With polls indicating Boris Johnson could win the Tory leadership battle by a landslide, the irony is that his hold on power may be extremely fragile, says Andrew Hammond.
Tonight, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt will(Tues) hold their first head-to-head debate in their battle to become the UK’s next prime minister. With polls indicating Johnson could win by a landslide, the irony is that his hold on power may be extremely fragile.
Indeed, there is an even a scenario in which, even if Johnson wins the Conservative leadership race handsomely on July 23, he never even gets into Downing Street.
With the Tories lacking a majority in the House of Commons (and only having a majority of three with their Democratic Unionist Party ‘supply and confidence’ partner), 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, therefore, that Johnson could command the confidence of the Commons.
This point was reinforced on Sunday by the oppposition Labour Party’s acknowledgement that it is in talks with Conservative Party MPs — estimated by former Tory minister Sam Gyimah as “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 declare their withdrawal of support as soon (if not before) as his anticipated victory is announced. This would pose constitutional and political challenges for Queen Elizabeth II and those advising her.
For if the monarch, the head of state of the UK, decided to move ahead with Johnson’s appointment, he could face an immediate confidence vote.
However, in the more likely event that Conservative MPs give Johnson 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 summer 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 be needed for the campaign.
The period from end of July to 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 the North 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 victory, and is therefore relaxed about a full break from the EU and a no-deal outcome.
In fact, there were diverse, sometimes divergent, views expressed by people voting to exit the EU last year,let alone among the 48% who voted Remain.
Contrary to what Brexiteers such as Johnson now insist, the referendum encapsulated a range of sentiments, and there was (and still is) not a consensus across the nation behind any specific version of Brexit, hard or soft.
In this context, one of the factors that has become clearer since the referendum is how Brexit is driving clearer positioning, and potentially even significant new electoral cleavages, by the UK’s main political parties (those with representation in England, Scotland, and Wales).
On one pole, the ruling Conservatives appear now to be unifying around the hard-line Brexit stance,albeit with the significant possibility of more ‘Remainer’ Tory MPs leaving the party.
The other major party with a pro-Leave message is Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Yet, its support could now be squeezed by the significant shift in the positioning of the Conservatives if Johnson does lead the nation to a no-deal.
Conversely, the Liberal Democrats are seeking to continue to make political capital through steadfast opposition to Brexit.
This stance has given the party clearer differentiation against all the main UK parties, and led it in May to make significant advances in the local council elections and European Parliament ballots.
It is Labour that potentially still has the biggest positioning challenge of all the parties, given that the party’s 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, by and large to date, have turned their energies not to opposing Brexit, but more to trying to soften the terms of any final deal with the EU, with also growing momentum toward a second referendum.
Taken overall, Brexit has already had a big impact on UK domestic politics and this may only grow if Johnson leads the nation to a no-deal outcome.
Indeed, this issue could yet prove the defining battleground in the next general election and may continue to frame the nation’s politics well into the 2020s.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE Ideas at the London School of Economics