Liz Truss - from Prime Minister to backbencher in 45 Days: Lessons for UK democracy

Professor John Bryson, Chair in Enterprise and Economic Geography, examines the lessons learned from Liz Truss' rise to the top and subsequent departure.

Downing Street SW1 street sign

"The last 45 days have been truly eventful as they included the death and funeral of the UK’s longest-serving monarch, significant global financial volatility, exceptionally high inflationary pressures across the UK and elsewhere, the ongoing Russian war with Ukraine and then the appointment and resignation of Liz Truss as British Prime Minister. Perhaps the least important event is that related to the British Prime Minister. The Ukrainian war is about unnecessary death, destruction, and crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, the resignation of Liz Truss highlights two important points that are central to British democracy.

The first point is that power does not rest with a serving UK Prime Minister (PM), but elsewhere. This elsewhere includes all citizens, the media, and elected Members of Parliament. The role of the PM in the UK is as a conduit or representative of the British people who has to negotiate many different tensions. These include balancing macroeconomic policy with the desires and expectations of individuals and organisations that control or regulate financial flows. The problem for Truss is that she failed to manage expectations within the Conservative Party, but more importantly amongst those involved in regulating global finance.

The second point is that the British political system is adaptable and able to flex rapidly in response to internal and external pressures. This is not the case of many other political systems that are much more rigid. Thus, this recent resignation should be celebrated as an example of the ways in which UK democracy works through appropriate checks and balances. One reading of this is that the UK political system is like nature as it is ‘red in tooth and claw’ as any one politician’s future may end rather suddenly through what Harold Macmillan, a former PM, defined as ‘events’.

The UK is a multi-party democracy, and this needs to be celebrated, protected, and endorsed. Any country which has an overtly dominant political party – a party that is always in office – is a troubled state. Such states have unhappy futures as there is too often a significant narrowing of political philosophies that reflect the interests of the very few. However, this is not my point. The key issue is that a Government Special Committee needs to be assembled to agree on a common approach and framework that would apply to the election of any leader of a UK political party. The current system is based on one approach that has been formulated by the Conservative Party and other approaches by, for example, the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, and Scottish National Party. These procedural differences matter and reflect a fundamental distortion that sits at the heart of the UK democratic process.

Now is the time to remove this distortion and come to a common agreement regarding the processes that are applied to elect the leaders of all our political parties. We need a common approach that is fair and transparent."

Notes for editors

Professor Bryson is available for media interviews relating to the UK Government’s economic policy.

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