The final step. Why the leader of the Conservative party does not automatically become Prime Minister

June 24th, 2019

Professor Brian Cox was once asked to explain string theory in a sentence. His answer: “It’s probably not true.” The same one sentence explanation could be used to explain the theory that the next Conservative leader might not become Prime Minister. But since it’s being talked about quite a bit, let’s have a look at why.

The current Parliament was elected at a general election held on 8 June 2017. It resulted in a hung Parliament. It is forgotten now, because Theresa May held office both before and after that election, just how precarious her grip on power was. She faced two challenges simultaneously: retaining control of her own party and retaining control of Parliament.  

Theresa May stayed in office as Prime Minister for two reasons. First, as the incumbent, she had the right to try to form a government first, just as Ted Heath had in 1974 and Gordon Brown had in 2010. And secondly, because whether or not she was going to be successful, someone had to fill the role until the successful contender had emerged and that responsibility falls to the incumbent.

During the intervening period, there was some genuine doubt about whether the negotiations with the DUP would reach a successful outcome. Jeremy Corbyn was demanding the right to get the keys of Number 10. It was not until 26 June 2017 that the Conservative party reached agreement with the DUP on a supply and confidence arrangement.  

The last two years have not been kind to the Conservative party. Brexit has acted as a centrifuge on it, its forces pinning its MPs and leaving them feeling dizzy and sick. It has already seen four MPs break away from its Remain wing, further weakening its already-etiolated control of Parliament. Another of their number has just been ejected from Parliament by recall, meaning that a by-election is pending. The Conservatives’ effective majority, with DUP support, is currently just two.

Many remaining Conservative MPs do not trouble to conceal their dismay at the prospect of no deal Brexit and Boris Johnson. Some, such as Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve, have been making public or semi-public their intention to oppose him in the name of Brexit. The continuing complexities of his personal life and his reclusiveness will be doing nothing to deter them. Several of them are being threatened with deselection, giving them little to lose by going rogue.

To date, no one has ever gone broke betting on the Conservative Remainers failing to follow through. So it must remain by some way the likeliest outcome that most of them will go quietly, at least initially, deluding themselves that they should wait and see. You and I might wonder what they would be waiting to see, but they aren’t called wets for nothing.

Numbers are so tight, however, that even a handful might transform the calculation. Lyndon B Johnson reputedly said that the first rule of politics was knowing how to count. Let’s consider that first rule for a while. If Boris Johnson looks unlikely to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons, what then?

Professor Cox would appreciate that a different first rule, Newton’s First Law of Motion, applies.  Unless and until something happens, the status quo continues. So Theresa May stays in office until she resigns or is ousted. The assumption is that she will speedily resign after the conclusion of the Conservative leadership election campaign. That assumption looks very open to question.

When she resigns, it is her duty (as well as that of other senior statesmen) to recommend to the Queen the person who she believes can be expected to command the confidence of the Commons. If that is not clear to her, she should not make such a recommendation. It is very questionable whether she should resign at all until things become clearer.

Obviously, this would be an extremely unstable equilibrium. Theresa May would have no visible means of support. At any point, she might face a Parliamentary vote of no confidence in her government.  This would presumably pass. We would then enter a period of 14 days to find a government that commanded the confidence of the Commons. Otherwise, a general election is automatically held.

Even after the passing of a vote of no confidence, Theresa May is not obliged to resign as Prime Minister and might well not. After James Callaghan was defeated in a vote of no confidence in 1979, the government continued in office for a further week before Parliament was dissolved. Theresa May might reasonably argue that she should stay in situ until it was clear that a fresh government was capable of being formed that might command the confidence of Parliament.

Political journalists, who have frankly been spoiled in recent years by the speed and variety of political developments, would love the chaos. The rest of us, not so much. Where it would go, goodness only knows. On the track record of recent years, nowhere very good.

In the end, however, Boris Johnson would probably be able to line up enough votes behind him at least to have a shot at proving that he could control a majority. With Labour having lost a more than a dozen MPs from its ranks since 2017, enough independents might abstain or prop him up to justify him being called to kiss hands to test his chances in Parliament, unless rather more Conservative MPs are prepared to take a stand than have already made themselves known – at least half a dozen, I think.  

Even if Boris Johnson tries and fails, a Prime Minister for a few days is still a Prime Minister. At least for betting purposes, anyway.

What might happen after that is still murkier. Perhaps Brian Cox could explain it in 11 dimensions for us. I’m all ears.

Alastair Meeks


A reminder of how well each pollster did at last month’s Euros

June 24th, 2019

Well at least they couldn’t be accused of clustering

With the Tory leadership race taking place and the unique situation where party members will be electing a new PM there’s increasing focus on the polls and the possibility that the new leader could seek to call a general election.

One thing I’ve been meaning to do since the May 23rd Euros is to record here how the pollsters did in their final surveys compared with the actual result. This is something that we usually do on PB after elections but other issues since the Euro results came out have rather dominated the UK political narrative.

Remember when looking at this list that almost all polling that we see in on a GB only basis. Northern Ireland has its own very different political structure and there there is little point including the province in national polls. The Wikipedia table above shows that distinction.

What’s clear is that most firms struggled in this complex multi-party election with a lowish turnout. Labour which had a GB share of 14.1% was given final poll ratings from 15% (Ipsos-MORI) to 24% (Kantar) and 25% (Panelbase).

The LDs who came out with a GB share of 20.3% were given final poll ratings ranging from 20% (Ipsos-MORI) to 12% (Survation). No firm overstated the party and all but Ipsos understated them.

The Tories had a polling range of 7-15% and came out with 9/1%

Farage’s Brexit party, founded in November 2018 and not a few weeks before hand they kept on claiming, was both understated and overstated  and we see a range of 27% (Kantar) to 38% (Opinium).

For all the firms this was a very challenging election because of turnout. Overall this was 37% compared with the near 70% that we expect at general elections.

 NOTE: I’m off to London for a hustings meeting in that other leadership contest – the successor to Vince Cable with the Liberal Democrats and probably won’t be posting here until the evening. The two contenders, Jo Swinson and Ed Davey, were both ministers during the coalition.

Mike Smithson





If the CON race continues to be about character them it might be a lot closer than anybody thought

June 24th, 2019

When at the launch of the Boris campaign a fortnight ago the Sky journalist, Beth Rigby, sought to raise the question of character she got loudly booed by many of those attending. It was the same yesterday at the the first hustings in Birmingham when Iain Dale sought to raise the issue that’s been dominating the news with Johnson. This didn’t come over well on TV.

Yet that is now what the campaign is becoming about and it is hard to see how this is beneficial to the ex-Mayor and Foreign Secretary who continues to be an 80% plus chance in the betting.

What we don’t know, of course, is what the mainly male Tory members are going to make of all of this. Certainly Boris is very good at making headlines but the ones today are surely not helping his campaign and are a reminder of the potential risk that there might be in him becoming the next leader and Prime Minister.

I think Johnson has also made the Theresa May mistake in not wanting to take part in the TV debates. We saw just two years ago how totally damaging that was for the Prime Minister and surely the member for Uxbridge must have observed and absorbed.

Even though it is Tory members who make the final decision in this instance there is a public expectation that politicians are going to come under scrutiny at a time when they are seeking to get the job. Judging the the Times this morning Jeremy Hunt sees a way of exploiting Johnson’s approach:

“Mr Hunt says that Tory members want a “fair and open contest, not one that one side is trying to rig to avoid scrutiny”.

“One of the strengths of our system is that we scrutinise our politicians with more intelligent ferocity than anywhere else in the world. But in this case it just isn’t happening,” he writes.

“Nothing could be worse for a new prime minister in these challenging times than to come to power with a fake contest.”

Now the question is whether Boris and his advisers are able to move on and get the focus on things that are more positive to him.


Mike Smithson


Johnson’s position is holding up well on the betting markets where he’s now an 82% chance to succeed TMay

June 23rd, 2019

Betdata.io chart of Betfair exchange movements

Political punters, those who risk their cash trying to predict political outcomes, haven’t changed their view of Johnson’s chances of becoming the next CON leader and PM and is still a solid odds-on favourite to succeed TMay. The events of Thursday night and what’s happened since have had an impact, as can be seen by the chart, but not that much. Those gambling on Betfair £11m TMay succession market don’t think it will impact on his chances.

My reading is that the one thing that could change perceptions is polling that suggests that Johnson does not offer the Tories the electoral advantage that earlier polling has shown particularly the ComRes “145 general election” majority survey. So far there has been nothing contradict the broad thrust and he remains the strong front runner.

The hard reason why Boris is rated so highly is that he is seen as having a much greater chance of leading his party to general election success than Hunt.

Fourteen years ago, it will be recalled, the Tories went for David Cameron ahead of the long standing favourite David Davis because they believed the former would take them to a Commons majority after three bruising defeats by Tony Blair. At the end of the day perceived electability is key.

I’m expecting several polls this week and hopefully we will see numbers that will give us a post Camberwell incident snapshot of where things now stand

Mike Smithson



Happy anniversary. Brexit three years on from the referendum

June 23rd, 2019

Year four in the Big Brexit house and the housemates are not getting any happier. The referendum vote saw off one Prime Minister immediately and a second is shortly to be evicted from Number 10 before Britain has left the EU. It’s entirely possible that Theresa May’s replacement might be ousted before Brexit is implemented too.

Before contemplating the fate of the next Conservative leader, let’s start by looking at how the country is shaping up now. It’s not looking good.

Opinion polling has to be taken with a pinch of salt at all times, but the polls have given a pretty consistent message for quite a long time that the country remains pretty evenly divided between those who think the decision to leave was correct and those who think the country is making a huge mistake.

The Remainers appear to have a small but steady lead (“right to leave” last had a majority with YouGov over a year ago), but it’s hardly a slam dunk: “wrong to leave” led in the most recent poll 47:41, which when you strip out don’t knows comes to 53:47. The original optimism that Brexit would be all over by Christmas has turned into trench warfare.

The closeness of public opinion has not led to increased empathy for the other side’s viewpoint. On the contrary, there is waning appetite for compromise. In the most recent YouGov poll on the government’s options, 37% would consider it an acceptable compromise or better for Britain to leave the EU with no deal.

45% would consider it an acceptable compromise or better for Britain to have a fresh referendum and vote to remain in the EU after all. Just 35%, however, would regard the negotiated deal as tolerable or better. Extreme outcomes poll better.

Yet 61% (according to a poll from Britain Thinks) agree that the only way to resolve Brexit is for all sides to compromise. No wonder 59% are fairly or very pessimistic about the Brexit outcome over the next year. 79% of Britons are reported as thinking that the country is on the wrong track.

For that compromise does not look like happening. 6 million people signed a Parliamentary petition to revoke the Article 50 notice – in effect, to overturn the referendum decision without so much as a ratifying vote. On the other side of the fence, the most recent YouGov poll on the subject disclosed that 30% think it would be acceptable to prorogue Parliament (effectively, suspend democracy) in order to prevent Parliament voting against no deal. Everyone wants compromise, but on their own terms.

What in practice is the country likely to get?  Whoever wins the Conservative leadership election (Boris Johnson, let’s cut to the chase) is going to have to try to put a government together with an ethereal majority. Indeed, it’s not absolutely certain that the winner will get to be Prime Minister: with Chris Davies recalled by his constituents and with the displeasure of a fair few irreconcilable Conservatives manifest, the winner might yet struggle to demonstrate that he will command the confidence of the House of Commons.

Assuming that challenge is passed, the next Conservative leader has already decided that the withdrawal agreement needs to be changed. Both Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson are committed to renegotiate. Jeremy Hunt is prepared to delay beyond 31 October 2019 to secure such a deal while Boris Johnson is presenting that as a hard deadline. Both affect to be prepared for no deal if necessary.

The Conservative leadership race is taking place in a bubble. The candidates know their audience. An absolute majority of Conservative members voted for the Brexit party at the European elections. According to a YouGov poll, more than half of them would accept the break-up of the union with Scotland, losing Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, significant economic damage and the destruction of the Conservative party itself so long as Brexit was achieved. Shilly-shallying is a vote-loser.

Outside that bubble, Parliament still has a substantial majority against no deal. Outside that bubble, the warnings about the effects of no deal are continuing to be made.  A Cabinet note warned that the country would not be ready for a no-deal Brexit on 31 October 2019.  The Healthcare Distribution Association warned the Brexit select committee that no deal Brexit on that date would lead to medicine shortages.  

The EU is currently in transition following the European Parliament elections so it is far from clear who any new Prime Minister would try to renegotiate with in the first place. There are shoals of legislation that would need to be passed before Brexit took effect. How this is to be achieved in a House that is out of the government’s control in the time available is at present obscure.

In short, the leadership candidates are both peddling a fantasy. Perhaps Boris Johnson is planning an early general election – from his viewpoint he might be as happy to lose it and be able to rail against Brexit’s betrayal than to win it and have to implement a programme that was either unworkable or would lead to severe disruption.

Meanwhile, the economy has started to falter. The Bank of England thinks that growth in the second quarter will be zero.  This partly reflects the unwinding of stockbuilding in the run-up to the phantom Brexit of 29 March 2019. Still, growth is at best anaemic and the political uncertainty is only increasing. Paralysis in decision-making is likely only to continue.

So three years on, the country is divided, opinions are getting more extreme and more entrenched, no one wants to make compromises and the leading candidates for Prime Minister are offering impossible prospectuses. Meanwhile, the economy falters. Happy Anniversary.

Alastair Meeks


The voters are beginning to see that Boris Johnson is not the Messiah but a very naughty boy

June 23rd, 2019

Will those Tory members who decide will recoil from Boris Johnson given recent events?

The Mail on Sunday says

Boris Johnson’s bust-up with girlfriend Carrie Symonds has handed a shock poll lead to his leadership rival Jeremy Hunt.

Two exclusive surveys by this newspaper – one taken before and the other after news broke of Friday’s dramatic incident – found that Mr Johnson’s lead of eight per cent on Thursday had turned into a three per cent deficit yesterday among all voters. 

Among Tory voters, Mr Johnson’s lead as the man who would make the best Prime Minister has more than halved, from a 27-point lead to just 11….

….Survation carried out its first poll on the leadership contenders shortly after MPs concluded their voting on Thursday.

It found that when asked who would make the best Prime Minister, a total of 36 per cent of all voters backed Mr Johnson and just 28 per cent supported Mr Hunt.

But a second survey yesterday put Mr Johnson on 29 per cent and Mr Hunt in the lead on 32 per cent.

Among just Tory voters, Mr Johnson had a thumping 55 per cent on Thursday, with Mr Hunt on just 28 per cent. 

By yesterday Mr Johnson was on 45 per cent and Mr Hunt was on 34 per cent – more than halving the gap between them.

When all voters were asked whether the incident had made them more or less likely to back Mr Johnson as premier, more than a third – 35 per cent – said less likely, and just nine per cent said it was more likely.

More than half of all voters (53 per cent) said Mr Johnson’s private life was relevant to his ability to be Prime Minister and three-quarters said that a person’s character was relevant to the contest.

Survation’s chief executive, Damian Lyons Lowe, said: ‘It is unusual to see a politician’s private life having this level of salience among voters.’

The Survation polling published overnight makes grim reading for those who expect Boris Johnson to lead the Tories to a majority at a general election.

The most accurate pollster at the 2017 general election finds Boris Johnson only gets the Tories a 2% boost if he becomes leader, which is stark contrast to the (in)famous ComRes poll that said Boris Johnson would lead the Tories to a landslide general election victory. So will this have an impact on Tory members?

Have a look at the YouGov polling of Tory members conducted before the story broke of Boris Johnson’s contretemps with his inamorata. 40% of Tory members say Boris Johnson cannot be trusted giving him a 7% net trust rating whilst Jeremy Hunt has a net trust rating of 21%.

Yet Boris Johnson wins the leadership 76% to 24% so this tells me Boris Johnson’s various issues are priced in with Tory members. So my view is that none of this will impair Boris Johnson’s chances of winning the Tory leadership. If he is to be denied the Tory leadership something much more serious and sustained needs to happen.

Boris Johnson’s support is eerily similar to the cult like behaviour of a lot of the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump. No matter what scandals and terrible things they are involved their supporters will continue to back their man which is a reflection of hyper partisan times we live in. Like FDR on Sumner Welles, ‘he might be a bastard but he’s our bastard.’



If Team Boris thought thought Hunt would be a pushover then this afternoon should disabuse them

June 22nd, 2019

On his first big showing he’s exceeded expectations

The story during the final part of the MP balloting for the CON leadership was that Team Boris was working at ways to have their man fight Hunt in the membership part of the selection rather than Michael Gove.

Whether the Foreign Secretary’s two vote margin over Gove on Thursday was really down to a Boris plan to make sure he was facing Hunt we don’t know. But on the basis of this afternoon’s first hustings, ably chaired by Ian Dale,  Hunt is going to be a bigger challenge than they first thought.

He’s articulate and lucid in a quiet sort of way and the contrast with the earlier session with Johnson was very great indeed.  Hunt goes to great lengths to answer the question and there was no element of him trying to be evasive.

I thought Dale really put him through it and gave him the sort of scrutiny that TMay would have benefited from if she hadn’t been given her unexpected coronation three years ago. Check out his performance in the latter part of this YouTube

Will it matter given the overwhelming backing for Boris? That’s hard to say and it was very noticeable how vocal the ex-Mayor’s backers were when Iain Dale put Johnson under some pressure over the incidents at his flat.

Whatever I think this is going to be a more interesting fight than we anticipated.

Mike Smithson


Brexit: Some Inconvenient Facts that the Tories need to face

June 22nd, 2019

“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep” – Saul Bellow

There are illusions aplenty amongst Tory MPs about how Brexit is going to be achieved by the current candidates for leader, Boris chief among them. Perhaps – like Baldrick – he has a cunning plan. One can but hope. It seems almost indecently rude to spoil these illusions with something as vulgar as facts. But here goes, anyway.

1. There is only one Withdrawal Agreement agreed with the EU which is consistent with both the EU’s own red lines and those of the British government, at least as they currently stand. Under that agreement there will be a transitional period. Without it there is no transition.

2. The EU has stated – and made it a legal condition of the extension of Article 50 to 31 October – that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be renegotiated.

3. The EU has also stated that it is not going to abandon the backstop contained in the WA. Ireland is a member of the EU. Britain is currently seeking to become an ex-member. The EU is not going to place the interests of the latter over those of the former, no matter how much this might offend Britain’s amour propre or sense of superiority over a country it has often treated with condescension or contempt.

4. Unionist politicians consider the maintenance of the link with Great Britain more important than anything else. It is their raison d’être. Any different treatment of Northern Ireland implying that it is not somehow as British as the rest of Britain will get a “Never, Never, Never” response.

5. Different British red lines could result in a different Withdrawal Agreement. What those different red lines might be – and their implications, whether for the relationship with the EU or for UK domestic politics – have not so far been discussed by Tory leadership candidates. There is still a little time. Whether there is a will is quite another question.

6. Any different Withdrawal Agreement will need the agreement of the EU and need to be consistent with its red lines.

7. If a new Withdrawal Agreement is to be negotiated and agreed and approved by Parliament, this will take time. It will almost certainly take more time than is available between now and the expiry of the Article 50 deadline given the summer holidays, the Parliamentary recess, the disbanding of the EU’s negotiating team and the fact that the EU is currently in the process of changing its key personnel, who will not be in place until after the deadline has expired.

8. Therefore, for a new Withdrawal Agreement to be agreed and approved by Parliament, an extension of Article 50 will be required. As implied by the remarks of Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, the EU will almost certainly want to have some substantive and credible evidence that (a) there has been a change in the British government’s negotiating position; and (b) it can get the required Parliamentary approval for whatever is agreed. The EU has already spent some considerable time negotiating Cameron’s deal (rejected) and the Withdrawal Agreement (rejected three times). For Britain to rock up to Brussels saying “Let’s have another go. Third time lucky, eh!” is unlikely either to impress or be effective.

9. An extension beyond Halloween is not consistent with the promises made by either Johnson or Hunt, assuming that they have been saying the same things in private to all their supporters as they have in public. Quite why Trick or Treat day has been fetishised by the Tories to the extent it has (despite having been imposed on Britain by those frightful Eurocrats) is a matter best left to whoever provides therapy to Tory MPs these days. The important fact is that it has been. In Continental Europe, the following two days are All Saints and All Souls.  From April Fools to the Day of the Dead. Someone in Brussels had a dark sense of humour when the date was chosen.

10. If the date is key, then the only option for the Tories is to take Britain out of the EU on that date without any sort of deal.

11. Whether Parliament will seek to stop this or be successful in doing so is unknowable. There is a lot of sound and fury from some MPs. Whether it will signify anything who can say.

12. An election may change the Parliamentary arithmetic. Or it may not. The last PM who tried to get a large majority to strengthen their hand found that that elections are, polls notwithstanding, easier to call than to win. The polls are much less favourable for the Tories now. What an election certainly won’t do is create any more time.

13. The EU is assuming that Boris Johnson will be Prime Minister, a relatively safe assumption. It is also assuming that he will change his policy once he becomes PM, that promises or statements made during a campaign will be ignored or finessed away once he is in power. This may be a dangerous assumption to make.

14. Others here have a faint hope that Johnson’s very untrustworthiness means that he can be trusted to break his promises and avoid a No Deal exit. It is a curious and slender peg on which to hang one’s hopes.

15. It is unlikely that the country will be ready for No Deal or for what could happen thereafter. See, for instance, this report in relation to medicines.

16. A No Deal exit means a complete break overnight. With no transitional arrangements. There is no such thing as a managed No Deal since the Withdrawal Agreement is the way in which Britain’s exit was going to be managed. On 31 October Britain will be a member of the EU. On 1 November it will be a third country. “Just like that!” as Tommy Cooper might have said. As a comparison, when Britain joined in 1973, there was a 7-year transitional period.

17. The consequences of such an abrupt rupture – on Britain’s economy, its trading relationships, its society, the parties advocating it, those opposing it, its relations with the EU, its relations with other countries – are unclear and potentially far-reaching. They could well overwhelm the administration and make it harder for it to deal with all the many other tasks which a government has to handle.
18. The EU has made it clear that it will do whatever will be necessary to protect its interests following a No Deal exit by Britain. Such actions may also benefit Britain – but by happenstance only. The EU will not feel obliged to do anything to assist Britain to live more easily with the consequences of its choices unless this is also in the EU’s interests. It is quite likely that this will be presented here as the EU “punishing” Britain or being vengeful. The anger which EU countries will feel at having been put in such a position will be ignored.

It was Harold Macmillan who famously said that governments could be blown off course by “Events, dear boy, events”. Too true. Most governments have sought to avoid such events or, at least, be in a position to steer a steady course through them. The Tories now seem intent on creating a veritable tsunami of events – with Britain at their centre – with little more than a wing, a prayer and (most likely) under the guidance of an unprincipled leader with the ability to make jokes. If nothing else, it is an unusual position for a soi-disant conservative party to take.