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Next Prime Minister: Gus O’Donnell at 250/1?

March 11th, 2017

Time to think about some contingency planning

The last few years have seen a profusion of long-odds political bets come in. When they have, it’s been because the bookies, the punters or both have misread the electorate, the candidate(s) or the process. I think there’s another outside opportunity now.

This week’s Budget cannot in any sense be regarded as priming the Conservatives for a snap election. Presumably, Philip Hammond didn’t anticipate quite the reaction to his NIC proposals that did come but he must have known that there wouldn’t be street parties. Anyone who didn’t believe Theresa May’s denial before the Budget that she’d be seeking an election in May has more reason to do so now.

That announcement, however, was couched in careful terms: the Number 10 source said than an early election was “not something she plans to do or wishes to do”. Maybe not, but it might be something she feels forced to do if the Brexit Bill cannot be passed as she’d like it.

It has to be said that that scenario also looks less likely, with the Lords expected to back down if the Bill is returned to them shorn of their lordships’ amendments. For the time being though, let’s run with the event that there’s deadlock.

Current thinking about an early election is still rooted in the pre-FTPA days, when a prime minister could call on the Queen and expect a dissolution at will. William Hague’s call this week for an early election was out of that book. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as that, and it’s in that process that the betting opportunities lie.

If the PM is forced into a position where she felt obliged to go to the country, her first course would be a Dissolution Motion in the Commons. It’s far from inconceivable that such a motion would pass. Corbyn has been vocally bullish about Labour’s chances in an election and enough Labour MPs might go with a whip to support the motion on the basis that it would be the best bet of both removing Corbyn, limiting the damage he could do and stalling the boundary review. On the other hand, politicians are frequently adept at finding principles that provide cover for tactically beneficial actions, and voting it down at least gives the chance for something to turn up.

In which case, we’d be looking at the messy option of a Vote of No Confidence. Some have argued that this isn’t really an option because it’d make the government look ridiculous if its backbenchers No Confidenced it. I don’t agree. With proper preparation, laying out what would happen if the Commons didn’t back the Dissolution vote, the public would be less likely to regard it as absurd.

The problem is less the PR than keeping control of the process. Put simply, no-one knows what would happen next if the Tories No Confidenced their own PM. That alone would be constitutionally new territory, even before the dynamics of the FTPA come into play.

Previously, if a government was No Confidenced, then the PM would have the choice of staying in office and calling an election (as in 1979) or resigning the government. If he or she resigned the government then the opinion of constitutional experts such as Vernon Bogdanor is that the Queen should call first on the Leader of the Opposition. (In fact, it’s not so clear cut: had Blair been defeated on the Iraq vote – not technically a Confidence vote but as near as makes no difference – and resigned, she would surely have called on Brown, after taking consultation from leading ministers; IDS would have been an onlooker along with everyone else).

But things have changed: the rules, and crucially, the time-periods, are more prescriptive. It’s quite possible that if a majority government – any majority government in theory but let’s stick with the current one for simplicity – No Confidenced itself, the Queen would still go through the motions of inviting senior politicians to form their own government. Obviously, neither May nor any other Conservative would accept, as that would prevent their objective of forcing an election. Corbyn might accept but if he did, his government would fail to receive the Commons’ confidence. On the other hand, he might refuse a commission or it might never be offered, given Labour’s support in the Commons.

Then what? It’s possible that we might simply have a game of pass-the-parcel, where whoever had been most recently asked to the Palace when the two weeks runs out gets to keep the position for the duration of the election campaign but there’s little doubt that commentators and many members of the public would see that as the Palace exhibiting bias. That’s also the reason why once she’d lost office, May could not realistically be recalled until after the election. But if May wouldn’t form a government and Corbyn couldn’t, who could?

This is where we need to think outside the box, because ‘the box’ is our preconceptions governed by precedent, and the FTPA renders a lot of the precedent null by creating the new situation. As Sherlock Holmes didn’t quite say: once you eliminate the impossible, then whatever remains needs to be taken seriously. And if it is impossible to appoint a politician until after the imminent election, and it is necessary that someone do the job, then it follows that a non-party individual must take it on, on a caretaker role.

There would, in fact, be some precedent for that kind of outcome: the Duke of Wellington ran the government for a month in 1834 while Peel returned from Italy, after the previous Whig ministry was turned out – though Wellington was very much of Peel’s party. Better examples might be found abroad. In Greece, when no government could be formed after the May 2012 election, a government of Independents was appointed, many of whom were not even parliamentarians. In Italy, Mario Monti headed a technocratic government appointed with the consent of the politicians to deal with the crisis of the day there.

Who might be asked to take on such a demanding role? Ideally, it would have to be someone with government experience, experience of the legislature, someone who is respected on all sides as both capable and impartial, is without excessive links to any one business or other lobby group, who could be trusted to represent the country in the interim and who could – if necessary – take the big decisions that cross a PM’s desk but who would also have the discretion not to take decisions best left to the incoming administration.

Others can make their own nominations but to me, the figure that best fills those requirements is the former Cabinet Secretary Lord (Gus) O’Donnell. To that end, I’ve had a modest bet on him at 250/1 with Ladbrokes.

One advantage of the bet is that if – as is likely – the Brexit Bill doesn’t result in a snap election, the scenario still holds good for any other crisis of the first order that might necessitate an early dissolution. With the rest of the Brexit process and the potential for a second Scottish independence vote, to name but two of the more obvious candidates, the next few years won’t be short of other opportunities.

None of which is to say it’s likely; it’s not. But it is a good deal more likely than the once-in-1000-year event that the odds imply.

David Herdson