Let’s start by returning to the Fixed Terms Parliament Act. Under its terms, a general election will not automatically follow if Boris Johnson’s Government is defeated in a vote of no confidence, Instead, there will be a 14 days window in which to form a new administration. If during these a putative one emerges, it will be subject to a vote of confidence. Only if that fails will an election take place.
Now let’s look at the current Commons in that light.
It is by no means certain that the Prime Minister would lose a no confidence vote as matters stand. This is because his opponents cannot be sure that enough Conservative backbenchers and opposition MPs would combine to force him out. ConservativeHome will look more closely at the numbers later this week.
But if he did, the odds of him then losing a second Commons vote are longer. To understand why, imagine the following. Johnson loses a no confidence vote. The Queen permits him to have a go at forming another government within the 14 day window. Johnson’s defeat in the vote of confidence that follows would bring about an election, under the terms of the Fixed Terms Act, as described above. Some MPs willing to oppose Johnson in the original vote of no confidence might therefore be willing to support him in the vote of confidence. Why? Because they don’t want to face the voters in a general election.
Of course, the Queen might not allow Johnson to have another go. But that possibility makes our point in a different way. The only other plausible Prime Ministerial candidate is Jeremy Corbyn. And some MPs willing to oppose Johnson in that original vote of no confidence would be unlikely to support Corbyn in a vote of confidence.
In short, they might be willing to turn Johnson out, but not to put Corbyn in. Again, this site will probe the numbers in detail later this week.
And Corbyn is the only other feasible Prime Ministerial candidate. Take the talk of Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman as Prime Minister with not so much a pinch as a spoonful of salt. The J.Alfred Prufrock MPs of the Tory benches aren’t going to back Harman. And their Labour equivalents won’t support Clarke. And since Conservative and Labour MPs together form a large majority in the Commons, either outcome lies at the very edge of possibility.
The so-called Government of National Unity or GNU – actually, a Government of National Disunity, since it would exclude all those who want Brexit now – looks a bit like an rare wildebeest, rather in the manner of its namesake in the old Flanders and Swann song. I’m a GNU. How do you do?
For all these reasons, a no confidence vote will surely be a weapon of the last rather than the first resort for the Prime Minister’s opponents. They would get a better return by seeking to pass a Bill compelling him to seek a further extension, aided and abetted by the Speaker. Could anti-No Deal MPs draw up a legally watertight text? Would Johnson seek an election if such a Bill looked likely to pass? Would the Commons grant him one? We may be about to find out.