“Dissident Tories...Get on board” urged the British Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, earlier last month. The prospect of one of the more left wing Labour leaders persuading Conservative MPs to vote no confidence in their own government and support the Opposition leader would seem absurd in normal times but the fact that this makes logical sense is perhaps a parable as to what Brexit has done to the United Kingdom.
There is indeed no ‘normal’ and as the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has set out his stall on accepting the potential of ‘no deal’ so the forces of ‘moderation’ are swirling to see if they can manage to thwart him.
So how likely is it that Johnson could become the shortest reigning Prime Minster in British history? The truth is that even in these strange times it is unlikely. Why? For a number of reasons both practical and political.
The deep tribalism that has characterised traditional Westminster politics has been fractured by the new divides of ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ that have become for many the primary political identity of the day. Both of the main parties, Labour and Conservative, are being outflanked by those offering a purer version of either alternative. The Brexit Party surged in the recent EU elections as did the ‘remain’ backing Liberal Democrat’s and Green Party.
Labour and the Conservatives have struggled to bridge the divide between the 52% and 48% who voted either way in the Referendum a distant three years ago. The constructive ambiguity that defined the Labour Party’s position held for a while and proved a successful line in the 2017 General Election but is now haemorrhaging support. The Conservatives likewise have had to elect their third leader in three years to survive.
Labour has recently moved its Brexit position to confirm that it would support a Referendum in all circumstances but it still hasn’t come out unequivocally in support of Remain which perhaps explains why the Liberal Democrat’s and the Green Party were so circumspect about the Corbyn offer to lead a time limited national unity government to avoid a ‘no deal’ cliff-edge and call a General Election.
Many in the Conservative party consider ‘no deal’ a disaster but think the prospects for the country are even worse under a Corbyn government, presumably imagining that even a time limit for his time at Number 10 would give him a better chance of getting a full mandate at a General Election.
There has been a plethora of speculation as to alternative scenarios including a unity government headed by veteran backbench MPs such as Ken Clarke and Harriett Harman. The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas even suggested a unity cabinet made up entirely of women, although she was criticised for forgetting to include the shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot.
Practically speaking a sitting Prime Minister would have to suffer two consecutive votes of no confidence before a two week period commences in which the multitude of unity options will have a chance to succeed or fail. What this means is that rebellious Conservative MPs can give Prime Minister Johnson a ‘shot across the bows’ this September with one defeat but potentially save him from losing his premiership in a second vote if he changes tac somehow on Brexit.
The huge divisions in those opposing ‘no deal’ would appear an insurmountable challenge for those looking to defeat this newly formed Government which has such seeming clarity of purpose. The story of the ‘Independent Party’ who quickly became ‘Change UK’ faired disastrously in EU elections and subsequently split, is a reminder of the difficulty in forming any new political project that crosses traditional party and ideological lines.
The United Kingdom is in desperate need of a National Unity Government that can stitch together some of the divisions that have festered over the past decade. However, forming one over the single issue that has become the magnet for division appears unlikely and the country continues its countdown towards uncertainty at the end of October.
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