The result is that the dissolution of Parliament will now take place on 30th March 2015, five and a half weeks before polling day, with Easter falling in the early part of the formal election campaign.
It’s a significantly longer election period than would have been the case under the previous 17-day election timetable, which would have set the date for dissolution at 13th April, a week after Easter.
When the legislation was first scrutinised the rationale for changing the timetable – to improve electoral administration, particularly in relation to postal votes – was broadly accepted. However, the consequences for Parliament itself were largely overlooked.
For on top of this five and a half week period without a Parliament must also be added the indeterminate length of time between polling day and the meeting of the new Parliament. In 2010 this was a further 12 days.
In light of the possible need for negotiations in the event of another hung Parliament it seems unlikely – and, arguably, undesirable – that this transition period will be shortened.
So if Parliament reconvenes in 2015 on the same basis as in 2010 then, at 51 calendar days, or just over seven weeks, we will witness the longest period between dissolution and the assembly of a new Parliament since 1924, and 15 days longer than was experienced in 2010.
Does this matter?
Well, on the practical front it will depend, to a large extent, on events. If there were to be an economic or international crisis requiring a robust, far-reaching response there would be no parliamentary oversight of the government’s actions in this period.
Unlike during the shorter summer recess, Parliament cannot be recalled. There is no legal mechanism to restore MPs in the old Parliament on a temporary basis. The proclamation dissolving Parliament for the election will set out the date of summons for the new Parliament. In the interim, no Parliament exists.
This is a difficulty at every election but it becomes a more pressing problem the longer the ‘purdah’ or ‘caretaker’ period is between dissolution and assembly. And next year, if the coalition has not broken up before the election, there will also be an additional pressure – will collective responsibility hold in the event of a crisis during a very long election period?
Then there’s a point of principle. Put simply, is it appropriate in a modern democracy for there to be no representative oversight of the executive for such a long period of time?