by Frank Schnittger
Fri Aug 16th, 2019 at 01:28:48 PM EST
At last there are some glimmers of hope that the reality of a no-deal Brexit is beginning to dawn on a cross-party majority of MPs and efforts have begun to find a mechanism by which this can be prevented. Since no one trusts Boris Johnson to call an election before October 31st. even if he does lose two votes of confidence, these efforts are focused on finding an acceptable compromise candidate who can be elected a temporary caretaker PM during the two week period between the first no-confidence vote and the deadline for an alternative administration to be formed.
In the absence of an alternative caretaker PM being elected, Boris Johnson would remain as PM until the election is actually held, and in control of the process by which the election date is chosen. His hardline stance on welcoming a no-deal Brexit, and failure to even engage with EU leaders is making it easier for a more cohesive anti-no deal Brexit majority to emerge. However there are huge constitutional and political difficulties to be overcome if this scenario is to become a reality. What has changed is that a sequence of events, hitherto regarded as far fetched, has now taken centre stage in UK political debate.
The constitutional precedent is that the loss of a vote of confidence should lead to the Prime Minister either calling a general election or resigning, in which case the Queen calls on the leader of the opposition to attempt to form an alternative administration. This process has been complicated by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 which was intended to make it more difficult for a PM to call a snap general election at a time of his/her choosing in order to maximise his/her party's advantage.
The Act enacted two constraints on a Prime Minister's freedom to call a general election: Firstly, a decision to call a snap general election outside the usual 5 year cycle now requires the support of a two thirds majority of the House of Commons - effectively the support of the leader of the Opposition. However it would be a brave leader of the opposition who would seek to thwart the democratic process of consulting the electorate and Theresa May had no difficulty in securing Jeremy Corbyn's support in calling the 2017 general election outside the normal 5 year cycle.
The second constraint on the PM's freedom to call an election is that the Act provides the PM, and the House of Commons, with a two week window of opportunity to reverse the vote of no confidence by re-affirming confidence in the PM, or voting confidence in an alternative candidate for PM. If no one wins a confidence vote in that period, the PM remains in office and must call a general election but retains some discretion as to when it must be called. In 2017 the election did not take place until 7 weeks after it was called which takes us to Brexit day itself, too late for the winner to reverse or delay Brexit, if that is what they want to do.
The most obvious candidate to oppose the PM in any confidence vote within the two week period is the Leader of the Opposition, and Corbyn has duly offered to take on that role. However Tory dissidents and former Labour party MPs whose votes are essential to the formation of an alternative caretaker government have indicated that Jeremy Corbyn would not be acceptable to them as an alternative PM, even in a temporary caretaker capacity. No doubt Corbyn will continue to pursue his candidacy until such time as he actually losses a vote of confidence and the alternative is Boris Johnson remaining in office.
Rationally it shouldn't matter all that much who is the temporary caretaker PM as long as he/she requests and receives an A.50 extension long enough to call an election and possibly a referendum thereafter - and then actually calls the election. However polls of Tory members have shown they hate and fear Corbyn even more than the threat of the break-up of the UK or of Brexit not happening at all. This may be a totally irrational position for them to take, but then politics is often more about emotions than rationality. Right now it is about not handing a victory (however temporary) to someone they hate and fear.
In 1940 Churchill became Prime Minister with the support of the Labour and Liberal parties without a general election because of their united opposition to Nazism, despite the fact that they had opposed him on many other issues. The Nazi threat trumped all other considerations. It would be ironic if Boris Johnson were replaced as PM by someone elected through a similar process as his mentor, Churchill, because of the threat of a complete breakdown of all relations with the EU.
But if not Corbyn, who? Jo Swinson, the new leader of the Lib Dem party, has suggested someone like Ken Clarke or Harriet Harmon, the "father" and "mother" of the House, both of whom have a long track records of supporting EU membership. Ken Clarke would be ideal to attract dissident Tories because of his Tory pedigree, ministerial experience, and (presumably) lack of personal ambition. Conceivably he could even offer not to stand in the election so he can "focus exclusively on his caretaker PM responsibilities" and not pose a threat to anyone else's PM ambitions. Much the same could be said for Harriet Harmon except she might be more successful at consolidating the Labour vote rather than attracting dissident Tory and ex-Labour MPs.
However Corbyn is also in an exceptionally strong negotiating position, because only he can deliver the vast bulk of the votes required to elect any temporary PM. He may therefore feel no need to reward another Tory or former acting Labour leader and can satisfy the minimal Lib Dem/dissident Tory/ex-Labour MP demand that any temporary PM be "not Corbyn" by nominating his own choice as long term successor as leader of the Labour Party for the role of caretaker PM.
Provided his choice of potential successor is not a hard-left supporter also unacceptable to dissident Tory and Labour MPs, but is widely acceptable within the Labour party (and ideally the wider public), it doesn't much matter who it is. All anti-no deal Brexit MPs would be let off the hook of having to support Corbyn and be able to rally to the appointment of "anybody but Corbyn or Boris" on the grounds that it is a temporary appointment in the name of a greater cause.
Corbyn's nominee would remain (albeit "caretaker") PM for the duration of the General Election campaign and appoint a cabinet to hold a few cabinet meetings to deal with the A.50 extension issue and some routine day-to-day stuff. However even the appointment of someone acceptable to him would pose serious issues for Corbyn. Would Corbyn take a job in the cabinet or focus on the general election campaign? Would the caretaker PM have to appoint Lib Dem or ChangeUK/Green/SNP/Plaid cabinet members to be assured of those party's votes? Would he/she effectively be appointing a "national unity" cabinet?
There would be enormous pressure for Corbyn to stand aside "for the younger man/women" if the media decide the caretaker PM looks "Prime Ministerial," even if Labour becomes the largest party after the election. Would anti-no deal parties agree an electoral pact to stand aside for the most favoured candidate to defeat a Brexiteer candidate in the Election? Would they make such a deal conditional on Corbyn continuing to stand aside and not become PM after the election?
It is not unprecedented for the party leader of the largest party not to be the PM in a government - Merkel is no longer CDU leader, and neither was Churchill elected Conservative party leader until after his appointment as PM. Labour, and left wing parties generally, put huge stress on being policy rather than personality centred, but would Corbyn and his inner circle agree to him being effectively sidelined in order to create an anti-no deal Brexit majority and perhaps a "government of national unity" in order to defeat Boris? Would anyone he did nominate for PM be derided as a Corbyn puppet unless Corbyn subsequently stood down as party leader as well?
As has often been the case, the PM and Leader of the opposition are pivotal to how all of this plays out. Both would have to be prepared to lose a battle if they are to win the war. Boris would have to compromise on his no-deal stance in order to win over some Tory dissidents, to remain in office. Corbyn might have to sacrifice his own prime ministerial ambitions if he is to defeat Boris. Perhaps the man with the lesser ego will ultimately win out. A No deal Brexit is still the most likely outcome on Oct. 31st., but at least a serious debate has started on how this might be prevented.