Kenneth Clarke really could be prime minister in two months’ time. We have hardly begun to work out the weird scenarios that could play out in parliament after it reconvenes on 3 September – and a temporary prime minister presiding over a general election before the end of the year is more likely than people think.
Two MPs who have spent August thinking hard about what might happen are Caroline Lucas, of the Greens, and Nick Boles, the former Conservative. They both want to stop Britain leaving the EU without a deal which, despite polite words from Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron about an “amended” deal, still seems the likely destination of Boris Johnson’s policy.
One way of stopping, or at least postponing, a no-deal Brexit would be for the House of Commons to depose Johnson and install a caretaker prime minister, who would ask the EU for an extension and organise an election.
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This is a drastic option, and it is unlikely that enough Tory opponents of no-deal will support it, especially if Jeremy Corbyn continues to insist that the temporary prime minister should be him.
Hence Lucas’s tactful response to the Labour leader, saying she is prepared to support him, “but if he cannot gain the support of a sufficient number of colleagues across parliament, I hope he will be prepared to back another MP from his party, or another, who can”.
She at least understands that Corbyn’s cooperation is needed for this scheme, and that friendly persuasion is more likely to succeed than partisan confrontation. But I suspect that even her sweet reasonableness won’t persuade Corbyn to vote for Clarke, who is after all a Tory, or for Harriet Harman, who is after all a Blairite.
It has to be remembered that Corbyn is not afraid of a no-deal Brexit. He is afraid only of being blamed for it by Labour members. If it happened and he could say the Tories did it, and could blame them for anything bad that happened afterwards, he would benefit politically.
So I don’t think this plan is going to work. Why, then, do I think Clarke could be prime minister? Because that is where the other scheme to stop no deal might end up. Let us follow through the logic of Nick Boles’s letter to Corbyn on Thursday.
He explained how the opponents of no deal could take control of the Commons timetable to pass a law requiring the prime minister to accept an offer of a Brexit extension from the EU. If EU leaders cooperate – and that’s an important “if” – this could work.
But Johnson can see it coming. Boles says: “We need to be ready for the government’s inevitable response.” If a bill to stop no deal looked like succeeding, Johnson would try to force a general election.
He could try to secure the votes of two thirds of MPs, as required for an early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. But opposition MPs are not going to vote for that, because it would mean Britain leaving the EU on 31 October, without a deal, in the middle of an election campaign while parliament is dissolved.
Boles suggests Johnson might try to pass a motion of no confidence in his own government, because that would force an election after a 14-day period if no alternative government is formed. But that bizarre tactic wouldn’t work, for the same reason. If it meant a no-deal exit during an election campaign, a majority of MPs would oppose it.
It would work only if the opposition parties and Tory rebels had already agreed to back Clarke (or Harman) as a temporary prime minister, so we would be back to Lucas’s plan A.
Johnson could try to suspend parliament, but not even Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s fierce adviser, seems to be suggesting it. I have no doubt that John Bercow, the speaker, would insist that the Commons sit long enough to pass an emergency law to prevent it.
I had thought that, if it looked as if a bill to stop no deal was about to receive the royal assent, Johnson would reluctantly go along with it and agree an extension with the EU before asking for an election. Once Brexit had been postponed again, lifting the threat of no deal, MPs would vote for an early election, and Johnson could fight it on the side of “the people” against a parliament that had thwarted Brexit.
But that would be dangerous for him, and leave him wide open to attack by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Once again a prime minister would have gone back on their word to get us out by the deadline.
So it is more likely that Johnson would simply resign. The convention is that he should advise the Queen whom to invite to try to form a government. But he might refuse to do so, saying simply that he thinks there should be an election, whatever the Fixed-term Parliaments Act says. He would then fight the election as an outsider rather than as prime minister.
A caretaker prime minister could not be avoided in such a situation. If there were a vacancy it would have to be filled somehow.
Of course, it is possible that there will be a last-moment agreement with the EU. Or that EU leaders will have had enough and will refuse to cooperate with the anti-no-dealers by offering a simple extension while we fight a general election. Or that Tory rebels will fail to vote in sufficient numbers for an anti-no-deal bill.
But otherwise, it seems surprisingly likely that for Kenneth Clarke, 79, former home secretary, chancellor and three-time Tory leadership candidate, this could be his moment.