If the UK is not to crash out of the European Union with no deal, Jonathan Boston argues that the current one-party political control of the executive will need to be temporarily suspended.
There is a clear majority view of the House of Commons that any withdrawal from the EU must be an agreed and orderly one, with clear succession arrangements in place. But, from where we are now, making that effective presents unique challenges that necessitate a unique solution. Preventing a no-deal Brexit, whether on 31 October or subsequently, may well require the formation of a multiparty government comprising MPs from across the House of Commons under the leadership of a new Prime Minister. Such a government would need to take office before the end of October. Necessarily, it would be a relatively temporary arrangement. But it would need to govern long enough to avert a no-deal Brexit, not only on 31 October but also subsequently. Undoubtedly, forming such a government would be extraordinarily difficult politically, but not impossible.
There are compelling political, economic, security, and constitutional reasons to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Currently, a majority of MPs oppose such an outcome. Polling also suggests that most citizens reject this option. But the government led by Boris Johnson appears willing to take the country ‘over the cliff’. Against this ‘backdrop’, recent authoritative analyses by Vernon Bogdanor and Professor David Howarth highlight the many obstacles facing MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit.
Potentially, a majority of MPs could defeat the current government on a vote of no-confidence, moved by the Leader of the Opposition, to precipitate an early election. But unless Parliament ensures that the election is held during mid-to-late October rather than November, an early poll might not avert a no-deal outcome. Moreover, the Conservatives might secure an overall parliamentary majority in an autumn poll on a pledge to leave the EU without a deal. In this event, the strategy of voting down the government to avert a no-deal Brexit would have failed.
Alternatively, the election might generate yet another hung Parliament, precipitating further years of Brexit-induced governmental paralysis. For such reasons, if the fundamental and overriding objective is to prevent a no-deal Brexit (whether on 31 October or subsequently), triggering an early election is a high-risk, and probably flawed, strategy. Aside from this, it would generate enormous internal tensions for both major parties.
Rather than pursuing a vote of no-confidence, MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit might employ other parliamentary tactics. For instance, they could endeavour to enact legislation requiring the government to: a) seek a further extension to Article 50; b) prevent Britain leaving the EU without a negotiated deal; or c) hold a second referendum on EU membership. But all such options are fraught with difficulties. Above all, they might simply precipitate the Prime Minister moving a motion in the House to call an early election under Section 2(2) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Most Labour MPs would doubtless feel obliged to support such a motion, thus guaranteeing the Prime Minister his required two-thirds majority. But, as argued above, an early election is no sure way to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Accordingly, MPs opposing such an outcome must avoid tactical moves that play into the Prime Minister’s hands.
Getting to a new majority government
If an early election and/or parliamentary tactics of various kinds are high-risk strategies, realistically the only option is to replace the current government with a new one. Admittedly, this would be extremely challenging politically. It would require formidable strategising, organising and tactical skills and unprecedented inter-party cooperation.
Constitutionally, forming such a government would require the active support (or, in some cases, at least acquiescence) of a plurality of MPs, all with varying political goals, party loyalties, personal agendas, and career ambitions. More specifically, the MPs would need to reach agreement on: a) an acceptable candidate for Prime Minister; b) the composition of the cabinet and the allocation of key portfolios; c) a viable short-term policy agenda; and d) an agreed political strategy, especially for resolving the Brexit impasse. Each of these steps would be complicated with competing political pressures and difficult trade-offs. Bear in mind, too, that forming such a government would occur almost certainly in the face of strenuous opposition from the majority of Conservative MPs, the DUP, and no doubt some Labour and independent MPs, not to mention a largely hostile media.
Whether or not such a scenario is feasible, the following considerations deserve mention. For the Queen to appoint a new Prime Minister, the House of Commons would need to provide an unequivocal signal, perhaps through a vote of confidence or an unambiguous resolution, that it supported a named candidate other than the current PM. Such a signal would require the support of a significant number of Conservative MPs, possibly 30-60 depending on the stance of some Labour MPs and independents. But who would such MPs be willing to support as Prime Minister? Presumably, Jeremy Corbyn can be ruled out. Equally, sufficient Labour MPs are unlikely to countenance another government led by a Conservative MP (e.g. Kenneth Clarke or Rory Stewart). But what about a Labour MP, such as Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper or Sir Keir Starmer? If not, would a LibDem MP (e.g. Sir Vince Cable) or an independent MP command support? If none of these options is acceptable to sufficient MPs, a multiparty government could not be formed. Arguably, this is the Achilles’ heel of an alternative government.
Next, a new government would need to agree upon a democratically acceptable solution to the Brexit impasse and have the capacity and time to implement the preferred approach. Merely installing a new Prime Minister for a few weeks or months to prevent a no-deal Brexit on 31 October and facilitate an autumn general election would be unwise. Indeed, a general election held under such circumstances might well guarantee the very outcome that those opposed to a no-deal Brexit are seeking to prevent. Above all, it would provide Boris Johnson (who by then would be the Leader of the Opposition) with an ideal platform. He could cast himself as the champion of the people against the supposedly unconstitutional and anti-democratic antics of a recalcitrant Parliament dominated by remainers. At the same time, the new government would need to commit publicly to holding a general election as soon as practicable after the Brexit impasse has been resolved. This would be essential to maintain adequate parliamentary support and appease angry pro-Brexit voters.
Resolving the Brexit issue with a two-stage referendum
How then might the Brexit impasse be addressed? Given the difficulties, Parliament has faced in finding an acceptable solution, and the risks associated with an autumn election, a second referendum on EU membership may be the only option. But to be politically acceptable and legitimate – and for the result to be durable – such a referendum would need to be well-constructed, properly conducted, and enable the will of the people to be expressed clearly and decisively. In effect, this means the referendum questions must be unambiguous, with sufficient choice to enable the public to express its preferences.
The experience of electoral reform in New Zealand in the early 1990s provides possible lessons. In this instance, citizens voted on a series of questions in a two-stage referendum process. During the first stage, voters were given the option of retaining the first-past-the-post electoral system or embracing a different system. Next, on the same ballot paper, they were asked to choose between one of four options for electoral reform. In the event, there was a decisive majority to change the electoral system and a similarly clear majority for a mixed-member system of electoral reform (similar to the German model). At the second stage, held the following year, voters were asked to choose between the mixed-member system (as drafted by Parliament in detailed legislation) and the existing electoral system. The majority of voters supported reform.
Applied to the UK context, a second referendum process could proceed as follows. First, citizens would vote on whether to remain in the EU or leave. Next, on the same ballot paper, they would be asked to choose between one of several specific options for leaving (e.g. perhaps the Norwegian model, continued membership of the customs union, or no-deal). Then, if the majority of voters chose in the first round to leave the EU, the preferred option for exiting would be run off against remaining in the EU. Under this approach, few could claim that their preferences had been ignored or that the ‘establishment’ had ‘fixed’ the result.
Although highly unlikely, the majority of citizens might vote to leave the EU and to do so without a deal. In this event, the new government would have failed to realise its core objective. But at least a no-deal Brexit would then occur in the context of a clear democratic mandate and with a proper understanding of the likely implications – something which the 2016 referendum failed to ensure.
The most effective strategy to avert a no-deal outcome, whether on 31 October, or at a later date would be for MPs to form a new multiparty government – a coalition for unity and stability committed to retaining office long enough to enable the current Brexit impasse to be resolved in a manner both constitutionally robust and democratically legitimate. Forming and maintaining parliamentary support for such a government poses formidable challenges. It will require remarkable leadership, significant organisational skills, and substantial political sacrifices. In particular, enough MPs must be willing to place the public interest and democratic values ahead of narrow party loyalties. Is this scenario plausible? If the answer is negative, the nation faces a grim future.
About the Author
Jonathan Boston is Professor of Public Policy in the School of Government, at the Victoria University of Wellington, and an expert on the New Zealand constitution and Westminster systems more broadly. Jonathan is currently visiting LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation (CARR).