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If the Tories are planning ‘decisions of eye-watering difficulty’, they need Britain’s consent

Election Now: Whatever else you might think of them, Theresa May and Boris Johnson were doing the decent thing, democratically speaking, in calling elections, writes Tim Bale

Wednesday 19 October 2022 15:02 BST
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Britain wasn’t actually a democracy at all until 1929
Britain wasn’t actually a democracy at all until 1929 (AP)

“I have”, Benjamin Disraeli is reputed to have said when he became Tory prime minister for the first time in 1868, “climbed to the top of the greasy pole” – a deliciously apt metaphor given the alarming rate at which his 21st-century equivalents seem to have been slipping off it in the years since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016.

Short stays in Downing Street were not that unusual in Disraeli’s day, of course: Britain’s party system wasn’t fully consolidated, and in any case, politicians back then were far more likely than their modern counterparts to fall gravely ill and even die in office.

But rapid turnover at the top wasn’t totally unknown in the 20th century, either. And elections could sometimes come thick and fast, too.

In May 1923, for example, following his victory in the November 1922 general election, Tory prime minister Andrew Bonar Law, having spent barely 200 days in office, was forced by ill health to give way to his cabinet colleague Stanley Baldwin. However, when Baldwin called a general election in December 1923, he managed (Theresa May-style) to lose his majority.

Ramsay MacDonald then became the country’s first ever Labour prime minister – but not for long: 10 months later his minority administration lost a vote of no confidence in the Commons, after which Baldwin returned to office having won the general election of October 1924 – the third to be held in under two years.

A cynic might suggest, on the basis of all those ups and downs, that sometimes you really can have too much of a good thing. But to argue that Britain at the time was suffering from some sort of surfeit of democracy would be mistaken.

Do you want a general election?

For one thing, Britain wasn’t actually a democracy at all until 1929 – the date of the first election in which adult women were finally entitled to vote. And for another, the three elections of the early 1920s (and indeed the 1931 election, which saw the country’s second Labour government swept away in the wake of the Great Crash) were crucial in the sense that the prime ministers who called them were, quite rightly, seeking a fresh mandate.

In 1922, Bonar Law sought a return to single party majority government under the Tories after six years of wartime and post-war coalition under David Lloyd George. In 1923, Baldwin felt duty-bound to seek permission for a sudden, even spectacular reversal of Britain’s traditional free-trade policy. In 1924, MacDonald had no choice but to go to the country in the hope that it had come to recognise that Labour politicians were not merely trade union ciphers but were capable of governing in the national interest.

And in 1931 he was essentially confessing to voters that he’d been wrong, and that – with the exception of himself and a couple of cabinet colleagues who had joined the National government – they weren’t after all.

On those grounds, it would seem – whatever else you might think of them, and irrespective of the fact that they also went to the country because they believed they would win – that Theresa May, in 2017, and even Boris Johnson, in 2019, were doing the decent thing, democratically speaking.

Having argued, however reluctantly, for Remain during the referendum campaign, May was, by early 2017, promising to deliver a hard Brexit – something for which the Conservatives, re-elected just two years previously, had only the shakiest of mandates. She (or at least her adviser Nick Timothy) also envisaged a more interventionist, less austerity-obsessed policy programme than the one on which David Cameron had run.

As for Johnson, he was promising (whether or not he really meant it, or even much cared about it) more spending on public services than she was, as well as promoting a deal with the EU in which the status of Northern Ireland would be markedly different from what May had envisaged. General elections were therefore wholly in order.

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By the same logic, Liz Truss, when she took over, should have been considering going to the country sooner or later, too. But she wasn’t: she hoped to use the healthy majority won by her predecessor to pursue market-fundamentalist policies that were a major departure from the ones on which she and her colleagues had campaigned in 2019.

As for whoever eventually takes over from her: if the Tories really are planning to take “decisions of eye-watering difficulty” (Hunt-speak for spending cuts), then that represents no less a departure from what was promised in 2019, and, as such, arguably merits going back to the country to gain its consent.

That won’t, of course, happen. Morality, or the conviction that a change of leader constitutes a change of government, might dictate a fresh election. But reality, tempered by polling that seems to predict annihilation for the Conservative Party, points in a very different direction.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of the book ‘The Conservative Party after Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation’, due out in March 2023

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