Why next Tory leader may not become PM on Wednesday and could face early general election | Politics News
The arrival of the 77th prime minister on Wednesday will mark the first time in history the officeholder has been selected by a party membership rather than MPs or the wider electorate – and rarely has this transfer of power been marked by such uncertainty.
Fewer than 0.4% of the UK franchise – 160,000 Tory members drawn from the 46.8 million citizens eligible to vote in general elections – have been able to take part in a Tory leadership contest which also determines the next prime minister.
The winner of this contest will govern with a minority administration, with an unstable electoral pact with the DUP giving them a theoretical Commons majority on certain issues of three.
They must make the toughest political decisions since the Second World War, with national debt at levels not seen since the 1960s, urgent policy challenges in almost every brief and with 100 days until Britain is due to leave the European Union without a clear plan.
At 5pm today (Monday), voting will close on the leadership contest to succeed Theresa May and the announcement of the result will take place at 11am on Tuesday.
The transfer of power will then take place on Wednesday afternoon after Mrs May’s final prime minister’s questions, which is designed to confer authority on the new officeholder, look seamless and be executed without controversy.
The new prime minister is appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of their predecessor, before being driven to Downing Street to make their first remarks and then enter Number 10 for the first time as officeholder.
However a leading constitutional expert has told Sky News that the unique circumstances of this election may mean there is a chance, albeit remote, that the person who wins the contest on Tuesday may not become prime minister on Wednesday.
Also possible, though far from likely, is the chance they could be facing the likelihood of a general election within days.
Vernon Bogdanor, research professor at the Institute for Contemporary British History at King’s College London, said the circumstances of his appointment were both unprecedented and complicated.
“This is the first time in which the PM has been chosen by party members,” Prof Bogdanor said.
“There have been a number [of occasions] when the leader of the opposition has been chosen by members, but this is the PM.
“Some people have said this is wrong – why should 160,000 people chose the PM. However it’s fair to say this is a wider franchise than previous choices as PM, which were done by MPs only.”
Before the 1990s, members were not involved.
In 1976, Harold Wilson’s successor Jim Callaghan was chosen by a ballot of Labour MPs while in 1990, John Major was chosen to succeed Margaret Thatcher by a ballot of Conservative MPs.
Labour changed the rules to involve members in 1991, while the Tories did so in 1998.
However political circumstances conspired to ensure the two previous handovers in power without an election did not go to the members.
In 2007, Gordon Brown was the only Labour figure with sufficient nominations to qualify for the leadership and was automatically elected.
In 2016, Mrs May’s Tory opponent Andrea Leadsom withdrew before the contest went to the Tory membership.
This means the 2019 contest is the first to give the choice to the membership.
Prof Bogdanor said that this did not mean MPs had no role.
“MPs have indicated that either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt are acceptable,” he said. “MPs have had quite a large role.”
But Prof Bogdanor warned it was not constitutionally automatic that the winner of the members’ ballot on Tuesday would become prime minister on Wednesday.
He told Sky News: “The contest we’ve been seeing between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt is that for the Conservative Party – the largest party in parliament.
“Normally there are no problems. But in this case there is a problem – the Conservatives don’t have a majority, and even with allies DUP, [it’s a working majority of] just four.
“Even that needs to be qualified because some MPs have threatened they won’t continue accepting the whip if the new PM does not rule out a no-deal Brexit.
“So it by no means follows that the person elected, whether Boris or Jeremy, necessarily becomes PM.
“Enough MPs would have to say they were not prepared to serve under him.
“Suppose… just two or three Conservative MPs say that they will not support a Boris Johnson premiership. Presuming he wins, then fairly clearly he cannot command a majority. That’s the key test.
“The test for being the Conservative leader is to win the contest. The test for being PM is to be able to secure the confidence of parliament.”
When the winner of the contest goes to the Palace on Wednesday, the Queen will ask whether they have the confidence of parliament and can command a majority in the Commons.
The new PM could could admit they do not know and be given a chance to test the Commons.
The closest precedent for this was Alec Douglas-Home, who was recommended to the Queen as his successor in 1963, and was given a chance to see if he could form a government before being confirmed in post.
Mr Johnson could be given a chance to test the confidence of the Commons – a situation Prof Bogdanor called an “exploratory commission” – before it rises for the summer on Thursday if this was genuinely in doubt.
On Thursday, MPs will have one day to force Mr Johnson or Mr Hunt to hold a vote of confidence against their will.
If successful, this would start the process towards a general election, although possibly not until September.
Labour appear to be leaning against such a move, because of a precedent involving Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the parliamentary handbook Erskine May.
This was an occasion when Mr Harper survived a vote of no-confidence and used the episode to ask for parliament to be prorogued.
On entering Number 10, decisions will be demanded from the new prime minister immediately.
One of the first tasks is to write a note to the commanders of Britain’s nuclear submarines, which is to be opened in the event of a nuclear war, directing whether or not to retaliate on the aggressor.
The next, arguably harder, decision will be to appoint the cabinet.
The former director of communications for Sir John Major, Jonathan Haslam – one of the last civil servants to hold the post before it became a political appointment – said the combination of things demanded from the new PM was immense.
“I think the thing that catches most people out is the sheer weight of responsibility,” he said.
“There will be a knock on door of cabinet room – someone saying what will we do with our nuclear missiles – that’s pretty sobering.
“There is the realisation that problems stop on your desk, not solutions. But they’re very keen to move the problems to your in tray, not the other way round.
“One of the first problems you will encounter as a new prime minister is making a cabinet.
“Almost immediately some people are going to be disappointed. If you have a majority of only three, you want as few disappointed people as possible. How do you smooth them over?”