Why the new PM should call a vote of confidence

Posted On: 
19th June 2019

Though it will be the Tory selectorate who will choose the next prime minister, Tony Grew has some words of advice for whoever ends up in No 10. Lesson number one: choose the right chief whip

Chief Whip Julian Smith. The next chief whip will need to be agile enough to craft ad hoc coalitions to keep the government’s Brexit agenda on track, writes Tony Grew
Credit: 
PA

The candidates for the Conservative leadership are jostling for votes from fellow MPs. The focus is inevitably on the race itself, on the personalities rather than their policy. The winner will become prime minister, the prize many of them have secretly coveted for decades. But will they know what to do with the job once they get it?

It’s a daunting prospect. The new prime minister will be expected to hit the ground running. Within a day of taking office they will be expected to have their cabinet in place. That will be followed by scores of junior ministerial appointments. In the days after a new government will take shape. There could be a new budget: at some point there will have to be a Queen’s Speech. Depending on the recess dates, the new PM could also face a confidence vote in the House of Commons within days of taking office. A new confidence and supply agreement with the DUP will also have to be negotiated. That’s quite an in-tray for any new leader, never mind one who will come to office in the midst of the worst crisis this country has faced since the second world war.

Each of these decisions – who to appoint as No.10 advisers, who will sit in cabinet and what positions they will occupy, which MPs will be given ministerial preferment – will set the tone for their administration. Any personnel mistakes at this stage have the potential to frustrate the new government’s agenda and stymie progress on their objectives.

Without a majority, the new administration’s relationship with parliament will be vital in whether or not they can make a success of it. Dr Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government (IfG) has produced a thoughtful guide, entitled Becoming Prime Minister – it is available on the IfG website. She notes that half of the UK’s since 1945 came to power while their party was in government. Dr Haddon sets out how being PM is “one of the hardest jobs to prepare for because of the breadth of the role, the scale of the workload, the varied pressures and the unexpected crises”.

Reading her guide to becoming the UK’s political leader, one has an increased sympathy for Theresa May. She may not be the most agile or talented politician, but she has managed to keep government functioning while the country faced an existential Brexit crisis. It is for Conservative MPs and members to judge which candidate from an absurdly crowded field will be best placed to carry out the role of prime minister, but here are some words of advice for whoever ends up in No.10 in July.

The most important role in your government will be chief whip. The party has no majority, and Brexit creates strange bedfellows. Your new chief whip would be wise to push for a confidence vote as soon as possible after the new government is formed. Remember, in the House of Commons the confidence motion is in Her Majesty’s government, not the individual who happens to be prime minister. Winning such a vote cements the government’s authority. You will win that vote.

While Labour say they want a general election, the independent MPs do not. Your new chief whip will have an unusual task. For your government to survive, he or she will have to spend as much time courting opposition MPs as his own flock. One of the lessons of the May premiership is that expecting the Tory party to unite on Europe is a Canute-like endeavour, always guaranteed to fail. Your new chief whip will have to impress on those 16 independents that they hold the government’s future in their hands.

The DUP’s 10 votes are, of course, of the highest importance, but so too are the votes of Labour Brexiteers. The previous administration was naive in thinking that locking in the DUP would solve its problems in a hung parliament. They have paid a heavy price for that naivety, both in terms of being literally held to ransom over domestic policy and in the way the Unionists blew up the Brexit negotiations when it looked like a deal had been reached to keep Northern Ireland in some EU structures.

The new chief whip will need to be agile enough to craft ad hoc coalitions to keep the government’s Brexit agenda on track. Every vote counts. Julian Smith has had a devil of a time as chief. He deserves both credit for his performance in an exhausting role, and a bit of a rest. There is of course the option of an early general election, but it would be a very brave prime minister who decides to go to the country while Brexit is still such a live issue. One or two of the leadership candidates might be brave. They might secure themselves a majority. It depends if the Tory selectorate decide they like a risk-taker.  

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Scott Mann has a reputation as one of the nicest and most relaxed MPs there is. His easy charm was on full display during an adjournment debate on Cornish wrestling. He explained that Cornwall’s population “dates back to the stone age and is steeped in history and lore”, not least “wrasslin” as it is called in his constituency. Minister Mims Davies’ default setting is over-excitable, but she was cautious at Mann’s suggestion they should wrassle sometime. “This is on my list to at least look at. I am not sure I am going to try it, but I will take a close look.” 

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We don’t hear as much from Ed Miliband in the chamber as we would like, but when he does contribute it’s always worth watching, not least for the sheer number of facial expressions he deploys. The former Labour leader was on magisterial form during a recent debate on the mineworkers’ pension scheme. He pressed minister Andrew Stephenson about “what he is going to do after the motion passes, because it calls for precisely such a review”, then treated us to a memorable performance of eye-rolling and generally disagreeing with the minister in the most emphatic non-verbal terms. A master of shade.