Britain wants elections. It’s not having one – POLITICO

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LONDON — Now on their third prime minister since the last general election, the desperate British public want a vote on who leads the country. They seem to be out of luck.

Britain’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak did not secure the 2019 election victory for the Conservatives. Neither did his predecessor Liz Truss, who instead tried for 44 chaotic days to tear up many of the economic and political promises of the Conservative manifesto.

It was, of course, Boris Johnson who secured the Tories’ 80-seat majority almost three years ago – before being kicked out of Downing Street this summer by his own MPs following a series of humiliating scandals. His replacement Truss, elected by just 81,000 Tory MPs, lasted less than two months before his colleagues wielded the knife again.

This carousel of leaders has left some observers wondering how Britain can repeatedly change its figurehead – let alone, in Truss’ case, its entire economic leadership – without once consulting the public.

Unsurprisingly, this is an issue Labour’s opposition leader Keir Starmer hopes to capitalize on.

Asking questions of the new prime minister in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Starmer noted that the last time Sunak took part in a vote — his head-to-head clash with Truss — « he was beaten by the former prime minister… who herself was beaten by a lettuce.

“Let the workers speak,” Starmer told the prime minister, “and call a general election.”

A defiant Sunak replied that his mandate « is based on a manifesto on which we were elected – an election which we won and which they lost ».

Public panic

Constitutionally, Sunak is right.

The UK government retains full control over whether a snap election should be called before the January 2025 deadline for the next vote – unless dozens of Tory MPs suddenly go rogue and decide to bring down their own regime via a vote of no confidence in the Commons. .

And the Conservatives’ lowest poll ratings mean any kind of election betting is banned for the foreseeable future. Conservative support among the public – already disastrous at the end of Johnson’s term – plunged to record lows under Truss.

« The short answer to anyone at home or abroad asking why the Conservatives don’t have an election, it’s because they don’t. to have to have an election,” said Joe Twyman, director of British polling firm Deltapoll. « Given the situation the polls are in, they would be assured of a loss. »

In Britain’s political system, the public votes for a ruling party rather than a specific prime minister – and it’s up to each party to choose its leader as and when it sees fit. The setup differs markedly from presidential systems in places like France and the United States, which are ruled by directly elected heads of state.

“It is a fundamental rule of a parliamentary democracy that it is not the prime minister who wins a mandate in a general election, it is the parliamentary party,” said Catherine Haddon, a constitutional expert at the think tank Institute for Government.

« Once you start arguing that every prime minister has to win a general election to be able to hold office, you fundamentally change the system. »

In addition, the UK’s ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system tends to offer one-party rule, which means that coalition governments – which could collapse in turbulent times, triggering a election – are historically rare.

Sunak therefore retains a healthy parliamentary majority, inherited from Johnson’s victory in 2019.

left wanting

But the only thing that counts against the Conservatives is public opinion.

A YouGov poll this week found that 59% of the British public think Sunak should call an election – including 38% of all Tory voters – compared to just 29% who thought he shouldn’t. This is far more than normal, and well above even the record figure of 41% who wanted an election at the height of the Partygate scandal.

“The unrest in government, with the Tories now two leaders sidelined from the one who led them to election victory in 2019, has clearly convinced many Britons that now is the time for a new vote,” said the head of the YouGov data journalism, Matthew Smith. .

An internal poll for the opposition Labor Party this week found similar results, with support for an election strongest among swing voters, according to a Labor official. Even a third of those 2019 Conservative voters who still plan to vote the same way next time want an early election, the official said. Those leaning Labor are even more enthusiastic about a new campaign.

Other research confirms that the public becomes restless. A focus group this week for the non-partisan ‘More in Common’ campaign found that seven out of eight participants wanted an election once the current economic crisis subsided – a significant increase on previous years.

Luke Tryl, the UK director of More in Common, said most people want « a choice of who is in charge » – although he noted that the same people also often feel conflicted, being « burned out by the constant policy of recent years.”

Consultants from the agency Public First found similar results in their own focus groups. The firm’s founding partner, James Frayne, said general election inquiries had « increased in recent weeks and were going nowhere ». He added: ‘As far as most voters are concerned, one unelected prime minister has screwed up the economy so badly that another unelected prime minister must impose brutal austerity in response.’

Internal dissent

Indeed, even some Tories – mainly those who support Boris Johnson – suggested an election was needed after he left 10 Downing Street.

Former Cabinet Minister Nadine Dorries has publicly stated that an election would be « impossible to avoid » after fellow MPs rejected Johnson’s recent bid to return. Backbench MP Christopher Chope and his Tory counterpart Zac Goldsmith the two made similar statements.

« Imposing a new prime minister that no one voted for goes against what is democratic, » said a Tory MP supporting Johnson. “Colleagues who removed Boris cannot have their cake and eat it. We’ve had a shit show since, and nominating Rishi without a single vote is precarious. But my colleagues insist that they do not want a general election.

For the vast majority of Tory MPs, who want to avoid a vote at all costs, Sunak appears to be their best hope of calming the waters and thus holding back the clamor for an election.

“It is legitimate to feel there should be an election,” said a former Johnson adviser. « But in a world where there’s no general election, the best thing for everyone is to have Rishi – because even if he ends up doing well, I think he’ll be pretty calm, professional and won’t try to do crazy things that f*ck all our mortgages.

Twyman, of Deltapoll, suggested that ultimately being accused of dodging democracy is likely the « lesser of two evils » for conservatives.

« It doesn’t look good for conservatives, » he said. « But a Labor majority of 300 doesn’t look good for the Tories either. »

Annabelle Dickson contributed reporting.

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