Questions of democratic legitimacy are swirling in the United Kingdom after the resignation on Thursday of Prime Minister Liz Truss, whose government collapsed just 44 days after she took office.
Truss’s downfall will trigger a second leadership election within the Conservative Party’s 170,000 members to pick a third prime minister for the country of 67 million this year.
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, another conservative, resigned in July following revelations that he’d disobeyed the U.K.’s COVID-19 regulations while the country was on lockdown.
Truss’s departure does not require a public vote to select a new government, though opposition party politicians seized on the moment to call for a general election.
“Constitutionally, there’s no case for a general election. There wasn’t one when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair in 2007 nor in 1990 when John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher,” British political scientist Vernon Bogdanor told the BBC Thursday. “But the political case is obviously very strong.”
It was a case seized upon by Labour leader Kier Starmar, who said of the Conservatives, Britain “is not their personal fiefdom to run as they see fit.”
“This is not just a soap opera at the top of the Tory party — it’s doing huge damage to the reputation of our country,” he continued. “We need a general election so the public can have their say on this utter chaos.”
Bogdanor noted that the nation has never before had a second change of a prime minister within the same parliament since Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as the nation moved toward World War II. And at that time, Chamberlain had served for several years as prime minister after replacing Stanley Baldwin — not just six weeks.
The small group of electors that will again determine the head of the British government make up about one-quarter of 1 percent of the British population.
One conservative member of Parliament was pressed on the issue during a radio interview.
“We didn’t get to choose the last one. We’re not going to get to choose this one as a voting nation. Morally, why shouldn’t there be a general election?” the BBC radio host asked Conservative M.P. Mark Garnier.
He replied that it would be healthier for democracy if the conservative party had time to put forward a leader.
“Because democracy requires there to be viable choices. If we, you know, for example, had a general election today with no leader, it wouldn’t really be a viable choice,” he said. “I think what we would probably ask is [for] a bit of time to get ourselves into general election order. And then go to the country.”
It was the economic agenda of the Truss government, which critics say was tailored to the interests of the country’s financial elite, that led to its speedy downfall.
A program of income tax cuts for the rich, lower corporate taxes and huge new government borrowing devised by Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng tanked the British currency and sent U.K. markets into meltdown, dragging pensions along with them and forcing the Bank of England to intervene. This in turn added to financial uncertainty in the U.S. markets — themselves experiencing high volatility due to interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve.
“It is clear that parts of our mini-budget went further and faster than markets were expecting. So the way we are delivering our mission right now has to change. We need to act now to reassure the markets of our fiscal discipline,” Truss said last week as she reversed course on her policies.
Truss’s swift departure, which marks the shortest tenure of a prime minister in British history, raises questions about the institutional soundness of liberal democracies at a time when divisions between the global East and West are rising.
Those divisions are both military and economic, with NATO supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia and the U.S. rejigging major production pipelines away from China in key industries such as semiconductors.
Moscow, recognizing a chance to crow over Truss’s demise, relished in the moment.
Dmitri Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s security council and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, tweeted “Bye, bye [Liz Truss], congrats to lettuce,” referring to a British-newspaper gimmick that was grading whether the freshness of a head of lettuce would outlast the prime minister.
The headline in China’s Global Times, considered a mouthpiece for the ruling Communist Party in Beijing, read “‘Shortest-serving’ Truss resigns after failed tax-cut plan, showing old Western democracy ‘cannot solve new problems.’”
China and Russia often relish political instability and chaos in the West, exploiting it as an opportunity to bash liberal democracies as inferior to their political systems.
Questions about the strength of democratic systems in the United Kingdom and United States have risen in both countries amid a set of unprecedented challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the false questioning of the validity of elections raised by former President Trump.
In the United Kingdom, the challenges have been underlined by the prospect of Conservative Party members electing a third prime minister, while questions in the U.S. have been elevated by one political party winning the popular vote for president in seven of eight elections while securing the White House in just five of those contests.
“The United States [is] the most anti-majoritarian democracy in the world,” Vanessa Williamson, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, said in an email to The Hill. “The disproportionate representation of small states in the Senate and the electoral college, for example, are two of the institutions that keep us far away from the ideal of an equal say for all voters.”
Foreign policy experts said it is natural for Beijing and Moscow to seek to cast doubts on the systems of the West.
Jonathan Katz, director of Democracy Initiatives and a senior fellow with The German Marshall Fund of the United States, said Russia’s view of political instability in the U.K. aids their own priorities and is a potential breeding ground for Russian disinformation operations.
“The goal of the Russian government, whether it’s in the U.K. or the U.S. or anywhere in Europe, is to create friction internally in countries, impacting the decisionmaking, what we would call bipartisanship, and the U.K. in chaos is a perfect place to push disinformation and disunity internally,” he said.
“Global economic instability, whether we’re talking about energy or politics, Vladimir Putin thinks that’s in his interest to exploit, and try to create those divisions really, because what they want is disintegration of transatlantic support for Ukraine,” Katz added.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby on Thursday said that internal British politics did not come up in a conversation between national security adviser Jake Sullivan and British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace on Wednesday, and that the conversation was focused on Ukraine.
“It was very much focused on Ukraine — what they’re seeing, what we’re seeing, and the support that each of us are giving to Ukraine, and that’s why that was so prominent in our anodyne read out,” he said, referring to the White House summary of the meeting.
Katz said the turmoil in the U.K. is a real issue for the West to be concerned about when it comes to Ukraine.
“Political turmoil has an impact on governments’ ability to function and to react to things that are needed, whether it’s domestic or international in the case of Ukraine,” said Katz.
“Any time you have any of these key partners of Ukraine, and of the transatlantic community, going through a difficult political crisis, it can certainly have an impact on that country’s ability to continue high-level support,” he added.