There’s an urgency to the way Westminster lobby journalists, MPs and staff have been discussing their August holiday plans: better get away now, while you can. When parliament returns in September, all hell is going to break loose.
Here’s what we know for certain: there will be a vote of no-confidence. Even if the two sides somehow break the deadlock created by the UK Government’s refusal to talk to the EU unless the backstop is removed from the Withdrawal Agreement, and Brussels’ refusal to countenance that, Labour is committed to seeking to bring down a government that now has an effective majority of one.
If neither side has budged, a no-deal Brexit looks likely, and a small handful of Tory MPs are willing to end their political careers, then the Government could lose a vote of no-confidence. What happens then?
That’s where things get really complicated. There’s nothing in law that says Boris Johnson has to resign after losing a vote of no-confidence. It isn’t even the law that a Prime Minister has to resign after losing an election – it’s the job of the sovereign to remove the head of her government if they can’t command a majority in the House of Commons. After big defeats, Prime Ministers quit out of democratic propriety; but Gordon Brown didn’t automatically resign after the 2010 election, and neither did Theresa May in 2017.
In 1979, after losing a vote of no-confidence, James Callaghan did resign and call an election – but the difference now is that snap elections are governed by the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which sets out a 14-day ‘cooling off’ period before an election is called. What happens during this window is untested and highly contentious.
Anti no-deal forces in parliament have been putting it about this week that they could form a government of ‘national unity’ – a curious label for a project that could only deepen the divide in the country. To convince the Queen to let them take power, this would have to involve all the opposition parties bar the DUP, and enough pro-EU Tory rebels to make up the shortfall and produce a Commons majority.
It almost certainly couldn’t be directed by Jeremy Corbyn, given that several key components needed to make up the numbers have said they won’t work with the Labour leader. A ‘neutral’ figure who Tory MPs could get behind would need to be found to serve as caretaker Prime Minister – leading some to speculate that Ken Clarke could be put in a taxi to Buckingham Palace.
You probably have the same questions as everyone else. How many Labour Leavers would refuse to get on board with this plan? Why would Corbyn’s office allow their man to be usurped, even temporarily? Are there really enough Tories ready to make themselves the greatest hate figures in the history of Conservative politics to make this work? Given that many involved in the scheme want to stop Brexit through a People’s Vote, while others only want to stop a no-deal Brexit, how will they find any common ground? And how will the EU respond to letters from a provision government in London?
For me, the biggest doubt undermining all of this is: why would the Queen’s courtiers open the gates of Buckingham Palace to a cab bearing any rebel PM contender, knowing the damage that Brexit controversy would do to the royal family?
They won’t want the 93-year-old monarch to become a part-time political couples’ therapist, like her distant relative King Philippe of Belgium, constantly negotiating the formation of new coalitions.
For their part, Downing Street believe they can ride out the crisis. Johnson can stay in Number 10, put off the date of an election beyond Brexit day, and make the campaign about his pledge to take the UK out without a deal, neutralising the Brexit Party.
Meanwhile, Labour already knows they would need the SNP’s help to form a government, given John McDonnell’s offer of a second independence referendum at the expense of Richard Leonard’s credibility. So both main parties would be building their campaigns around a strategy that runs right over their Scottish MPs.
In the aftermath of that election, whoever won, indyref2 would loom large. Enjoy the rest of the holidays.