This week, Britain goes to the polls for our third election in five years. It’s looking likely that we’ll elect another Conservative government, and with it the deathless promise of Brexit, cuts, and even more of Dominic Raab’s throbbing vein.
But there is the faintest sliver of hope. In Uxbridge, a Labour campaign to unseat Boris Johnson in his own seat has accrued momentum. Johnson’s challenger, 25-year-old Iranian immigrant and local boy Ali Milani, is running an energetic campaign. The Independent reports that odds have shortened on Milani unseating Johnson, from 5-1 when the election campaign started, to 7-2 at the end of November.
It would be a glorious thing: Johnson’s face as he became the first-ever sitting British prime minister to be unseated in a general election. Could Milani do it? Regrettably, probably not. Although Johnson’s majority of 5,034 is the smallest majority of any PM since 1924, it’s still sizeable. Milani would need to achieve a 5 percent swing to unseat Johnson – which isn’t much compared to the 39.3 percent swing that the SNP achieved in Glasgow North East in 2015, the largest electoral swing in UK political history that wasn’t in a by-election (where swings are more pronounced) – but it isn’t exactly nothing, either.
If Milani does manage to unseat Johnson, what happens next? Alas, it wouldn’t be the end of Boris Alexander De Pfeffel Johnson’s ignominious political career. “They would look for a Conservative MP in a reasonably safe seat, with a big majority, to step down,” explains Professor Robert Hazell, an expert in British politics and the constitution at University College London. “They’d probably offer that MP a place in the House of Lords as an inducement for stepping aside.” How long would it take for Johnson to get back into the House of Commons? At least three weeks, Hazell says – the amount of time it takes to organise a by-election.
The Tories would have to pick the MP carefully – it would probably be someone who is relatively long-serving, and they’d have to have a very safe seat. “The swing against the government could be as much as 10 percent in a by-election,” Hazell explains, citing the example of Labour MP Patrick Gordon Walker, former shadow Foreign Secretary, who lost his seat in the 1964 general election. Gordon Walker was appointed Foreign Secretary by Harold Wilson anyway, stood in the supposedly safe Labour constituency of Leyton in 1965 – and lost again, after a vote swing of 8.7 percent. In other words, when you’re a government minister fighting a high-profile by-election, you can expect voters will turn against you far more than they would ordinarily.
Another option would be for Johnson to be appointed to the House of Lords as a peer, and lead the Conservative party from there. But Hazell thinks that’s unlikely. “No prime minister for the last 120 years has been prime minister whilst sitting in the Lords,” he says. “I think if he were given a peerage, that would be the end of his political career. I don’t think a modern prime minister could lead the country from the House of Lords.”
There is a precedent for having a prime minister who isn’t a member of either the Commons or the Lords. In 1963, Alec Douglas-Home became prime minister without being an MP, until he was elected for the vacant seat of Kinross and West Perthshire 20 days after taking office. (He was chosen to replace then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan after Macmillan resigned for health reasons. Douglas-Home was at the time a member of the House of Lords, but he resigned his peerage to fight a general election whilst simultaneously leading the Conservatives.)
Technically speaking, you don’t need to be a member of the House of Commons to be the PM. Hazell explains that it is a constitutional convention that the prime minister is also an MP, rather than being written down anywhere in our laws. “It’s been the convention since Sir Robert Walpole [Britain’s first prime minister] that the prime minister should sit in Parliament,” he tells me. In the last century, the convention has evolved so that the PM is expected to be a member of the House of Commons – the last British leader to be a member of the House of Lords was Lord Salisbury, in 1892.
Hazell doesn’t think that Johnson will break the UK’s constitutional conventions if he loses to Milani, meaning that a by-election seems to be the most likely bet. I’m not so sure. It would be so like Boris to break the rules.