What happens if May is ousted?

by Hugo Dixon | 12.12.2018

Tory Brextremists have opened a Pandora’s Box in launching a leadership challenge against Theresa May. But people often forget that, in Greek mythology, the last fairy to come out of the box after sickness, death and other evils had been unleashed was hope. In this case, it’s a People’s Vote.

The prime minister is determined to fight. Her case is that “weeks tearing ourselves apart will only create more division just as we should be standing together to serve our country”. Maybe she will survive. But her Brexit deal is so extraordinarily unpopular that she may well lose the support of half her colleagues tonight – or resign anyway if a large minority of Conservative MPs vote against her.

What happens then? Here’s our best guess of how events could unfold.

Who is PM?

It could take a couple of months to elect a new Conservative leader. Will May stay on as a caretaker – or will somebody like David Lidington, her effective deputy, step into the breach while other top Tories fight it out? Whoever is prime minister will be a lame duck but will still have to keep things ticking over, presumably including going to tomorrow’s European Council.

What happens to May’s deal?

Politically, it is a dead duck. That’s why she cancelled yesterday’s “meaningful vote” to ask MPs to approve it. It seems most unlikely that a caretaker prime minister would want to reinstate that vote any time soon. But equally, he or she won’t have the authority to negotiate a new deal.

There’s also a question over whether the deal is technically alive or not. This determines whether a legal deadline of January 21 by which the prime minister must present a Plan B to Parliament applies.

If the deal is legally dead, then government must meet that deadline – whatever is happening with leadership elections or, indeed, general elections (see below). But if it is an undead zombie deal, there’s no legal requirement to do anything. And the clock to March 29, when we are supposed to leave the EU, could theoretically keep ticking without anything happening – although that isn’t likely (see below).

Will Labour launch a vote of confidence?

Jeremy Corbyn will be under pressure to move a vote of no confidence in the government before Parliament breaks for Christmas. The mere fact that the Tories are ripping themselves apart shouldn’t be an excuse to dither.

But even if the leader of the opposition moves fast, it seems unlikely he will manage to provoke a general election. This is because Tory MPs and the DUP won’t want one while the Conservative leadership election is underway.

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Will a new Tory leader be prime minister?

The normal assumption is that the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons will be prime minister. But these are not normal times.

The Conservative Party leadership process has two stages. The first is for the MPs to whittle down the challengers to two candidates. The second is for the party’s membership to choose the one they want.

A moderate such as Amber Rudd might make it to the final stage. But it seems likely the members will eventually choose a hardline Brexiter as leader.

Whoever is chosen, there must be doubts over whether the new leader will then be able to get all the party’s MPs to unite around them. If a Brextremist is chosen, some pro-Europeans could refuse to serve: and vice versa.

If so, the new Tory leader may never become prime minister – or may be kicked out soon afterwards. So even if Labour failed to win a vote of no confidence before Christmas, it might get a second bite at the cherry.

What about a national unity government?

The most likely outcome in that scenario would be a general election. But another option could be a national unity government bringing together MPs from across the political divide.

Such a situation is unusual in normal times – but quite common at times of national crisis. In the last century, we had national unity governments during both world wars as well as the great depression.

The question then would be what Brexit policy such a government would pursue. It’s hard to see it getting any legitimacy unless it proposes a People’s Vote – either on May’s deal or on some variation that it negotiates.

Who would win an election?

If the Tories were tearing themselves to pieces, they wouldn’t be well placed to win an election. So Labour would probably win.

But that also depends on what Brexit policy Corbyn put in his manifesto – and whether Labour managed to stay united. He currently doesn’t have a credible policy. Labour’s jobs-first Brexit is just another fantasy.

The smart approach would be to promise a People’s Vote on whatever new deal Corbyn managed to negotiate. That would unite the Labour Party and win over lots of middleground voters.

What will Parliament do?

While the Tory psychodrama is playing out, MPs don’t have to twiddle their thumbs. Even if the government declares that the deal is still technically alive – avoiding the legal need for a vote on a Plan B in late January – Parliament can flex its muscles.

MPs can, in extremis, take control of the Parliamentary timetable to pass motions or even emergency legislation. For example, they could require the (caretaker) prime minister to ask the EU to extend the Article 50 timetable so there was time to hold a People’s Vote – something the EU has indicated it would be happy to do.

What will the people think?

The public must be aghast at all this infighting. But there’s a big silver lining in the cloud. They will realise that the whole Brexit process is turning into a horror story. That means it will be easier to make the case that a People’s Vote is the democratic choice – and then to win such a vote.

That is the hope sitting at the bottom of Pandora’s Box.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

5 Responses to “What happens if May is ousted?”

  • Let’s ,be optimistic and assume that a People’s Vote is agreed. One of the choices is likely to be “Remain”. This has all the attraction of cold porridge. If we want Remain to be selected then we had better start selling Remain, how we would operate in Remain and what we should change. The half-hearted involvement with the EU of the past, together with media lies, got us into this situation. We want to Remain, but we have to give the country a view of how we would change how we remain. For example, we could adopt immigration policies used by other EU members, instead of blaming he EU on our open-door policy. We need to offer those frustrated Brexiteers a positive future with Reman, not more of the same-old, same-old, which allowed clowns like Farage to speak in our name! Let’s get some positive stories out there about how Remaining allows us to address deals with the expanding third world, via the EU, the fact that we have UK judges sitting inside the ECJ and so on. We should not leave all the “positive” stories to Rees-Mogg and his Dad’s Army of Little Englanders.

  • If A50 were withdrawn we would be back to a level playing field and could rebuild a better Britain with normal trade back in place. A new referendum will offer an new opportunity for public opinion manipulators to pick up where they left off the last time. Aaron Banks has been exposed as a probable conduit of Russian funding but how many more like him are still lurking in the shadows? And the US far right has an interest in destabilising the EU as well. How will their support for a new Brexit be funnelled into the bank accounts of the manipulators?

    Cancel A50 and get our lives back where they belong. Working hard to rebuild the ruins left by the brexit blunder.

  • I would support that…but I am afraid that the media, together with help from our Russian friends, would have rioting on our streets. Rightly or wrongly millions of people would feel their vote had been ignored and feelings are already running high. If it were possible, I would go for your suggestion…and lets not forget totting up the bill for this fiasco and presenting it to David Davis and colleagues in “excruciating detail”.

  • One problem about May staying as PM (as personally I’m certain she will, is that People’s Vote supporters need to get it agreed that A50 deadline is extended a.s.a.p. Some people (I’m not accusing Hugo!) seem to think that ECJ’s Monday decision simply cleared the way for A People’s Vote. But that decision concerned rescinding not delaying.
    I think that the real Brextremists among Tories will again be shown up as a small minority today. Still, IF May falls, it’s likely to take time for the party of Government to have a leader, and, as Hugo says, very likely the leader will come to be a Brextremist, who, unlike May, want deadline extension (more chance to have a not manifestly disastrous version of No Deal). So no need for anxiety about time: May’s departure would ensure that it could easily be agreed an extension was needed.
    The problem then is that May stays, and her own delaying tactics (specifically postponing meaningful vote) are in danger of ensuring we can’t get the 27 other EU countries to agree to a deadline extension in time for Parliament to get the Govt to see that what’s needed is a People’s Vote.
    Perhaps someone knows whether all 27 will willingly agree to deadline extension, (Hugo says the EU could agree, but is it really known that each of the 27 would?), and knows how long it’ll take for the 27 to make their individual decisions, and thence a collective decision, on this.
    At a minimum, Parliament needs to start flexing its muscles VERY SOON, and not to wait until May tries (in vain as it will be) again to get them to vote for her deal.