Steven Spencer

Naked Politics Blogger

A Prime Minister, 649 other MPs, a divided country and 27 other nations. These are just some of the cast of a play that has more dramatic turns than an Eastenders Christmas Special.

So what’s happened?

After over 160 MPs had spoken in the debate on the Withdrawal Agreement, until the government decided to delay the vote. This has denied over 170 more MPs the right to speak their views on the Withdrawal Agreement, and more controversially, an opportunity to express their view in a vote of the House of Commons.

Many reading this may think: “so what, MPs have not spoken, but they just spout hot air anyway”. But it’s not always hot air- they are also representing their constituents, which is the main purpose of each MP. Their party is secondary to this and their personal views usually take a distant third place.

Why did she cancel the vote?

For a variety of reasons. The most obvious is she was going to lose heavily. Press reports say the loss would be from 70 to over 100 votes, which would, in more normal times, be enough to bring down a government.

The second is that if she did lose it is very unclear what would happen next. Would the Conservative MPs try to have a vote of no confidence in her and have a party leadership election? Would Labour and other opposition parties try to win a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons? Would very senior people place pressure on her to resign? What would the EU do?

A charitable analysis would be that she felt any of those outcomes would be bad for the country, would frustrate the will of the people as expressed in the 2016 referendum and could lead to chaos in the country and financial markets. A less charitable view would be that she was motivated by the survival of the Conservative Party as the party of government. If they change leader now or even face a very close vote of confidence in the House of Commons, the pressure to call a general election could become irresistible, with Tory MPs thinking of their long-term survival, not the short-term interest of keeping their party in government. Some Tory MPs may wish that the ‘other side’ had the mess to clean up, leaving them free to wait for better times to resume government.

Whichever motivation is true, what cannot be argued is that Theresa May and her government are entering areas of the UK Constitution that are usually mentioned by politics professors as quirky things that will never happen, but are fun to study. Parliament is sovereign, and the House of Commons is the main house of Parliament due to it being elected. Those two facts are undeniable. A government is formed when the Queen (as monarch, representing the Crown) is satisfied that a potential Prime Minister can get a majority in the House of Commons, this is usually the leader of the winning party in a general election as this is the easiest means of keeping a voting majority in the Commons. But, this also opens up a range of other possibilities, albeit ones that rarely happen.

Let us imagine that Theresa May has a realisation over Christmas and decides, “I’ve had enough of this” and resigns. This would be understandable, she cannot command a majority in the Commons on the main issue facing the country and is only propped up in other votes by the DUP, with the constant threat that they and/or some of her own side will rebel. If she did, the logical next step could be a Conservative leadership election, but given how divided the Tories are, it would likely result in a full contest, which would take months. The same problem could prevent a general election, though this would be likely in such circumstances. A minimum of two months would be needed to finish this process, with the risk that the outcome could be indecisive. Time is of the essence due to the Article 50 process being enshrined in law. This leaves two more exotic possibilities.

The first is a government of national unity, as we had in the Second World War. The Monarch would ask a suitable neutral person to form a cabinet and government from the Commons and Lords. The second is that Corbyn could be asked to form a minority government and would then seek to govern using some Tory support on Brexit at least, or with complete unity of the opposition parties. They are both unlikely, but possible and have precedents, so who knows?

Confusion and division are the two words to describe UK politics right now, which is upsetting for some, but for a politics geek like me, it is like Christmas has arrived early.

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Last Update: May 24, 2024