Ever since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister last month, I’ve seen countless social media posts by my friends, and people with like-minded political views, branding him an ‘unelected’ PM.
It’s true that Mr Johnson was not leader of the Conservative party at the last General Election in 2017. That was Theresa May.
But under our parliamentary system, that doesn’t matter. We don’t directly elect a Prime Minister. We elect members of parliament, and those who can agree on enough come together to form the government.
At the last general election, Boris Johnson was a prominent member of the party – indeed, he held the post of foreign secretary, one of the four great ‘offices of state.’ Arguably, his name recognition was even higher than the Prime Minister herself. We citizens knew when we voted that he aspired to the top position, and that if the Tories prevailed there was a non-negligible likelihood that he would take over in the near future. All these facts were ‘baked in to’ the vote of 2017.
But actually, this foreknowledge is neither here nor there. Boris Johnson is Prime Minister simply because the elected British parliament says he is. He has exactly the same legitimacy as every single Prime Minister of modern times, including during times of crisis: Winston Churchill led us through the war despite never having won a plebiscite as leader. The overwhelming assent of parliament was enough.
Now, those who call themselves ‘Remainers’ and the wider group of people opposed to Mr Johnson’s current Brexit policy would do well to respect, reinforce and applaud this aspect of parliamentary sovereignty. Because if No Deal is to be prevented, it will likely happen due to precisely the same power mechanism that elevated Johnson to the premiership – a vote by MPs.
If MPs outside of government are to seize control of the parliamentary timetable in the coming days, then they will only be able to do so if a majority of their colleagues vote for it to happen. When Sir Oliver Letwin and others co-ordinated just such a vote in the spring of 2919, I recall those who opposed him saying that he was an ‘self-appointed Prime Minister for the day’ (or some such insult – I confess I have not reviewed Hansard).
If, alternatively, a vote of no confidence were to depose Mr Johnson and install a different government (led by Jeremy Corbyn, or by a unity figure like Kenneth Clarke, or by cross-party all-female cabinet), then that government would have exactly the same kind legitimacy as the Johnson premiership. I doubt those calling Johnson ‘unelected’ now would be as keen to use it for a politician whose Brexit policy they support.
If and when a coalition of MPs succeeds in averting the No Deal policy, against the wishes of Mr Johnson, detractors will call any such manoeuvres ‘undemocratic.’ That would be incorrect according to the principles of parliamentary democracy. But it’s a charge that would carry weight in the minds of many. And it’s a charge that is reinforced now by the labelling of Boris Johnson as ‘unelected.’
These days anyone with a keyboard and a social media account fancies themselves as a savvy political operator. And calling Johnson ‘unelected’ has a certain appeal. It is quick, memorable and delegitimising, like Trump’s tweets about ‘crooked’ Hillary Clinton or ‘sleepy’ Joe Biden. As a stand-alone propaganda tactic, it’s pretty good… which is why so many people have latched onto it in their social media posts.
But it undermines Mr Johnson by undermining parliamentary democracy. The poorly worded, ill-explained EU referendum of 2016 has done enough damaged in that regard already.
Moreover, we desperately need parliamentary sovereignty to retain its legitimacy, if we are ever going to resist those who would impose their destructive political vision upon our country.
So let us have a moratorium on the ‘unelected’ perjorative, please… before the less principled, more cynical operators currently working out of No. 10 use it against us.
Parliament cannot mount a coup against itself
My theory of the current political situation is this: The Prime Minister is actually goading parliament into seizing control and stopping No Deal. For Boris Johnson, this could be a win-win-win result:
- He gets to avoid actually having to lead the country into and through ‘No Deal’
- The whole mess ceases to be ‘Tory Brexit’ and the other parties have to start sharing responsibility
- He gets to make the wholly mendacious but (probably) electorally effective argument that parliament has effected some kind of coup.
I think it would be irresponsible to call Boris Johnson’s bluff, by letting him proceed with Crash-Out Brexit. So the solution must be, first, for parliament to stop him; and second, for everyone to undermine and refute his communications strategy.
We must remember that his most effective point (that stopping Boris would be some kind of ‘coup’) is constitutionally illiterate. Communicating this effectively is the key to resisting Mr Johnson’s strategy. We must also do it succinctly.
So: Parliament is sovereign. Collectively, MPs can give power, and they can collectively take it away. Parliament cannot mount a coup against itself. A real coup would be to do something against the explicit wishes (i.e. vote) of parliament.
This needs to be hammered home, in pithy tweets and curt Facebook posts, between now and 31st October.