11th July 2016

What Theresa May Can Learn from the Other ‘Unelecteds’

One of the quirks of the British political system is the way we elect our Prime Ministers. Unlike in the United States, where you elect the President directly, in the UK you vote for your local MP – and the party with the most MPs nationally would typically become Prime Minister.

This means that, should the Prime Minister step down, like David Cameron did just 17 days ago, their party will internally elect a leader who will go on to become the Prime Minister. While previously quite a rare occurrence, Theresa May will be the third of the last five Prime Ministers to have assumed office, rather than gain it by winning a general election (John Major and Gordon Brown being the other two).

Questions are already being raised as to whether Mrs May will need to call a general election within the next twelve months. It should be noted that there is no previous precedent for this – neither John Major nor Gordon Brown called one after assuming office – however, each experienced conflating experiences once they eventually reached the ballot box. Gordon Brown failed to win the 2010 General Election, while John Major won the 1992 General Election with the most votes of any party in history.

Theresa May must take these calls seriously, but make the decision quickly. When John Major came to power, he set out clearly and early that there would be no immediate election. The public had to wait until May 1992.

Gordon Brown, meanwhile, experienced a ‘Brown Bounce’ shortly after assuming office. With Labour then surging in the polls in 2007, the question on everyone’s lips approaching conference season was not ‘if’, but ‘when?’

Brown went so far down this road that Saatchi & Saatchi were even commissioned to write up election materials (under the slogan ‘Not Flash. Just Gordon’), putting the wheels in motion for an early election. Everything seemed set but, on 6 October 2007, Brown announced an election was not going to happen.

By building up the country to election fever, and actively encouraging it instead of nipping it in the bud, Brown’s ratings slumped and he never recovered. Soon after, David Cameron started labelling Brown as ‘unelected’ – a label which dogged Brown until the end of his premiership.

So, with this in mind, what can Theresa May learn from this, as she is set to assume power in the same way?

Firstly, there is no need to call an election. The Fixed Term Parliament Act gives her a convenient reason to not face the polls (she will either need to repeal the act, or call a vote of no confidence in her own government). But crucially, there is no precedent for calling an election, as neither Brown nor Major called one upon assuming power.

Secondly, and most importantly, make your decision and make it early. Following the Brexit vote, some clarity about what is going to happen will be quite refreshing. This is what sets Brown and Major apart. The clarity of the situation may not be the key reason for Major winning the 1992 election, but the decisive way he rejected calls for an election will have certainly helped show his leadership capabilities early.

The prospect of an early election will undoubtedly be considered by Theresa May as she assumes office, and there will more than likely be calls for one from both sides. What Mrs May needs to do is decide what to do, decide it early, and stick to it. Once the public associate a tag with you, they can become impossible to shift, and the last thing she wants is to be tagged with a label that dogs her for the next four years.

By James Flynn, B2B Account Executive