The appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister – plus ça change?
Alison Young (University of Cambridge)
On Wednesday 24 July, Boris Johnson was appointed as the UK’s new Prime Minister. He spared little time in reappointing a new cabinet; the dramatic change in personnel being referred to as ‘The night of the Blond Knives’. In one sense, the way in which Boris Johnson was appointed was nothing new. The standard constitutional conventions were used. However, these conventions are being arguably being applied in circumstances in which their justification has been undermined. This adds further grist to the mill for those arguing that the UK is currently undergoing a constitutional crisis.
The UK enjoys a parliamentary system of Government. The electorate votes for their constituency MP. The winner of the election is the political party with the most seats in the House of Commons. The leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister, appointed by the Monarch and invited to form a Government. Should the leader of that particular political party choose to resign as leader – as was the case for both David Cameron and Theresa May – a new leader of the party is chosen according to the rules of the particular political party in power.
This process seems odd when viewed from constitutions with presidential systems of Government. Boris Johnson may appear to be ‘Britain Trump’ if you imagine that he was appointed following a vote of the UK electorate to elect a new Prime Minister. But this was clearly not the case. The new Prime Minister was chosen by current MPs and members of the Conservative Party. This is hardly representative of the UK as a whole.
The process is justified by a particular conception of democracy. The electorate votes – at least in theory – according to their preference for a particular political party, the values that party represents and its manifesto. The first past the post voting system tends to deliver a strong Government. The Standing Orders governing the running of the House of Commons facilitate strong Government by prioritising Governmental business. The role of the Government is to implement the party’s manifesto. The role of the opposition is to hold the Government to account and to present an alternative form of Government ready for the next general election. Any Government only remains in power to the extent that it enjoys the confidence of the Commons. A change in personnel, even including the Prime Minister, is simply that. The political party still implements the manifesto on which it was elected, with the backing of the electorate and the confidence of the Commons. There is no need for the electorate writ large to endorse a mere personnel change.
However, the current political situation in the UK challenges these assumptions. Boris Johnson is in charge of a minority Government, with a slim majority courtesy of a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party. Brexit continues to divide across party lines and Boris Johnson’s stance on Brexit is not fully reflective of the views of the Conservative Party as a whole – to put it mildly. The commitment to leaving on the 31 October, even if this is without a deal, marks a shift in Governmental policy. It is no mere change in personnel. Is it really the case that the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson’s leadership enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons, or has this just been assumed given that there has been no time for a confidence motion?
The election of Boris Johnson is not a constitutional crisis in and of itself. However, it took place against a backdrop of an erosion of the assumptions on which the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy is founded. A lot has happened since Theresa May’s government survived the last vote of no confidence in January. Backbench MPs in the House of Commons used business motions to push through legislation designed to prevent a no deal Brexit, reinforcing the strength of Parliament with a corresponding weakening of Government. Brexit still cuts across party lines, challenging backbench MPs to question whether their support for a particular form of Brexit overrides their support for their political party. The 31 October deadline can only exacerbate this tension. Does this also erode the Prime Minister’s legitimacy, given he is not the leader of the Government with a clear majority, and that the policies he is now implementing may not fully reflect the manifesto on which the Conservative Party was elected in 2017 under the then leadership of Theresa May?
It definitely will not be ‘business as usual’, understood in the conventional sense, when the House of Commons returns from its summer recess. Though given the events of 2019 to date, ‘business as usual’ may now include Governmental defeats on key policy areas, business order motions designed to enable backbench MPs to initiate and successfully enact legislation, and votes of no confidence.
Alison Young is Sir David Williams Professor of Public Law at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Robinson College