Tuesday, July 12, 2016

All our Prime Ministers are unelected

Some good news to start with: Larry the Cat, who is not the Camerons' cat but a civil servant tasked to get rid of mice and rats (the four-legged ones) in Number 10, is staying on to take his rightful position under the new Prime Minister. I had always assumed that the Camerons were more of a dog family but kept a cat because of the difficulties of canine life in Downing Street. Not a bit of it. Larry is part of the government machine as is Palmerston, the Foreign Office cat. Sadly, being a civil servant not a politician, he cannot become the Prime Minister. Not yet, anyway.

The other piece of good news is that not writing about the supposed fight over children between May and Leadsom over the week-end meant that I do not have to write about it at all. By  Monday morning it was all over and Andrea Leadsom had pulled out of the contest. Did she jump or was she pushed? We do not know for certain but can make our own assumptions.

What we do know is that she was comprehensively stitched up by the media and, specifically, by the paper of record, the Times. All the stories that had been spread about her turned out to be untrue and Rachel Sylvester admitted that she had introduced the issue of Leadsom having children and May not into the conversation. The little we know from the tape (most of it is still in the secret archives of the paper of record) confirms that. Leadsom was probably naive not to insist on seeing that article before it was published and one could argue that alone shows that she is not ready for Number 10. But do we really want a situation in which less than honourable hacks decide who can and who cannot become party leader and Prime Minister? I find that appalling as I find it appalling how many people continue to believe and repeat the headlines even though doubts about the veracity of the story emerged very early.

Another curious aspect of the whole brouhaha has been outlined by Ross Clark in the Spectator: A traditional family life is now a handicap. Angela Eagle can explain that being gay, working class and a northern lass gives her some kind of a special insight into the country's mentality; Theresa May can (slightly more justifiably) excite people's sympathy because apparently she could not have children; but try talking about your children and implying that perhaps bringing them up does give you some qualifications and empathy with a very large proportion of the population and you are dead in the political arena.
How outrageous that Jeremy Corbyn’s challenger should bring her class, her geographical birthplace and her sexuality into the leadership debate, suggesting that they would make her a more suitable leader than Corbyn. Or maybe it isn’t outrageous that someone should draw on their personal experiences while campaigning for office. I certainly haven’t come across anyone else making the point I have just made, and neither did I hear anyone protesting when Stephen Crabb talked about his council house upbringing while launching his leadership bid, nor when Sadiq Khan went on ad nauseam during the London mayoral election about his father being a bus driver.

In which case why was it such a scandal when Andrea Leadsom suggested that being a mother gave her valuable experience for being Prime Minister? If being northern and working class makes you better able to understand a section of the population then surely being a parent helps you understand the demands on millions of other parents. Moreover, having to juggle the needs of work and childcare and still follow a successful career surely shows the world that you have valuable skills in time-management.
And we accept all this manipulation. Truly we get the media and the politicians we deserve.

Having got all that out of the way, let me turn to the inevitable cries that have already started: Theresa May is an unelected Prime Minister. We had them when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. He, too, was unelected. Well, of course, they are. All our Prime Ministers are unelected. We do not have a presidential system and we do not vote for Prime Ministers. We vote for MPs and through them for parties in the sense that the party with the largest number of MPs forms the government, choosing the leader according to their own rules.

Ah yes, I am told, but Theresa May (or Gordon Brown) did not lead their parties in an election. True.
A surprising number of Prime Ministers did not do so, when they were appointed to their jobs. Usually I start with 1940 when Churchill became an unelected Prime Minister but, for once, I shall go a little further back.

So here is a list of appointed Prime Ministers from 1916:

1916: Lloyd George becomes PM without an election when Asquith falls
1922:  Andrew Bonar Law became PM after the 1922 Committee revolt against the Coalition but called an election almost immediately
1923: With Bonar Law resigning because of his terminal cancer Stanley Baldwin is appointed PM. He, too, called an election soon after his appointment, which was inconclusive and led to a vote of no confidence, which, in turn, led to
1924: Ramsay Macdonald being appointed to be PM
Baldwin's second term came after he had led the Conservative Party to a huge victory but
1935: Baldwin was appointed Prime Minister of the Coalition government as Ramsay Macdonald's health was failing; he then won an election but
1937: Baldwin resigned and Chamberlain was appointed PM.

Before anyone starts making stupid comments about Neville Chamberlain let me say it quite forcefully that had there been an election in 1940 as intended, the Conservatives under him would have been returned triumphantly.

And so we come to 1940, from which the situation is a good deal more clear-cut with no real problems with the few coalitions we had.

1940: Churchill appointed PM and, obviously, could not call an election. In any case he leads a war-time coalition that is not dissolved till spring 1945 when Attlee demands an election, not something WSC was keen on. Labour landslide. Churchill loses one more election in 1950 and Conservatives are returned in 1951 though only just and without a popular mandate, which does not matter under our system.
1955: Churchill finally retires and Anthony Eden is appointed PM. He called an immediate General Election and increased the Conservative majority considerably. Well, we all know the sad story of Eden's premiership.
1957: Harold Macmillan is appointed PM. Did not call an election till 1959 which he won.
1963: Sir Alec Douglas Home is appointed PM after Supermac's resignation. Calls election in 1964 and loses though only just by five seats.
1976: James Callaghan is appointed PM after Harold Wilson completely unexpected resignation. Calls election in 1979 and loses.
1990: John Major is appointed PM after the drama of challenge to Thatcher and her resignation. Calls election in 1992 and wins.
2007: Gordon Brown appointed PM after Tony Blair's rather protracted resignation saga. Calls election in 2010 and loses.
2016: Theresa May appointed PM after David Cameron gambles on the EU referendum and loses, resigning immediately. No need to call an election especially as we now have fixed term Parliaments.

For the sake of brevity I have written of PMs losing or winning elections. Of course, it was the party they led that did so. Let me reiterate my two points:

1. None of our Prime Ministers are elected and
2.  Quite a few of our Prime Ministers even under the modern party system were appointed as their predecessors resigned. Some called an election immediately, some delayed; some then led their parties to victory, some did not.


  1. Nothing like some historical facts to clear up the arguments (or should that be "clean up"?). Anyway, thanks for a good piece on the selection of the new PM.


    PS: The great bane of our modern western societies is the declining standards of the news media.

    1. Did the news media ever actually have a golden age when they weren't clueless on every issue of importance? I'm in my 40s and I don't remember a time when the bulk of news media output was of a noticeably higher standard than today. There are rare bright spots but they are noticeable by their scarcity.

    2. I like to think there was a time but would be hard put to name when.