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Yes, Lord David Cameron Could Come Back as Prime Minister – and he Wouldn’t Need to Run for MP

New analysis sheds light on a constitutional quirk that allows a member of the House of Lords – or someone outside Parliament altogether – to become Prime Minister

Will Conservatives oust Rishi Sunak for Cameron or an outsider ‘Candidate X’? Photo: Chris Jackson/PA/Alamy

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Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron – or a more controversial right-wing figure – could oust Rishi Sunak and become prime minister without having to win a single vote, analysis by the House of Lords Library suggests.

The research for former Green Party Leader Baroness Natalie Bennett, seen by Byline Times, comes as Sunak’s approval ratings hit a record low this week. 

While the Conservative Party languishes in the polls, Sunak’s own personal approval rating has plunged to -54%.

The Ipsos Mori poll, released on Monday, shows that support for the Conservatives has dropped to its lowest point since its records began in the 1970s, with only 20% of UK voters currently backing the party.

The 27-point lead for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party may well spark murmurings of revolt among Conservative MPs and members, desperate to claw back some support and avoid electoral oblivion later this year.  

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The poll suggests the Conservatives could win just a few dozen seats in the next general election – putting them behind the Scottish National Party or Liberal Democrats after an election, and hundreds of seats behind Labour. 

It would mark a catastrophic cut on the 351 seats from its 2019 victory achieved under Boris Johnson. The Conservative right has long suggested ‘bringing back Boris’, though at this stage anyone could be seen by voters as preferable than the current Prime Minister.

On Monday, the Daily Mail reported a confidential gathering of Conservative MPs was held in Parliament last week, where they were presented with the profile of anonymous alternative party leader figures, with one dubbed ‘Candidate X’ portrayed as the potential saviour for the party in the upcoming election.

Attendees were reportedly told that the profile matched one of the candidates vying to succeed Sunak as leader of the Conservative Party.

This briefing included findings from a survey conducted by Whitestone Insight involving 13,500 voters. Polling based on anonymous untested profiles are very different to real people with skeletons in the closet who have faced opposition attacks. 

However, it does show that some in the party’s upper-echelons are now willing to consider another leadership change before the election.

Former Brexit negotiator Lord David Frost – a net zero critic and so-called climate sceptic – fits the bill for the supposed ‘most popular’ mystery candidate. 

The i newspaper also reported last month that some Conservative grandees were discussing replacing Sunak with Cameron, the former Prime Minister who led the remain campaign into defeat during the 2016 EU Referendum. 

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It is often assumed that Cameron – or any other public figure – would have to run for a parliamentary seat in order to be appointed to the top job. But the new Lords library analysis for Baroness Bennett suggests that this is merely a convention, which could be overridden without any change of law. 

Bennett said that the finding highlights the “creaking failure that is the antiquated, undemocratic constitution”.

In his study ‘Choosing a Prime Minister’, constitution expert Professor Rodney Brazier highlights that the monarch can appoint anyone as prime minister under the royal prerogative, a power vested in the monarch since at least 1189, which remains unaltered by Parliament. 

There are no formal rules for appointment and no formal legal limits on who can be appointed prime minister.

The title ‘Prime minister’ itself wasn’t officially used until the late 19th Century; while the role, including its powers and duties, lacks a legal definition – even after the Minister of the Crown Act 1937, which first referenced the position to allow for an enhanced salary.

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The roles of the prime minister and cabinet are primarily governed by convention rather than law, as outlined in the official Cabinet Manual. This includes the prime minister being the head of the government due to their ability to command confidence from the House of Commons and, by extension, the electorate. In theory, the sovereign can appoint whoever they wish to this role – though it would trigger a constitutional crisis and undoubtedly legal challenges. 

Although prime ministers largely came from the House of Lords until the 20th Century, modern convention dictates that they should be a member of the House of Commons. The practice was solidified by instances like Sir Alec Douglas-Home renouncing his peerage in 1963 to serve as Conservative Prime Minister from the Commons.

Despite the unlikelihood of a prime minister serving from the House of Lords in contemporary times, analysis in 2023 by Dr Conor Farrington in Political Quarterly suggested that, constitutionally, nothing prevents that from occurring. 

Researchers for the House of Lords Library told Bennett: “It does not appear that, beyond the convention, there is any formal mechanism preventing a member of the House of Lords from becoming prime minister.”  

She told Byline Times: “That the UK’s politics is broken is obvious. It is easy to blame individuals for that, and I do, but at the heart is a broken system, an uncodified constitution assembled by centuries of historical accident, profoundly undemocratic, and incapable, as the past decade has shown so clearly, of delivering stable, secure government.

“You would think that a second Cameron prime ministership would be an impossibility, but it clearly is not, either legally or practically. The Tories, from the shortest prime ministership to the most disastrous referendum, have set new constitutional ‘standards’, so it is impossible to rule them out, returning to 1902, the last time a prime minister was in the Lords.”

Do you have a story that needs highlighting? Get in touch by emailing josiah@bylinetimes.com

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Josiah Mortimer also writes the On the Ground column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times.

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