I have an ancestor, Arthur Cole-Hamilton, who served as MP for Tyrone during the time of Pitt the Younger at the end of the 18th century. He’s the only other person of my name to have served in any parliament and he did so entirely without distinction. In fact, the only historical record I have of him is that he once threw a glass at the head of a blind fiddler in a Belfast tavern for playing a rebel anthem. Not much of a role model, but I’ve been thinking about him a lot this week, because Arthur Cole-Hamilton was kicking about during the establishment of the first ever UK government of national unity.
‘The Ministry of all the talents’ as it was described (which did not include my bellicose great uncle), was brought together after Pitt’s death to deal with the national crisis presented by the Napoleonic wars. It only lasted a year, but did a good deal to turn the course of the conflict with France and provided political cover for a Parliamentary majority to abolish slavery. Not a bad innings.
That unity government proved that at a time of grave national crisis, the good of the country could and should come before party tribalism. The experiment was repeated successfully again in both world wars and for the first time in well over half a century it is a serious consideration before us now.
Indeed a unity government or crisis administration may be the only way to stop the Johnson/Cummings juggernaut from driving our country over the cliff edge into a no-deal Brexit, described so apocalyptically in the leaked government papers outlining Operation Yellowhammer.
It wasn’t wholly surprising then, when Jeremy Corbyn popped up last week to propose just such a government, with him at the helm.
Now, you’d think that my remainer heart and that of my boss, Jo Swinson, would be swelled by the chance to thwart Boris in this way. Instead and without missing a beat, Jo pointed to the blistering reality that this plan just isn’t going to fly and that a unifying candidate like Harriet Harman or Ken Clarke, neither of whom aspire to power, lead such a government.
The truth is that whilst there may be an appetite for both a no-confidence vote and even some kind of unity administration, it won’t be led by Jeremy Corbyn.
Here’s why – firstly, it’s fair to say that a generous description of Jeremy’s position on Brexit would be “plural”. The way out of this mess should not be entrusted to a politician who has been so uncertain of where he personally stands on the greatest constitutional issue of our age.
Secondly, he can’t win. Even with all the other opposition parties on board and the independents (who’ve already said they won’t back him), Corbyn needs at least eight Tories to destroy their careers and put him in No10. About a dozen Conservative MPs might do that for the right person. However, all but one of them have ruled out backing him.
Finally, he doesn’t enjoy the confidence of the growing majority of people looking for someone to step in and stop the madness.
I met a lady who was fiercely opposed to Brexit, whilst knocking doors in Blackhall on Friday. When I asked her about the situation, she said: “The nation faces many questions at this moment in history, the answer to none of which is Jeremy Corbyn.”
Nothing in our history says that a unity government must be led by the leader of the opposition – Lord Grenville in my great uncle’s day, like Harman or Clarke today, enjoyed respect and support across all sides of the House of Commons when he established his ‘Ministry of Talents’, but he wasn’t a party leader. Jeremy will take first crack at forming a government if a no-confidence vote succeeds, it is his right to try. When he fails and fail he will, I hope very much that he will put country before tribalism and back a unifying candidate to lead us out of this horror show.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.