Whilst constitutionally an election is not necessary, calls for one may be hard for the new Prime Minister to resist.
By Associate Professor Danny Rye, Liverpool Hope University
It is not unprecedented for party leaders to change in-between elections and for a new Prime Minister to be appointed mid-term. It is very unusual for that to happen twice in one Parliament. So as Rishi Sunak shakes the King’s hand, and officially takes office, there are already some questions over whether he and his government can sustain a sense of legitimacy. The opposition are loudly calling for an election, as you might expect given the polls, but so are some Conservative MPs and conservative-supporting journalists.
In constitutional terms, there is no case to answer. We elect parliaments, parties choose their leaders, the Prime Minister needs to command a majority in the House of Commons, which in practice means being the leader of the biggest party. There is no requirement for an election before the end of 2024.
Politically, the new PM will want to avoid an election for as long as possible. The Conservatives are consistently 20 to 30 points plus behind in the polls, and dissolving parliament now would be electoral suicide. Since the calling of an election is once again (following the abolition of the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act) in the gift of the Prime Minister of the day, we can rule that out for now. Sunak will want to steady the ship, calm the turbulent party down and set a course that his MPs can get behind and that will reassure voters. That’s a big ask given the damage that has been done to the Tory brand in recent months, but some improvement may at least make an electoral wipe-out less likely.
However, whilst constitutionally an election is not necessary, and politically it is very unlikely, morally it may be harder to resist. There seems to be a growing mood amongst the public for a change, and Sunak will hope he can at least stall that. Nonetheless, the election question now looks to have become part of the story, and he will be asked that question again and again.
He will need a compelling answer as to why the public should not have their say yet. The need to address the immense challenges the nation faces economically, the energy crisis, the war in Ukraine, growing worker unrest and creaking public services may form part of that justification, but they are just as compelling a reason for a change of government.
One of the first lessons of politics that any student will learn is that divided parties don’t win elections. They struggle to govern either as the last few months have demonstrated. Despite a large majority in the House of Commons, the Conservatives seem paralysed by division. Therefore, a significant skill that the new Prime Minister will need is party management. To somehow persuade the party’s warring factions – the libertarians, the more interventionist red-wallers, the Thatcherites, the ‘One Nation types – to work together.
It is not impossible. James Callaghan, who also became PM mid-way through a Parliament in 1976, held together a badly divided Labour Party and governed for three years, in the midst of economic crisis and industrial unrest. Unlike Sunak, he didn’t have a majority in the House of Commons either. However, even under the well-liked and hugely experienced Callaghan, the party sank to defeat against a reinvigorated, united opposition in 1979.
If Sunak, a political neophyte by comparison with just seven years in the Commons, cannot persuade his fractious party to work together and to present plausible answers to these difficult questions then the argument for an election will become harder and harder to resist. Continuing division is likely to point towards eventual defeat.
That lesson will be ringing in the ears of the leader. But will his fractious MPs hear it?
Danny Rye Tweets from @dannyrye