I find myself confused by the events of the day. The BBC reports them as thus

Tory rebels and opposition MPs have defeated the government in the first stage of their attempt to pass a law designed to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

The Commons voted 328 to 301 to take control of the agenda, meaning they can bring forward a bill seeking to delay the UK's exit date.

In response, Boris Johnson said he would bring forward a motion for an early general election.

Doesn't this effectively end Johnson's short stint as Prime Minister? Or did he have no other option?

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    – Philipp
    Commented Sep 8, 2019 at 10:38

6 Answers 6


Doesn't this effectively end Johnson's short stint as Prime Minister?

Only if he loses, which is not a foregone conclusion. And even then, he doesn't leave office until a replacement is ready to enter: if it's a hung parliament, he would keep the office during coalition negotiations unless he chose to resign it.

Note that until recently (the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 took the timing out of the PM's hands) it was considered normal for a Prime Minister who enters the office mid-term to hold elections fairly promptly: failure to do so was a sign of weakness.

Or did he have no other option?

He's been making a lot of threats to try to get MPs in line. Failure to carry out those threats would completely undermine him. Carrying them the threat to withdraw the whip from 21 Tory rebels has left him a long way short of a majority, so he couldn't realistically hope to accomplish much without elections. He would almost certainly lose the motion on the Queen's Speech when Parliament resumes after the prorogation, which would be a major embarrassment.

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    "Almost certainly lose the motion" ... I wouldn't put it quite so strongly. After all, just because 21 MPs have lost the Tory label doesn't mean their political beliefs have changed. MPs can (and do) vote in favour of a government even if they are not in the same party.
    – JBentley
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 21:57
  • @JBentley, that's true, but one has crossed the floor so it would only take one of the others abstaining. Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 22:14
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    "Note that until recently [...] it was considered normal for a Prime Minister who enters the office mid-term to hold elections fairly promptly" I don't think that's true at all. Chamberlain, Churchill, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Callaghan, Major and Brown all became PM mid-term and the soonest any of them held an election was Douglas-Home, who waited as long as legally possible (the previous election had been 8 October 1959, and he waited until 16 October 1964, a year after becoming PM). So no mid-term PM has called a quick election in at least the last 80 years. Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 18:14
  • @DavidRicherby, you make a good argument. In my defence I would point out that I was talking about expectations of and interpretations made by the commentariat rather than what the PM actually did; but I admit that I'm basing that almost entirely on Brown and May (who actually held an election sooner than Douglas-Home). My impression, not backed by statistics, in that in both cases they were considered to show weakness by not calling/pushing for immediate general elections. Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 21:08

Calling a general election dissolves Parliament, which is currently giving Johnson grief. However, he remains Prime Minister, with the executive power of that office, until a new Prime Minister is appointed after the election. He may see this as a way to deliver a No Deal Brexit.

There also appears to be the possibility (raised in other questions) that as Prime Minister, he can change the date of the General Election after Parliament has risen, thus preventing a new Prime Minister from taking over before the current deadline of October 31st.

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    Regarding the last sentence, as the BBC put it, "If that happened he could tell voters he achieved Brexit, no ifs or buts." Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 13:10
  • I think you need to provide evidence that he wants to deliver no-deal Brexit. As far as I can tell, he wants to deliver Brexit in some form
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 15:52
  • with the executive power of that office That is extremely limited in the British system. He would only be able to execute that which is already legal.
    – James
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 9:17
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    @Tim: He at least wants the option; the current Parliament clearly doesn't want no-deal Brexit to be among the options (though they've also repeatedly ruled out the various deals that would avert it, so I guess they really just want no Brexit, but can't say so without appearing to ignore the results of the referendum, no matter how terrible an idea the referendum was in the first place). Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 19:16
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    @ShadowRanger Well that's a result of the terrible shortsightedness of the referendum design. Staying only has the one real interpretation and implementation, while leaving has many, and no one bothered to consider the complications of conflicting "leave" plans and if there was anything close to a consensus on how to leave. Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 22:16

If he calls an election then it's possible he will gain a greater majority than he had (at the moment he has no majority of course).

This will mean that not only for Brexit, but for other stuff he wants to do, he will be able to act freely. Remember, Boris is a Brexit fan, because it is a way to get him the PM job, not because he is a true believer leaver. For example,

“We would have to recognise that most of our problems are not caused by “Bwussels”, but by chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and underinvestment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure,”

he said in his Daily Telegraph column in 2013.

Polling averages show that the Conservative party have a lead. If the Conservative party is backing the ultra-extremist "no deal" position (as is the case) then the Brexit party have said that they would not oppose them in many seats.

The Liberal Democrats find it difficult to make headway partly due to the first-past-the-post system. For a different view see here.

The Labour party have a couple of problems, apart from minor issues like Brexit splits and a hostile media.

First, the Labour Party is divided in its support for its leader Jeremy Corbyn. This ruined its chances last time, and this is probably still a negative factor. Second, in recent years the votes from Scotland, which was once a Labour stronghold have dropped off, due to Scots nationalism. It's hard to imagine the Labour Party getting a majority.

So if an election was called at the moment, even with Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservatives, it's highly possible they would win due to the weakness of the opposition.

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    This. It's all about timing. Having the election before any negative consequences of Brexit become reality also allows Boris Johnson to deny all such claims as scaremongering, a.k.a. "Project Fear". That opportunity will be lost after Brexit.
    – Cyrus
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 10:42
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    I get that he's using "Bwussels" to mock Euroskeptics, but is it a particular reference to something? When I Google it every result is related to this 2013 column. Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 21:44
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    By "ultra-extremist no deal position", I presume you mean the position favoured by a very sizeable chunk of the electorate?
    – Valorum
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 13:36
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    @TomAnderson - Indeed, but there's no cause to call those who want to leave with no deal (or who'd be willing to accept that as an outcome) as "extremists" when every poll, no matter how badly worded or biased, still indicates that this would be the preferred (or acceptable) outcome for at least a third of the country.
    – Valorum
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 17:19
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    @Vorsprung - "Extremist" is a term relative to the population not the position. I take the extreme view on slavery. "It's never good and never acceptable. However in 21st C America that is not an extremist position. It's the norm.
    – Mayo
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 18:01

Calling an election has a number of benefits.

Fresh blood

First of all, it's an opportunity to get rid of MPs from one's own party who aren't absolutely loyal. Those people may at one point or another block legislation from the government or even support a vote of no confidence. Getting rid of them means bringing in new people who are selected to be more loyal.

To support this, consider the Guardian's article on recent deselections:

Among the 21 rebels who lost the Conservative whip were eight former cabinet ministers, some of whom occupied the country’s highest offices just weeks ago, as well as multiple Conservative veterans including the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill.

As you can see, those are not just backbenches, some are high-profile party members who only recently were cabinet ministers themselves.

Some background info on deslection from the BBC (separate quotes, the BBC article gives a much more detailed overview):

If an MP is deselected, it means they are removed as a candidate and cannot represent their party at a general election.

Tory MPs have been told if they defy the government in a series of Commons votes this week, they will have the parliamentary whip withdrawn and will not be able to apply to be a candidate.

Maintaining popularity (among Brexit supporters, at least)

Roughly speaking, the British population is split into remainers and Brexiteers. Boris Johnson and the (ERG) faction of the Conservative party won't satisfy those who want to remain in the EU. As such, there is little incentive from an electoral perspective to satisfy their concerns.

Instead, they seem to have opted to double-down on Brexit, promising no further delays. As quoted from CNBC:

He has already caused a stir by saying that the U.K. must leave the EU by the October 31 deadline “do or die, come what may” even if that meant leaving without a deal in place.

This seems electorally savvy, as the UK uses a first past the post system. As such, if Brexiteers unite behind the (cleansed) Conservative party, they are almost guaranteed a large number of votes. Indeed, the new Brexit party, which won in the 2019 European Election, has already vowed to join forces with Boris Johnson. From Sky News:

Nigel Farage has told Sky News his Brexit Party will stand down candidates against the Conservatives if Boris Johnson calls an election and backs a no-deal divorce with the EU.

He offered the non-aggression pact while warning Boris Johnson would "die politically" if he fails to deliver Brexit on 31 October.

The other parties, however, may not be as united and when they split their votes (e.g. a Liberal Democrat and a Labour candidate fighting for the same seat) they may lose even in a remainer district.


Even if Boris Johnson doesn't manage to form a government after the election (for lack of seats), he maintains face. After all, he has outlined his principle (leave the EU as soon as possible, no further delays) and he seems to do everything he can to make that true.

Anything that blocks his goal is due to others and he can blame them. For example, when (Conservative) MPs vote against the government, that's on the MPs, not on PM Johnson. When he loses the election, it's an electoral choice, not his fault.

As such, from the standpoint that he has taken, his record remains unblemished.

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    I wonder about the "if he fails to deliver Brexit on 31 October". There is not much to "fail" there, is it? When nothing happens, that will be the Brexit date. And given that in the half year of the current extension period, nothing productive regarding EU negotiations has happened, it can be considered unlikely that the EU27 would be willing to grant another extension just to probably be fooled again. Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 19:23
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    @HagenvonEitzen as I've pointed out in a couple of other comments today, I wouldn't be so sure about that last part. If you're taking the EU POV having the choice between granting another extension or not, the latter meaning a no-deal leaving, then the option that harms the EU the least is another extension, even if there is no progress whatsoever. It's the UK that wants to leave, the EU is quite happy with the current arrangement where the UK is a member, there is peace on the island of Ireland and there is a lot of trade with the UK.
    – JJJ
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 19:39
  • Another reason why first past the post is sub optimal compared to preferential voting. I'd hate to be a Brexiteer/Remainer and have to choose between two parties who might both win but if they have a split vote they'd lose.
    – Stephen
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 0:28
  • You are too kind. Boris weaseled his way into the PMO via the Brexit campaign and then he tried to play hardball with his party and he lost.
    – anon
    Commented Dec 13, 2020 at 15:27

He's currently in a situation with no way forward. His former majority of seats is now down to zero, so this means he can't get anything through Parliament by a "my way or the highway" approach.

Johnson’s political predicament came about after Conservative Party lawmaker Phillip Lee defected to the Liberal Democrats, who oppose Brexit and want to remain in the European Union.

NY Post: Boris Johnson loses majority ahead of no-deal Brexit showdown

He's specifically there with the main goal of moving the Brexit agenda forward.

With the status quo, he can't do that. He doesn't have the votes.

So, either, he needs to show that he does have the support of the nation, and has the votes to get it done (wins more seats in an election), or if he does not have that support or the votes (loses seats in the election), there's no point in him flogging that dead horse, and he's happy to dump that mess onto someone from an opposition party - it's much easier to oppose, obstruct and generally screw up what others are trying to do than it is to govern successfully - something May, and now Johnson, have discovered the hard way.

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    One may argue that he actually shrunk his former majority of seats down to -21, not zero, by suspending 21 Conservative MPs.
    – jcaron
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 22:26
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    Have an upvote. If a given party has sufficient high quality political talent at the top then it can achieve a majority and govern effectively. What is most surprising to me is the amount of fecklessness at the top of the Tory party over the past five years. From betting the future of the realm to try to resolve an intra-party fight (Brexit poll), to betting the gov't on a by-no-means-certain election (May), to betting he could blackmail his own MPs & hope the Opposition will play ball on a new election (Boris) - this party ought not be let near a school council much less the national gov't.
    – anon
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 16:50

It does not end his stint as PM. It imperils it: his government now has a minority of seats in Parliament and thus could easily lose the confidence of Parliament. Unless that happens, or the Opposition agrees to hold an election, or his party chooses yet another leader, he will remain PM.

He had other options. At the very least he could have not called for an election. He also could have chosen not to kick 21 sitting members of his party out of caucus. One might also say he had the option to act like he has a functioning brain inside his skull.

Boris tried to play hardball with his own MPs and he lost, that's all. Then he somehow thought, erroneously, the Opposition would be nice to him and grant him an election.

I must say, with a view from Canada, that I find the freedom of backbenchers to vote against their party or leader in the UK Parliament to be very refreshing. The standard tactic in Ottawa is to make every important vote a confidence vote, which blackmails the gov't MPs into supporting the gov't. This makes for inflexible politics.

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    – isakbob
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 16:46
  • This doesn't answer the question "Why?"
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Sep 6, 2019 at 23:00
  • @Sjoerd - it does answer the other questions posed: "Doesn't this effectively end Johnson's short stint as Prime Minister? Or did he have no other option?" To the question "Why did Boris..." - you'll have to ask Boris if you want an answer: I'd just be speculating.
    – anon
    Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 18:44

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