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19 October 2022

Could there be a snap election?

If a Conservative prime minister called one, it would only risk their position and their party.

By Freddie Hayward

In an interview with the BBC on 17 October, the Prime Minister said: “I’m sticking around because I was elected to deliver for this country.”

That is not entirely accurate. Only 81,326 Conservative Party members – or 0.17 per cent of the national electorate – voted for Liz Truss in the summer. In any case, many of the policies and principles she was elected on have now been scrapped. Besides, the Prime Minister has already departed drastically from Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto, implementing policies the Conservative majority wasn’t elected to deliver. A majority that the past week has proved she is unable to command.

This lack of authority has led to speculation about – not to mention calls from opposition parties for – a snap general election. A prime minister with no mandate, opponents of Truss argue, should go to the country to regain one.

However, the chances of Truss calling an election are slim to non-existent. Firstly, because her poll ratings are dire – the PM is nearly as unpopular as Vladimir Putin. Secondly, Tory MPs would probably replace Truss if she tried to force them into an election considering the high probability, per the polls, of them losing their seats.

A more interesting question is whether an election might be more likely if the Conservatives oust Truss and appoint yet another leader.

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The argument goes that if a new prime minister was chosen by Tory MPs rather than voted for by members in a full leadership contest, they would have even less of a mandate to govern than Truss. If Rishi Sunak became PM, perhaps he could argue that he received 60,000 votes from the membership in the summer’s contest – but that’s a stretch of legitimacy even for the Tory party. Like Truss, the new prime minister would be implementing a policy platform far removed from what was promised in 2019. Therefore, seeing as no one voted for austerity wouldn’t they be tempted to cement their validity by going to the people?

The answer is probably not. Britain has a parliamentary system: it was the Conservative Party – not Boris Johnson – that was elected in 2019 with an 80-seat majority. That (now slightly diminished) majority gives whoever is party leader a mandate to be prime minister. The crises of Covid, the war in Ukraine and market turbulence since the mini-Budget gives the new PM a “doctor’s mandate” to divert from 2019. As long as they can command a majority of MPs (something that Truss almost certainly cannot do), they will be able to struggle on for two more years until the end of the parliamentary term.

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Unless the polls change significantly, hanging on is far more appealing a prospect than an election in which the new PM risks losing. If a general election was to be held tomorrow, the New Statesman’s election model predicts the Conservatives would lose 324 seats – leaving them with fewer MPs in Westminster than the SNP. Electoral annihilation wouldn’t be the top priority for any new prime minister.

Another wildcard is the redrawing of constituency boundaries in late 2023; they are due to change for the first time since 2010. The Conservatives are expected to gain a slight advantage from this because of fewer seats in northern England, Wales and Scotland, but this benefit may not be as large as has been expected – and some prominent Tory MPs may find their seats at risk. There have been estimates of ten-seat boundary gains for the party, but even that pales in comparison with its projected losses. Nonetheless, the moves will surely play on the mind of a new leader deciding when to go to the polls.

Whether a general election is called will be down to political momentum. If the Tories pick another leader and see a popularity spike in the polls, perhaps they will take their chances before a predicted mortgage crisis hits and the spending cuts begin. Or perhaps they’ll savour their time in No 10 and hold out, hoping the situation will improve before January 2025, when the parliamentary term runs out. In either case, they’ll have to get rid of Truss first. 

[See also: Liz Truss to resign as Prime Minister after just 44 days]