It is no secret that, in recent months, the United Kingdom’s government has endured a period of heightened political instability. At the zenith of this turbulent period, no less than three Prime Ministers took charge of leading the country in under two months: Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and the incumbent Rishi Sunak. Despite these frequent changes in office, the British public has not voted in a general election since 2019 — raising important questions around democratic legitimacy and constitutional reform.
Changing faces at the top is a time-honoured tradition in British politics: of the nine UK Prime Ministers to have served since the beginning of 1990, only two handed over their power as the direct result of a general election. Instead, most resigned or were replaced by their own parties due to perceived failure or unpopularity among party members or the voting public. This process of failure and replacement relies — at least in theory — on a classic ideal of British democracy: voters elect a Member of Parliament (MP) and the party for which they stand. It is up to those elected representatives to select the best national leader on their behalf.
In the real world, however, this ideal is becoming increasingly obsolete: it has long been established practice that MPs will simply endorse the leader of the largest political party as Prime Minister and, when contemporary voters go to the polls, they are often hardly aware of local candidates. Instead, they choose whichever political platform and, crucially, leader they prefer. Few now lay either credit or blame for the actions of government at the door of local representatives or campaigners: the Conservative party’s injured position following the 2017 general election, for instance, was widely blamed on Theresa May, while Boris Johnson took credit for the subsequent success in 2019.
Despite this move towards more personality-focused electoral politics, until recently mid-term changes in party leader and, consequently, Prime Minister had been widely accepted as a pragmatic and even democratic necessity. When Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as Labour Prime Minister in 2007, this was generally accepted as a reflection of public opinion: the replacement of an increasingly unpopular leader with one enjoying greater public support. Similarly, when Theresa May replaced David Cameron following the 2016 Brexit Referendum, or when Johnson replaced May amid her unpopular proposed Brexit deal, these were perceived, with a certain cynicism, as ‘the process’ naturally rejecting failure. So long as such party-political action provided the public with a more palatable Prime Minister, its precise mechanism was hardly thought to matter.
Recently, however, this traditional view has started to break down in response to an evolving realpolitik. Johnson’s decision to call the most recent general election in 2019 was primarily an effort to secure his Brexit deal by improving his party’s parliamentary mathematics. But it also served as an important opportunity, if successful, to legitimise his own leadership through electoral approval: the ensuing landslide victory, though surprising to many, was immediately and enthusiastically presented by Johnson not just as a victory for the Conservatives, but as a triumph for himself and a personal mandate to lead. This view has only grown in prominence since, repurposed by opposing parties and even remaining Johnson supporters to undermine his successors’ legitimacy: surely if they wish to lead the country, the argument goes, they should first seek the approval of the public in a direct, personal capacity.
This emerging trend towards personality politics has received a significant boost amid recent dramatic political events. Following a series of scandals for Johnson during his premiership, he was finally forced to resign amid reports that he had knowingly appointed a senior government figure, Chris Pincher, despite being aware of sexual misconduct allegations against him. Had Johnson’s resignation and replacement gone smoothly, with a new Prime Minister elected by Conservative members without incident, perhaps demands for a public vote might still have died down. What followed, however, was the shortest-serving Prime Minister in history, whose tenure was defined by economic policies causing chaos in financial markets. Liz Truss served for only 49 days, replaced by current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in an expedited Conservative Party internal leadership election. At the height of the controversy around Truss, voting intention for the Conservatives among the general public had fallen to only 22% on average, compared to 52% for the opposition Labour Party. Even with a return to relative stability under Sunak, these figures have remained stubbornly and tellingly low.
This unique combination of events has led to a renewed sense of unsustainability among a frustrated public. The constitutional settlement in the UK is, in many important respects, reliant on political parties following a set of unwritten rules: one of these, it seems, is that mid-term changes in leadership will not be tolerated past the point of absurdity. There is an increasing sense that, with the Conservative Party at a record low in the polls and currently on their fifth Prime Minister in a 12-year governing stretch, the public have a right to demand accountability. With the next general election due as late as January 2025 — even under such extreme circumstances — it is hardly surprising that calls for an earlier vote have gone beyond the old-school appeal to political decency, instead presenting increasingly as an assertion of democratic rights.
Moves to prioritise the personal mandate of the leader, rather than that of the party, nevertheless carry their own set of risks. The flexibility of the UK’s constitutional arrangements around leadership has often served as a powerful tool to avoid so-called ‘lame duck’ premierships: when a Prime Minister is obviously and seriously failing, whether through scandal or economic disaster, there is an immediate response by the party to provide a solution and, if necessary, remove the leader in short order. Were this process governed by stricter legal rules, as is common in countries with codified constitutions, leaders like Johnson and Truss might take far longer to remove, allowing them to cause a great deal more damage in the meantime. Continuity of government during a parliamentary term — despite changes in leadership — can also better facilitate fulfilment of party manifesto commitments, an important element of democratic accountability.
Nevertheless, it is clear this approach is becoming less sustainable as trust in politics declines. What were once seen as established features of the constitutional order, ‘tried and true’, are increasingly used as a means to avoid political responsibility. One significant example of this political opportunism was the Johnson government’s attempt in 2019 to temporarily suspend Parliament for five weeks to prevent interference with Brexit policy, using an obscure administrative power. When the UK Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the government, in a case known as Miller II, the suspension was reversed despite legal arguments over jurisdiction and separation of powers. This ruling has been seen as an important turning point in legal regulation of government, and perhaps an early sign that the process of constitutional tightening has already begun.
Without greater stability and a renewed trust in politics, these trends are likely to continue: increasingly reckless use of political flexibility, followed by public backlash and tighter legal restriction. The necessity for a balance of flexibility and trust is, therefore, already becoming a far more prominent feature of political debate. Constitutional reforms in this direction would undoubtedly cause a radical reframing of politics, constitutionality and government in the United Kingdom. In a country with a long history of comparatively stable democracy, but faced with new challenges in an increasingly unstable world, such upheaval will always entail a certain loss of innocence, and no small measure of risk.
By Thomas Dillon3rd January 2023