Is Theresa May an ‘Unelected’ Prime Minister?

This morning, Jolyon Maugham QC tweeted the following:

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Encapsulated within less than 140 characters, Jo seems to have raised two or three issues all at once. But the thing which caught my eye was his use of the phrase ‘Unelected PM’.

This particular jibe has been used more than once by a number of pundits. It was used several times during the premiership of Gordon Brown. Invariably, it is used pejoratively as an attempt to diminish to legitimacy of a particular Prime Minister. There have been occasions in the past where such a Prime Minister has felt the need to go to the country in a General Election in order to secure a popular mandate and thus carry out their intended programme. So perhaps there is a modicum of truth in the epithet. But certainly, we need to examine the situation a little more carefully.

The standard procedure for the appointment of Prime Minister in the UK, is for the Crown to ask a particular politician to form a government. This is why, after a General Election, there is a ritual journey by the leader of the winning party to make a journey to Buckingham Palace to seek an audience with Her Majesty. That politician is not necessarily the leader of the party which won most seats. Famously, after the 2010 General election, it took a couple of days to winkle Gordon Brown out of Number 10 Downing Street before David Cameron was confident enough to go to the Palace.

A General Election is called for the electorate to choose a politician to represent them in Parliament. Although many of us, when we vote, will have at the back of our minds a view of the competency of a particular party, a party leader, and who we should like to form a government, this is not the legal purpose of the election. The legal purpose is to return a politician to Parliament to represent us in that place.

So, with these caveats in mind, we should then look at the history of elections and Prime Ministers in this country and see what has happened.

Since 1900, there have been a total of thirty General Elections, thus forming thirty Parliaments. Of these, there have been thirteen Parliaments where the Prime Minister has been changed during the course of that Parliament. This has happened for a variety of reasons – resignation of an incumbent PM  due to ill health being one reason. On other occasions, a PM has resigned because he (or she) can no longer carry their party with them. Margaret Thatcher’s resignation under these circumstances is perhaps the most well known example in recent times. David Cameron’s resignation falls into this category.

Using this list, it can be seen that there have been two Parliaments since 1900 which have been headed by more than two different Prime Ministers – that of 1900-1906 (Marquess of Salisbury, Arthur Balfour and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman) and 1935-1945 (Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill). Furthermore, not all General Elections have resulted in Parliaments where successive PMs have come from the same party. The 1900-1906 Parliament was headed by three Prime Ministers, the Marquess of Salisbury and Balfour being Conservative, and Campbell-Bannerman being Liberal. The 1918-1922 Parliament was headed successively by David Lloyd George (Liberal) and then Andrew Bonar Law (Conservative). Likewise, the 1923-1924 Parliament was lead by Stanley Baldwin (Conservative) and then Ramsay Macdonald (Labour).

The principle point seems to be that the Crown can appoint anyone to form a government in the best interests of the nation. Looking at this list, where 43% of governments (and therefore Prime Ministers) have been changed during the course of a single Parliament, it becomes apparent that our electoral and constitutional system is remarkably flexible and can be altered according to the needs of the nation at any particular time or national emergency. Under this examination, it seems to depend upon three things for its success: the willingness of the electorate, the politicians and the constancy of the Crown acting in the best interests of the whole nation.

So when considering recent events, Theresa May’s government was formed upon the resignation of David Cameron and the result of the EU Referendum. This new government has been drawn from the ranks of the Conservative MPs who are mostly different individuals from their immediate predecessors. As a result, the philosophical outlook of the current government is markedly different from that of David Cameron’s government, but is no less legitimate for it. There is no particular need for Mrs May to go to the country for another General Election, because the Conservatives enjoy a small but workable majority in Parliament. In any case, the immediate need for the country, as mandated by the result of the referendum, is to extricate the United Kingdom from the clutches of the European Union. Another General Election would only act as a distraction and hindrance to this requirement.

Finally, we need to address directly the ‘unelected’ epithet. There have been no Prime Ministers of the UK who are unelected since the Marquess of Salisbury resigned due to ill health in 1902. The nearest we have had since then was Sir Alec Douglas Home (the 14th Earl of Home) who was appointed Prime Minister upon the resignation of Harold Macmillan.  Home renounced his peerage four days after his appointment as PM in order that he could be held to account within the House of Commons.

Theresa May was elected MP for Maidenhead in 1997 and now enjoys a majority of 29,059 at the last election. Given that, and all the conditions outlined above being fulfilled, it is difficult to see how Jo Maugham can  argue that she is somehow ‘unelected’ – even allowing for the habitual sophistry of lawyers. Sadly, this is not the first time he has let himself down with cheap, unsubstantiated jibes. I doubt if it will be the last.

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