Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
“…this message will self destruct in 30 seconds”
…has to be how the call for nominations from the 1922 Committee must have ended, so formidable are the obstacles facing the next leader of the Conservative Party.
Mission: impossible because the European elections added another constraint to those already facing any Prime Minister. Any Conservative leader who fails to deliver Brexit will be clobbered as voters defect to the Brexit Party. But this Parliament is opposed both to the only Brexit deal on offer, and to leaving without a deal at all. The Withdrawal Agreement made by Theresa May and the EU will not be renegotiated, something the EU has sought to underline by disbanding its negotiating team.
Though so many were attracted by the mess that the ’22 had to change the rules to get the election over with before the summer recess. If we discount Sam Gymiah’s nobly eccentric campaign for a second referendum and consider Rory Stewart to be running a deft faux-quixotic profile-raising exercise rather than a serious bid for leader this time round, we’re left with three possible strategies.
The first, orthodox, one would be for the new Tory leader, faced with a Parliament that refused to enact the kind of Brexit they wanted, to call a general election. The two-thirds majority required by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act would be forthcoming; and he or she could ask the people for a mandate either to accept May’s deal or to leave without one.
You don’t need a degree in psephology to think such a purist move could well come a cropper. If we rule out an election fought to support May’s deal, this would need to be an election fought on a No Deal platform by a party from which anti-No Deal Conservatives had resigned. If the European elections are any guide, there’s an outside chance a No Deal platform could win against a divided opposition. The Brexit Party got 34 per cent of the vote, and half of the nine per cent who voted Tory also supported Leave. Subtract Labour Leavers — who wouldn’t vote Tory even in an election against Pol Pot — and you’re left with about 31 per cent.
Electoral Calculus gives a Tory majority of 62 for figures of 31 per cent Tory, nine per cent Brexit Party, 25 per cent Lib Dems, 20 per cent Labour, and nine per cent Green. But if the opposition united behind the Lib Dems, or a Lib Dem-Green coupon, squeezing the Labour vote, a hung parliament with a pro-second referendum majority could be on the cards. Take all these figures with a pinch of salt: the “strong transition” model used by Electoral Calculus isn’t supposed to work well when traditional party allegiances break down. According to number-crunching pollster Ian Warren, the heaviest swing at the European elections was from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats, and particularly strong in Conservative heartlands in the South. A voluntary election would be a huge gamble.
Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab have begun musing about an altogether more radical idea that I’ve heard bruited in Brexiteer circles since at least February: to use the royal prerogative to prorogue Parliament so that it can’t repeat the Cooper-Letwin tactic of seizing control of the timetable to pass a special bill forcing the Government to adopt a Brexit policy the Prime Minister doesn’t want.
n a purely formal sense, this could involve suspending proceedings for a little over three weeks. It returns from recess after the conferences on October 9th, and the UK’s Brexit extension runs out on the 31st
But in practice this manoeuvre would put the Queen in an impossible position. The constitutional convention is that the Queen exercises the royal prerogative on the advice of her Ministers who hold office with the confidence of Parliament. Any attempt to exercise the prerogative in this way would immediately put that confidence in doubt.
Prorogation happens, by convention, by means of a royal commission proceeding to the Commons, announced by Black Rod. In normal circumstances, the door is closed in his face, to symbolise the independence of the Commons from the Crown. The question of the Executive’s right to prorogue was raised in 1922 by George Lansbury. The Speaker then ruled that a government backed by a majority in the House could do so. But what of a Government whose majority was in doubt, seeking to prorogue before a vote of no confidence could remove it?
Far be it for me to second-guess the present Speaker, but I’m sure that’s something on which John Bercow would take no little pleasure in ruling upon. Leadsom’s game would not, however, entirely be up. The Prorogation Act 1867 allows Parliament to be prorogued by royal proclamation if it is in recess, which it would be before 9th October. The question, then, is this:
Does the convention that the Queen accept Ministers’ advice apply when parliamentary confidence in those ministers is in doubt and the effect of applying that advice would be to prevent Parliament from withdrawing its confidence in the Ministers?
If Parliament thought this prorogation illegal, could it not, as it considers itself a free assembly that determines its own calendar, decide to sit anyway? We would then have two authorities in the land. An executive drawing the authority for its policy from a referendum and a vote of members of the governing party; and a legislature elected separately. It would be ironic to say the least, if it were a Conservative Prime Minister, and not Jeremy Corbyn, who brought such Venezuelan arrangements to Britain.
A wiser strategy is one of incrementalism. I wrote that Michael Gove, like David Ben-Gurion and Michael Collins in their independence campaigns, had begun to see it as the only way out of May’s quagmire. His campaign video, which makes a promise to “deliver Brexit”, without going into the details, and his unique ability to win the support of both Remain and Leave MPs, suggest this is still very much in his mind.
Gove’s advantage is that unlike May, who saw Brexit as a means to reduce immigration, he believes in it on principle, and wants it to succeed. That’s why he made his proposal to give fast-track — and cheap — citizenship to EU citizens living in the UK. Not for him tactical arguments about how it would enfranchise two million EU citizens unlikely to vote Tory – indeed, his very rejection of such cheap tactics could the best way to win their trust back.
Gove appears to understand that the only way to deliver Brexit without provoking the most serious constitutional crisis since that over Home Rule in 1914 or risking an election that could be lost to pro-Remain parties, is slowly. This means accepting the Withdrawal Agreement on offer, and its temporary arrangements, and working on the future relationship in the years to come.
If that is the logical conclusion of Gove’s approach, it is Matt Hancock who has made this explicit. Hancock even hopes to postpone the resolution of the Northern Irish border by handing it to a Border Council at liberty to take so long to each a conclusion that the DUP will no longer have outsize influence on this process. This may be too much for this leadership election, but should there be an Israeli-style repeat election, could put him in a very good position indeed.