If a coalition of opposition parties and Conservative rebels are to form a government of national unity to stop a no-deal Brexit, it will need a leader who can command widespread support, writes Christine Jardine.
There are two phrases which I became accustomed to hearing about British politics over the past three decades.
First, people like my Conservative-voting mum would sometimes say: “You know Ken Clarke would have been a great Prime Minister.” And then, many of my Labour friends began to say the same about Harriet Harman.
Now Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson is saying the time is right for one, or maybe even both, of those titans of British politics to lead the country out of the Brexit mess. And you know what? She is absolutely right.
What we need more than anything else, as Boris lets us teeter on a no-deal cliff edge, is someone who will put the country first. We need consensus.
We need politicians to sit around the table and start talking common sense. The clock is ticking, and we need to make progress fast. The truth is that quite a few of us at Westminster have been trying to do that for the past year.
Groups of Liberal Democrat, Labour, Conservative, even SNP MPs have been meeting regularly to work on common ground and an approach which puts the country before individual party interest.
Jeremy Corbyn has not been part of those discussions.
Indeed, for most of the past year I could not have told you where the Labour frontbench stood on Brexit. Were they for it? Against no-deal? Supporting Remain? We all know their policy descriptor has been ‘constructive ambiguity’. I would agree with half of that statement, and it is certainly not the word ‘constructive’.
There have, of course, been Labour and former Labour MPs who have been more than happy working to find a common route forward. One of them was Chuka Umunna. And former Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston was another who was prepared to search for that consensus.
Significantly, both of them now sit as Liberal Democrats. They will be joined on the yellow benches after recess by Parliament’s newest MP, Jane Dodds.
She was the Lib Dem victor in the recent Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, when Remain parties worked together to put the country’s interest before that of our individual parties. Which brings me back to exactly what the country is crying out for: consensus.
This past week Jo Swinson argued that what we need now is a vote of no-confidence to replace this Boris-led administration with a government of national unity.
In her first major keynote speech since becoming leader, she laid out the case that the Prime Minister’s determination to leave on 31 October “do or die” is utterly irresponsible.
She described a no-deal Brexit as bad for the NHS, bad for the rural economy and bad for our family of nations in the United Kingdom.
And she said that to be certain of preventing that no-deal outcome we need a successful vote of no confidence in Johnson’s administration.
Then, within 14 days we need to install a temporary cross-party government with an alternative Prime Minister who has the confidence of the House and will stop a no-deal Brexit.
We are facing a national emergency and we need an emergency government to resolve it. What she didn’t say, and what caused an immediate angry reaction from the left, is that Jeremy Corbyn should be that alternative Prime Minister.
The reason for that is simple: he does not have the numbers. He is unable to command the support of enough MPs across the House to make that happen.
Of course, Nicola Sturgeon has said that her MPs would support Jeremy Corbyn – just a week after his sidekick John McDonnell made it clear that a future Labour government would be happy to see another independence referendum in Scotland.
But elsewhere there is reticence to back a party leader who has found it difficult to command the support of many of his own MPs throughout this parliament.
It would need Conservative MPs to back a man they have already failed to find a compromise with on Brexit. Would they not all be more likely to back someone seen to be above party politics?
Which brings me back to Ken Clarke and Harriet Harman.
Surely either of them, or perhaps another political grandee, has the reputation and respect to galvanise Tory rebels, Labour Remainers, Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Caroline Lucas and the independents.
It does have to be all of them, because that is the only way that it can succeed. And if Mr Corbyn genuinely wants that to happen surely even, he can see that he should agree to someone else leading it.
This should not be about personalities, or individual parties, but about finding a way that actually works. Don’t get me wrong. If Mr Corbyn can somehow overcome the past two years and suddenly command cross-party support in the House and successfully steer us away from the cliff-edge, I would be happy.
But so far, I see no prospect of that, and we do not have time to wait and see if he can. The clock is ticking, and we are getting ever closer to that cliff-edge.
We need that vote of no confidence, we need that unity government and we need to take this back to the people to be sure of what they really want.
Most of all we need to avoid the no-deal that would be so disastrous for all of us. In pursuing that solution Jo Swinson and the Liberal Democrats have only one red line. It has to be a proposal that can work.