Boris Johnson: rich, famous but not powerful

7 Aug 2019


Rich, famous and powerful is a phrase often aimed at the elite of British politics.  There can be no politician who is assigned these titles to a greater extent than Boris Johnson.  He became a household name when he was mayor of London and was famous for bumbling about the capital, waving flags on top of buses wherever he could. Whether Boris was ever a natural contender for prime minister is a subject of contention, but here we are. Upon winning the leadership election, Boris gave a speech (while flailing his arms in the air) promising that he would: Deliver Brexit, Unite the party, Defeat Jeremy Corbyn and Excite the party (DUDE!)


To achieve all of this Boris Johnson needs power, and a lot of it. He needs a majority in parliament that fully and wholeheartedly supports what he does. Yet the Conservatives’ working parliamentary majority is that of just one after the removal of the whip from Charlie Elphicke MP and the loss of Chris Davies MP in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election to the Lib-Dems. It seems Boris Johnson may in fact be one of the least powerful prime ministers in modern living memory (even Theresa May had a greater majority). Despite the lack of power Boris and his government have, there are lots of MPs and groups of people who work in and around parliament who have the power to direct the course the country takes.


Conservative anti-no-dealers such as Phillip Hammond and David Guake resigned in spectacular fashion despite there only being a few days left of the May government. These MPs and around 30 other conservative MPs are all willing to vote for amendments to block a no-deal Brexit despite Boris Johnson claiming that we will leave the EU deal or no-deal. These MPs could easily frustrate the delivery of Boris’s aims and even bring him down in a vote of no confidence. Using this as a threat, this group of MPs may have real leverage; potentially, they could dictate what they want to the government and see it happen. The only solution Boris Johnson has to this is proroguing parliament.  It would be an outlandish and reckless move, but that kind of behaviour is often expected of Boris Johnson. So despite resigning from the ‘second best’ job in government, Phillip Hammond may be the most powerful he has ever been.


There are nevertheless a number of Labour MPs who serve heavily leave voting constituencies, and are willing to vote to leave the EU. This group of MPs consists of Caroline Flint, Sarah Champion and Lisa Nandy and around 23 others according to Flint. These MPs have real power over whether the UK leaves the EU. Boris Johnson’s premiership relies on whether or not Brexit can be delivered and so relies on these Labour MPs. Caroline Flint appears to be the leader of this small group, and has already voted for the withdrawal agreement.  If she is able to persuade a number of other MPs, she could be saving Boris Johnson’s career.


John Bercow, the speaker of the house, has been instrumental in deciding what votes are put forward to the commons and which amendments are selected to be voted on. It is likely that Bercow will permit amendments at every opportunity to enable MPs to vote on preventing no-deal or on second referendum legislation. Bercow has the power to decide whether Boris brings back a deal which may be too similar to the previous deal, thus preventing the ‘new’ Boris Johnson deal from passing. 

The route which Bercow is most likely to take is to help MPs from across the house vote for amendments on every possible piece of legislation to prevent proroguing, no deal and other forms of hard-brexit. Bercow has been the most proactive speaker of the house in modern history. The normal role of speaker according to parliament is to ‘maintain order during debates’ and ‘perform administrative and procedural functions’. Despite this, the current speaker has become pivotal in deciding what the UK does and which path it takes in delivering Brexit.


After all the flamboyant ceremonies of visiting the queen, delivering speeches in Downing Street and making endless promises, Boris Johnson will have to start delivering on his promises - especially Brexit. Considering his recent cabinet upheaval in which he created more enemies than he had before by sacking 13 cabinet ministers, Boris is walking a very fine line. The phrase ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ comes to mind. Boris Johnson has thrust all his enemies on to the backbenches and they owe him nothing. Boris has significantly reduced the miniscule power he had left and can only deliver Brexit by relying on Labour brexiteer MPs or the anti-no-dealer MPs. He can't decide his fate - it will be decided for him.

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