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 Labour Party” and “Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist.” The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Britain’s Conservative Party, which has weathered the resignation of two prime ministers since December 2019, cannot remain in government for another two years without calling a general election.
Well, technically, they could. But that doesn’t mean they should.
Under British law, as long as a party can command a parliamentary majority, it can continue in power for up to five years before calling an election.
And the Conservative Party, despite having suffered a series of recent by-election defeats, still maintains a working parliamentary majority of 71, meaning that Britain’s next general election could conceivably come as late as January 2025.
On Monday, Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson’s former finance minister, won the contest to become the next leader of the Conservative Party and will become prime minister of Britain. Johnson himself had seriously considered challenging Sunak to regain the premiership, before announcing Sunday evening that he would not stand in the leadership race.
Since the announcement of Liz Truss’s resignation on Thursday, Conservative MPs have been citing the letter of the law to defend the party’s seeming determination to remain in power, despite the insistence of opposition parties and even some Tories that a general election is now a moral, if not a legal, imperative.
But as any three-year-old knows, there are two meanings of “You can’t do that!” On the one hand, there is “You can’t do that because it is actually impossible.” There is also, “You can’t do that because it is unconscionable.” When one of my sons clocks the other one on the head and I shout, “You can’t do that!” both boys understand my meaning.
Changing leaders twice in the course of a parliamentary term without consulting the British electorate is the political equivalent of whacking 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 reversals of party policy since the previous general election.
Britain is facing inflation, rising borrowing costs and predicted deficits on a massive scale which will likely require either significant tax increases, spending cuts or both.
The policy decisions taken in the next few months will have implications for years to come. There is a political imperative for Britons to be given a say as to how their leaders should tackle the current crisis. By ignoring that imperative, the Tory party would risk further eroding faith in Britain’s democratic process, at a time when democracy is under significant threat around the globe.
In the current situation, it is untenable to argue that the mandate which the public gave to Boris Johnson and the 2019 Conservative election manifesto still holds. This is true despite the fact that Sunak, the new party leader, served in Johnson’s administration.
It would have to be true even if Johnson had returned as prime minister – an incredible political reincarnation which Johnson seriously considered attempting before announcing on Sunday that he would not stand for the leadership despite the “very good chance that I would be successful in the election with Conservative Party members.”
Even before Truss announced her resignation, Britain’s opposition parties have been calling for a general election in the wake of her disastrous “mini-budget,” the series of policy U-turns that followed and her decision to sack her newly appointed chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng.
Following Truss’s resignation announcement, Labour leader Keir Starmer reiterated those calls, emphasizing that the British people had a right to weigh in on the question of who should lead the country.
“The Tories cannot respond to their latest shambles by yet again simply clicking their fingers and shuffling the people at the top without the consent of the British people. They do not have a mandate to put the country through yet another experiment; Britain is not their personal fiefdom to run how they wish,” Starmer said.
Likewise Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, asserted that there was now a “democratic imperative” to hold a general election, and the Liberal Party leader Ed Davey, insisted that the Conservatives had a “patriotic duty” to “give the people a say” about the future direction of the country.
That Britain’s opposition parties are clamoring for an election is unsurprising. The latest opinion polling shows Labour up over 30 points on the Tories, the party’s largest poll lead in history. If an election were called in the next few months, Labour would almost certainly win a comfortable majority.
But the conviction that “the British public deserve a proper say on the country’s future,” extends beyond the opposition ranks. A YouGov poll conducted Thursday found that nearly two-thirds of Britons believed that Truss’s replacement should call an early general election.
In asserting the imperative for an early general election after two changes of leadership, the opposition parties have history on their side. British political parties have frequently made a single change of prime minister without calling an early 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 another year and a half. Similar to Brown, Jim Callaghan, who succeeded Harold Wilson, lasted nearly three years without an election.
But in each of these cases, the men who took over had been long-serving and high-ranking members of their predecessors’ administrations, and (with the exception of Major’s abandonment of the highly unpopular poll tax) largely continued the policy program on which their predecessor had been elected.
In that sense, their ascension to the premiership was more akin to the elevation of a vice president after the death of a president in the United States – a significant change in government, but one accepted to be within the bounds of democratic legitimacy.
In 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 and the clear backing of the British public.
Before Churchill, we need to look back to 1828, when the Duke of Wellington succeeded the Viscount Goderich, who in turn had succeeded George Canning (who died in office after 119 days and who held the title of shortest serving prime minister for nearly two hundred years, until Liz Truss came along.)
The Tory Wellington remained in office for a year and a half without calling a general election. But Britain in 1828 was not a true democracy. Fewer than 10% of adult males could vote, and several MPs represented “rotten boroughs” which were effectively controlled by a handful of wealthy families. The notion of democratic accountability simply did not exist in the way that it does now.
Today, in the 21st century, with universal adult suffrage, Starmer is right that the Tories cannot treat Britain as their personal fiefdom. After all that has happened since Johnson’s resignation in July, they must seek a fresh mandate to remain in power.
After all the chaos and dysfunction, the British people deserve a say over who governs the country.
This story has been updated