Sunday, 10 August 2014

Sorry Daily Mail, But Boris Won't Become Prime Minister Your Way

There is one thing about majority Government - whether under a single party or a coalition - and that is that it is quite boring. When you have a minority Government there is the excitement of whether this will be The Vote or The Rebellion which brings it all crashing to the ground and leads to the Prime Minister to make that trip to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament. And then the excitement of the election campaign itself...

Sometimes, the more excitable newspapers like to jazz it up a bit by talking about plots - and the Mail on Sunday is at it again, with an article on how Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, could become Prime Minister:

Supporters of Boris Johnson are plotting to install him as Tory leader by mounting a Commons ambush after next year’s General Election, The Mail on Sunday has learned.

A hard core of pro-Boris Tory MPs are privately vowing to force the Prime Minister to quit if he tries to form a second Coalition with the Lib Dems.

The Friends Of Boris (FOBs) then expect their man to sweep to victory in a party leadership contest before calling a second Election during the honeymoon period to capitalise on his popularity.

followed by:

With every major opinion pollster predicting the Conservatives will fall short of a majority at the Election, the pro-Johnson MPs are already ‘war-gaming’ their strategy after the May 7 vote next year.

The FOBs believe that up to 100 Tory MPs would vote with Labour against the Queen’s Speech of a second Coalition – enough in a hung Parliament to kill the agreement at birth and force Mr Cameron to resign, they say.

One leading pro-Boris Tory MP told this newspaper last night how he and his colleagues would combine with Labour to vote down any Tory-Lib Dem legislative programme in the Commons.

He said: ‘The best party strategists can hope for is a repeat of the 2010 result when we were the largest party but with no overall majority. But we won’t tolerate a second deal with the Lib Dems. So I, and many colleagues, would vote down a Coalition Queen’s Speech.

‘With Boris’s backing, as many as 100 of my colleagues would do so. That would be more than enough to defeat it and Cameron.’

The MP said that Mr Johnson would then be the unstoppable candidate in the resulting Tory leadership contest, saying: ‘Boris is unassailable – he would storm through the leadership race.’

Interesting article - although what is missing is the Daily Mail's obsession that Adam Afriye, MP for Windsor, aka "the British Obama", would be a stalking horse.

Yes, there is the excitement of stalking horses standing against Conservative leaders, with the aim of ensuring that the leader realises they are unpopular among their party's MPs and so resigns, leading the way for the real candidates to step in at the second round. The House of Commons' guide to Conservative leadership elections outlines what the rules have been for the past 16 years. None of this stalking horse giving their name and those of 2 supporters to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee business - that went out last century.

For Prime Minister David Cameron to be ousted as Conservative leader, 15% of Conservative MPs - and this is those in receipt of the Conservative whip (an important matter that I shall return to later) - need to write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee to request a "no confidence" vote in the leader. Then there is the vote on that. If the leader wins, then the process cannot be repeated for another 12 months. If the leader loses, then there is a leadership election in which the defeated leader cannot be a candidate.

If there is more than one candidate by the deadline (which is noon on a Thursday) then there is a leadership election on the following Tuesday. Unlike the old system - the one with stalking horses - all candidates need to be in this first ballot. No longer can someone throw their hat into the ring after the first ballot. The days of biding your time and waiting for someone else to finish off the leader are long gone.

If there were 4 or more candidates, then the lowest-placed one drops out automatically (others may choose to) and doesn't go through to the next round (unless there is a joint lowest-place, in which case no candidate has to drop out). These ballots happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays until there is a vote with 3 candidates.

There is then a vote of the party membership between the top 2. If you look at previous results, then you will see firstly that the most obvious candidate does not always win, and secondly that the gap between second and third can be very small. Before suggesting that someone can "storm through" a leadership race, remember that storms can blow off-course.

So, consider the scenario where the Conservatives are the largest party in a hung Parliament. And rather than go for the uncertainty of a minority Government - however exciting this might be for headline writers who see politics as a game - Cameron revives the current coalition. This is followed by a backbench rebellion over the Queen's Speech in which the Government is defeated...

At this point, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 comes into play. The last defeat on a King's Speech was the Conservative Government in January 1924, which had lost its overall majority in the previous month's election - but note that the actual motion was:

That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, as followeth:—

Most Gracious Sovereign, "We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament. But it is our duty respectfully to submit to your Majesty that Your Majesty's present advisers have not the confidence of this House."

The 2011 Act provides two circumstances when there can be an early election:

  • More than two-thirds of the House of Commons (this would be 434 or more MPs) pass a resolution calling for an early election, or
  • The House of Commons passes a motion stating “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government” and in the next 14 days does not pass a motion stating"“That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”

The idea that Johnson can win the Conservative leadership election, go "Crikey, I'm Prime Minister" and rush off to Buckingham Palace to be asked to form a Government and then a few weeks later goes back to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament is a pipe-dream. Yes, draw on all the 1974 examples you like, but 1974 is nearly half a century ago, and the law has changed.

Suppose that Johnson does lead a backbench rebellion, with around 100 MPs rebelling. Well, the Whips' Office won't sit there and do nothing. Very quickly there would be around 100 Independent MPs there. Without the Conservative whip, these cannot be among those whose letters to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee calling for a "no confidence" motion in Cameron are taken into account. He would effectively be back where he started from, leading a parliamentary party around the size of the one he inherited from Michael Howard back in December 2005.

Now consider the methods of the 2011 Act, beginning with the second. A quick "no confidence" motion in the Government is passed (maybe with Cameron asking a backbencher to introduce one), thanks to Labour and this new grouping of ex-Conservatives. The Explanatory Notes emphasise that the intention of the 14 day period is to allow an alternative Government to be formed without an election. But an intention isn't law. There is nothing to say that Cameron must resign as Prime Minister in these circumstances - just sit out the 14 days and agree with the Queen on a dissolution and election date.

The Scottish Parliament is a bit more advanced with this. As the Scotland Act 1998 makes clear, the First Minister must resign if the Parliament passes a "no confidence" motion in the Scottish Executive. This - together with the election of a First Minister-designate by the Parliament and dissolution if the Parliament fails to elect a First Minister-designate within the statutory timeframe - is something that needs to be copied at Westminster.

If Cameron does the correct thing after a "no confidence" motion and resigns, then the Queen would invite Ted Miliband, the Leader of the Opposition, to see if Labour could form a Government - either alone or as a coalition. In the 14 day period, the House of Commons either passes a confidence motion in the new Government - which means that Labour continues in office - or doesn't, in which case there is a general election, where those ex-Conservative MPs would not be able to stand as Conservative candidates. Yes, some might get re-elected as Independents, but others might lose badly, or see the Conservative vote split to allow Labour or the Liberal Democrats to win the seat. While rebelling on a "no confidence" motion might sound exciting, for many of these this would be career suicide.

So, the more sensible rebels would back Cameron in such a "no confidence" motion, to avoid the election where they lose their seats, and see him continue with the House's confidence.

What about the first method of the 2011 Act? The thing to note is that the end result would be very similar - if there is a general election, then the rebels would be ex-Conservative MPs standing. However, they need 434 or more MPs for this to work. If you are a grouping of around 100 MPs, then this is less than one-sixth of the membership of the Commons. To get the support for this, they need to win over around 330-340 MPs - which is more than half the membership. While some of these may come from minor parties who are not fans of the Conservatives, for it to work Labour need to be over the 300 MPs mark - and hence the largest party in Parliament, if not forming an overall majority on their own.

Now, if Labour is forming the Government then there cannot be a Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government putting forward a Queen's Speech for Johnson et al. to rebel over. But, if Labour were the largest party.....

Consider the situation where Labour becomes the largest party, but Cameron and the Liberal Democrats agree to form a new coalition. We already have had 4 years of Labour arguing that no-one voted for the Government, and these voices would become louder, and resonate more, if it appeared that Labour "won" the election by coming first, but was kept out of office by a horse-trading deal in smoke-free rooms. A chance for an early election would be grasped by both hands, and well, if there are ex-Conservative MPs opposed to Cameron who are willing to be useful idiots, then so much the better for Labour. We woz robbed, but here's your chance to right that wrong. Vote Labour.

Note that if there is an early election, then the Electoral Registration & Administration Act 2013 ensures that that election would be held on the same boundaries as May 2010 and May 2015 - boundaries which have a bias towards Labour.

In all this, there is another group which might be in the House of Commons, and which would benefit from there being an election in the months after the May 2015 general election. Even if their number of MPs is in single figures, the UK Independence Party could claim momentum. Nothing succeeds like success, and UKIP could go into a late 2015 or early 2016 election demonstrating that it can win seats.

I would add something to this. People my age and older can remember the Liberal/Social Democrat Alliance, from which the Liberal Democrats emerged. The Liberals provided the idealism and the inexperience, while the Social Democrats provided the former Labour Government ministers. If there is even a small UKIP set of MPs, this could set the stage for a newKIP, with UKIP playing the role of the Liberals and the ex-Conservatives the role of the Social Democrats. OK, pretty much unlikely, but this does seem to be the only set of circumstances in which rebelling on the Queen's Speech would not be career suicide.

Incidentally, the 2011 Act protects Conservative MPs who rebel on the Queen's Speech. By ensuring that Cameron cannot cut-and-run, this means that rebels can spend the following 4 years or so to build bridges again and get to the stage where the whip is returned to them.

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