later on May 30 after the Prime Minister was granted permission by the King Charles.

Prorogation happened on May 24, in line with the 2022 Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act that sets out polling day to take place 25 working days following the dissolution on May 30, landing the general election on July 4.

Election candidates have begun to use the six-week lead up to ballot day to campaign for their parties, including both Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer who have undertaken appearances up and down the country.

Both leaders, and many other political figures, have also taken part in TV election debates in a bid to win over voters and released their 2024 party manifestos, starting with the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.

It is up to each party when to publish its manifesto, but an analysis by the Institute for Government shows that all Labour and Conservative manifestos since 1997 have been launched between 18 and 29 days before the election.

How are general elections called?

It is up to the Prime Minister to decide when to hold a national vote, but this power has only been restored in recent years.

In 2011, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act effectively put the House of Commons in charge, with general elections held every five years unless a majority of MPs willed it otherwise.

For an election to be called early, two thirds of the House had to back the plans. This is how Theresa May’s snap election was triggered in 2017. Alternatively, MPs could spark a ballot by passing a vote of no confidence in the Government.

After trying and failing three times to secure the necessary two thirds majority for an early vote in 2019, the Tories opted to circumvent the law with a new purpose-built piece of legislation - the Early Parliamentary General Election Act - which required only a simple majority to pass. This paved the way for Boris Johnson’s snap election in 2019.

The Government went on to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, replacing it with the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act. This new law stripped the Commons of its power to block an early ballot, putting the Prime Minister back in control.

Traditionally, the Prime Minister travels to Buckingham Palace to request the dissolution of Parliament, before returning to Downing Street to announce the forthcoming election.

How often are elections called? 

Each Parliament must be dissolved for a general election by the fifth anniversary of the day it first met.

This measure was passed under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act by the 2011 coalition government, which set in stone the five-year periods between general elections.

Elections may be held earlier – such occurred in 2017 with Theresa May and 2019 by Boris Johnson following a Brexit deadlock – under special circumstances.

However, local elections such as the May 2024 by-elections and mayoral elections operate on a different time scale.

Who can vote in the general election?

The vast majority of UK adults can vote in a general election.

In order to vote, you must:

  • be registered to vote

  • be 18 or over on the day of the election (‘polling day’)

  • be a British, Irish or qualifying Commonwealth citizen

  • be a resident at an address in the UK or Gibraltar, or living abroad and registered as an overseas voter (it is also possible to register if you have no fixed address)

  • not be legally excluded from voting (for example, if you are serving a prison sentence)

When should I register to vote?

The deadline for registering to vote has now passed. Registration usually stays open until midnight at the end of the 12th working day before polling day, meaning the window closed on June 18 at 11.59pm. The deadline to vote by post passed the following day at 5pm.

For those who are registered, it is still possible to apply for a proxy vote until 5pm on June 26.

When will polling take place?

Parliament was dissolved a few days after the election announcement and polling day takes place 25 working days after that.

The Civil Service has entered “purdah” – the period between an election being called and polling day which involves strict restrictions on the work of officials to ensure that Whitehall resources are not being used to benefit any party in particular.