Britain wants an election. You don’t get one

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LONDON – Now in its third prime minister since the last general election, a desperate British public wants a vote on who should run the country. Looks like they’re out of luck.

The new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Rishi Sunak, did not secure the 2019 election victory for the Tories. Nor did his predecessor Liz Truss, who instead tried over a chaotic 44 days to break many of the economic and political promises in the Conservative manifesto.

Of course, it was Boris Johnson who secured the Tories’ 80-seat majority almost three years ago – before being kicked out of Downing Street in the summer by his own MPs after a series of humiliating scandals. His replacement, Truss, elected by just 81,00 Conservative MPs, lasted less than two months before her colleagues swung the knife again.

This merry-go-round of leaders has left some observers wondering how Britain can repeatedly change its shape – not to mention, in Truss’s case, its entire economic direction – without once consulting the public.

Unsurprisingly, this is an issue that the Leader of the Opposition, Labour’s Keir Starmer, is hoping to capitalize on.

Questioning the new prime minister in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Starmer noted that the last time Sunak took part in a vote – his contest with Truss – “he was beaten by the former prime minister … who was herself defeated by lettuce.

“Let working people have their say,” Starmer told the prime minister, “and call a general election.”

The defiant Sunak replied that his mandate was “based on a manifesto on which we were elected – an election we won and they lost”.

Public panic

Constitutionally, Sunak is correct.

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 topple their own regime through a vote of no confidence in The House of Commons.

And the Tories’ rock-bottom ratings in the polls mean any sort of electoral gamble is off the table for the foreseeable future. Conservative public support – already dire at the end of Johnson’s term – fell to record lows under Truss.

“The short answer to anyone at home or abroad who asks why the Conservatives don’t have an election is because they don’t must there’s an election,” said Joe Twyman, director of British polling firm Deltapoll. “Given the situation the election is in, they would be certain to lose.”

Under the British political system, the public votes for a ruling party, not a specific prime minister – and each party must choose its leader as and when it sees fit. The set-up differs greatly from the presidential systems of places like France and the US, which are run by directly elected heads of state.

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

“Once you start going down the path of arguing that every prime minister has to win a general election to be in office, you fundamentally change the system.”

Moreover, the UK’s first-past-the-post voting system tends to ensure one-party rule, meaning that coalition governments – which can collapse in times of turbulence so as to trigger elections – are historically rare.

So Sunak retains a healthy parliamentary majority inherited from Johnson’s 2019 victory.

Left wanting

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

A This week’s YouGov poll found that 59 per cent of Britons think Sunak should call an election – including 38 per cent of all Conservative voters – compared to just 29 per cent who think he should not. This is much higher than normal and well above even the peak figure of 41 per cent who wanted an election at the height of the Partygate scandal.

“The upheaval in government, with the Conservatives now two leaders removed from the one that led them to victory in the 2019 election, has clearly convinced many Britons that the time is right for another vote,” said Matthew Smith, head of journalism of data on YouGov.

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

Other research confirms that the public is getting restless. A focus group this week for the nonpartisan More Common campaign found that seven out of eight participants want an election after the current economic crisis subsides — a significant increase from previous exercises.

Luke Traill, the UK director of More in Common, said most people wanted “a choice of who is in charge” – although he noted that the same people often felt conflicted as they were “exhausted by the constant politics of the last few years. “

Consultants from the agency Public First have found similar results in their own focus groups. The firm’s founding partner James Frain said calls for a general election had “increased in recent weeks and are not going anywhere”. He added: “As far as most voters are concerned, an unelected prime minister has screwed up the economy so badly that another unelected prime minister must impose brutal austerity in response.”

Internal discord

Indeed, even some Conservatives – mainly those who support Boris Johnson – suggest that an election is needed after he leaves Number 10 Downing Street.

Former Cabinet Minister – said Nadine Doris publicly that the election would be “impossible to avoid” after her fellow MPs rejected Johnson’s recent comeback bid. Back bench Christopher Chope and Tori Pair Zach Goldsmith both made similar claims.

“To impose a new prime minister who nobody voted for goes against the grain of what is democratic,” said one Conservative MP supporting Johnson. “The colleagues who removed Boris cannot have their cake and eat it too. Since then we have had a crappy show and Rishi’s appointment without a single vote is uncertain. But colleagues insist they do not want a general election.

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

“It’s legitimate to feel there Must 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 however well he does, I think he’s going to be quite calm, professional and not try to do crazy things, who the hell all our mortgages.

Deltapoll’s Twyman suggested that ultimately being accused of shunning democracy was probably the “lesser of two evils” for the Tories.

“It doesn’t look good for the Conservatives,” he said. “But a Labor majority of 300 doesn’t look good for the Conservatives either.”

Annabelle Dixon contributed reporting.

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