Opinion: Why Britain is about to get (another) prime minister it didn’t vote for


Editor’s note: Laura Beers is a professor of history at American University. She is the author of « Your Britain: Media and the Making of the Labor Party » and « Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist ». The opinions expressed here are solely his own. Read more reviews on CNN.


Britain’s Conservative Party, which has resisted the resignations of two prime ministers since December 2019, cannot stay in government for another two years without calling a general election.

Well, technically they could. But that doesn’t mean they should.

Under UK law, as long as a party can command a parliamentary majority, it can stay in power for up to five years before calling an election.

And the Conservative Party, despite suffering a string of recent by-election defeats, still maintains a working parliamentary majority of 71, meaning the next UK general election could possibly be held no later than January 2025.

A new Prime Minister, meanwhile, could be appointed as early as Monday, and certainly by the end of the week. (Former UK finance minister Rishi Sunak is the favorite after Boris Johnson dramatically dropped out of the race to become leader of the Conservative Party).

Since the announcement of Liz Truss’s resignation on Thursday, Tory MPs have cited the letter of the law in defense of the party’s apparent determination to stay in power, despite insistence from opposition parties and even some Tories on the that a general election is now a moral, if not a legal imperative.

But as any three-year-old knows, there are two meanings to « You can’t do that! » On one side is « You can’t do this because it’s actually impossible ». There’s also, « You can’t do that because it’s inadmissible. » When one of my sons hits the other on the head and I yell, « You can’t do that! » both boys understand what I mean.

Changing leaders twice in a parliament without consulting the British electorate is the political equivalent of hitting your brother just because he annoyed you. You just can’t do it and expect to get away with it. This is especially true when, as in the current political moment, there have been dramatic shifts in party politics since the previous general election.

Britain faces inflation, rising borrowing costs and projected large-scale deficits, which will likely require either significant tax increases or spending cuts, or both.

Policy decisions taken in the coming months will have implications for years to come. There is a political imperative for the British to have a say in how their leaders should deal with the current crisis. By ignoring this imperative, the Conservative Party would risk further eroding faith in the UK democratic process, at a time when democracy is under serious threat worldwide.

In the current situation, it is untenable to pretend that the mandate the public gave to Boris Johnson and the Conservative election manifesto of 2019 are still valid. This is true despite the fact that both Sunaks, who seem set to become the party’s next leader, served in Johnson’s administration.

That should be true even if Johnson had returned as prime minister – an incredible political reincarnation that Johnson was seriously considering attempting before announcing on Sunday that he would not run for leadership despite having “a very good chance that I would succeed in the elections ». with members of the Conservative Party.

Even before Truss announced his resignation, Britain’s opposition parties had called for a general election in the wake of his disastrous ‘mini-budget’, the series of policy reversals that followed and his decision to sack his new chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. .

Following the announcement of Truss’s resignation, Labor leader Keir Starmer reiterated those calls, stressing that the British people have a right to decide who should lead the country.

“The Tories cannot respond to their latest chaos by once again snapping their fingers and shuffling people at the top without the consent of the British people. Their mandate is not to subject the country to another experiment; Britain is not their personal fiefdom to rule as they wish,” Starmer said.

Similarly, Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, claimed there was now a « democratic imperative » to hold a general election, and Liberal Party leader Ed Davey insisted that the Tories had a « patriotic duty » to « give the people a say » on the future direction of the country.

That British opposition parties are calling for elections is not surprising. The latest opinion poll shows Labor have gained more than 30 points over the Conservatives, the party’s biggest lead in the polls in history. If an election were called in the next few months, Labor would almost certainly win a comfortable majority regardless of whether Sunak or someone else leads the Conservative Party.

But the belief that “the British public deserves to have a say in the future of the country” extends beyond the ranks of the opposition. A YouGov poll on Thursday found almost two-thirds of Britons believe Truss’s replacement should call a snap general election.

By affirming the imperative of early legislative elections after two changes of leadership, the opposition parties have history on their side. British political parties have often made a single change of prime minister without calling a snap election.

Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair in June 2007 and did not hold an election for nearly three years. John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher in November 1990 and did not call an election for a year and a half. Similar to Brown, Jim Callaghan, who succeeded Harold Wilson, went nearly three years without an election.

But in each of these cases, the men who took over were long-serving, high-ranking members of their predecessors’ administrations and (with the exception of Major’s abandonment of the highly unpopular poll tax) have largely pursued the political program on which their predecessor had been elected.

In that sense, their rise to the post of prime minister was more akin to the elevation of a vice president after the death of a president in the United States – a significant change of government, but one accepted to be in the limits of democratic legitimacy.

By contrast, the only prime minister in the modern era to govern without seeking a new electoral mandate after two changes in leadership was Winston Churchill, whose wartime coalition government had the united support of all parties in the House of Commons. Commons and the clear support of the British public.

Before Churchill, we have to go back to 1828, when the Duke of Wellington succeeded Viscount Goderich, who in turn had succeeded George Canning (who died in office after 119 days and who held the title of shortest Prime Minister for almost two hundred years, until the arrival of Liz Truss.)

Conservative Wellington stayed in power for a year and a half without calling a general election. But Britain in 1828 was not a true democracy. Less than 10% of adult men could vote and several deputies represented « rotten boroughs » controlled in fact by a handful of wealthy families. The notion of democratic accountability simply did not exist as it exists today.

Today, in the 21st century, with universal adult suffrage, Starmer is right that the Tories cannot treat Britain as their personal fiefdom. After everything that’s happened since Johnson resigned in July, they must seek another term to stay in power.

After all the chaos and dysfunction, the British people deserve to have a say in who rules the country.

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