Boris’s election as Tory party leader and Prime Minister is the 8th occasion since WW2 when a new PM has been chosen in between general elections. On 5 of the previous 7 occasions, it was the Tories changing leader (Churchill to Eden, Eden to Macmillan, Macmillan to Douglas-Home, Thatcher to Major and Cameron to May). Only Macmillan and Major went on to win majorities at the subsequent election. On the 2 occasions when Labour made a similar change (Wilson to Callaghan and Blair to Brown) the successors lost.
At a time when there is so much focus on leaders (their charisma and box office appeal, how they eat or hold food, their looks, their voice and similarly important stuff) it can feel irritating and somewhat contemptuous of voters to take them for granted, for the new leader not to submit themselves to the electorate’s verdict. Still, in a Parliamentary democracy, that is how it works. If they can command a Parliamentary majority, they can be PM. Whether it is wise – or, indeed, honourable – to ignore the electorate is quite another matter.
Why might it be sensible to ask voters for a fresh mandate? Two main reasons: to increase a majority and to get a specific mandate for a change of direction or to be able to push through contentious policies. But even if the majority is sufficient, should a new PM nonetheless seek a mandate for a new or sufficiently different policy from that championed by his or her predecessor?
Pre-2016 this question has not generally arisen. Sometimes the change of PM has been forced because of retirement rather than because of any policy issue (Churchill, Macmillan and Wilson. Eden too, though that was a polite way of easing him out after the Suez disaster). Of course, there have been changes of emphasis when leaders change. Brown presented himself as a more authentically left-wing true Labour leader (by comparison with Blair anyway) but continued with the policies he had had a large part in creating and implementing. It was not really until Major that a new PM took over, in part, because he could be relied on to change a hugely unpopular policy (the poll tax).
It was May’s succession which led to a dramatic shift in British policy as a result of the referendum result. As she – and every Brexiteer – have never tired of telling us, the British people voted to leave the EU and that wish had to be enacted. That was and is the mandate.
Well, there is that mandate. But there is also the mandate which the Tory government got in June 2017 which was, as set out in its manifesto, the following:-
“We need to deliver a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union and forge a deep and special partnership with our friends and allies across Europe.” And “The best possible deal for Britain as we leave the European Union delivered by a smooth, orderly Brexit.”
That is the mandate on which Tory MPs, including Johnson, were elected. It is not much mentioned these days, especially not by those keenest to talk about mandates. Curiously, many of the MPs now being reviled (Gauke, Stewart, Hammond, Duncan and others) by some of the hard Brexiteers voted for this repeatedly, unlike many of the latter. Who exactly was failing to comply with their mandate?
Now Johnson has promised that Britain will leave the EU by 31 October, “do or die” in his words. This is seen by some of his supporters as a proper mandate, a fresh start.
But it is certainly a fresh start. Does it not therefore deserve its own fresh mandate?
If the new PM wants an electoral mandate to reinforce the one received from circa 92,000 Tory party members, to show that the country wants the government to set off in the direction demanded by those 92,000, he has three choices in theory:-
1 ) Extend Article 50 until the date of the next General Election and get a mandate then.
Vanishingly unlikely. A pause, time to prepare, time even to find the magical technological solution to the NI border, time to come up with and enact crowd-pleasing non-Brexit-related policies might well be what the enervated country needs. But the Brexiteers are in JFDI mode and will not countenance a moment’s delay.
2) Go for a referendum on the specific question of a No Deal Brexit.
Again, unlikely. An extension would still be needed. What would the other option on the ballot paper be? And if the referendum was lost, there would be pressure for yet another resignation. Boris’s vanity would be hurt if his legacy was to be the second (not even the first!) Tory PM to lose a European referendum. And the Tory party’s nerves could not stand it, let alone the country.
3 ) So we come to the only other option: a General Election to give the Tories under Boris the mandate they need.
After all, Boris’s ability as a vote-winning machine, the reason why so many MPs have swallowed their doubts and hitched themselves to his skirts, can surely not be in doubt. What is there not to love at the idea of getting his own proper large mandate (unlike dull Mrs May), getting rid of those cussed Tory MPs not agreeing with his aims, at defeating the Brexit party, seeing off Corbyn and proving the doubters wrong? (Any comparisons with May and the polls showing her set fair for a humungous majority would be so unfair, wouldn’t it?)
Above all, if a Johnson government wanted to show that the electoral consensus was for a No Deal Brexit and in such a way as to make it very difficult for it to be reversed, in such a way as to close down the arguments within his party, to show that this was what the voters – not simply Tory members – wanted, a clear General Election win is the only way to do it. Until the government has that mandate, it – and he – will always be vulnerable to the charge that a politician elected by a statistically insignificant number has no real basis to set the country on a course different to that on which it was elected.
The naysayers in Parliament can justify their refusal to acquiesce in a Brexit they consider harmful and unsupported by voters. If a No Deal exit turns out to require something more substantial than undaunted self-belief, turns out to be problematic, even harmful, the PM will need all the support he can get. A General Election win gives him that.
Should he? Yes. Can he? There are difficulties, well covered elsewhere. Let’s assume he can. Will he? The answer to that depends on how brave and honourable you think our new PM will be.