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“Unelected” Prime Ministers

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Many pressures wait to exert themselves on the incoming British Prime Minister, Theresa May. One centres on the means by which she came to office. Those seeking to challenge her legitimacy are already drawing attention to the fact that she took up residence at No.10 Downing Street without a General Election having taken place. Moreover, following the withdrawal of Andrea Leadsom from the leadership contest, there has not even been a vote by Conservative Party members. These opponents might point out that she has inherited her parliamentary majority from a predecessor, and that her right to govern is therefore only second-hand. Such criticisms are likely to recur until and if she wins what is regarded as her own mandate from voters. Indeed we are already hearing calls for an immediate General Election.

Such criticisms were deployed against Gordon Brown, who took over from Tony Blair between general elections in 2007 (again with no vote within the Labour Party); and before him John Major, who succeeded Margaret Thatcher in 1990, securing his ‘own’ majority in 1992. The premise of these attacks seems to be that power must be won in an open contest between rival parties, and that prime ministers derive their authority directly from the electorate.

But such outlooks are constitutionally and historically flawed. In the UK, prime ministers are not popularly elected. Unlike, say the presidents of France or the United States, voters do not choose them directly. Prime ministers are appointed by the monarch and retain their office by virtue of their ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons. While ‘confidence’ as a concept is difficult to define with precision, it does not rest directly on the support of voters. Normally, it involves being the accepted leader of a party with a majority in the Commons. The connection to the electorate is that it chooses the members of the House of Commons to act as its representatives.

Sometimes, prime ministers come to power because they are leader of a party which has, following a General Election, newly acquired a majority in the Commons, as did, for instance, Tony Blair with Labour in May 1997. In that sense, they may appear to have been ‘elected’ Prime Minister. But very often, the route to No.10 is different. To deny the legitimacy of prime ministers who attained their post without a General Election taking place would be to query some of the most celebrated figures of British politics.

In the early phrase of the emergence of the premiership in the eighteenth century, the standard procedure was that monarchs would choose someone to be their first minister, and an election would then follow, with all the patronage of the crown deployed to secure the desired result. By the twentieth century, the role of the monarch had receded and the franchise had expanded. Nevertheless, circumstances such as an internal coup or ill-health on the part of the incumbent were as likely to lead to a new premier taking office as a poll. To choose but a few famous examples, Herbert Henry Asquith (1908); David Lloyd George (1916); Winston Churchill (1940); Anthony Eden (1955); Harold Macmillan (1957); and James Callaghan (1976), were all – at first at least – ‘unelected’ prime ministers. Some of them, such as Eden, opted for a swift General Eelction, demonstrating that the mandate argument has political if not constitutional force. But others – including Churchill and Callaghan – for various reasons did not.

What does this trend tell us? First, it confirms the parliamentary nature of the UK system of government. The Commons, not the electorate, is the direct source of power for a Prime Minister. Second, within this context, parties are vital. If a particular prime minister is judged to be failing the group they lead, that group may turn on them and remove them. Third, and following on from this point, prime ministers have as much to fear from the colleagues that surround them in their Cabinet and parliamentary party as they do from voters. After all, general elections are years apart. Regicide can take place at any point. In resigning last month, David Cameron seemed to have come to the view that notice had already been served upon him. He needed to win the European Union referendum for his position to be tenable (though even then his survival was not necessarily guaranteed).

Following the passing of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which makes general elections in advance of the five-year maximum in some senses slightly more difficult to obtain, it may be that we will see more ‘unelected’ prime ministers than we would otherwise have done. The periods that elapse before they seek their own supposed ‘mandates’ may also lengthen.

The position May is in, then, as a Prime Minister taking office between general elections, is entirely normal. If she lacks legitimacy, she is in good company. However, like many ‘unelected’ premiers, she takes office in the circumstances of a crisis that triggered the removal of her immediate predecessor. Both Lloyd George and Churchill faced world wars; Macmillan took office in the wake of the humiliating Suez crisis; while Major had to deal with the political disaster of the Community Charge or ‘Poll Tax’.

The particular difficulty with which May has to contend is generated by the ‘leave’ vote in the EU referendum of 23 June. And in this sense, her position is historically unusual. While there is ample precedent for a new Prime Minister not possessing the mandate supposedly derived from a General Election, there is none for a premier in such a position being bequeathed what some perceive to be, via plebiscite, an irresistible order from voters. Despite campaigning (perhaps in a muted fashion) for a ‘remain’ vote, May now interprets her task as being to implement UK departure from the EU. Lacking a mandate is a common experience. Inheriting a requirement to pursue an objective of immense significance, to which she was opposed, is seemingly unique.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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