Constitutional Misunderstandings

This is the third time I can remember a Prime Minister handing over power to a successor from the same party without a general election. Wilson handed over to Callaghan in 1976 and Thatcher handed over (albeit unwillingly) to Major in 1990.

Every time this happens the same constitutional misunderstandings are heard. People start insisting that the incoming PM has no mandate and demanding a general election as soon as possible.

This pre-supposes that they elected the outgoing PM in some way. Which, of course, they didn’t. Here’s how it works.

  • Constituents elect an MP to represent them
  • Party members elect party leaders
  • The queen invites someone to be PM – this is is usually the leader of the party with the most MPs

That’s all there is to it. You elect your MP. You don’t elect the PM. It’s up to the queen to decide who she wants as her Prime Minister.

Yes, you can argue that it’s a silly system. And, yes, you can argue that it shouldn’t work like that. And, yes, certainly many people use their vote not to vote for an MP, but for a particular party or even a particular party system. But that’s not how the system works. If you’re trying to use the system that way then you’re not using your vote in the way it’s supposed to be used.

You expect to see that kind of muddled thinking from Have Your Say contributors (who are rarely the clearest-thinking group of people) but it’s particularly galling to see people like Boris Johnson perpetuating this misinformation. Of course, Boris knows how the system works. He knows he’s talking bollocks. What he says isn’t really his opinion, it’s just what he is forced into writing by the adversarial nature of our (effectively) two-party political system. But stupid people read his articles (and similar articles by other people who should know better) and believe that he’s speaking the truth. And so the misunderstandings are perpetuated.

Gordon Brown may well want to call a general election soon. But that’s completely up to him. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is either stupid or deliberately trying to mislead you. Maybe both.


  1. Have your say? Thats the sort of ignorance I’d expect from a Sun reader. Maybe theres a direct readership link…But yeah, its amazing how many people think we operate a US style voting system – but we don’t, and they really should learn the difference.Is it just me or should this be something that is at least touched on at school? I mean, they forced me to learn French AND German for 4 years and Ive never been to either. However, I HAVE voted in a number of general/local elections – I wonder how many other people are in the same position??

  2. Although there wasn’t a general election in 1990, there was a Tory party leadership contest. So it wasn’t strictly a ‘handover’ which sounds like there was no debate or contest at all. (I don’t know about 1976). But anyway your main point is true – we don’t have to have a plebiscite to get a new prime minister. It’s effectively down to the makeup of the MPs. Also you’re right to draw attention to the fact that at the end of the day the queen invites whoever she thinks will command a majority in the commons. But although that part is undemocratic, it still ends up depending on the MPs that are there.Partly, these misconceptions are self-inflicted because of Tony Blair’s style of leadership. He has repeatedly given the impression that we vote for or against him rather than for an MP or an assembly. Remember his whole “back me or sack me” stuff when the war became unpopular. He reveled in presenting himself as a lone crusader, “just doing what I think is right”. And now Labour are paying the price for that.

  3. Although there wasn’t a general election in 1990, there was a Tory party leadership contest.

    Well yes. But there was a Labour Party leadership contest this time – but unfortunately only one candidate stood for election.

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