Ming Campbell thinks that he’s right to call for a General Election. He’s not, for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, the post of Prime Minister is not an elected office, it is a delegated one. The Monarch appoints the MP who can carry the confidence of Parliament. If we lived in a presidential system, perhaps we could insist upon an election. However, the USA have had presidents leave office and their successors remain in place because they, like most presidential republics, have fixed terms with a system of succession rather than a requirement for a fresh mandate.
Secondly, there is no real precedent. PMs have on occasion stood down as an election is due (Ramsey MacDonald in 1935; Churchill in 1955), although it is far more common that a PM leaves office by being defeated at an election. In the past 100 years, 8 Prime Ministers have left office without triggering or as the result of a General Election:
1908 – Campbell-Bannerman => Asquith
1916 – Asquith => Lloyd George
1937 – Baldwin => Chamberlain
1940 – Chamberlain => Churchill
1957 – Eden => Macmillan
1963 – Macmillan => Douglas-Home
1976 – Wilson => Callaghan
1990 – Thatcher => Major
As you can see, it happens quite a lot, and only two occurrences were during wartime, which would make it difficult to hold new elections. The Douglas-Home ascension was just under a year before the 1964 election (which was about as late as it could have been held). The other new PMs all waited at least a full year before calling an election. One Parliament, (1935-45) had two changes of PM.
Changing hands is no guarantee of failure, either. Asquith and Macmillan retained their posts after the following elections (1910 and 1959 respectively). Lloyd George was on the winning side, albeit in coalition with the Conservatives, in 1918. Major famously held on in 1992. Chamberlain didn’t get to fight an election, so less than half of the replacements lost their next elections.
By contrast, when Baldwin took over from Bonar Law in 1923, he insisted on a new election, primarily because he intended to reverse an election pledge on tariffs. After the election the Conservatives were still the largest party, but had lost many seats. Baldwin was defeated in a confidence motion and Ramsey McDonald replaced him at the head of a minority Labour government. Less than a year later, that government fell and Baldwin walked the 1924 election. So, the only time that an election has been called, it was over a specific pledge rather than a simple change in PM, and it led to a year of political chaos. Not a good precedent for the current situation.
Thirdly, and more topically, this is sort of what we voted for two years ago. In the 2005 campaign, Labour started badly, and Blair was distancing himself from Brown. The Conservatives launched a ‘Vote Blair, get Brown’ campaign, and they were shocked when the polls registered a sudden recovery for Labour. As a result, Blair and Brown chummed up for the rest of the campaign, and Blair promised to stand down at some point. When Labour won the election, it was on the tacit understanding that at some point Blair would make way, and the most likely successor was the Chancellor. While the phrase ‘full term’ was used, once the genie is out of the bottle and a PM has accepted that they will be going, it is very hard to avoid the pressure to go. It’s amazing to me that it has dragged out this long.
So, the change of PM mid-term is not ‘wrong’ or unusual, and certainly doesn’t demand an instant General Election. Not only is it not constitutionally required, but the precedent has already been set. All three governing parties have done it at least twice. More importantly, we voted for it to happen anyway. Just because we have forgotten about things from only 2 years ago, doesn’t mean that we have to have a new election.