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Three Prime Ministers, Two Resignations, One Crisis of Legitimacy, and No General Election

Image via Jessica Taylor/AFP

The current political situation in the United Kingdom is in disarray. Uncertainty reigns throughout Parliament as it reels from Prime Minister Liz Truss’s resignation. Her ignominious exit makes her the shortest-serving prime minister in the nation’s history, leaving behind a historically unpopular Conservative Party clinging to a tenuous majority. Back bench members of Parliament are in outright revolt, ministers have resigned, Rishi Sunak has become the third prime minister of the year, and searching the phrase “UK government crisis 2022” leads to a disambiguation page on Wikipedia, because there have been two only months apart. At time of writing, Boris Johnson’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, now controls the deeply divided Conservative Party. However, while it is easy for us as Americans to chuckle at the chaos, we must recognize the United Kingdom’s current turmoil as a true test of democratic legitimacy.

The foundation of the United Kingdom’s crisis was laid earlier this year with the chaotic end of Boris Johnson’s tenure as prime minister, where the former leader left behind a slew of issues underpinned by a lack of public trust in the government. Johnson had long been caught up in a myriad of scandals, but he held out against calls for him to resign for as long as he possibly could, which only increased the fervor against him and strain on the Conservative Party. Ultimately, he was forced to resign and allow the Conservatives, also known as the Tories, to pick the next prime minister against his wishes, giving way to an intense leadership election. After eight candidates battled to become the next prime minister, Truss defeated Sunak in a final round of voting and took office at 10 Downing Street. With her close political confidant and newly-appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng by her side, Truss appeared ready to face the incoming economic crisis and energy shortages head-on.

Unfortunately for the newly-elected Truss, her honeymoon period as prime minister was short-lived. Just days into her tenure, the United Kingdom’s beloved Queen Elisabeth II passed away. While the late Queen’s death had no legal impact on Truss’s government, her approval suffered as the general public mood soured. These feelings only deepened as Truss and Kwarteng introduced their “mini-budget,” involving roughly £45 billion of tax cuts in a classic free-market strategy. While designed to stimulate the UK economy, its immediate impact was utterly disastrous. Upon its introduction, the pound fell to its lowest-ever level against the US dollar, mortgage rates jumped, and the Bank of England was forced to intervene to prevent the collapse of pension funds. 

The backlash was immediate. Despite Truss reversing her tax policy and firing her friend and confidant Kwarteng, Conservatives’ polling continued to plummet, the pound failed to rally, and backbench Members of Parliament began to speak out against the government. Even the International Monetary Fund issued a rare criticism of Truss’s tax cuts. The writing was on the wall: Truss’s resignation was a matter of when, not if. Her inevitable fate became so clear that the Daily Star set up a livestream of a head of lettuce to see whether or not it would outlast Truss’s tenure in Number 10. It did. Facing ever increasing calls for her resignation, Truss gave in, and became the shortest-serving prime minister in the history of the United Kingdom (and in so doing, finally managed to cause a raise in the valuation of the pound). 

Many in the United Kingdom are feeling a sense of déjà-vu: On the heels of a Conservative leadership contest, the country faces an ever-growing energy shortage and an ever-steepening economic crisis. The main difference between the current circumstances and those that preceded Truss’s ascension to prime minister is the notable gap between the government and public opinion. Current forecasts for the next election do not even place the Conservatives as the opposition leaders, instead predicting that the Tories will fall to third behind the Scottish National Party. Such a defeat would represent a stunning rebuke of the Tory government.

Earlier this year, the Conservative majority in Parliament repealed the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, returning the power to call parliamentary elections from Parliament to the prime minister and the prime minister alone. The Conservatives being simultaneously in power and down in the polls means that it is highly unlikely that a snap election will be called ahead of the scheduled elections in January of 2025, especially since sources say that Prime Minister Sunak has “ruled out” the possibility. However, this decision, or lack thereof, like many of the Tories’ political decisions before it, has not come without backlash. 

In the United Kingdom, it is not uncommon for the leadership of the governing party to change without a general election being called. It is less common, however, for this leadership to change twice in the same year with no general election. While this change in leadership is perfectly legal, many Brits find it anti-democratic. Immediately following Liz Truss’s resignation, the calls for a general election began, starting with Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer, but soon grew to include voters from around the United Kingdom. Support for a general election has emerged on a grassroots level as well, with nearly one million UK citizens signing the official petition for an immediate general election, and calls have only intensified after the Conservative leadership race concluded with Sunak becoming PM.

While the crisis in the United Kingdom is a crisis of legitimacy, it is important to note that it is not an existential crisis of democracy. The United Kingdom is a stable democracy, and elections will occur sooner or later. However, that sooner or later is crucial to the popular legitimacy—or legitimacy under John Locke’s “consent of the governed” definition—of the current Parliament. The test of democratic legitimacy is as follows: Citizens in 2019 voted for a conservative government led by Boris Johnson that would accomplish Brexit. Now, with Brexit accomplished, the government is two prime ministers removed from a popular mandate. With such a clear outcry for a new general election to reflect the wishes and views of the people at hand, the truly democratic choice is obvious. The people of the United Kingdom did not vote for Truss or Sunak, and if given the chance to vote, all signs suggest that they would not. While it would come at the expense of his majority and his office, Sunak should heed the calls for a general election, and do something that is decidedly uncommon for a politician: surrender power for the sake of democracy.