History shows what happens to unelected PMs like Theresa May

Who wants to be the next James Callaghan?

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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.

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.

Shebab Khan is a political columnist for the Independent.

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