Will MPs bring down Boris Johnson’s government before it’s even a week old? That’s the question Jo Swinson is testing this morning. The new Liberal Democrat leader has tabled a motion of no confidence in the new Prime Minister, on which she is seeking Jeremy Corbyn’s support.
Of course, Swinson – and every opposition leader – knows that, for now, the answer to that question is no. Even those Tory MPs who have already more or less checked out of their party, like Dominic Grieve, have said that they are not yet at the stage where they will vote against Johnson in a confidence motion. The consensus among Conservative rebels is that the point of no return on no-deal is some way off yet, that Johnson deserves at least a little time, and that they have no need to move yet.
The Labour leadership knows this, too, which is why they haven’t responded to Johnson’s election with a confidence motion: they know they won’t win it, and to table one now would in their view risk galvanising the Prime Minister and strengthening his hand. And without Corbyn’s name on the motion, there is no guarantee of parliamentary time – instead, Swinson’s will languish on the order paper as a non-binding Early Day Motion, which will have precisely zero practical or political effect.
So why bother? The exercise is really a pretend challenge to Corbyn, rather than Johnson – and the Lib Dems are framing it as such in private and in public. In asking the Labour leader to support a proposition they know he will not support, the Lib Dems can make easy electoral hay by presenting him as the weaker voice of opposition on Brexit.
It is the sort of easy campaigning hit that the party has exploited before: in December, Vince Cable and the leaders of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Caroline Lucas attempted to amend Corbyn’s motion of no confidence in Theresa May as an individual to a motion of no confidence in the government. Then as now, it was primarily intended as a strategy to undermine Labour, rather than the government.
Is it essentially disingenuous? Yes – but we can expect Swinson to make much of the inevitable result.