No Confidence Leading to Caretakers
Among the main options available to anti-Brexit lawmakers and the opposition is to pass a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s government. Were the prime minister to lose, then the parliamentary arithmetic would be vital to deciding what happens.
Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which outlines the government’s next steps if a no-confidence-vote motion is passed, the government would grind to a halt for 14 days, during which it would fall on the leader of the opposition—in this case, Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn—to try to form a government.
This wouldn’t be easy. Corbyn would need the support of a host of smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, the Green Party, and the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru—all of which, like Labour, oppose Britain leaving the EU without a deal. None of these groups has ruled out establishing a temporary unity government to prevent a no-deal exit by requesting more time to negotiate.
But not all of them are keen on putting Corbyn, who is popular with his party’s base but attracts skepticism among the wider public, in charge. In a letter to the Labour leader this week, Liberal Democrat Leader Jo Swinson warned that putting Corbyn in Downing Street would alienate lawmakers who oppose a no-deal Brexit, and urged him to consider nominating an alternative leader, such as the longtime Conservative lawmaker Ken Clarke or the longtime Labour lawmaker Harriet Harman. Since the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act doesn’t stipulate who should lead a temporary government—only that they be able to command confidence in the House of Commons—this would be possible. (If 14 days pass and no government of national unity is formed, it then falls back to Johnson to call for an election.)
A government of national unity—even an explicitly temporary one—is extremely rare. “The last time it was done was in 1940, when there was a coalition formed in order to fight the Second World War,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, told us. Whether the prospects of preventing a no-deal Brexit can overcome party politics is still unclear.
A Fall Election
In a second scenario, either Parliament or the courts manage to bind Johnson’s hands, preventing him from pursuing a no-deal Brexit. Unable to chart his own course, the prime minister could, then, trigger an election.
Lawmakers have limited time and few constitutional means to do this, though.
They could, for example, pass a law that would bind the government to ensure that it does not exit the EU without a deal and, if a deal cannot be agreed on, give Parliament another opportunity to decide what to do next. Under the British constitution—unwritten, but codified in various documents and through centuries of precedent—all government ministers are bound by the law. The prime minister is not above the law.