The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The good news for British democracy is that no one likes Liz Truss

British Prime Minister Liz Truss makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street in London on Sept. 8 after the death of Queen Elizabeth II. (Hollie Adams/Bloomberg News)
5 min

To become president of the United States, Joe Biden had to win a majority of electoral votes, something he accomplished by securing 81.3 million of 158.6 million votes cast nationally.

To become prime minister of the United Kingdom, Liz Truss had to hit a slightly lower bar: earning a bit under 36,000 votes of 51,000 cast in the South West Norfolk parliamentary district in 2019. Well, that and winning about 81,000 of the 142,000 votes cast by members of her Conservative Party as they sought to replace Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who resigned after a cascade of scandals.

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Truss, in other words, was not elected by the people of the United Kingdom to be prime minister. She was elected to Parliament and then was selected from her party to be prime minister, given the Conservative majority in the British House of Commons. It’s as though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) automatically became president after the speaker election in 2021.

That distinction is important. Johnson’s resignation is a reminder that Truss’s position is more tenuous than is Biden’s; she’s more an occupant of a position than is the case with Biden. That’s also because Truss didn’t run for prime minister. There was not a months-long primary campaign cementing her as a leader of her party followed by a months-long, contentious general election. There are not many Britons with a personal investment in her success in the way there is with Biden or with, say, Donald Trump.

So we see something in Britain that would be hard to imagine here: a public, including members of her own party, that broadly views Truss negatively.

On Tuesday, YouGov released new polling showing that only 10 percent of the country views Truss favorably (or, as they spell it, “favourably”). On net — the favorable minus unfavorable percentages — Truss is at a staggering minus-70, down from the already-bad minus-59 she saw earlier this month. Her numbers are so low because only 20 percent of Conservatives view her favorably at this point, down from 30 percent two weeks ago.

Can you imagine? Since 2017, Trump’s favorability among Republicans has never fallen below 80 percent in YouGov polling. Biden’s has never been under 70 percent among Democrats since 2018, and that was back during his party’s contentious primaries.

This is clearly in part because their elections were centered on them as individuals. When Trump twice faced impeachment, his party rallied to his defense although his ouster would, like Johnson’s, simply result in a new Republican president.

But, of course, it was also because partisanship is so sharp in the United States. Removing Trump was framed as a partisan attack, intentionally. To see him removed for his effort to pressure Ukraine or for his role in prompting the Capitol attack was letting Democrats beat Republicans, and that, coupled with the fervency of Trump’s support, made pushing back on the impeachment efforts essential. Look what’s happened to Republicans who bucked the party here and supported impeachment: Most chose not to run for reelection or lost their primaries.

There’s another factor here, too. British prime ministers serve indefinitely bounded terms. There’s no expectation of serving two or four years; as long as their party holds a majority in Parliament and the prime minister is selected to lead the party, they can serve in that position. Or as soon as their party loses the majority or they lose the confidence of their supporters, that’s it. When Johnson flirted with sticking around despite losing Conservative support, it triggered broad backlash. He ended up resigning. There was no push to let him stick around to the end of his term since no such boundary existed.

One reason that Truss has lost the confidence of her party, certainly, is that she is damaging it politically. YouGov also asks British voters how they would vote in a hypothetical parliamentary election, a question that’s generally akin to American generic-ballot polling. In the weeks after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, there’s been a massive shift to the left-leaning Labour Party. In the week that Truss became prime minister, Labour had a 15-point lead in that polling. It has now nearly doubled.

Trump never did that sort of damage; Biden is unlikely to either. Yes, Democrats won majorities in the House and Senate during Trump’s term in office, but narrow ones. Republicans are likely to win the majority in the House in three weeks’ time — but also narrowly. This, again, is a measure of the extent of partisanship in the United States and how that partisanship helps reduce political costs for parties and politicians.

Truss may not be prime minister by the time the U.S. midterm elections arrive on Nov. 8. Replacing her would be a black eye for her party, but it might also quickly turn around perceptions of her party and her party’s view of itself.

That Truss is unpopular is bad for the Conservative Party and, certainly, bad for Truss. But that she’s unpopular with her own party — and that her position is seen as dependent on performance even with her base — is probably good news for British democracy.