By Felicity Matthews
At 07:20 on 24 June 2016, the result of the ‘once-in-a-generation’ referendum was announced. Little over an hour later the Prime Minister made his own announcement on the steps of Downing Street, stating that it ‘would not be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination’. Since then, one word has been on the lips of Westminster watchers. Bre… OK, not that one. Another. One beginning with ‘m’: MANDATE. Who has a mandate? To do what? By when? How?
Let’s start with Theresa May’s rise to the top of the Conservative Party. It would be wrong to imply that she was heir apparent to the Tory crown; and indeed during the leadership campaign May was at pains to stress her desire to avoid a ‘coronation’. Yet events dictated otherwise, ultimately whittling down the candidature to two; and the experienced and respected Home Secretary faced the little-known MP for Aylesbury Andrea Leadsom. It quickly became apparent that Leadsom was well out of her depth, with ill-advised comments about the way in which motherhood gave her a ‘very real stake in the future of our country’ and her unwillingness to employ male nannies doing little to endear her to the population at large. And indeed, Leadsom came to recognise this, withdrawing from the contest as she acknowledged she lacked the ‘sufficient support to win a strong and stable government’.
Such are the events that led Theresa May to the steps of 10 Downing Street on 13 July, with the backing of the majority of her MPs but without the endorsement of the Conservative Party at large. In doing so, she joined the ranks of the eleven ‘takeover leaders’ who had acceded through internal party process rather than electoral victory; and it was unsurprising that she faced demands to call a general election to win her own mandate. Constitutionally, this is unnecessary: the Conservatives were elected as the largest parliamentary party to deliver a manifesto programme in 2015 and that remains the case. Politically, and notwithstanding the barriers posed by the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2010, snap elections always are risky and fraught as Gordon Brown found to his own cost in 2006 when he failed to capitalise on his honeymoon bounce in the polls.
All evidence suggests May would have ‘won her mandate’ and done so easily. Many recent opinion polls show that over 40% would vote for the Conservatives if an election were held tomorrow, which is significantly higher than the support enjoyed under Cameron in the immediate aftermath of the last election; and the latest YouGov Poll shows that nearly 80% of people believe May to be the best PM. Yet, May’s first six months in office have revealed her desire to create clear blue water between her government and the previous administration, introducing flagship policies that were not manifesto promises (e.g. grammar schools), whilst subsuming or watering down others (e.g. the Northern Powerhouse and tackling obesity). And, of course, under May the Conservative commitment to running a budget surplus by 2020 has been abandoned, as the Chancellor announced more modest targets regarding deficit reduction in the Autumn Budget Statement. This new direction has made many MPs nervous, with one stating ‘some of the people from the 2015 intake feel they won their seats thanks to David Cameron, particularly those in Lib Dem marginals’.
Yet perhaps the loudest arguments regarding the ‘m’ word have been in relation to Brexit itself. Theresa May has been unequivocal that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, stating that ‘the referendum result was clear. It was legitimate. It was the biggest vote for change this country has ever known’. Many have disagreed. Ed Miliband declared that ‘there is clearly a mandate for Brexit from this referendum but there is no mandate for the particular form of Brexit’, which was echoed by SNP Chairman Derek MacKay who stated that ‘the Tories have no mandate to pursue the hardest of hard Brexits’. Indeed, the recent by-election in Richmond Park was transformed by the Lib Dems into their very own Battle of Britain, with newly elected MP Sarah Olney declaring that ‘I’ve been elected on a very clear anti-Brexit mandate and I’ll be fighting hard for Britain to maintain close links to the European Union’. The fact that Olney was supported by only 49.7% of voters on a turnout of 41% did not go unnoticed, and when pressed on the mathematical basis of this supposed mandate, her answers made for awkward listening.
One could go on. What did Theresa May mean by ‘the biggest vote for change this country has ever known’? Certainly not in terms of turnout; and arguably not in terms of margin of victory. Indeed, debates about mandates have made many Remainers and Leavers dance on such mathematical pinheads. And then there are the wider constitutional implications of the vote to leave, which have unfolded since June. What is the status of a referendum? Does the government have a mandate to pursue Brexit? Should Parliament – and indeed the many parliaments of the UK – have a mandate to scrunitise the negotiations of the Government?
Such issues get to the heart of the constitutional dilemmas that have spewed forth from the Pandora’s Box opened by David Cameron at the start of 2016 when he announced an EU referendum; and as the Supreme Court delivers its judgement on the role of parliament, it is unlikely that the deep divides revealed by the EU referendum will be easily overcome. Remainers versus Leavers; liberals versus the ‘left behind’; Westminster versus Holyrood; Government versus Parliament; Parliament versus ‘the people’… These constitutional dilemmas and political challenges are set to bedevil the May’s time in office; and faced with such irreconcilable demands, the necessity to secure an electoral mandate may become unavoidable.
Felicity Matthews is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield Department of Politics, Co-editor of Policy & Politics journal and Associate Fellow of the Crick Centre. She specialises in Public Policy and Governance. This blog is an adapted version of the original posted on 20th December 2016 on the Crick Centre blog.
If you enjoyed this article you may also like to read The virtues and vices of resigning from office by Cécile Hatier.
Image credit: UK Home Office via Wikimedia Commons