A Canadian Angle on Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson won’t be the British prime minister for very much longer. He’ll either resign in the coming days or in a few months. We’ll see.

I’m not here to write about Johnson’s tenure, nor will I wade into a hypothetical discussion of whether the Queen would have dismissed him had he not resigned after a vote of no confidence from either the Conservatives or the Commons. (Ok, I’ll wade in a little: the Palace and civil service would have done everything they could to prevent it from ever getting to that point.)

Instead, I want to highlight that Johnson’s departure is a cautionary tale about ‘mandates’ and ‘terms’. If you follow UK public law Twitter, you’ll already be aware that Johnson’s claims to have a direct mandate from the British people is constitutionally meaningless and not how their system works. And guess what: it’s not how the Canadian system works, either! Johnson’s effort to stay on as prime minister by evoking the idea of a popular mandate shows us why this kind of talk is damaging to our institutions and constitutional understanding. What mattered in Johnson’s case was his ability to lead his party. Even if he’d managed to hold on to support among Conservatives, he might not have survived a confidence vote in the Commons. Losing the confidence of either meant the end of his premiership, regardless of how many people voted for his party during the last general election. Thankfully, mandate-talk had no effect on the outcome in Johnson’s case. Nobody bought into rhetoric so at odds with how the British constitution operates.

Canadians, on the other hand, love mandate-talk. We increasingly speak about first ministers and governments winning mandates during general elections. We’ve also grown quite fond of referring to prime ministerial terms, as in Trudeau is currently in his ‘third term’ as prime minister. Of course, none of this is any truer in Canada than it is in the United Kingdom. What matters here, in the end, is the confidence of the elected house of the legislature. Or it’s what should matter. Sadly, though, I suspect a Canadian prime minister would have a lot more support for the idea that they can’t be ousted in the middle of their ‘term’ because they won a ‘mandate’ from the people. I bet a surprising number of pundits and members of the public would back that claim. That’s how entrenched these concepts have become.

Now, unlike in the United Kingdom, there’s next to no chance that a prime minister would be push out by their party caucus in Canada. That’s not how we do things here. But a no confidence vote in the Commons is quite possible. We’ve seen that a few times federally and in the provinces, of late. Will our talk of mandates and terms make those episodes still more heated and confusing than they’ve been in the past? Probably. Recall that a no confidence vote gave us the 2008 prorogation crisis.

I’d like to think that we can change course here, that we can bring our terminology back into line with our constitution. But I’m not too hopeful. Had Johnson been a Canadian prime minister his appeal to a popular mandate might have saved him.

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