With the election of a hard-Brexit supporting Tory leader, the question arises as to whether he will be able to form a government and how long it will last. In particular Johnson has refused to rule out a No Deal Brexit by 31 October and certain of his party have said that in that case they would vote to bring his government down.
Two constitutionalists have said that he might even be unable to form a government as and when he wins the Tory leadership contest. The current Prime Minister (PM), Theresa May has the job of recommending to the Queen who is suitable as her replacement and in the current situation it is possible that she might be unable to recommend her elected replacement as Tory party leader.
They need to have the confidence of the House
The fundamental problem is that he may not have enough votes in Parliament to “command the confidence of the House”, in other words a majority, if these Tory pro-Remain moderates keep to their word. The Tories are already in a minority and have relied on the support of the Northern Irish DUP for their “confidence and supply” support, ie that the DUP support the government in confidence and budget questions. The renewal of this support is not a foregone conclusion. However, potential rebellion by Tory moderates opposed to a No Deal Brexit could cancel out this support.
In the forming of a government in minority situations, the Queen has to play a crucial role. For a non-partisan role, it is the closest she gets to involvement in political matters.
The role of the Queen
Under the British unwritten constitution the role of the UK monarch is to work to help politicians to form a government. The rule of thumb is confidence of the House. She would need to find someone who can form a government and govern. If that person cannot command confidence, she would need to try other people. The rule of thumb is then usually the leader of the next largest party, and so on. In the past this has often meant the formation of a coalition government or the calling of a general election.
The position is complicated by the recent Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011), by which if a prospective leader loses a Vote of No Confidence (VNC), there are 14 days in which some other configuration can be contrived by Her Majesty and advisors, after which a general election would have to take place.
How long could a government last?
While it is tempting for some to think that Johnson (or Hunt) will be unable from the start to form a government, I would think the likelihood is that he will be invited to try to form a government that has the confidence of the House. This is because the Tories would probably temporarily support him as they are terrified of Jeremy Corbyn and they would be under massive party pressure to let him try to get a deal. If he fails to get an agreement with the EU, as seems highly likely, and if he tries to go down the No Deal route, we would get to the VNC situation and under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, there would be time to form an alternative government. The Queen could be involved at that stage, as would the EU since time would be very short and an extension would be needed (which they have hinted might be possible). Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t be able to form a government, as stated, and it could be that a temporary government would be formed while a General Election and even a 2nd Referendum are held.
A huge test for British democracy
The Queen’s role is to find someone who can be a PM and govern. She is strictly apolitical, a role that has been followed since Queen Victoria, and her actual views are not known. Needless to day, this could be a huge crisis which would test British democracy to its limits. Remember that Parliament has said ‘no’ to No Deal and moderate Tories are willing to bring an extreme Tory government down. These situations are usually resolved by elections. In all this, people will have to be very alert to far-right wing authoritarians since to get Brexit, an extreme situation can produce extreme behaviour. While populism of the Farage variety has not yet produced authoritarian proposals as such, the threat to rule with Parliament prorogued, or to allow a No Deal Brexit to occur without the consent of Parliament, which have been made by Johnson and Rabb, would in effect be putting democracy on hold. If that isn’t authoritarianism, I don’t know what is.
As has been stated numerous times in this blog, British democracy is on the line.