THE last ten months have been the worst period of Conservative government in Britain in my lifetime. Not since Suez have the Tories shown themselves to be so inept in office.

Boris Johnson’s error was to deny a Conservative fundamental: that the same rules apply to the government as to the governed. In seeking to absolve himself from the responsibility every citizen of this country shares – to obey the law – he marked himself as a man manifestly unfit to lead. That was clear in January, yet it took until July for his party finally to move against him.

If that was bad enough, Liz Truss’ error was yet worse. She overlooked the cardinal rule of successful Conservative administrations – that pragmatism trumps ideology. Into Downing Street she marched, under-qualified and hideously over-confident, and let rip. I do not blame only her for this: I blame the blinkered party members who put her in Downing Street in the first place.

That so many of my moderate, thoughtful, centrist Conservative friends recklessly hitched their wagons to Ms Truss’s exploding star has been, well, salutary. All this year the Tories have felt like a political party to which I no longer belong. When you think – as I now do – that the Labour party would make a better fist of managing the economy, you do have to wonder.

Can Rishi Sunak turn any of this around? His job, as we all know, is to mitigate the damage. What is extraordinary is that the damage he must mitigate has been caused for the most part by his own side. It may be that voters have already seen enough and have made up their minds – that whatever happens between now and the next general election is more or less immaterial, and that even if Mr Sunak’s government is successful the Tories will be turfed out, Keir Starmer becoming the new King’s third prime minister in as many years.

This was the fate which befell John Major’s government in 1992. Despite the fact that Ken Clarke, Mr Major’s Chancellor, had turned the economy around after the disaster of Black Wednesday, the 1997 election was a verdict on the original sin, not on the years of painstaking work devoted thereafter to correcting it.

Mr Starmer and his shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves are increasingly impressive. But they are no Blair and Brown. It is not obvious that power will fall into their hands just by their standing still and catching it as it falls from the Tories. They know this, and it explains their urgent calls for a general election now, rather than in two years’ time. They also know, of course, that these calls are entirely hollow.

It does not matter in the slightest that Mr Sunak has become prime minister without an election. We do not elect governments in the United Kingdom, still less prime ministers. We elect parliaments. Governments emerge out of and are accountable to parliaments. Their mandate is to govern for as long as – but for only as long as – parliament continues to have confidence in them, subject to the rule that there must be a fresh general election at least once every five years.

This is exactly the same in Holyrood as it is in Westminster. When Nicola Sturgeon replaced her great friend and mentor Alex Salmond as first minister she did not call an election. She was elected as first minister by neither the Scottish people nor even by her own party (she was, in 2014, the only candidate for the job). She was “crowned” as leader, just as Mr Sunak has been.

Mr Sunak’s mandate to govern now is precisely the same as Ms Sturgeon’s was then (and, indeed, precisely the same as Gordon Brown’s was in 2007 when he replaced Tony Blair as leader of the Labour party). The mandate comes not from the identity of the leader – leaders can come and go more or less any time. The mandate comes not even from the party manifesto – manifesto commitments have never been binding – they should be read more as an indication of what a party would like to achieve rather than as a chiselled inscription of what a party must do.

No, the mandate comes from one place and from one place only – from Parliament. British Governments remain in office for as long as they continue to enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons. This is what enables us to get rid of failing leaders quickly – we do not need to wait for a general election before we can remove from office a serial liar like Mr Johnson or a deranged ideologue like Ms Truss. That is a great advantage of the flexible British system, and it would be lost if we now embraced a rule that just because there is a new leader there must be a fresh election to bestow upon them a mandate to govern.

And as for the moaning inside the Tory party that the new man has been foisted upon them without asking the members: such whingeing is risible. Party members got it so badly wrong in the summer that they have shown – definitively, in my view – that never again should any sensible political party allow its members to choose a leader. There is such a thing as too much democracy. Members join parties to help candidates win elections: it is not their role to choose who should lead a government. Labour would never have flirted with Corbynite oblivion had the choice of leader been left to its Members of Parliament, just as Liz Truss would never have been the choice of Conservative MPs.

Our system – in Holyrood and Westminster alike – rests on government requiring and depending upon the support of parliament. Boris Johnson once had that support, but threw it away. Liz Truss never had it, never sought to build it, and suffered her fate accordingly. And now we start again. Let’s hope that the firmest of lines has been drawn under the last ten months. A long period of dull, proficient government and of boring, undramatic politics is what we need.

Adam Tomkins was a Conservative MSP for the Glasgow region from 2016 to 2021.

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