Next UK PM Must Forge An Elusive National Consensus – OpEd


By Andrew Hammond*

Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson held their first head-to-head television debate on Tuesday night in their battle to become the UK’s next prime minister. With polls still indicating the sometimes-faltering Johnson could win the vote among Conservative Party members by a landslide, the irony is that his hold on power may be extremely fragile should he be announced as the winner on July 23.

Indeed, there is an even a scenario in which, even if Johnson wins the Conservative leadership race handsomely, that he never gets into Downing Street. With the Tories lacking a majority in the House of Commons (and only having a majority of five even with their Democratic Unionist Party “confidence and supply” arrangement), the potential danger for Johnson is that some of his colleagues have threatened a vote of no-confidence in him if he seeks to deliver a “no-deal” exit from the EU.

With this parliamentary arithmetic, and party loyalties strained by Brexit, it is not guaranteed that Johnson could command the confidence of the Commons. And this point was reinforced this week by the opposition Labour Party’s acknowledgement that it is in talks with many Conservative MPs — estimated by former Tory minister Sam Gyimah as being “30-plus” — who might support such a no-confidence motion. 

The worst-case scenario for Johnson would unfold if a sizeable group of Tory MPs declared their withdrawal of support as soon as (if not before) his anticipated victory is announced. This would pose constitutional and political challenges for the Queen and those advising her. For, if the Queen decided to move ahead with Johnson’s appointment, he could face an immediate confidence vote.

However, in the event that the Conservative MPs skeptical of Johnson give him the “benefit of the doubt” for a limited period, this question could come back to the boil in September, when the Commons returns from its summer recess (or sooner if there is a recall of the legislature).

If a no-confidence vote is approved, unless a new government can be formed within two weeks, there would be a general election. The last date that such a ballot could be triggered to ensure an election before October 31 — the current date for the UK’s departure from the EU — is the first week of September. This is because, in addition to the 14-day period to try to form a new government, five clear weeks would then be needed for the campaign. 

The period from the end of July to the end of October will therefore be a potentially nail-biting first 100 days for the new premier. With a precarious Commons majority, he must seek to form an elusive national consensus amidst the sea of debate and division within England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about leaving the EU.

Key here has been the huge and important debate across the UK about what the meaning of the 2016 referendum result actually was. Johnson has made clear his strong view that sovereignty and “taking back control” were the primary drivers behind the “Leave” victory, and therefore appears relaxed about a full break from the EU and a no-deal outcome. 

However, there were — in fact — diverse and sometimes divergent views expressed by people voting to exit the EU, let alone the 48 percent who voted to “Remain.” Contrary to what many Brexiteers such as Johnson now insist, the referendum therefore encapsulated a range of sentiments and there was (and still is) no consensus across the nation behind any specific version of Brexit, whether hard or soft.

In this context, one of the factors that has become clearer since the referendum is how Brexit is driving significant new electoral cleavages, and potentially even a more sweeping realignment, across the landscape of the UK’s main political parties (those with representation in England, Scotland and Wales). On one pole, the ruling Conservatives may now unify around Johnson’s hard-line Brexit stance. Remarkably, most Tory members now assert that it is more important to leave the Brussels-based club than preserve the integrity of the UK, given, for instance, the possibility of a second independence ballot in Scotland, where support for EU membership is much higher than England and Wales.

The other major party with a pro-Leave message is Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which won last month’s European Parliament ballot in the UK. But its support could be squeezed by a significant shift in the positioning of the Conservatives if Johnson does lead the nation to a no-deal exit. 

Conversely, the Liberal Democrats are seeking to continue to make political capital through steadfast opposition to Brexit. This stance has given the party clear space among all the main UK parties and led it to significant advances in the local council and European Parliament elections in May.

It is Labour that has potentially the biggest positioning challenge of all the parties, given that its MPs represent both the top 20 Leave-voting constituencies and the top 20 Remain constituencies from the 2016 referendum. Hence the reason why the party’s MPs have, by and large, focused their energy not on opposing Brexit, but more on trying to soften the terms of any final deal with the EU; and with growing momentum toward a second referendum, which the party leadership appears to now be supporting.

Taken overall, Brexit’s impact on UK domestic politics may only grow if Johnson leads the nation to a no-deal outcome this autumn. Indeed, this issue could not just prove the defining battleground in the next general election, but may continue to frame the nation’s politics well into the 2020s, with new electoral cleavages forming and the possibility of a more fundamental political realignment on the horizon.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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