FFS explains: Boris Johnson and the mandate 3

FFS explains: Boris Johnson and the mandate

Boris Johnson’s elevation to Prime Minister has been accompanied with calls questioning his mandate to lead the country.

Ian Blackford and Jeremy Corbyn have been among those who have challenged the Tory leader over this issue at Westminster, with Blackford claiming that Johnson has “no mandate in this House”.

Johnson retorted with a claim about the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s election, saying: “I take no criticism of my election from the party whose leader, Nicola Sturgeon, replaced Alex Salmond without a vote, as far as I know. Did she not?”

The Prime Minister has committed to the UK leaving the EU on October 31 with or without a deal, but Remain MPs argue that he has no mandate for Brexit without a deal.

Ferret Fact Service looks at the evidence.

Electoral mandate

Many campaigners and opposition politicians have pointed out that Boris Johnson did not face a public vote before taking office, instead winning a ballot of Conservative Party members against Jeremy Hunt, after a leadership campaign.

The 92,153 party members who backed his leadership equate to around 0.14 per cent of the UK population. This has been cited to back up suggestions he lacks a mandate.

There is no constitutional requirement for a Prime Minister to face a general election before coming into power. Analysis from Full Fact found that around half of Prime Ministers in the last 100 years have got into power without an election, including the previous incumbent Theresa May.

In a general election, voters are not directly selecting a Prime Minister. Instead they are voting for constituency MPs, with the leader of the party who ends up with the most seats usually appointed Prime Minister.

Jeremy Corbyn has used the phrase “electoral mandate” to describe Johnson’s lack of election. It is true that he has never faced a general election as leader and so lacks that endorsement from voters, but this is not uncommon for Prime Minister’s recently elected.

But what about Nicola Sturgeon?

In response to criticism from the SNP, Boris Johnson claimed that the First Minister had assumed power from Alex Salmond without a vote.

This is accurate with reference to the leadership of the SNP, but lacks context. Sturgeon became leader of the party after Salmond resigned as First Minister in the wake of the ‘No’ vote in the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014. Leadership candidates in the SNP are normally elected after a vote of the party membership.

She launched her campaign to succeed Salmond in September of that year, resigning her role as deputy leader. It became clear that she would be the only person able to garner enough support and was the only candidate to put themselves forward. She was appointed SNP leader at the party conference in October 2014.

Therefore, it is accurate to say she replaced Alex Salmond as party leader without a vote, but only because no-one else stood as a candidate.

However, the system of election to the Scottish Parliament is different to the House of Commons, and meant Sturgeon faced a vote before becoming First Minister.

The vote was between Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson and Sturgeon, and the SNP’s then-majority at Holyrood made it a formality, with Davidson gaining 15 votes to Sturgeon’s 66 with 39 abstentions.

A ‘No deal’ Brexit

Another area where the mandate of Boris Johnson has been questioned is in delivering on the result of the EU referendum. The Tory leader has repeatedly stated that Britain will leave the EU on 31 October with or without a deal with Brussels. Foreign secretary Dominic Raab suggested on 6 August that the Conservative Party has a mandate for a ‘No Deal’ Brexit from the last general election.

The referendum question itself gave no indication of whether the UK would leave with a deal, and official campaign group, Vote Leave, repeatedly mentioned the importance of a good deal with Europe. A number of different analyses of major figures in the Leave campaign, including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, have found little evidence of ‘no deal’ Brexit being discussed or promoted.

Fact check: Brexit Party claims on EU negotiations and divorce bill

Dominic Raab’s claim that the general election gave the Conservatives a mandate for ‘no deal’ is more complex. Theresa May regularly suggested that ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’, and the 2017 Conservatives manifesto says: “We continue to believe that no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK.”

However, the manifesto’s section on leaving the European Union is based upon the Conservatives promising to negotiate “the best possible deal” for the UK.

The document also states: “We believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside our withdrawal, reaching agreement on both within the two years allowed by Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.”

Raab stated in an interview with the BBC that the Conservatives “specifically sought voters’ permission for that prospectus and that mandate”. A ‘no deal’ option was mentioned as an alternative to a so-called “bad deal”, but the manifesto actually suggested that the Conservatives would be able to successfully negotiate a favourable deal with the EU.

The manifesto states: “With Theresa May and her team, we will secure the best possible deal with the European Union and chart a course to a new global future.”

Crucially, the 2017 election resulted in the Conservatives losing their majority in the House of Commons, and governing in a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP’s manifesto makes no mention of a ‘No deal’ and instead promises to “use our mandate and our influence to get the best deal for Northern Ireland”.

The manifesto also states: “It is in the interests of all in Northern Ireland that the UK-EU negotiations progress well and that the trade elements commence as soon as possible. The stronger and more positive the agreements reached, especially on trade and customs relationships, then the better for the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.”

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Email us at factcheck@theferret.scot or join our Facebook group.

Photo thanks to Number 10 on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

  1. This article as far as it goes but misses the most important factual question which is whether Boris Johnson can command a majority in parliament. The difference between May is she clearly had a majority, following the confidence and supply with the DUP. Have the DUP agreed that that agreement should continue under Johnson? Would all Tory MPs be prepared to vote for Johnson as Prime Minister given he has made Brexit the defining issue for him? If not, he would appear to have no majority and the Queen/Executive should have asked him if he could have formed a majority BEFORE asking him to be Prime Minister.

  2. It perhaps should also be said that the SNP has fought General and Holyrood elections since 2014 with Nicola Sturgeon as leader, whereas the Conservative Party has so far, fought (and lost) only a by-election with Boris Johnston as leader.

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