Boris Johnson was appointed Prime Minister after his predecessor, Theresa May, told the Queen he commanded the confidence of the House of Commons – despite the fact that no more than a quarter of MPs had demonstrated support for him, and despite the fact many members of Parliament, even among his own party, openly regarded him as manifestly unfit for the position. MPs’ support being taken for granted in this way undermines public respect not just for Parliament, but also for our whole system of government.
His opponents in Parliament are now busy trying to agree on someone else to take over. But, instead of trying to find someone acceptable to a majority of the whole House, opposition party leaders are apparently trying to stitch up a back-room deal that will command near universal support among the anti-no-deal camp. They’re doing this because, unless they’re completely sure someone else can command the support of the Commons, tabling a no-confidence motion would risk triggering a general election, at a critical time. It’s not a sensible way to choose a new Prime Minister.
In a mature society, there’s no reason why the Prime Minister has to be a party leader, or even a member of the largest party – a party leader, in fact, will almost certainly find it harder to command the respect of the whole House than someone who is closer to the political centre-ground. What matters is that whoever has the job of forming a government should be respected across the whole House, and trusted to act in the best interests of the country as a whole.
It may be that there is nobody in the whole of the House of Commons who fits that description, in which case the country does urgently need an opportunity to elect new representatives. But that should be a last resort. Before inflicting an election on the country, Parliament should make every effort to find someone suitable to take up the reins of government; it must look beyond factional leaders, and the decision should be taken by all MPs, not just those in an anti-no-deal coalition.
To my mind, the simplest way of finding out who could command sufficient support would be through the time-honoured method of holding a competitive vote: a secret ballot of MPs, using a voting system that maximises their ability to clearly demonstrate who would have their support (in order of preference) and offers a general election as a default final choice. This would allow a new PM to be found, but it would also allow the incumbent to continue in office if MPs consider that a better option than an immediate general election.
I don’t think this would need new legislation, because it is essentially an internal matter for the House of Commons. It would need a little bit of work agreeing the procedural rules, but it could be done quite quickly. It would be so much better than MPs groping in the dark, the way they are now.
I’ve started a parliamentary petition asking for this: Require Parliamentary approval for appointment or removal of the PM. Please sign and share!