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22 October 2022

How to trigger a general election if Boris Johnson returns as prime minister

Labour and the Lib Dems should promise Tory rebels that they won’t stand against them if they vote for an early election.

By David Gauke

Imagine that you are a Conservative MP who considers that Boris Johnson is not fit to be prime minister. You might have voted against him in the vote of no confidence in June as an MP (as 148 did) or as a minister or parliamentary private secretary (more than 60 did). You have watched in astonishment as a minority of colleagues have put his name forward to the party membership who have then voted to make him party leader and prime minister. You know he is ill-suited to high office, especially at a time of financial turmoil. The markets know the same.

What can you do? You could resign the whip, support a motion of no confidence and end your parliamentary career. Some of your colleagues are doing just that but there are not enough to make the difference. It is no small thing to end your parliamentary career – you have a supposedly safe seat and had assumed that you would continue for many years serving your constituents. Your party may have gone mad but you haven’t. Does this mean you have to give it all up?

Meanwhile, the opposition parties look on in frustration. A general election will deliver a thumping Labour majority but that general election is two years away. You can harry and humiliate but you remain in opposition. What to do?

Here is an idea. It has its flaws and it is certainly not conventional but perhaps if you were Keir Starmer or Ed Davey, you could say something like this:

“It is absurd that the Conservative Party has put into the highest office Boris Johnson, a man wholly unsuitable for the task who was removed by his own ministers only three months ago. This demonstrates that not only the Prime Minister but the Conservative Party is unfit for office. A general election is needed and it is needed now. What is remarkable, it is very clear, is that many Conservative MPs agree.

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“This is a time of national emergency. It is time for all right-thinking people, of whatever political tradition, to come together. I know that there are Conservative MPs who know what their patriotic duty is. But the price they would have to pay is very high. I understand that and I respect the dilemma they face. So let me say this. We recognise that we do not agree with you on many things but on the character of the Prime Minister and the need for a new government, we do agree. And, in that context, let me make this bold and generous offer.  Join us in the lobbies today, and we will not stand against you at the next general election if you run as an independent. This is not an offer I can extend to you if you have a majority of less than [10,000] and I know that some of my colleagues will not approve. But the national interest demands that we have a change of government now and for all of us must put the national interest first.”

Of course, anyone running as an independent would face a Conservative challenger but, in the current circumstances, that would not be too intimidating a prospect.

I floated this idea on Twitter. Some argued that Labour is going to win the election, it doesn’t need to do it. True, but there won’t be an election until 2024 unless there are a surprising number of resignations. One Labour MP said “we don’t stand down for Tories”. True, but opposition tribalism is probably helping the Conservatives hold together, in a manner of speaking. The absence of effort from the Liberal Democrats, in particular, to split the Tories is always a bit mystifying.

I suspect nothing will come from it. Personally, I do not think a change of party leader requires a general election, and in the current circumstances I would much rather the Tories elected a decent leader and prioritised putting the public finances on a sustainable footing and calming the markets. But if I was a Conservative MP considering voting for Johnson (an imaginative stretch, I concede), I would worry that an adroit move by the opposition parties could bring matters crashing down very quickly indeed.

[See also: There is no mandate for austerity 2.0 – we need a general election now]

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