There is nothing in our constitutional arrangements which requires a Prime Minister to be equipped with a mandate from the electorate. All he or she needs is the ability to command a majority in the House of Commons. Mrs May can, so far, do that. But it is certainly true that she is the first Prime Minister in recent years (by which I mean my life time) to take office from a leader of her own party (who won an election) and then announce that she was fundamentally opposed to everything he stood for.
A quick review of our prime ministers since the world rejoiced at my birth. My first was Winston Churchill. He won an election, so no need to say more, though it may be worth pointing out that his campaign slogan, “set the people free”, was certainly not one which would appeal to Mrs May. Next was Anthony Eden. He took over before the election, but only a month before. So he, too, won an election and deserves no more attention in this piece. We move on to Harold Macmillan. He took over from Eden after Suez. He had two years as Prime Minister before standing for election (he won). He didn’t reject Eden’s earlier manifesto. So we can move on again. Macmillan thought he had a fatal prostate problem. He didn’t, but he had resigned before he discovered the truth. The Earl of Home (downgraded to Sir Alec Douglas-Home when he gave up his peerage) became Prime Minister. He never won an election, but neither did he depart from his predecessor’s policies. Not many more to go. Harold Wilson (election victory) was next. Then we had Ted Heath (election victory). Harold Wilson again (election victory). Callaghan (never won an election but didn’t depart from Wilson’s policies). Margaret Thatcher, election victories. John Major, election quite soon and no apparent departure from predecessor’s policies before the election. Anthony Blair, election victories. Gordon Brown, never won an election but claimed to be continuing Mr Blair’s policies. David Cameron, election victories.
Coming up for air now?
OK, we move on to Mrs May. Unlike, I think it fair to say, any of her post-war predecessors, she never, before coming Prime Minister, revealed any political opinions at all. To be fair, given her lengthy stint at the Home Office (who could not go native after such a long time?), those in the know would probably have guessed that she was inclined to authoritarianism rather than libertarianism. But it was still a bit of a shock for most of us when, having been elected leader of the Conservative Party, she chose to divulge the news that she wanted masses more government intervention in all our daily lives. She was signalling a gigantic change of direction from Thatcher, Major and Cameron (all election victors). No, plainly, she had no mandate for her radical new policies (her claim that voting to leave the EU in the referendum was obviously a vote for lots more state bossiness is about as silly as you can get). But, as I pointed out at the beginning of this piece, that doesn’t matter at all. She can command a majority in the House of Commons, that’s all that’s important.
Of course, we are in new territory (at least for the last seventy or more years). We have a Prime Minister who did not lead her party at the last election but who has rejected her predecessor’s political principles and replaced them with her own love for the big state (lots of really attractive jack-booted bureaucrats). Not only has Mrs May completely changed direction, but she has chosen a new route which will be hated by any honest Tory MPs (quite a few will pretend they love big government in the hope of getting jobs but most will not be so dishonest). Still, as I say, Mrs May commands a majority in the House of Commons. She has every right, so long as that remains the case, to champion statism, to reject individual liberty, to demand that petty officials should be given more powers to torment us.
What is more, though my own suspicion is that Mrs May’s love of bureaucratic authority will never actually find form in concrete policy proposals, my guess is that, should she propose legislation giving her jack-booted pals authority to crush us, she will still command a majority in the House of Commons. She will have the pay vote (ministers). She will have Ken Clarke. And, most valuable to her, she will have Labour, Lib Dem and SNP. I don’t think she will have the Tories, but she doesn’t need them.
Mrs May can, quite legitimately, give us real Socialism for the first time in nearly forty years (Mr Blair was well to the right of Mrs May). That’s the British constitution for you.