UK Houses of Parliament

On Brexit and parliamentary power plays

Following the victory of the “Leave” side in the referendum on the UK’s status in the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he would resign as PM and leader of the Tory party in October — to give the party time to choose a new leader in time for their October Party Conference. For Canadians, if that seems like a really fast time frame in which to have a leadership change, they do party leadership properly — it’s largely in the hands of the party caucus.

The party’s 1922 committee, a committee of all backbench Conservative MPs that meets weekly when the Commons is sitting,  will oversee the contest, most likely using the same rules used in the 2005 leadership vote, which elected David Cameron, although that is still to be finalized. Candidates for party leader must be sitting MPs, and must be nominated by two other MPs to get onto the ballot paper. If only one candidate comes forward, he or she becomes leader automatically. This is a sharp contrast to how Canadian political parties do leadership contests: in Canada, candidates do not have to have a seat in the House of Commons, and rather than being nominated by members of the caucus, Canadian party candidates have to sign up new party members, which severely undermines both the parliamentary party and overall accountability.

But going back to the UK Tory Party leader selection process, if there are three or more candidates, a ballot or series of ballots will be held of all the party’s MPs to whittle down the field to two (there are currently 331 Conservative MPs). If there are three candidates in the first ballot, the two who receive the most votes go forward to the general membership. If there are more than three, the candidate receiving the fewest votes withdraws and a second ballot is held. If there are no more than three candidates in the second ballot the two receiving the most votes go forward to the general membership. This process is repeated as often as necessary. When a ballot with only three candidates is reached, the two candidates who receive the highest number of votes go forward to the general membership.

There are already five MPs who have indicated they will seek the leadership, and a few others who are considering running.

The Labour Party may also find itself embroiled in a leadership race. The party was already in some turmoil before the Brexit vote; Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s lackluster performance during the referendum campaign has pushed some MPs to move a motion of no confidence in him, members of the shadow cabinet are resigning (or have been dismissed by Corbyn), while others are signalling that they may challenge him for the leadership. Labour’s rules for removing a leader are rather unclear; some argue the party can’t dispose of a sitting leader unless he or she resigns voluntarily, while others this isn’t the case, but that a leadership challenge can only occur prior to the annual session of Party conference.

There is also the possibility that whoever ends up as the new leader of the Tory party and Prime Minister might want to call an early election in order to secure a mandate to pursue exit talks with the European Union. However, the UK’s Fixed-term Parliaments Act doesn’t make this an automatic option. Unlike here in Canada, the UK Prime Minister can’t just go see the Queen and get an early dissolution (early being before the next scheduled election in May 2020). An early vote can happen one of two ways. The first, and in theory, the simplest, requires the government to move the motion “That there shall be an early parliamentary general election.” To succeed, however, the number of members who vote in favour of the motion is a number equal to or greater than two thirds of the number of seats in the House (including vacant seats). Which, in theory, should be doable. Except…

What if Labour is in the middle of a leadership mess and doesn’t want to face an election? Or if Labour fears that they might suffer an even bigger defeat than they did in 2015? None of the opposition parties are pro-Brexit, and a strong contingent of the Tory party is also not pro-Brexit. There is no guarantee that the government could secure the two-thirds majority support for an early dissolution.

The other way to force an early election is for the government to lose a vote of confidence. The motion “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government” has to be moved and passed. Ideally, this is moved by the opposition but the government can move it themselves, which would be very odd, but entirely feasible. That vote requires a simple majority to pass, so in theory the Tories could defeat themselves regardless of how the opposition chooses to vote. But that doesn’t trigger an immediate election. There has to be a two week period during which we see if another government could be formed that would have the confidence of the House. If no new government emerges, then a new election is called.

Now, given how divisive this issue has been, and is proving to be because there are all sorts of calls for a new vote, or for the government to ignore the results of the vote (the referendum isn’t legally binding on the government), people who voted for Out now regretting it and wanting a do over, etc., it might prove difficult for the Tories to even defeat themselves on a confidence motion. While the Eurosceptic Tories make a lot of noise, there are a lot of pro-EU Tories out there, certainly more than 12, which is the size of the Tory majority. And, as stated above, the opposition parties are all largely pro-EU. If the Conservatives had a massive (or even just much larger) majority, I’d say done deal. But they don’t. Twelve is a very easy number to overcome. It would just take 15-20 pro-EU Tories to prevent a no confidence vote from going through, or, alternatively, letting that pass, but pledging to support a Labour government (ideally one no longer led by Mr. Corbyn). That last one is really unlikely, I’ll be the first to admit, but my aim here is just to point out that things could get very messy very easily.

But lets say the new Tory PM goes get a new election. What if they lose? What if Labour wins on a platform to reverse the whole Brexit thing? Or it’s a hung parliament, but with Labour slightly ahead and supported by other pro-EU parties e.g. the SNP, the Northern Ireland parties (who are more prone to support the Tories in terms of politics, but not over Brexit), a (hopefully) resurgent Lib Dem party, etc.

One other point worth noting. Prior to the referendum vote, Prime Minister Cameron had pledged that the day following a successful “Leave” result, he would trigger Article 50, which is part of the Lisbon Treaty which would start the process for a member country to leave the EU. The government must trigger the article by officially notifying the EU of its intention to leave. This then starts a two-year period in which the terms of the UK’s exit are negotiated. There is no timescale or mention of when to trigger Article 50 after a referendum, leaving many politicians worried about a long period of uncertainty.

However, following the vote, Cameron stated that he would not trigger Article 50, but would leave that up to the new Tory leader and PM to do. This means that the actual exit process won’t begin for another few months — certainly not before a new Tory leader is selected, and, if the new PM wants an election to confirm his or her mandate, not until after said election. During those intervening months, the UK’s economic situation is likely to continue to deteriorate. What impact might that have on support for leaving the EU? Will the new PM face growing pressure to not trigger Article 50?

From an outsider’s perspective, the next few months/years promise to be absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately for those living in the UK, it’s likely going to be a very difficult time indeed.

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  • Benjamin

    “Labour’s rules for removing a leader are rather unclear”
    I read that the way to challenge a sitting leader is stated in the Labour Rule Book (a challenger must have a certain amount of support among MPs before an annual convention and then a vote is organised). The question is whether the sitting leader is automatically qualified for the vote or if s/he need to be nominated by MPs as any other candidate.
    I think that’s why rebelling MPs wanted Corbyn to resign so that he doesn’t stand in the leadership election.