After the 2015 election, I appeared on a political web show as an American journalist covering the British elections. When discussion turned to who would succeed David Cameron, I stated that “after a nuclear holocaust there would be cockroaches and Theresa May.” I wasn’t trying to compare the then-Home Secretary to a cockroach, but rather comment on her staying power. She is the longest serving Home Secretary in more than a century. She seemed an unstoppable force.
Then she became Prime Minister. Number 10—or perhaps more accurately, Brexit—proved the boot which finally crushed her political career. Theresa May has been an abysmal Prime Minister, losing the Tory majority in an ill-planned (for the Conservatives, anyway) 2017 general election and being utterly unable to unite a country deeply divided on Brexit. Indeed, her premiership will be remembered more for tinned soundbites (“Brexit means Brexit,” “strong and stable”) than any actual accomplishments.
Now, a bevvy of unsavoury characters (Boris Johnson, Andera Leadsom, etc) are poised to fight out a tumultuous Conservative leadership contest. The winner will ultimately lead the country out of the European Union. But they shouldn’t, at least, not simply by ascending to Number 10. They must have a mandate from the people, and that means the new Prime Minister must call a general election.
To be certain, technically, they don’t have to call an election. John Major didn’t go to the country until nearly two years after he succeeded Margaret Thatcher. Gordon Brown took nearly three years after he took over from Tony Blair. The next election doesn’t have to be held until 2022.
Certainly, there are sound arguments against calling an election. The country is already in tumult thanks to Brexit. A general election could add to the chaos, especially if the voters return a hung parliament (that is, no party has a clear majority). We more-or-less know what a Conservative Prime Minister will deliver (most likely, a no-deal Brexit), but simply by virtue of being in opposition, we know less what Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn might negotiate.
But here’s what we know. The next Tory leader will likely be an arch-Brexiteer. The Brexiteers campaigned on returning sovereignty to the British people. How, then, can they possibly justify a Prime Minister with no mandate from the people leading the country out of the European Union?
To be sure, there are plenty of constitutional arguments to make this point null and void. Technically, Prime Ministers aren’t directly elected (well, not by anyone but their constituents, who elect them as an MP). The Conservatives are still the largest party. The Westminster system is functioning as it ought to.
All of this is true, but it betrays a more basic fact. Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom, and those who campaigned to leave the EU did so in large part because of the “unelected” EU making decisions on behalf of the UK and that these decisions should be made by the British parliament, elected by the British people. How, then, can the most monumental peacetime decision be, if not made, than certainly executed by someone to whom the British people never had a chance to say aye?
The Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have already tweeted their support for a general election. The new Leader of the Conservative Party must follow suit. If Brexit is about democracy—both being restored and being honoured—they would be hypocrites not to.