The appointment of a new Prime Minister does nothing to change the parliamentary arithmetic. Britain’s new leader will stand alongside the same MPs who have three times rejected May’s EU deal. A General Election looks likely if either Boris or Hunt are intent on delivering their campaign promises, says Dr Stephen Barber, Director of MBA at the University of Bedfordshire.
When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, succeeding Tony Blair mid-term, Boris Johnson described the transition ‘as democratically proper as the transition from Claudius to Nero. It is a scandal. Why are we all conniving in this stitch-up? This is nothing less than a palace coup’. For Johnson, Gordon Brown had no mandate as PM because the public had elected Blair and had not expected to get Brown. He should have, he wrote called ‘an election without delay’.
Today, as mid-term a candidate for his party leadership and the premiership itself, Boris is vehemently against a general election; a position, no doubt, underlined by the current weak polling of the Conservative party and pressure from MPs in vulnerable seats. But which Boris is right? Is it the self-interested Boris of today or the unencumbered Boris of a decade ago?
Actually, cast your mind back a little further. The 2005 general election which returned Blair to office was the most difficult of his three election wins. Everyone knew he would depart mid-term. And a key moment of the campaign was an uncomfortable photo call when Blair bought Brown an ice cream to express solidarity; their relationship had been severely strained but Brown was a formidable figure and heir apparent. Voters were not explicitly mandating the Blair-Brown transition but rarely has such a changeover been signalled so clearly during an election.
Irrespective of this, constitutionally 2007 Boris was quite wrong. Prime Ministers are appointed by the Monarch, as a figure capable of leading a government which can command the confidence of Parliament. And if we look back over the contemporary history of British PMs, it is about fifty-fifty as to those who came to office as a result of a general election (such as Cameron, Blair, Thatcher, Wilson) and those who took over mid-term (such as May, Brown, Major, Callaghan).
Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will fall into this second category and there would be no constitutional reason, on this basis alone, for them to have to go to the country. However, things are a little different from 2007 or 1990 when John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher or 1976 when Harold Wilson handed power to Jim Callaghan. And this could make a real difference to the mandate that the new Prime Minister can realistically claim. Follow my logic. Just four years ago, David Cameron led the Conservatives to its first majority government in almost a quarter of a century. It was an unexpected victory which itself meant he had to make good on his promise to call a referendum on EU membership. This happened in 2016 and there the electorate (narrowly) rejected Cameron’s policy. He had no real choice but to resign and that resignation led to the appointment of Theresa May. By May 2017, Parliament had been resolved once again and expecting a substantial majority, Theresa May went to the country demanding a mandate from the people to deliver her Brexit means Brexit policy. Unfortunately for her, the people declined and the weakened PM was left leading a minority government propped up by the DUP.
Our next PM inherits the ruins of that mandate. Not a fresh one for being charismatic or a reinterpreted one as if it were the day after the referendum. The vote of a small number of unrepresentative Conservative party members is not a substitute for the endorsement of the electorate.
And the appointment of a new PM does nothing to change the parliamentary arithmetic and MPs will be acutely aware of the integrity of the mandate the new PM will claim. These are the same MPs who have three times rejected May’s EU deal and will be responsible for holding the new administration to account. And it is perhaps because of this reality that there is already open talk among Tory MPs about their willingness to actually bring down the government if it attempts a no-deal Brexit. Boris could even find that his Queen’s Speech is rejected if it includes his promised no-deal Brexit preparation Bill. There is even an outlandish idea that if enough Conservative MPs communicated to May that they had no confidence in Boris Johnson’s policy, she could not advise the Queen to call for him as her successor.
Britain might well be facing another general election sooner rather than later.