It’s getting messy. In truth, that was always on the cards after the general election result. The public in their wisdom delivered a Parliament with no overall majority, with two main parties both formally committed to implementing Brexit and neither sharing any kind of consensus over what that meant in practice. Theresa May has spent the last 16 months navigating between competing interest groups, endlessly deferring decisions, endlessly conceding ground whenever short term coalitions formed against her and evading final verdicts on her direction of progress in the negotiations.
Time is running out and she is exhausting the last levels of trust all round. It is possible that she might finagle a deal through the House of Commons under the motto that is sure to be put on her coat of arms – faute de mieux – but it is also possible that the level of dissatisfaction from differing perspectives with the unappetising fare on offer will lead to a deal being voted down. It is possible that Theresa May might be unable to salvage the position from there.
One way or another, British politics are lurching towards a resolving moment. Either a deal will be done, and the terms on which Britain leaves the EU will set much of the political terms of reference in the medium term, or no deal will be attainable. Never mind tectonic plates shifting, we are watching an active volcano prepare to erupt. It is far from clear that the Prime Minister will survive the pyroclastic blast.
Betting discussion about the identity of the next Prime Minister has centred around two separate questions: can the Conservatives unite around a new leader if they ditch Theresa May and if not can Jeremy Corbyn pick up the reins? Implicit to both questions is the idea that the next Prime Minister is going to be a leader of one of the two main parties.
This is likely, but not certain. It’s time to have a look at this implicit assumption.
A Prime Minister is chosen by the Queen. She does so on the basis that they can command the confidence of the House of Commons. Where one party has an overall majority, the task is easy: the leader of that party gets the nod.
In a hung Parliament, it gets more difficult. Larger parties need to court smaller parties and it is possible that the smaller party may make a replacement of leader the price of the deal. For example, the Lib Dems vetoed Gordon Brown in 2010. Nevertheless, smaller parties cannot dictate how larger parties choose their leader. The DUP might depose Theresa May but they cannot tell the Conservatives who to put in her place.
If Brexit spews political lava all over everywhere, however, putting together a voting bloc that commands a majority in the House of Commons becomes highly problematic. If Theresa May were to be defeated in a Parliamentary vote of no confidence, a Parliamentary clock starts ticking and either a new Prime Minister is found within 14 days or there is a general election.
But Theresa May might well be forced out without either of those things: she might lose a party vote of no confidence or the DUP may make the country ungovernable, vetoing every substantial bill but declining to vote against the government in a vote of no confidence (they have already indicated that is their plan if needs be). So Parliament may lurch on, with her as the only casualty.
Any Conservative replacement for Theresa May would need to bring the DUP or the ERG back on board in order to get a majority without losing anyone on the EU-friendly wing of the party. Alternatively, a new Conservative leader might seek to persuade the Lib Dems to compensate for the loss of the DUP’s support: good luck in that endeavour, given the Conservative party’s current centre of gravity and the Lib Dems’ general approach to Brexit.
So the Conservatives may select a replacement leader who could not command Parliament’s confidence. Would it then fall to Jeremy Corbyn to take over the reins? He would certainly be champing at the bit.He can, however, barely command his own party and it would be very questionable whether he could bring on board either of the Lib Dems and the SNP, never mind both. And he would still need the active support of the DUP (!) or the passive acquiescence of the Conservatives. If a Parliamentary vote of no confidence has taken place, he might get the latter to avoid the alternative of a general election.Without that ticking Parliamentary clock, this seems unlikely.
So if, as looks uncomfortably possible, the Conservative leader cannot command the confidence of the House of Commons and the Labour leader cannot command the confidence of the House of Commons and there is no general election scheduled, what happens?
What indeed? Politics would no doubt be chaotic. Something would have to give, but what?It is unwise to try to predict the course of events in what would inevitably be turbulent times. At this point we really are at the point of the Pythia breathing in the vapours.
There is one possible solution. A Prime Minister could be selected who was not one of the two main party leaders, someone who could reach the parts of Parliament that their party leader could not reach. This has precedent. Churchill was not leader of the Conservative party when he became Prime Minister in 1940 and did not take on that role until Neville Chamberlain was dying. Jeremy Corbyn could console himself knowing that Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Constantin Chernenko were never Prime Ministers of the USSR.
Any such candidate would need to be of great political seniority and command respect across Parliament. Given the maths, they would probably be nearer the centre of British politics than the figures the parties themselves would choose as leader but would still be acceptable to large parts of their own party. Possible names might include Yvette Cooper, Vince Cable and Philip Hammond. Or maybe someone else completely different.All parties would be in ferment. The possibility is distinct but how politics would play out in detail is almost unreadable, even though this might all begin as soon as the budget in two weeks’ time.
The main betting point is not really to identify specific candidates in these circumstances but to note that two markets that looked to have a heavy overlap – Next Prime Minister and Next Conservative Leader – might now be rather less linked than was previously appreciated. For a long time I have worked on the basis that any Conservative party figure’s chances of becoming next Prime Minister were contained within their chances of becoming next Conservative party leader. For some candidates at least, that might not be quite true.