Among the many unlikely aspects of Boris Johnson’s elevation to British premiership, beyond the fact that it happened at all, is that he is the first occupant of No. 10 for 140 years to come from the Commons’ backbenches. Ever since William Gladstone became prime minister for the second time in 1880, all the others on taking office have either been in the government or were leaders of the opposition.
To be pedantic, Johnson became leader of the opposition the day before entering No 10 because Theresa May stayed on for a final flourish in the House. But you get the point. Gladstone stepped down as leader of the Liberal Party after its defeat in 1874 by Disraeli, but its victory in 1880 was attributed to his relentless attack on Tory foreign policy during a successful campaign to win a seat in Midlothian.
When Disraeli resigned, Queen Victoria invited the Liberal leader Spencer Cavendish, Lord Hartington, to become her new prime minister. But he declined, saying the majority in the Commons was a “Gladstone-created one” and she should send for him instead. The Queen, however, disliked Gladstone, and told her private secretary Henry Ponsonby “she will sooner abdicate than send for or have any communication with that half-mad firebrand who would soon ruin everything and be a dictator. Others but herself may submit to his democratic rule but not the Queen”.
In the end submit she did, though under sufferance, thereby averting a constitutional crisis. Her antipathy to the Grand Old Man was well known among voters but that only served to boost his popularity. He was affectionately dubbed “the People’s William”, just as Johnson now wants to be “the People’s Boris”.
His aides have let it be known that he proposes to set himself up as the champion of the people, who voted by a majority to leave the European Union (EU), against a parliament that has refused to honour their wishes. However, unlike Oliver Cromwell, the last leader to dismiss parliament, he hasn’t got an army to ensure he gets his way. He must rely upon parliamentary procedure, the law and constitutional convention — none of which is easy to manage without a majority.
There are many uncertainties in the weeks ahead but one thing we think we know is that there is a majority in the Commons against leaving the EU without a deal. When this specific point was voted on in March, the Government lost. No 10 was quick to say that it changed nothing, was not binding and “we will still be leaving on March 29”. We know now that was rubbish. So what are we to make of all the talk about Boris brazening it out by staying on as prime minister even if he lost a motion of no confidence?
First of all, Labour must table such a motion. Jeremy Corbyn said last week that he would do so at “the appropriate very early time”, whatever that means. He has reason to be cautious. Defeating a government on a no-confidence motion is not easy. Since the Second World War it has happened just once — in April 1979, when James Callaghan lost and then only by a single vote. He resigned and called an election.
Matters are complicated now by the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) introduced by the Coalition in 2011. To my mind, fixed terms of four years are a good idea, but this legislation is a mess. There are only two ways under the legislation that a general election can happen outside of the five-year term. Either two-thirds of all members of parliament vote for one or the Commons passes a motion of no confidence in the government by a simple majority.
The measure was supposed to prevent prime ministers from going to the country when it suited their partisan purposes; but it was put to the test in 2017 when May secured the necessary backing to hold a general election (though in view of the outcome she probably wishes she hadn’t). Alternatively, if the Commons passes a motion of no confidence in the government, there is then a 14-day interregnum during which another government can be formed that can command the confidence of the House.
The difficulty is that the legislation sets out no provisions as to how this might happen and no one rectified this flaw when it was going through parliament. Let us imagine that Corbyn tables a no-confidence motion when MPs return on September 3 for debate the next day. If it passes what happens then, Johnson remains as prime minister, but talks will then take place among other parties to see if they can agree on an alternative.
It is inconceivable that this could be Corbyn since many of his own MPs do not want him as their leader, let alone prime minister. It cannot be anyone from the current Cabinet, all of whom are pledged to see Brexit through on October 31, deal or no deal. Similarly a Remainer Labour MP like Yvette Cooper or Sir Keir Starmer would be unacceptable to most Tories.
There is one Conservative with the reputation, experience and pedigree who might command agreement: Ken Clarke. As an implacable Remainer — indeed the only Conservative to vote against triggering Article 50 — he nonetheless reconciled himself to leaving and voted three times for May’s abortive deal.
He also occupies a quasi-constitutional role as Father of the House. Could he be the next prime minister plucked from the backbenches? It sounds fanciful but stranger things have happened. Johnson, after all, is in No 10. However, there is nothing in the FTPA to explain how any of this might happen. At the end of the 14 days, a motion that this House has confidence in “any government of Her Majesty” needs to be passed; but if Johnson has not resigned, he still leads the government. No one has yet explained how a defeated incumbent can be made to leave other than by exhortation. Will the Queen have to intervene?
If no new administration is in place after 14 days, it falls to Johnson to decree the election date, which he could set for after October 31. There would then be no parliament sitting in the run-up to Brexit. Legally, there is nothing to stop this. Constitutionally, it would be an outrage against convention. Politically? The People’s Boris may win the day and the ensuing election. But there will be blood.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2019
Philip Johnston is assistant editor and leader writer at the Daily Telegraph.