The next Speaker. Will MPs be guided by party or by prejudice?

The election of the Commons Speaker in 2009 saw party loyalty win out.  In simple terms, most of John Bercow’s 221 votes in the penultimate round came from Labour, who had won 355 seats in the 2005 general election.  Margaret Beckett, the other Labour MP in that round, won 70 votes.

George Young, who came second in the round, won 174 votes: the Conservatives had won 198 seats in 2005.  The figures for the final round also help to spotlight the position.  They were: Bercow 322, Young 271.  (In retrospect, the latter did very well in gaining what was evidently at least 50 or so non-Tory votes.)

So an important question about the election of Bercow’s successor is: will it also break down on Party lines?  After all, Labour MPs have propped him up in office, while most Tory MPs voted, in effect, to oust him in 2015.

As in 2009, that doesn’t necessarily suggest Tories voting for another Tory – the leading contenders from the blue corner perhaps being Eleanor Laing, a Deputy Speaker now, and Charles Walker.  Some Conservatives might plump for another of the deputy speakers, Lindsay Hoyle.

Labour MPs, though, are more likely to plump for another “one of their own” – be that Rosie Winterton, the party’s former Chief Whip, or Harriet Harman, “the mother of the House”.

All in all, party is less likely to win out than prejudice, to use the word in its broadest sense.  If MPs want a Continuity Bercow, they won’t vote for Hoyle, who would be more of an old-fashioned figure in the George Thomas mould.  If they do, Harman seems to be the most likely beneficiary.

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I’m a GNU. How do you do?

Let’s start by returning to the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.  Under its terms, a general election will not automatically follow if Boris Johnson’s Government is defeated in a vote of no confidence,   Instead, there will be a 14 days window in which to form a new administration.  If during these a putative one emerges, it will be subject to a vote of confidence.  Only if that fails will an election take place.

Now let’s look at the current Commons in that light.

It is by no means certain that the Prime Minister would lose a no confidence vote as matters stand.  This is because his opponents cannot be sure that enough Conservative backbenchers and opposition MPs would combine to force him out.  ConservativeHome will look more closely at the numbers later this week.

But if he did, the odds of him then losing a second Commons vote are longer.  To understand why, imagine the following.  Johnson loses a no confidence vote.  The Queen permits him to have a go at forming another government within the 14 day window.  Johnson’s defeat in the vote of confidence that follows would bring about an election, under the terms of the Fixed Terms Act, as described above.  Some MPs willing to oppose Johnson in the original vote of no confidence might therefore be willing to support him in the vote of confidence.  Why?  Because they don’t want to face the voters in a general election.

Of course, the Queen might not allow Johnson to have another go.  But that possibility makes our point in a different way.  The only other plausible Prime Ministerial candidate is Jeremy Corbyn.  And some MPs willing to oppose Johnson in that original vote of no confidence would be unlikely to support Corbyn in a vote of confidence.

In short, they might be willing to turn Johnson out, but not to put Corbyn in.  Again, this site will probe the numbers in detail later this week.

And Corbyn is the only other feasible Prime Ministerial candidate.  Take the talk of Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman as Prime Minister with not so much a pinch as a spoonful of salt.  The J.Alfred Prufrock MPs of the Tory benches aren’t going to back Harman.  And their Labour equivalents won’t support Clarke.  And since Conservative and Labour MPs together form a large majority in the Commons, either outcome lies at the very edge of possibility.

The so-called Government of National Unity or GNU – actually, a Government of National Disunity, since it would exclude all those who want Brexit now – looks like a wildebeest, in the manner of its namesake in the old Flanders and Swann song.  I’m a GNU.  How do you do?

For all these reasons, a no confidence vote will surely be a weapon of the last rather than the first resort for the Prime Minister’s opponents.  They would get a better return by seeking to pass a Bill compelling him to seek a further extension, aided and abetted by the Speaker.  Could anti-No Deal MPs draw up a legally watertight text?  Would Johnson seek an election if such a Bill looked likely to pass?  Would the Commons grant him one?  We may be about to find out.

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