The caretaker government question

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Should Britain’s opposition parties try to topple Boris Johnson in a vote of no confidence? This is a question that has been doing the rounds after the idea received strong backing from the Scottish National party at the weekend.

Opposition MPs are more enthusiastic than ever to get rid of the prime minister — fuelled perhaps by Mr Johnson’s growing travails. But this would be an unwise step for the opposition parties to take if they want to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

To explain: under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, a PM can be toppled if a straight majority of MPs vote against him or her in a vote of no confidence in the Commons. If that happens, a two-week period then opens up in which another person can try to form a governing majority.

If no majority can be found to support a new administration, the country goes to a general election.

Inside the Commons, there is a majority of MPs who might be keen to bring Mr Johnson down. This comprises all the opposition parties, plus some of the two dozen or so rebel Conservative MPs.

But there are three reasons why that same majority would not subsequently come together to endorse a new caretaker government.

First, the opposition parties would need to agree who the caretaker PM should be. They cannot. Labour insists the caretaker must be Jeremy Corbyn, and the SNP is prepared to back him. But the Conservative rebels and the Lib Dems refuse to endorse him, so there is stalemate.

Second, there is no clear understanding over what the purpose of this new caretaker government would be. True, its initial purpose would be to implement an Article 50 extension after the October 31 Brexit deadline and avert no deal. But what then? Should it negotiate a new Brexit pact? Should it hold an election or a referendum? All this has not really been worked through.

Third, it is not clear that a pressing need exists to replace Mr Johnson in order to avoid a no-deal Brexit on October 31.

Parliament has passed the so-called Benn Act to avoid no deal on October 31 and demand an extension. But while the Lib Dems fear the PM could somehow get round it, most legal analysts (see here) think the Benn Act is watertight and Mr Johnson can’t get dodge it.

As Dominic Grieve told the Today programme this morning: “In my view, the Act is good for its purpose. If the government did come up with some dodge, I believe we could counter it.”

So to sum up, toppling Mr Johnson now is risky. The risk is that the opposition removes him but cannot then secure a majority for a new caretaker government within the permitted two-week window. In that situation, Britain would end up holding an election across the October 31 deadline — risking no deal by accident.

It’s in the opposition parties’ interests to keep things as they are for now. They should assume there will be no pact signed with Brussels during the European Council on October 17-18; that there will be a three-month Article 50 extension; and that there will be a general election in November.

Further reading

© Efi Chalikopoulou

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