Tony Grew: One of the starkest ever challenges faced by a new PM awaits Hunt or Johnson

Posted On: 
11th July 2019

The future prime minister has the unenviable task of producing a Brexit plan that satisfies the likes of the DUP, the Spartans and the One Nationers, writes Tony Grew

Johnson and Hunt debate
Credit: 
PA Images

Time flies when you are in the midst of a constitutional crisis. As recess approaches there is still no clarity as to what will happen when the new prime minister is announced. The SNP are calling for him to be confirmed by a Commons vote, and that is certainly possible in the short time available. The new PM could come to the House on Thursday 25th July to make a statement, or if he was so minded could table a motion expressing confidence in his new administration. The opposition seem less keen on a no confidence motion on what would be the new PM's first full day in the job, preferring to wait until they have a better chance of success.

In any case, the new leader should have five weeks to start his renegotiations with the EU, August, of course, being the optimum time to try to engage our European partners. When the House returns in September, MPs will be anxious to know what progress has been made. There is talk of the conference recess being cancelled this year, though the conferences themselves would most likely go ahead.

There is a more general argument to be had about the efficacy of the conference recess. Is it really necessary for the House to suspend its sittings for three weeks just so that a minority of MPs can attend a party event? The SNP have cause to complain that the recess covers the Lib Dem conference but not their own. What may have seemed completely normal a decade ago is in danger of appearing arcane today.

In any case, the new PM will be expected to come to the House in September having made some progress on Brexit negotiations. If that prime minister is Boris Johnson, he will face a somewhat hostile reception from some on his own benches. New backbenchers Theresa May, Philip Hammond and David Gauke, for example, have made very clear their determination to prevent a no deal outcome.

Boris Johnson has repeatedly guaranteed the UK will leave the EU on 31st October, "do or die". He must have something to show from his renegotiations, because both time and the goodwill of his colleagues will be in short supply when the House returns. The ERG were a key factor in the downfall of Mrs May, the so-called Spartans blocking the path to her painstakingly negotiated deal. The One Nation faction could prove to be just as disruptive to Mr Johnson's premiership, should he keep to his word and attempt to lead the UK towards a no deal exit.

A new PM and a new administration is a time for renewed hope. MPs, at least from his own party, owe it to him to have time to forge his own path and set his own strategy.  More than 50% of them backed his leadership and it looks likely his mandate from party members will be overwhelming. There will be inevitable disappointment for some of his backers that were overlooked for ministerial office. There will be egos to be massaged.

The challenge facing the new PM is one of the starkest ever faced by a new incumbent. One candidate offers pragmatism, the other hope. Boris Johnson's contention is that once the Europeans see how serious we are about no deal, they will agree to new terms. We won't have long to wait to find out if that is true.

Apart from Brexit, the new premier will have to think about when to have a Queen's Speech, which will set out his legislative agenda for the coming year. The confidence and supply agreement with the DUP will have to be renegotiated and secured before that will happen. Both candidates have promised extra spending, bringing to a definitive end to the era of austerity. Yet all of this hangs on the outcome of Brexit, which must satisfy the DUP, the Spartans and the One Nationers.

The ultimate weapon the prime minister wields is prorogation. It might be useful to remind readers that the P word is not unparliamentary. In fact, it is usually an annual occurrence, the mechanism by which a session ends in anticipation of a Queen's Speech. Its use explicitly to prevent the Commons from voting down government policy would be unusual and an act of desperation. The new government would be wise to avoid that mechanism.

Dissolution would be preferable, as a prorogued parliament is going to come back. If the polls of Tory party members are correct, we are about to enter a new era of optimism. Boris Johnson's pitch is that he can cheer Britain up. But it is not the country or even Conservative party members, who will ultimately decide if his premiership will soar or sink.

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Recess is nearly upon us, those glorious five weeks when the Commons’ hard-working staff can actually get things done without MPs clogging up the place. Many repair works are planned for this summer, something overlooked by those misguided people who call pretty much every year for the break to be cancelled. Recess isn't just about MPs you see. Works that cannot be completed when the House is sitting or during the shorter recesses must be completed over the summer. With rumours of an autumn general election rife, this year MPs may be spending the summer leafleting their constituents rather than taking a long break.

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A word on recall. This is the mechanism by which the House of Commons can be reconvened during the recess. Although we will have a new government, they won't face parliamentary scrutiny until September. Only a minister of the Crown can request that the Speaker recall parliament. The Speaker can't do it himself, though he must decide whether any request is in the public interest. The last August recall was in 2013 when David Cameron wanted the House to discuss chemical weapons use in Syria. There have been 29 recalls since 1947. Let's hope we don't hit 30 this summer.