Boris Johnson (or, theoretically, Jeremy Hunt) will become British prime minister on 24 July. He will do so with the votes of up to 160,000 Conservative party members, but without the mandate of a general election victory.
Since the start of the 20th Century, unelected prime ministers have been far from unusual. In fact, of the last 22 occupants of 10 Downing Street, dating back to 1902, well over half assumed the role without first having won a general election.
Prime ministers who initially come to power without a general-election victory usually face the electorate eventually, with mixed success. Of the 15 unelected prime ministers since 1902, ten went on to win general elections. Although it is perhaps generous to include May in a list of general election “winners” after clinging on in coalition following a wooden performance during the 2017 election.
Boris Johnson is strong favourite to win and will be hoping for a long and successful premiership. Deliver Brexit, tax cuts for all, and rekindle the remarkable relationship he once claimed to have with large swathes of the British electorate. He should be warned – unelected prime ministers have significantly shorter shelf lives than their elected counterparts. Since 1902, the average duration of unelected prime ministers is four and a half years. For those who came to power following election victories, it is over six.
Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt appear intent on avoiding a general election before Brexit has been delivered. Yet history tells us that unelected prime ministers often face a general election, either by choice or necessity, sooner rather than later. The next general election is not due until June 2022. The next prime minister would be wise to be ready long before that…
23 July 2019 – This article was corrected to reflect that Churchill became prime minister in 1940, not 1939, and that Campbell-Bannerman came to power unelected.