'Unelected' Prime Ministers: common or not?

Published: 29th Jul 2016

In brief

Half of all Prime Ministers over the last hundred years have come into office ‘unelected’.

Theresa May won the contest to be leader of the Conservative Party and, as a result, she has become Prime Minister without winning a general election.

Some people have described her as ‘unelected’ and there has been a petition for the law to be changed so that a Prime Minister’s resignation automatically triggers a general election.

How unusual is this?

We’ve taken a look at the past 100 years and found that half of all Prime Ministers came into office ‘unelected’.

The Prime Minister has changed 24 times since Herbert Asquith left office in 1916, although only 19 different people have held the post. It changed 12 times without a general election.

Nine Conservative PMs came into office without a general election, along with two Labour PMs and one Liberal (the party which went on to become part of the Liberal Democrats). Five of these PMs went on to win a general election during their premiership.

Hung Parliaments

It’s hard to say whether a hung parliament, when no party wins a majority, means the Prime Minister in charge of a coalition should be described as ‘unelected’. This happened in 1923, 1929, 1974, and 2010.

There have also been examples of sitting governments losing their majority in the House of Commons and still remaining in office.

‘Electing’ Prime Ministers

UK voters don’t elect a Prime Minister directly.

Voters select a Member of Parliament (MP) to represent their constituency. The MPs are from particular political parties and these parties decide on a leader.

Prime Ministers are officially appointed by the Queen, and stay in office as long as they can command the confidence of the House of Commons. This is usually defined as leading the party or coalition that has the majority of elected MPs.

There isn’t a constitutional requirement for the Prime Minister to have led their party through a general election before they come into office, or to stay in office.


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