Tories have lost 'last desperate reason' for avoiding UK general election

Labour argues Conservatives have no mandate to govern after Boris Johnson pulled out of leadership race

A demonstrator holds a placard calling for a general election in London. Reuters
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Britain’s opposition Labour Party has intensified its push for a general election after Boris Johnson pulled out of the Conservative leadership race.

His decision means the Tories lost their “last desperate reason” for avoiding a countrywide vote, Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow attorney general, said.

Conservative MPs backing Mr Johnson’s bid to become prime minister again had argued he had a clear mandate to govern because of his 2019 landslide election win.

Opposition MPs rubbished the notion that the former prime minister was fit to lead the country, pointing to the parliamentary inquiry into whether he misled Parliament.

“I thought that that was their last desperate reason for not having a general election,” Ms Thornberry told ITV’s Good Morning Britain when asked about Mr Johnson pulling out of the race.

“So, a large number of them were saying: ‘We’ve got to support Boris Johnson because he has a democratic mandate, because he stood for the general election, he was the one who led — and so if we get him back, then we have an argument for not having a general election’.

“Well, now he has stepped out, we should have a general election. We should have had a general election anyway.”

Boris Johnson on Sunday pulled out of the Conservative leadership race. AFP

Since Liz Truss resigned as prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party last Thursday, opposition MPs have passionately argued there is a dire need for a general election amid the political firestorm. She will remain in office until a successor is found.

The Scottish National Party said it is preparing for a general election while Scottish Labour said such a vote was “inevitable”.

Many Tory MPs have batted away such calls but at least one politician admitted an election appeared to be “the only answer” to the political instability blighting the UK.

In his pitch to re-enter No 10, Mr Johnson had argued that he was the only MP with a mandate to govern, and said a general election would be a high probability if he did not win.

“I have been attracted because I led our party into a massive election victory less than three years ago — and I believe I am, therefore, uniquely placed to avert a general election now,” he said.

“A general election would be a further disastrous distraction just when the government must focus on the economic pressures faced by families across the country.”

Nadine Dorries, a Conservative former minister and a staunch ally of Mr Johnson, said if Mr Sunak became prime minister, the UK would find itself facing a general election “within weeks”.

She said Mr Sunak could be dragged into the Privileges Committee’s investigation into whether Mr Johnson lied over lockdown-breaking parties in No 10.

Tory MP Nigel Adams, a prominent supporter of Mr Johnson, confirmed the former prime minister had the secured the backing required to run before he pulled out. Mr Adams said he met with Bob Blackman, joint secretary of the 1922 Committee, on Monday and he “independently verified the nomination paperwork and confirmed to me that Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP was above the threshold required to stand” in the race.

“Therefore, Mr Johnson could have proceeded to the ballot had he chosen to do so,” Mr Adams added.

Home Secretary Grant Shapps, who previously served in Mr Johnson’s Cabinet, said Rishi Sunak, whom he is backing, was standing for Tory leader on the 2019 manifesto.

“We elect a party and we elect individuals as members of that party, and the 2019 manifesto is actually the thing — the document, if you like — that Rishi is standing on,” Mr Shapps told Sky News.

While he admitted it was “unusual” for the UK to have four prime ministers in five years, he argued “one of those prime ministers was the one who was elected with that manifesto, of course”.

“The individuals who were elected, and I was on the ballot paper, are still the same individuals who are in place and there is a five-year programme, and we will be delivering that manifesto,” he said.

Despite Mr Sunak having more support from MPs than his rival Penny Mordaunt, Mr Shapps insisted the former chancellor “doesn’t think it’s in the bag” and is working hard to attract more support.

In December 2019, with Mr Johnson at the helm of the party, the Tories won a majority of 80 seats and 43.6 per cent of the popular vote.

Recent opinion polls have painted a very different feeling among British voters, putting Labour 36 points ahead of the Conservatives.

Whoever was crowned the next leader of the party should call an election to get the respect from voters, said Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope.

He warned of continued upheaval within the ruling party if a vote was not held.

“If people who are now seeking the crown want to have the respect which comes from having a mandate, then what I am saying is that the best way they can get that respect is by winning a mandate with the people,” Sir Christopher told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“That is why I think a general election is essentially the only answer, otherwise we are just going to go from bad to worse.

“The party is ungovernable in the House of Commons and so we are going to have continuing rebellions as we try to change policies and so on, and so I must say I am very pessimistic, I am very angry and I feel that Boris has been let down once again and undermined by our parliamentary colleagues.”

Andrea Leadsom, a Conservative former minister, said there was “no prospect” for an election to be held before the January 2025 deadline if Ms Mordaunt wins the leadership race.

Ms Mordaunt is trailing Mr Sunak in terms of the number of MPs supporting her but her campaign will be hoping to attract politicians who had been backing Mr Johnson before he quit the contest.

“Absolutely, there is no prospect of an early general election under a Penny Mordaunt leadership,” Ms Leadsom told Sky News.

“You know, we have a mandate from 2019 from the people to fulfil the promises that we made to them then.”

Mr Sunak has won the public support of 192 MPs — more than half of the parliamentary Conservative Party.

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith threw his weight behind Mr Sunak on Monday afternoon as the deadline for nominations closed. He said he had reached the decision that “senior experience at the heart of government matters most” and therefore was backing Mr Sunak.

Shortly before noon on Monday, Ms Mordaunt’s campaign claimed the number of supporters backing their candidate had almost reached the 100 threshold. But just 24 MPs have publicly declared their support for her.

“We have now passed 90,” a campaign source told reporters. “For the sake of the party, it’s important our members have their say.”

If more than one candidate gets the support of 100 MPs the decision on who should be the new leader will go to a ballot of party members. While Mr Sunak was more popular than Liz Truss when it came to getting the backing of fellow Tory MPs, he lost to her in a vote of party members.

The European Research Group of Conservatives MPs on the right of the party announced they will not formally endorse either Mr Sunak or Ms Mordaunt for the party leadership.

George Freeman, one of Ms Mordaunt’s leading supporters, has urged her to drop out of the race in a bid to heal divisions in the party.

He said while Ms Mordaunt is a “huge force for Conservatism” and has the “life story, vision and courage to help lead a Conservative revival” she should instead join forces with Mr Sunak.

“I’m proud to support her,” Mr Freeman tweeted. “But given the urgent need for Conservative stability and unity this week, I’m urging her to join and back Rishi Sunak today.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said in the past 12 years of the Tories in power, the economy “hasn’t grown anything like it did under the last Labour government”.

“That has to be the priority and that is why we need a change of government,” he said during an interview with LBC Radio.

“We need respect for the institutions like the OBR [Office for Budget Responsibility] and the Bank of England that actually give us stability. We need a proper credible plan for growth because, in the end, a sustainable pay rise will only be available if we have growth under our economy.”

Asked by a caller if he supports the continued rail strikes, Sir Keir said “I don’t want strikes” but argued that many workers were struggling to make ends meet and desperately needed pay rises.

“What I worry about with this government is that they actually want the strikes, they like the disruption because they want to make a political point instead of getting people around the table to negotiate it,” he said.

Updated: October 24, 2022, 12:29 PM