Today’s crisis in British government is the biggest since 1974, when a miner’s strike challenged the authority of the Conservative government and led to a three-day working week. To break the impasse, Ted Heath called a general election on the issue: ‘Who governs, an elected government or the miner’s union?’
The Brexit crisis raises the question of who governs in a different context. In a sound bite Boris Johnson has phrased the issue as: ‘Who governs: the People or Parliament?’ By the people he means the 51.9 percent of UK voters who endorsed leaving the EU in the referendum three years ago.
The Conservative party members who made Johnson prime minister are more than 17 million fewer than the people who voted for Brexit.
The classically educated Johnson has assumed the mantle of a Roman tribune of the plebeians (tribunus plebs), protecting the British people from the power of the elite. Converting one of many contesting views into the ‘will of all voters’ is a textbook example of populist leadership.
For Johnson, this has become a ‘do or die command’: leave the EU on 31 October with or without a deal.
The majority of MPs give the traditional answer to the question of who governs: British government is parliamentary government. MPs claim to represent all the people because they have been endorsed by more than 32 million voters.
However, votes were not cast in favour of a single will but of nine parties expressing different wills on Brexit and much else.
In 2017, both the Conservative and Labour parties pledged to support the principle of leaving the EU but they could not endorse how this should be implemented, because at that point there was no plan for implementing withdrawal.
Theresa May, the then Prime Minister, swithered between promising terms unacceptable to Brussels – minimizing costs and maximizing benefits or leaving without any deal with the EU.
After Theresa May agreed a deal, parliament three times rejected it by a coalition of pro-European MPs, and hard-Brexit advocates who saw any deal as BRINO (Brexit In Name Only), leaving the UK vassals of Brussels.
Boris Johnson succeeded May by being committed to leave the EU with no deal if Brussels did not agree to terms it had previously rejected when canvassed by his predecessor.
Without a deal the UK by default will leave the EU in eight weeks’ time.
Parliament is asserting its authority by showing what it doesn’t want. An ad hoc coalition of seven groups of MPs – Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish National, Plaid Cymru, Green, ex-Labour and ex-Conservative – rejects leaving the EU with no deal.
However, they differ widely in their positive goal. Some want to remain in the EU by calling and winning a second referendum, others want to negotiate a soft Brexit with Brussels or revive Theresa May’s rejected deal, and Jeremy Corbyn’s team want to oust Johnson and seize control of Downing Street.
In a polarized political situation Boris Johnson is following in Ted Heath’s footsteps by seeking a snap election.
To win a majority, the Conservative party will need to take or re-take up to three dozen seats that it has lost, including the 21 seats currently held by Tory MPs who had the party whip withdrawn for voting with the anti-no deal majority on Tuesday night.
In a sound-bite era, Johnson is prepared to gamble that his personality and rhetorical skills will make him a successful tribune of the people.
An anti-Downing Street call to defend the rights of Parliament can win a majority in the House of Commons but plays to Johnson’s populist theme of defending the people against a self-regarding elite.
Given differences between anti-Johnson parties about Europe and much else, they will compete for votes with each other as well as seeking disaffected Conservative votes.
The February 1974 election result produced a clear answer: both Heath’s Conservatives and the Labour opposition fell more than twenty seats short of winning a parliamentary majority.
Labour took office, but after seven months of minority government, a second election was held and it won a majority so thin that in no time Labour depended on a pact with the Liberals to remain in office.
In a general election, unlike a referendum ballot, both pro and anti-Brexit voters will have a choice between parties that endorse their position on EU membership.
Nigel Farage can try to ‘out-populist’ Johnson in seeking the votes of plebes. While the Brexit Party may not win any seats, it can cost the Conservatives a dozen or more MPs by splitting the no deal vote. It may also cost Labour a few seats too.
Given defections since 2017, the Labour Party needs to win more than 75 seats to gain an absolute majority.
The European Parliament election in May showed that when Europe is the issue Labour is vulnerable to losing votes to both the Liberal Democrats and the Green parties. In pro-EU Scotland the SNP is on a high, hoping to win up to ten seats from the Conservatives, and the Labour Party is trailing in fourth place in the opinion polls.
Boris Johnson is gambling that a snap general election will give him an absolute majority to support his do or die goal of Brexit with or without a deal.
However, the ghost of Ted Heath, Britain’s only pro-European prime minister, hovers over Boris Johnson’s head.
The collective decision of the electorate may be to deny a parliamentary majority to both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. The failure of an election to decide who governs could lead to a second election, a second referendum on EU membership or a deal with the EU – or all three in sequence.
By Professor Richard Rose, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and a fellow of the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute. This analysis draws of his forthcoming book How Referendums Challenge European Democracy: Brexit and Beyond.