EXPLAINER: Why the British public is not choosing its leader

While the Conservative Party scrambles for a third PM since 2019, the Labour Party demands general elections. Constitutionally, no general election is required in Britain for two more years.

Published: 22nd October 2022 06:51 PM  |   Last Updated: 22nd October 2022 06:51 PM   |  A+A-

A woman arrives at a polling station in London, Dec. 12, 2019. (File Photo|AP)

By Associated Press

LONDON: Observers of Britain's governing structure can be forgiven for scratching their heads in recent weeks as they watch the country reel through a succession of prime ministers without holding an election. While the opposition Labour Party is demanding an election, the governing conservatives are pushing on with choosing another prime minister from within their own ranks, which they have the right to do because of the way Britain's parliamentary democracy works.

Britain is divided into 650 local constituencies, and people tick a box for the representative they want to become their local member of parliament or MP. In most cases, this will be a member of one of the country's major political parties.

The party that wins the majority of seats gets to form a government, and that party's leader automatically becomes the prime minister. While coalitions are possible, Britain's voting system favours the two largest parties and in most cases, a single party will take an absolute majority of seats, as is the case for the Conservatives in the current Parliament.

Ballot papers cast in the 2019 general election are counted in London, Thursday, Dec 12, 2019 (File Photo | AP)

Since 1922, all of Britain's 20 prime ministers have come from either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party. This means the members of these parties have an outsized influence on who will be the country's prime minister. The processes the parties use to choose them can appear Byzantine.

Deep breath: For the Conservative Party, their lawmakers must first signal their support for a potential leader. If there is enough support, this person will become an official candidate. All Conservative MPs then cast a series of votes, gradually whittling down the number of candidates to two. Finally, the party's ordinary members — around 180,000 of them — vote between these two candidates. Last time they chose Liz Truss over Rishi Sunak.

If the MPs are able to unite behind a single candidate then there is no need for the wider party members to have a vote. This last happened in 2016 when the lawmakers backed Theresa May after the resignation of David Cameron and she automatically became prime minister. This could happen again. The Labour Party has its own process that is, arguably, even more complicated.


Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Fie Photo | AP)

Johnson was selected by his party following the resignation of Theresa May. He had already been prime minister for five months when electors ticked their ballot cards in December 2019. However, voters' support for the Conservative Party did cement his position as prime minister.

Even in that election, though, it was only actually around 70,000 people who got the chance to vote directly for or against Johnson — those who happened to live in his Parliamentary constituency of Ruislip and South Uxbridge, in west London. Since then, another prime minister, Liz Truss, has come and gone, and one more will be in place by the end of next week — all without anyone troubling the general electorate.

Constitutionally, no general election is required in Britain for two more years. But as the prime ministers come and go, selected by a tiny proportion of the population, a lot of Britons are beginning to wonder why they are not getting a chance to influence who is their next leader. The clamour for a general election in the near future is only likely to get louder.

READ | Priti Patel backs former boss Boris Johnson to return as new UK PM


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