National government is a desperate idea for desperate times

by Hugo Dixon | 19.07.2018

Anna Soubry and Nicholas Soames, two senior Tory backbench MPs, have both called for a national unity government to manage Brexit. If we weren’t in such a mess, it would be a crazy idea. But since we are, it might just fly.

That said, such a government would only have legitimacy if it gave the electorate a vote on whatever Brexit deal it agreed. Promising a people’s vote would be the essential glue to put such a coalition together in the first place.

The UK had a national unity government – bringing together ministers from parties across the political spectrum – three times in the last century: during the two world wars and the great depression. The crisis caused by Brexit isn’t of the same scale, but it is the most serious since World War Two.

Neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn would agree to such a government. Nevertheless, if the Conservative Party keeps on tearing itself to pieces, there may come a time when sensible politicians from different parties put the national interest first – whether they form a joint government or just support it from the sidelines.

Here are three scenarios.

Demand a vote on the Brexit deal

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Brexit extremists kick May out as Tory leader

Imagine Jacob Rees-Mogg and his gang remove May as party leader. There will then be a leadership contest, the first stage of which is for Tory MPs to whittle down the challengers to two front-runners, probably a relatively mainstream candidate and a Brexit extremist.

The second stage then involves the party’s ordinary members picking their favourite. Imagine they choose the extremist. You would then have a Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson as prime minister.

In such a scenario, moderate Tory MPs could break away and link up with pro-European Labour MPs as well as Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists. This would involve splitting both the Conservative and Labour parties simultaneously. But given how much some Labour MPs hate Corbyn, it isn’t entirely fanciful.

Moggites vote with Labour to bring government down

The idea of Rees-Mogg joining Corbyn to vote down a Conservative prime minister may seem crackers. But if May makes yet more humiliating concessions in the Brexit talks – as seems only too likely – the Moggites may be unable to control their vitriol.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, there would then be two weeks to see if anybody else could win a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. Failing that, there would be an election.

Corbyn himself wouldn’t be able to win a vote of confidence. But a new moderate Tory PM might be able to do so – winning over pro-European Labour MPs.

If, on the other hand, there was an election and no party won a clear majority, a national unity government might be the inevitable outcome.

Parliament opposes May’s deal

Imagine the prime minister agrees a miserable Brexit deal (that’s not an unlikely scenario) and Parliament votes it down. The sensible thing would then be for the matter to be referred to the people to see what they think.

But what if May refused; or Parliament called a People’s Vote and she then resigned; or she instead wanted to call an election? Moderate MPs from across the political spectrum could then take control of the situation, install a national unity government and put the deal to the people.

All these scenarios sound pretty far-off – and they are. Still, we are in such uncharted territory that the unthinkable is now thinkable.

Edited by Quentin Peel

One Response to “National government is a desperate idea for desperate times”

  • Radical thinking is needed. To avoid more polarisation and division some sort of coaltion, being a cross-party consensus is needed. Angela Merkel has her grand coalition. It has stood the test of time.

    The extreme Conservative right will hate it, because they thrive on confrontation. The extreme left will oppose it. They fear a successful free market led Europe.

    Perhaps the Westminster model has reached its sale by date? Complex long term issues like funding the NHS, paying for education and new housing near you, do not respond to simplistic tabloid headlines or yay boo posturing in the Commons.

    Thinking along these lines breaks the traditional mould of party unity and places the national interest first. Politically it will not fly. But a one or two year grand coalition to oversee Brexit , and take it the final agreement to a second referendum might attract enough support.