What constraints will the new Prime Minister face?
During the leadership campaign, it suited all candidates to behave as if the winner would be able to deliver their promises. Even now, Boris Johnson’s supporters are claiming that his comprehensive victory gives him a clear mandate to do what he wants. This is of course not true. Until the next election, his premiership will be defined by the challenges of governing with a hung parliament.
Being Prime Minister with a small-to-non-existent majority is hard, as Jim Callaghan, John Major and Theresa May all discovered. Getting things done requires political skill and deal-making; nothing can be taken for granted; the opposition can always create havoc. Bringing any proposal at all to Parliament is dangerous.
The new Prime Minister will inherit a working majority of just two. This will fall to one if the Conservatives lose the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election on 1 August. And that relies on the support of the DUP, who have not been entirely reliable in voting with the Conservatives. Several Conservative MPs say they would defy the whip to prevent a no-deal Brexit. And a much larger number, from very different ideological wings of the party, have rebelled on key votes in recent months.
So Johnson’s ability to deliver any new policies that require legislation, to leave the EU with or without a deal by 31 October, or to pass a Budget, cannot be taken for granted. His campaign promises – such as his proposal to increase the income tax higher rate threshold, spending £9 billion on the richest 10% of earners – may not have the votes to get through the Commons.
On Brexit, Johnson is committed to leaving the EU by 31 October, with or without a deal: he says he will not seek an extension. He says a new deal can be negotiated, removing the backstop to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The EU disagrees. If delivering Brexit were easy, Theresa May would have done it already.
If Parliament blocks a no-deal Brexit, an election looks like a strong possibility: Johnson would be unable to deliver his main policy, and unable to do much else.
He has indicated that he has no intention of holding an autumn election – partly to reassure colleagues who are nervous of losing their seats. His supporters have been more open to the idea of an election in the first half of next year: after Brexit, and following a meaningful change of direction from Theresa May’s government.
But the question of when and how Brexit takes place is not in the Prime Minister’s gift. He cannot force Parliament to pass a deal. Meanwhile, a “no deal” Brexit could well have political and economic consequences that would damage the Conservatives’ electoral prospects and make an early election unattractive. The Conservative assumption that delivering Brexit makes their electoral task easier relies on assuming that a) it is deliverable; b) it will go well. Neither of these assumptions looks safe.
Tom Hamilton is an Associate Director in MHP’s Public Affairs team. Prior to joining MHP, he was a Labour Adviser for 10 years – most recently as Head of Policy to Labour Deputy Leader, Tom Watson.