Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are preparing for the final lap of the UK’s Tory leadership contest. With polls indicating Johnson could win by a landslide among Conservative members this week, the irony is that his hold on power may be extremely fragile.
Indeed, there is an even one scenario in which even if Johnson wins the Conservative leadership race handsomely he never gets into Downing Street. With the Tories lacking a majority in the House of Commons (and only having a majority of 3 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. And this point was reinforced this month by the Opposition Labour Party’s acknowledgement that it is in talks with Conservative Party MPs — estimated by former 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 his anticipated victory is announced. This would pose constitutional challenges for the Queen and those advising her. For if she decided to move ahead with Johnson’s appointment, he could face an immediate confidence vote.
However, in the more likely event that Conservative MPs sceptical 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. Or sooner if there is a Summer recall of the legislature.
Contrary to what many Brexiteers such as Johnson now insist, the referendum therefore encapsulated a range of sentiments, and there was (and still is) not a consensus across the nation behind any specific version of Brexit, whether hard or soft.
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 days period to try to form a new government, five clear weeks would then be needed for the campaign.
The period from this week to end-October will therefore be a potentially nail-biting first 100 days for the new premier. He must seek to form an elusive national consensus amid the sea of division within England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about leaving the EU.
Key here has been the huge and important debate across the United Kingdom 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.
However, there were — in fact — diverse and sometimes divergent views expressed by people voting to exit the EU last year, let alone the 48 per cent who voted 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) not a 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 with representation across England, Scotland and Wales. On one pole, the ruling Conservatives may now unify around Johnson’s hardline Brexit stance. Remarkably, most Tory party members now assert that it is more important to leave the Brussels-based club than preserve the integrity of the United Kingdom given, for instance, the possibility of a second independence ballot in Scotland where support for EU membership is high.
The other major party with a pro-Leave message is Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party which won May’s European Parliament ballot in the United Kingdom. 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 exit.
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 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.
Take 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 also frame the nation’s politics well into the 2020s with the possibility of a major political realignment.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.