n the face of it, the United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy, where general elections will determine who becomes prime minister and forms the government.
This, at least, is the constitutional theory.
The actual practice of the British constitution is different. Few prime ministers both gain and lose power at general elections, and none has done so in nearly 50 years, since 1974.
The common practice is for prime ministers to be replaced between general elections. Thatcher, Blair and Cameron came to power through a general election, but all lost power midterm. Callaghan, Major, Brown, May and Johnson all became prime minister midterm.
This means that what happens between general elections is at least as important as the general elections in determining who is prime minister. And if a prime minister loses the confidence of their party (which nominally should have a majority in the commons) and/or their cabinet then they are usually swiftly replaced.
And of all the things that can happen between general elections that can have political consequences, one of the most notable is a by-election in their single-seat constituency. When a member of parliament resigns or dies, there is immense focus on the subsequent poll in that constituency.
Of course, by-elections are not necessarily indicative of what will happen at the next general elections – and those whose parties are defeated in by-elections have a set of phrases to use to dismiss or deride their electoral loss.
But by-elections can be indicative of what will happen between the general elections – and, given the nature of the British constitution and how must prime ministers take or leave office midterm, that means by-elections can be very important indeed.
Last week, the current governing party of the United Kingdom lost two by-elections, in very different seats. One it lost to the main opposition Labour Party, which recaptured the seat after losing it in 2019. In that general election, the Conservatives had won a number of so-called “red wall” – referring to constituencies that historically supported – seats in the north of England, and last week’s defeat indicated that such seats were vulnerable.
The other seat was in the rural southwest of England and it was captured by the Liberal Democrats, a party in favour of constitutional reform and closer ties with the European Union, among other things. A huge Conservative majority was converted into a substantial defeat. And this was not a recapture – the seat has been safe for Conservatives for more than 100 years.
The governing party could not have had two more worrying concurrent defeats. It now faces a political pincer, with the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats looking as if they can together overturn the government majority at the next general elections.
One significant feature of both defeats was that the seats – while very different – were pro-Brexit at the 2016 referendum. But being in favour of Brexit did not protect the governing party from defeat by other parties. Given that the current prime minister was regarded as a vote-winner who also “got Brexit done”, the results appear to show he no longer has any special appeal. And so Johnson may soon join that list of prime ministers who lost power between the general elections.
David Allen Green is a Former central government lawyer and legal commentator he US and European markets. The article reflects the author’s opinions and not necessarily the views of The Southern African Times.