Johnson has the power to call a snap election, but it would be political madness

1 Jun

From whence springs the apparent fear on the part of rebellious Conservative MPs that Boris Johnson might call a snap election in the event that he survives a vote of no confidence?

Bloomberg reports that the rebels think he might seek a “fresh mandate from voters” if the expected challenge fails to oust him as leader.

In fairness to them, some members of the Boris court have talked up this possibility in the past. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a constitutionalist who definitely knows better, suggested earlier this year that there would need to be a general election were the Prime Minister to be deposed.

And sources have told me that some in the current Downing Street team have talked about how a smaller majority might be easier to manage than a large one – which has a certain logic if one has no great ambitions to do anything ambitious with it.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that the Prime Minister could call an election if he wanted to. One of this Government’s concrete achievements has been the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act – a welcome return to our tested political constitution after a woeful experiment with partial codification.

The Commons has re-conferred on the Prime Minister that power of dissolution of which Walter Bagehot said in The English Constitution: “no assembly would — unless for historical accidents, and after happy experience — have been persuaded to intrust to any committee”.

But what is constitutional and what is politically advisable are very different things.

First, there is surely no doubt that even were the Conservatives to win a snap election in such circumstances, they would lose a lot of ground. There is no ‘get Brexit done’ imperative to sell the voters on here, it would be very clearly about shoring up a wounded prime minister.

(Indeed, Johnson himself could well lose Uxbridge, a humiliation which really would win him his place in the history books.)

And it would not likely prop him up for long, either. If current polling is to be believed, the result could unmake the remarkable redrawing of England’s political map which Johnson achieved in 2019. He might actually lose his own seat.

Even if he did not, he would cease to be the political wizard who delivered an historic majority, a fact which remains an important plank of his remaining appeal. Why would MPs be more loyal to the wounded deliverer of a small majority than to ‘triumphator Johnson‘?

In the event that he held on, it is very difficult to imagine how a government which had just suffered a major electoral setback and would thus be even more focused on internal management and firefighting would conduct the sort of intellectual refresh that it so badly needs.

So if there is any truth to this threat, Johnson loyalists should consider that it might backfire. If Tory MPs think he’s serious, they could be encouraged to rally round him for fear of losing their seats… or they might well be more motivated to vote against him in the initial no confidence vote.