Well, it's been quite a Half Term (politically). Since school restarted, we've got through two monarchs and three prime ministers. The monarchs seem to be in it for the long haul. Queen Elizabeth clocked up a record-breaking seventy years; while King Charles will never match that, he could, given the longevity of both his parents and his grandmother, easily be with us for another twenty-five years. The prime ministers, on the other hand, seem to be a little more temporary these days. We have had five in just over six years. The last two have never faced a national election. Liz Truss was chosen by Conservative Party members, a tiny proportion of the population, overwhelmingly white, older, prosperous and living in the South East, while Rishi Sunak did not even face a vote of Conservative MPs, still less Conservative members, because he was the only candidate. Isn't it time the British people were allowed to choose their prime minister? Isn't it time for a General Election right now (November 2022)?
First, the constitutional facts.
Britain is a parliamentary democracy. Unlike, for example, France or the USA, the prime minister is not directly elected by the people. Nor is she or he the head of state; she or he is the head of government, appointed by the monarch, who is the head of state (currently King Charles III). The monarch appoints the person who commands the support of the majority of MPs in the House of Commons. This is normally the leader of the largest party. Right now, the Conservatives have a large majority in the House of Commons, following the general election of 2019, so the current leader of the Conservative Party is the prime minister. When supporters of Boris Johnson (and Boris Johnson himself) claim that he 'won a mandate' in 2019, that is not strictly true. The Conservative Party won a mandate. In 2019, he was the leader of the Conservative Party, so he was Prime Minister. In July 2022, Conservative MPs and ministers lost confidence in him as leader, and he had to resign. He was replaced by Liz Truss as Conservative leader, so she became Prime Minister. Liz Truss's MPs lost confidence in her even more quickly than Boris Johnson's, so she resigned as leader of the party in October 2022. When Rishi Sunak was elected unopposed as leader of the Conservative Party, he became Prime Minister.
It is important to understand that there is no constitutional obligation to have an election right now, just because the prime ministers have been swapped around a few times. The next time an election has to happen is when this parliament's five year term runs out, in December 2024. How could one be made to happen earlier than that?
There are two routes to a General Election in the middle of a parliament. The first is for the prime minister of the day to ask the monarch to dissolve parliament, thereby triggering an election. The second is if the government of the day loses a vote of confidence in parliament (this last happened in April 1979, when the Labour government lost a confidence vote, and the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, won the subsequent election). Neither is very likely to happen at the moment: the first because the Conservatives are significantly behind in the opinion polls, and Rishi Sunak is unlikely to want to trigger an election he might lose; the second because the Conservatives have a majority of over 80 in parliament, so are most unlikely to lose a confidence vote.
But should there be an election?
As so often, we can break this down into arguments of pragmatism and principle. What will work? What is the right thing to do?
For an election
There has been massive political instability in Britain over the last few months, largely caused by divisions within the Conservative Party. Rishi Sunak may have calmed things down a little, but this will only be temporary; the wounds run deep. It can only be a matter of time before Mr Sunak's enemies start plotting against him, causing more instability. This instability has done major damage to the British economy, which has hurt ordinary people. It has sent the pound crashing, making everyday things more expensive, and sent mortgage rates up, making the cost of housing higher. A general election would bring stability by most likely electing a majority Labour government, giving the Conservatives time to lick their wounds in opposition. Moreover, it would make people feel they had a stake in the government, and would dispel cynicism about democracy.
Against an election
The damage caused to the economy by the recent political instability is precisely why we should not have an election right now. Elections are deeply destabilising, as they throw everything into doubt. It is by no means certain that an election would bring about a Labour government. In 2017, Teresa May called an election confident that she would win a massive majority for 'strong and stable' government against a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn, and as divided then as the Conservatives are now; we ended up with a 'hung parliament' with no party having a majority, and two years of chaos and deadlock until the decisive election of 2019. Far better to get behind Mr Sunak and give him time to sort things out.
For an election
Whatever the constitution says, it is simply not fair that the British people should have a prime minister imposed on them by a tiny, unrepresentative minority made up by Conservative party members or MPs. They're not even very good at choosing; they picked a liar (Boris Johnson) followed by an incompetent (Liz Truss). We face major crises with the cost of living, climate change and the war in Ukraine. The British people should be allowed to choose who will lead them through these crises.
Against an election
Although their leader may have changed four times in just over six years, the Conservative Party is still in power. It was this party which won the election in 2019, with a mandate to rule for five years. It should be allowed to continue to rule. Calls for an election by opposition parties are just opportunism, because they hope to take advantage of the government going through a difficult patch. If the government was doing well, they would not be calling for an election.