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MaltaToday 30 October 2022

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13 maltatoday | SUNDAY • 30 OCTOBER 2022 OPINION Sunak: is it legitimate for the Conservatives to continue without an election? THESE were some of the first words spoken by Rishi Sunak as he made a speech outside Downing Street shortly after coming to office. Sunak is the fifth prime min- ister since 2016 and the third since the last election. So his assessment that his presence needs an explanation is cor- rect. Recent polling shows many people feel he should call an early election. The last election was held in 2019 and although Boris Johnson secured a large par- liamentary majority back then, he resigned in disgrace in the summer of 2022. Even before his departure, the Conservative majority had been eroded by multiple by-election losses and the Tories were plummeting in the polls. Their popularity hit rock bottom during Truss's tenure. Yet the party now pre- sumes to be in the position to appoint another prime minis- ter without seeking the views of the voting public. In truth, they are legally per- mitted to govern for a further two years without calling a public vote. Sunak indicated in his speech that he sees the Conservatives' 2019 manifesto as his mandate and explicitly stated that the electoral man- date secured that year under Johnson "is not the sole prop- erty of one individual". Nevertheless, the Conserva- tive Party presided over eco- nomic chaos during Liz Truss's short tenure. They may have the legal right to govern with- out an election – but does that mean they should? What is a 'legitimate' govern- ment? The UK does not have a writ- ten constitution so it's difficult to say definitively when a gov- ernment does or doesn't have legitimacy. Rather than being codified, the British constitution rests on the Westminster model of government, whereby the par- ty that commands a majori- ty in the House of Commons forms the government. The prime minister is not directly elected by the people. The job simply goes to whoever is the leader of the party of govern- ment. That's why neither Truss nor Sunak had to hold a public vote to secure the top job and why Sunak referred to the 2019 mandate in his speech. In legal terms, the constitu- tion rests on political princi- ples, which the law protects. These include democratic ac- countability and scrutiny, free- dom of the press and freedom of information. There are also seven specific moral princi- ples of government (known as the Nolan principles) which include things like honesty, in- tegrity and selflessness. Political thinkers, howev- er, have long proposed that a government is only legitimate when it has the popular and im- plicit consent of the governed. In other words a government can only exist when citizens freely allow it to, and have giv- en their popular consent (via a vote) in favour of it. American political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset said le- gitimacy "involves the capacity of a political system to … main- tain the belief that existing po- litical institutions are the most appropriate and proper ones for the society." Legitimacy also has a moral meaning. It is linked to the be- lief that a government's actions should be appropriate and le- gally constituted. So, even though Sunak can claim to have a legal right to be prime minister, can he claim to have political (democratic) and moral legitimacy to continue? In respect of Lipset's test, time will tell. Sunak's ability to unite his party and end the political and economic uncer- tainty the UK has experienced over the past month will be the deciding factor on whether he is the appropriate person to govern. In relation to the Nolan prin- ciples of integrity, openness and honesty, it is also impor- tant to note that Sunak does not represent an entirely fresh start from the Johnson ad- ministration. He served un- der Johnson and was fined for breaking lockdown rules along- side him. Nor should it be forgotten that Sunak lost to Truss in a vote among party members just a few months ago. Even though he stood unopposed this time, he in fact only had just over half the total number of Tory MPs publicly backing his nom- ination. He will therefore need to stabilise his party in these conditions to achieve moral le- gitimacy to continue to serve as prime minister. These are, after all, the mechanisms via which a leader comes to power within the Westminster system. If Sunak cannot give evidence of his legitimacy to govern ear- ly on in his tenure, it will add to calls for a general election before 2025. But will he call an election? The constitution does allow Sunak to call an early election since, under Johnson, parlia- ment reinstated the previous constitutional position in re- spect of general elections. He can use prerogative powers to advise the monarch to dissolve parliament in order to call an election. But current polling would make it unlikely for the new PM to want to do this. Nor are his MPs likely to vote to hold one. That said, given how much has changed since 2019 and the unprecedented political events of the last couple of months, calling an early election could be the most effective way to restore a sense of political and moral legitimacy at the heart of the system. It's a huge gam- ble for the Conservatives but it would at least produce a new (or renewed) mandate for Su- nak. Stephen Clear Stephen Clear is Lecturer in Constitutional and Administrative Law, and Public Procurement, Bangor University

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