The UK will find out on Monday who will be the country’s new prime minister. Liz Truss is the front-runner to succeed Boris Johnson and lead the nation as it struggles with an escalating cost-of-living crisis.
Given how long the Conservative leadership race has dragged on, familiarity may be encouraging disinterest. In terms of news, the competition is becoming a down-page summer sideshow. We might be overlooking the fact that the 2022 succession race is a historic occasion as a result.
It should be obvious to everyone that political history will be written on September 5. The election is unique because, if polls and betting are accurate, party members are about to choose Liz Truss as prime minister, despite neither Tory MPs nor the nation as a whole having cast ballots in her favour.
Since party members now have the final say in leadership elections, Truss will be the third prime minister to be picked by the Conservatives in the middle of a legislative session. But because party members overturned the MPs’ decision from the earlier rounds, she will be the first to win.
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Up until the twenty-first century, when a prime minister left office during a session of parliament, the members of the ruling party would vote to elect a new leader. James Callaghan and John Major were two people who used that method to get to No. 10 in the years following World War II. This was a logical extension of the parliamentary system, which places power in the hands of the party leader who can command a majority in the House of Commons and elects MPs at general elections.
But since 1981 for Labour and 1998 for the Tories, the electorate for leadership has been expanded to include a position for party members. Party leaders have been able to select the British prime minister in the middle of a session of parliament four separate times. The first, Tony Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, won the Labour election in 2007 without any opposition.
Because Andrea Leadsom withdrew, there was no need for a membership ballot, and Theresa May was declared the winner of the second in 2016. Johnson was the first British prime minister to be elected by the members of the ruling party in 2019. However, and this is essential, Johnson was also the MPs’ top choice in all of the previous parliamentary rounds.
Truss won’t experience this. She is not the first pick of Tory MPs, unlike May in 2016 or Johnson in 2019. In the first round of voting in July, only 50 of the party’s 357 MPs (14%) chose to support her.
In the following three rounds of the competition, she lagged behind both Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt before edging over Mordaunt in round five to earn a spot in the membership runoff against Sunak. Only 113 MPs, or 31.6% of the total, supported Truss even in the last round. However, she is the one who now appears most likely to enter No. 10 this month.
Truss is still a legitimate prime minister despite this. She is weaker as a result, though. Additionally, it indicates that she is a new kind of prime minister because the extra-parliamentary party membership, not the actual parliament, has given her the authority to lead. Supporters of representative democracy should be hesitant in light of this. It will lead to issues.
A party membership election is also more susceptible to outside influence than a general election, which is governed by laws to maintain some sort of balance, as the Daily Mail correctly notes. A membership ballot also inherently produces more partisan voters.
In actuality, this might not matter as much as it does in principle. The economy and expense of living in the nation are about to enter a hurricane-force disaster. Without a doubt, the Tory party in Westminster will support its new leader, at least for a few weeks. However, the event and what it represents will ring true.
Truss will effectively serve as a prime minister appointed from outside of parliament. This has not transpired in Britain’s parliamentary system since the unreformed age when monarchs still appointed their first ministers, about 200 years ago. It will have political ramifications and perhaps even constitutional ones.
Allowing members of any political party to select the prime minister is problematic both in theory and in practise. The institutional balances inside a representative government system, like Britain’s, are necessarily altered by it. But it’s too late to turn back.
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Unquestionably, prime ministers who prevail in general elections have the support of the nation. Those that join the team in the middle of the term just inherit theirs. Recently elected officials have been concerned about this. Early on in their tenures in Downing Street, Brown, May, and Johnson all aimed to win their own unique mandates. Brown missed his chance to seize it. May blew hers away. Johnson grasped his with delight.
Which mandate will Truss invoke in order to rule? She will take over the mandate for a Brexit that expands the economy that Johnson received in 2019 from a diverse coalition of people across Britain. She will, however, only hold the position of No. 10 thanks to the support of the party’s membership, which is disproportionately southern English, right-leaning, old, male, and white. Her supporters favour fewer regulations, cheaper taxes, and a more difficult Brexit. The outcome of Truss’ prime ministership will depend on how she responds to this conundrum.
However, this new form of prime minister will unavoidably need to firmly establish her new sort of legitimacy. It won’t be simple. She has to handle a parliamentary party that did not want her as the leader (as happened to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn); choose ministers willing to serve while dissenting with her approach (the dilemma facing Sunak and others), and deal with an increase in incisive former ministers on the backbenches (including Johnson and Michael Gove), and deliver a legislative agenda without the major backbench revolts that occasionally have made the modern Tory party almost unmanageable.
Truss must, above all, prevail in a general election within the following two years. She will naturally wish to continue serving until an election cannot be avoided, as is the case with most midterm prime leaders. Brown, Major, and Callaghan all carried out this. However, she might conclude that things can only grow worse as she stares down the barrels of skyrocketing inflation, soaring energy prices, and a health service that is in disarray.
The only thing we know for sure about Truss is that she’s a risk-taking gambler. She is positioned at Downing Street’s entrance for this reason. Despite all the dangers, she might not have any other option but to call an early general election in order to strengthen her precarious mandate.