By Colin Talbot
Everyone expects a Vote of No Confidence (VONC) in the Boris Johnson when Parliament resumes in the autumn. Exactly when remains an issue of some doubt, and whether or not it would pass is anyone’s guess.
That has not stopped rampant speculation and heated debate about what happens if and when the VONC passes.
Prominent in this kerfuffle has been the idea put forward by Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters – especially John McDonnell – that Corbyn could simply take over. He has famously said he would “send Jeremy to Palace in a taxi and tell the Queen that we are taking over.” How credible is this?
Firstly, it is not even clear that John McDonnell really believes this is a realistic scenario himself. By raising this spectre of Corbyn poised to take over – something he has been consistently doing since the unexpected outcome of the 2017 General Election – what he is really trying to do is “frame” the debate.
He’s trying to make this a debate about alternative governments – Johnson’s versus Corbyn’s. From that flows a whole series of other ideas, a couple of which are:
- That Corbyn’s Labour is in a credible position to form a government after their good showing in 2017. And that such a transition – without a General Election – is somehow ‘normal’ (something McDonnell, especially, keeps saying).
- That the dispute is fundamentally about alternative governments and not really about Brexit – thereby minimizing Labour’s Brexit problem. And, incidentally, suggesting UK politics has returned to the classic two-party duels for power we have gotten used to since 1945.
This approach fundamentally and deliberately misrepresents both the real issues and the constitutional context of what a VONC in the Johnson government might mean.
Firstly, if Johnson is defeated on a VONC – in the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – it won’t be a general vote of confidence in his Government but a very specific one: about a No Deal Brexit.
The voting would illustrate this clearly: some Tory MPs would vote against their own government, or abstain, not because they had suddenly seen the light and joined Corbyn’s Labour but solely to stop a No Deal Brexit. Some Labour MPs would either vote in favour of Johnson’s government, or abstain, again not because they had suddenly become Tories but to deliver Brexit.
So this would not be normal. The only successful vote of no confidence in a government since WWII – that against Jim Callaghan by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 – was a fairly clear-cut PM against Leader of the Opposition, Party against Party, manifesto against manifesto, confrontation. This, on the other hand, would be a single issues VONC – a very different animal.
Secondly, McDonnell has assiduously cultivated the idea that if a sitting government loses a vote of confidence then it is ‘normal’ that the Opposition takes over. This is of course nonsense, and, rather more importantly, it has never happened.
Thirdly, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) has changed the constitutional/legal context of a VONC. In 1979 the defated Callaghan government stuck by what was generally held to be the convention – a government that lost a confidence vote had to ask the Queen to call a general election. Which is what actually happened. (Note: Mrs Thatcher was not asked to take over the government. She had to win the subsequent general election to do so.)
What FTPA introduced was a ‘cooling off’ period of 14 days during which the sitting government could try again. Remember, it was introduced by a Coalition government and the assumption was that there must have been some sort of break-down between Coalition partners that might be repairable. If, after 14 days the Coalition could not reassemble itself then a general election would follow.
What no-one envisaged is that someone else might try and form a government – the idea that both Corbyn’s Labour and advocates of a National Unity government now suggest could happen during the 14 days. So the Act says nothing about how that could happen.
A report in the Sunday Times(£) of 12 August confirms what I have been arguing for some time – it would be necessary for any alternative government to demonstrate it could muster a majority in the House of Commons before the Queen would call on its leader to formally constitute a government. And only after both of those things had happened could the second, vital, FTPA confidence vote be passed to formalise things and prevent a general election being triggered.
Could Corbyn’s Labour achieve this? Not with their current approach. They insist they would simply offer themselves as an alternative government to the Queen. With their 247 MPs – some of whom will not have voted with them in the VONC – they are nowhere near being able to command a majority.
A new PM and government would need the support of not just most Labour MPs (some would not), but all the other Parties (except the DUP of course) and most independent MPs (16 at present) and – crucially – some Tory MPs. There is zero chance any Tory is going to vote to put Corbyn in Downing St.
Nor would this be a ‘normal’ government with a full range of policies – it would be an emergency government to sort one issue: Brexit. So those trying to counter-pose Labour and Tory policies across a range of issues are simply missing the point – deliberately.
There is no scenario in which Jeremy Corbyn becomes PM this side of a general election. But his acolyte’s posturing does risk facilitating – intentionally or not – Boris Johnson delivering a No Deal Brexit.