Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Business
  2. Economics
7 September 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 9:09am

History shows what happens to unelected PMs like Theresa May

Who wants to be the next James Callaghan?

By Shehab Khan

Theresa May walked into Downing Street without having to face the British public. She seamlessly manoeuvred herself into pole position for the top job without a single vote being cast. As an unelected Prime Minister, she can now looks back on history and know the odds of success are stacked against her. Those who become Prime Minister like May have always struggled for legitimacy. 

May’s method of becoming PM is not uncommon in the slightest. In fact, half of Britain’s Prime Ministers since the start of the Second World War have been unelected. Before Theresa May,  there was Gordon Brown, John Major, James Callaghan, Lord Home, Harold Macmillan, Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill all entered Downing Street without having to face the public at the ballot box. Most voters remember best the most recent member of the unelected Prime Minister club, Gordon Brown, who in 2007 took over from Tony Blair entirely unopposed. Just like our current incumbent, he faced pressure to call a snap election. Choosing not to do so sowed the seeds in his eventual downfall.

Brown inherited a strong majority in the House of Commons and was relatively popular in the polls. Calling an election seemed the obvious way to reinforce his mandate. And yet he dithered. Then the financial crisis of 2008 hit, and Brown’s credibility greatly suffered. His decision to bail out banks, although necessary, was not popular. It didn’t take long before cries of “we didn’t even vote them in” started being heard. May was one of those who stuck the knife in. As early as 2007, she wrote: “He has no democratic mandate… An early election? Bring it on.” The then-shadow minister claimed he was “running scared of the people’s verdict”.

Brown isn’t the only unelected Prime Minister who has felt the repercussions of not calling an election. James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson in 1976. In 1978, polls suggested Labour was in the lead and Callaghan had the potential to beat a relatively unpopular Margaret Thatcher. But he decided against calling a election. The next few years were ones of British decline, and in 1979, Thatcher won in the first of what would turn out to be 18 years of Tory rule. She had previously mocked Callaghan as a “chicken” and argued the only reason he was not calling an election was out of the fear he would lose. 

Neither Brown and Callaghan are associated with grand electoral victories. Instead their legacy is remembered as periods of vast economic decline. There was no flagship policy; no moment they appeared on the steps of Downing Street amid vast public adoration and support. May, who came to power in the depths of the Brexit aftermath, runs the risk of a very similar fate. You don’t have to be an expert to predict there might be a recession post-Brexit. If May looks back at history, she will realise the odds are against her. To avoid the same jibes thrown at her predecessors, she needs a mandate from the people.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy
THANK YOU

Otherwise, her lack of legitimacy will become more apparent. People don’t like having someone in charge they haven’t voted for. It is as simple as that. It’s time for May to call an election.

Content from our partners
How industry is key for net zero
How to ensure net zero brings good growth and green jobs
Flooding is a major risk for our homes

Shebab Khan is a political columnist for the Independent.