By Richard Wood
There’s no doubt that our politics has reached a new low. Against the background of a policy merry-go round, we have a prime minister out of her depth, or at the very least with poor fiscal aptitude.
The right thing for the country is a Truss resignation, her legacy set to become a blotched footnote on a torn up page in the history books.
But here we have the problem.
It would be completely wrong for another prime minister to be forced on the country without input from the British people at large. The new prime minister would have a difficult time batting off accusations about their legitimacy.
We live in a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential system. The leader of any party that can command a majority in the House of Commons ends up as prime minister. When a prime minister resigns mid-term, the governing party’s leader becomes prime minister.
There is a logic to this.
Yet when a new prime minister diverges so wildly from the manifesto and vision upon which their party was elected, shouldn’t we question this mode of governance?
Rather than mirror the Australian system, in which prime ministers and party leaders are subject to an almost constant churn, it is time to look at the alternatives.
The British prime minister is an extraordinarily powerful figure, but lacks a direct mandate from the people, only an indirect one from general elections (leaving aside for a second the unrepresentative failures of the First Past the Post voting system).
When the party leader is changed mid parliament, it therefore only strengthens the case to fix this broken link between voters and leaders.
Going forward, the bare minimum reform would be to legislate for a parliamentary vote to take place when a new party leader is presented as prime minister-elect. This happens in other parliamentary democracies – even within the UK. When Alex Salmond resigned as Scotland’s first minister in 2014, Nicola Sturgeon was directly elected by Members of the Scottish Parliament. Adopting such a mechanism at Westminster would give some parliamentary legitimacy to any new prime minister.
But what about legitimacy from the people?
I have previously written about the system that is in operation in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. There, when a premier (the Canadian provincial equivalent of prime minister or first minister) resigns, a countdown begins for an early election. A new vote must be called within a year.
Here lies thedemocratic solution to the ‘new prime minister’ problem at Westminster.
Legislating such that an automatic election is triggered, say within six months or a year of a prime ministerial change, would address questions of legitimacy.
Of course in the case of Liz Truss, it already appears unlikely that she will lead her party into the next election. Whether she is swiftly replaced, or limps on through the rest of the year, the parliamentary conservative party has a reputation for ruthlessness when it comes to leaders who are not fitting their bill.
Yet the prospect of democratic legitimacy for a new prime minister appears slim.
With the Conservative party trailing by 36% in the polls from earlier this week, Truss or her successor will only delay an election as long as possible.
The Truss (or her successors’) ministry may for now claim parliamentary legitimacy, but it lacks a public mandate, and is under no internal party pressure to seek one.
The associated deficit in democratic legitimacy only strengthens the arguments for the UK to reform its rules on how elections are called.