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Just six weeks into his premiership, Boris Johnson is running out of road – what happens now?

Laura Hutchinson, Head of UK Political Intelligence | Dods Monitoring

6 min read

Boris Johnson’s premiership has seen him become the first UK Prime Minister in history to lose their first three Commons votes in a row - Dods Monitoring's Laura Hutchinson looks back at the last week in politics, and considers the Prime Minister's next steps. 

It’s hard to believe Parliament only returned from summer recess four days ago. Boris Johnson’s premiership has seen him become the first UK Prime Minister in history to lose their first three Commons votes in a row and is running out of road just 6 weeks into his premiership. So, what exactly happened this week, and what next?

MPs take control of the order paper

The Commons returned on Tuesday and MPs immediately submitted an application for an emergency debate under the rules of Standing Order No 24. This, unsurprisingly, was accepted by the Speaker and submitted to the House who agreed it should be heard that same afternoon.

The real purpose of the emergency debate was not to allow time for MPs to express their disquiet at the recent acts of the Government, but instead to allow for a motion to be put to the House which would allow them to take control of the order paper. Traditionally motions under S024 are neutral motions – non-binding but allowing MPs to express an opinion.

Controversially but not unconstitutionally, the Speaker allowed MPs to table a substantive motion which suspended Standing Order 14 (the order that gives Government control over business) and set aside the following day to introduce a Bill designed to block no deal.

The motion passed, AYES 328 NOES 301, after over 20 Conservative MPs – including two former Chancellor’s – rebelled against their Government.

Conservative’s lose their majority

On Tuesday, During the Prime Minister’s second statement ever to the House of Commons, Dr Philip Lee – a former Minister in Theresa May’s Government – crossed the floor of the House and joined the Liberal Democrats, reducing the Government to a working majority of one.

Following Tuesday’s vote on the S024 motion, the Government embarked on a purge of all 21 MPs who had rebelled that day. Former Ministers, 2019 Tory leadership candidate and Churchill’s grandson all received phone calls or texts from their whips telling them they were no longer Conservative MPs.

This extraordinary move resulted in the Government’s number of MPs dropping from 310 to 289. The only Prime Minister in recent times to have fewer MPs was Ramsay McDonald in the 1920s.

The Government concluded the first day back by announcing they would table a motion under the Fixed Terms Parliament’s Act to call an early general election.

European Union (Withdrawal) (No 6) Bill clears the Commons

The next day, yes only one day had passed at this point, at 3pm (after the small matter of Boris Johnson’s first PMQs and the Chancellor’s Spending Round) MPs seized control over the order paper and introduced the European Union (Withdrawal) (No 6) Bill. The Bill, designed to pass through all Commons stages within a day, creates a legal mechanism which would compel the Prime Minister to request an extension to Article 50 on 19th October, unless either: Parliament had given their express consent for a no deal exit; or Parliament had ratified a Withdrawal Agreement.

The Government labelled it a “surrender” Bill, arguing it would result in the UK accepting any extension the EU offered and limited their ability to renegotiate by removing the threat of a no deal Brexit. However, supporters of the Bill stated it allowed time for a new Withdrawal Agreement to be reached if that was the Government’s position and merely protected against the threat of a no deal, unless a mandate could be shown for it. It cleared the Commons stages AYES 327 NOES 299.

Government defeated on motion to hold an early general election

Just before MPs were allowed to go home, they had the small matter of having to vote on the motion tabled by the Government under the Fixed Term Parliament Act to call for an early parliamentary general election.

Opposition parties unanimously agreed they would not vote for one until at least the anti no deal Bill had passed and would not vote for one on the Government’s terms. The motion failed to get the 2/3 majority needed under the FTPA and fell AYES 298 NOES 56, with a high number of abstentions.

Agreement in the Lords

Following its passage through the Commons, the European Union (Withdrawal) (No 6) Bill passed into the House of Lords, where supporters of the Bill were concerned it could be talked out by Conservative peers. However, in an unexpected development, Government Chief Whip in the Lords, Lord Ashton of Hyde, announced a cross party pact with Labour at 1:30am on Wednesday morning, stating that Conservative Peers would allow the Bill to clear the Lords by 5pm on Friday.

What next?

The parliamentary week ended with Boris Johnson’s own brother resigning from the Government, stating he was “torn between family and national interest,” and the Government are now tabling another motion for a General Election for next week when the European Union (Withdrawal) (No 6) Bill is very likely to reach Royal Assent.

The Bill has successfully boxed Johnson in. He will not be able to get Parliament to give consent to no deal and, whilst not unfeasible, a new deal with the EU that could pass the Commons by 19th October is very unlikely. So far, no breakthrough on negotiations are in sight, with the UK Government demanding the complete removal of the Irish backstop from the WA and the EU arguing that this would only be feasible if alternative arrangements that rendered it unnecessary were in place by 31st October. So far, no alternative arrangements have been identified.

It would be extremely damaging politically for Johnson if he was to request an extension to Article 50, but legally he may have no choice. Hence his desire to have an election on 15th October in the hope that he can get a mandate for exiting on 31st October and overturn the anti no deal legislation immediately.

An election this year is inevitable, but Labour are, for the aforementioned reasons, unlikely to vote for one to be held on the 15th October when the FTPA motion is moved next week. Johnson may try and bring forward legislation to overturn the FTPA requirement for a 2/3rds majority, but parliamentary arithmetic is not currently on his side.

If Labour can hold off until after 19th October, then Johnson will likely be forced into requesting an extension to A50 – leaving him very vulnerable to the insurgent Brexit Party – after which Labour can table a vote of no confidence in his Government. If he refuses to request an extension, then a legal challenge and VONC with the aim of establishing an interim alternative Government could ensue - making Boris Johnson the shortest serving Prime Minister in UK history.

Dods General Election coverage this year will cover briefings both pre, during and post-election. If you would like to hear more about how we help over 800 organisations navigate elections, please click here.

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