We may all be in for a big shock next Wednesday. Theresa May will “not necessarily” resign as Prime Minister, regardless of Tuesday’s result of the Conservative leadership election. Nor will the Queen “necessarily” have to invite the newly elected Conservative leader to kiss hands as Mrs May’s successor.
This, at least, is the recently published argument of one of the country’s most influential constitutional experts, Professor Robert Hazell of The Constitution Unit at University College London.
However far-fetched it may seem, the recommendation is too dangerous to ignore. It would cause needless chaos at a time of other uncertainties. It would ensnare the Monarch in party politics. Under the guise of following established UK constitutional practice, it would involve drastically altering it.
In normal times, we’d be able to disregard the intellectual chess games of my fellow constitutional experts. But it was academic lobbying of the then Cabinet Secretary that led in 2010 to the controversial “Five Days in May”. After his defeat in the general election, Labour PM Gordon Brown was persuaded to squat in Downing Street to allow coalition negotiations orchestrated by teams of civil servants. Brown’s delayed resignation allowed the Liberal Democrats to conduct an auction of promises by Labour and the Conservatives. The needless concessions to Team Clegg made by David Cameron under this procedure, formulated largely by Hazell, were to condition the entire Cameron premiership.
Moreover, the idea that Mrs May should remain in Downing Street next Wednesday – a replay under different conditions of 2010 – is likely to be only the first of a series of procedural improvised explosive devices to be placed in the path of the new Conservative leader.
Here is what Professor Hazell has published with Professor Meg Russell:
Will the new leader of the Conservative Party be appointed Prime Minister?
… Not necessarily. If there is serious doubt about the new Prime Minister commanding parliamentary confidence the Queen might make a provisional appointment, conditional on the new PM demonstrating confidence. Alternatively, Theresa May could remain in place and facilitate a process in parliament to demonstrate that the winning candidate – or indeed an alternative candidate – can win a confidence vote, before recommending that person to the Queen.
Thankfully, former First Parliamentary Counsel Sir Stephen Laws and his co-authors have comprehensively demolished this argument in a brief published by Policy Exchange. The key point: if the House of Commons wishes to vote down Mrs May’s successor, it is able to do so at any time in a Vote of No Confidence. So, even in view of the rumblings of rebel Tory MPs disturbed by the prospect of a No Deal Brexit, there is no compelling reason Mrs May’s Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill to advise the Queen against summoning the winner of the Conservative Party’s leadership election to kiss hands as the new premier. If the prime ministerial succession takes place next Wednesday afternoon as scheduled, the House of Commons could even have a Vote of No Confidence on Thursday before MPs depart for the summer recess. In fact, the incoming administration – probably under Boris Johnson – may well welcome such a vote as a way to clear the air. Hazell’s suggestion that the prime ministerial succession should be delayed while MPs conducted a series of “indicative” votes to establish relative support for the newly elected Conservative leader and, in his words, “indeed an alternative candidate” in a future confidence vote is a clumsy, needless recipe for chaos.
Given the febrile political atmosphere, it is hard to anticipate the manoevres, plots and crises of the coming days.
At present, sources indicate to me that Mrs May will answer Prime Ministers Questions for the last time at noon on Wednesday, will announce her resignation in front of Number 10 in mid afternoon and will then drive to Buckingham Palace to resign. Within minutes the new Conservative leader will make the same drive and then return to Downing Street as the new premier.
Any other outcome would be a scandal.