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Matters of confidence. What to expect if the government loses a vote of no confidence

December 30th, 2018


Care to make it interesting? As if politics wasn’t already volatile enough, the government faces the persistent threat of a vote of no confidence. Jeremy Corbyn made a complete ass of himself and several of his most senior colleagues before the Christmas break with an on-off-on-again-off-again vote of no confidence, but he will have other opportunities.

The current government is a minority government, kept in power through the offices of the DUP. Right now, however, the DUP are not happy. They loathe the proposed deal and are making ominous noises. So far those fall short of agreeing to support a vote of no confidence but that might change. Some of the Conservative hardline Brexiters might not be unhappy at that prospect either.  

Equally, some of the more fervent Europhile Conservative MPs might consider their options if Britain looks definitively to be heading for no deal. The government is undeniably vulnerable.

What happens if the government loses such a vote? A clock starts ticking. Either another government succeeds in getting a vote of confidence past the House of Commons in 14 days or there will be a general election.

Yes that’s all well and good, but who gets to choose? The single most important thing to realise is that Theresa May does not necessarily need to step down immediately. Precedent isn’t much help – there have been just three votes of no confidence in the last 100 years and only one since the Second World War.

In the past, votes of no confidence have led to swift changes of government or dissolutions of Parliament. However, even then, the government did not need to step down immediately. In 1979, Parliament was not dissolved for another week, Now the matter is set out by statute, so Theresa May can argue that she can stay in situ and let everyone explore the alternatives in the time available.

With that in mind, Theresa May could seek to hold office in the very short term to allow effective exploration of the options. (She might even try herself. As leader of the party with the most seats and the incumbent, she would have the authority to do this. Ted Heath and Gordon Brown both exercised their right as incumbent to seek to form a government for some time despite being only the second party in Parliament. Theresa May’s claim to continue to seek to do so would be comparable to either of theirs.)

If she did, she would not be the only one trying.  If this kicked off in January, there could be at least six camps. As well as Theresa May, there would be Conservative loyalists seeking to establish whether the majority could be reconstructed simply by replacing her. There would be hardline Leavers looking to establish a no-deal government. Jeremy Corbyn would be looking to form a Labour minority government. There would be unreconciled Remainers looking to relitigate the 2016 referendum. And there would be some MPs who would simply want the general election straight away. Perhaps there would be other camps.

These groups would overlap and different MPs would have different second and third preferences. Institutionally the two main party leaders would have strong advantages because they are entitled to call on the loyalty of their nominal Parliamentary supporters. In practice both would struggle more than usual. Theresa May has already had a visible demonstration of the lack of confidence of over a third of her MPs. Jeremy Corbyn could only wish for such levels of loyalty.

Let’s return to the single most important thing. Theresa May does not need to step down. If no other candidate in her judgement looks likely to command a majority she could in theory try to see the clock tick down and proceed to a general election. Theresa May has always used time as a weapon. She might do so again.

In practice my assessment of Theresa May, a woman who appears to feel her duty keenly, is that if she could not form a government she would not stand in the way of a candidate who stood a fair chance. It would be her responsibility as Prime Minister to advise the Queen on who she should call for next. I expect she would do so according to her best assessment of the lay of the land. As an instinctive conservative, she would want to help the monarchy as best she could.

Theresa May could not be expected to hurry to that point though: she never has believed in hurrying. It would not help Jeremy Corbyn if the time established that he was not going to able to command a majority: as she is a Conservative as well as a conservative, this would be a welcome effect for her.

Conversely, extra time might help the unreconciled Remainers whose support spans four or more parties in identifying a potential candidate to lead them and a prospectus to sell to possible supporters. The experience of the 2016 Labour leadership challenge is that on the Labour side at least those MPs are poorly organised when time is of the essence. They chose a weak candidate by a shambolic process who was comfortably defeated – perhaps they have planned better this time around but candidly I doubt it.   

This is perhaps their biggest obstacle – if they are to persuade foot soldiers of the two main parties to work with them, they are going to need to offer someone who they will feel good about getting behind even on a limited prospectus. The problem is easier to identify than the solution.

The party hierarchies would have time to issue such threats as they thought would be effective. We would soon find out what was left of party discipline. With the stakes so high, my guess is that both parties would find their structures under severe strain.

A lot of briefing and disinformation would be done through the media during this period. For that reason, we should consider now what different groupings really want or would settle for. For example, what would the DUP like best? My guess is that they would be very happy to have another general election to see the clock tick down on a no-deal Brexit and will vote accordingly – some of the hardline Leave Conservative MPs might well try to do the same thing.  

What about the SNP?  They have a hard call to make – do they seek to support Jeremy Corbyn as the rope supports the hanged man, do they support a fresh referendum establishing the principle that generations can be very short indeed, or, like the DUP, do they also seek a general election with all the chaos that would produce? On balance I think they will look for a fresh referendum, but I might easily be wrong about that.

And what of the quiet pragmatic MPs in both main parties? Would they countenance an outcome that led to no deal Brexit? They would have a huge decision: would they throw in their lot with their party hierarchies and risk no-deal or would they seek a different outcome at the risk of their careers and their party loyalties?

Don’t forget the single most important thing, Theresa May’s role. She is not a chess piece, she has agency. If she is unable to form a government on her own terms, her own second or third preference might ultimately prove crucial. Might she ultimately offer herself as a temporary Prime Minister to effect a second referendum? It might solve several problems at once, while creating many more. What, ultimately, is her best alternative to a negotiated agreement in these circumstances?

It would be, I confess, utterly fascinating. The temptation to put pennies on the railway lines, just to see what would happen, must be enormous for deeply unhappy MPs. The risk of a train wreck would be huge. Buckle up.

Alastair Meeks