Nine ways Theresa May could leave office

The way into, and out of, 10 Downing Street. From its official Flickr account, under licence CC BY 2.0.

Process matters. Just ask Jeremy Corbyn — without the change from an electoral college to one member one vote, it’s doubtful he could have won the leadership of the Labour Party. For that matter, ask the MPs who ‘loaned’ him their nomination to get on the ballot and then protested their regret at playing fast and loose with a process that was intended to keep fringe candidates out of such contests. Without those processes and how politicians chose to operate them, would Labour have achieved the same general election showing as it managed in 2017? If not, would it have done better or worse? Process can determine a lot.

So, while there is much talk of the government ‘falling’ and Theresa May having only a short time as Prime Minister ahead of her, the processes by which a PM might leave office obviously matter. For all the reports of EU member states expecting the British government to collapse or Mrs May to be forced from office, collapsing is something that British governments tend not to do, and being forced from office is something that tends not to happen to British Prime Ministers. In some European states however, both are much more common — because processes exist that make them more readily possible. This article therefore looks at how British Prime Ministers can leave office, and also briefly considers how current politics might map onto those processes. It will be clear by the end that Mrs May and her government could stagger on for quite a long time unless there is a crisis of one of only a few specific types.

1) Illness and/or death
It might most accurately be said that Prime Ministers either die or resign, and every non-fatal form of departure from office is just a variation on the latter of those two. There isn’t really any formal mechanism for sacking a Prime Minister — if they’re still alive, they have to resign in order to leave office. Still, whatever one thinks of Mrs May, no doubt everyone hopes that death is the very least likely scenario for her departure from office (though one recalls Adam Boulton’s sensationalistic speculation on seeing the lectern outside Number Ten without the governmental crest in April this year that if the announcement was not an election, the most likely nature of the announcement was to do with a health problem for Mrs May — tasteless and crass, but not inaccurate).

No PM has died in office since Lord Palmerston in 1865, but death or serious illness in high office, or even the highest, is not as remote a phenomenon as that suggests. Several PMs stepped down due to ill health during the twentieth century, some being very near the end of their lives: Campbell-Bannerman died in 10 Downing Street while making new living arrangements following his retirement through ill health in 1908; and Bonar Law stepped down on his diagnosis with terminal cancer in 1923. There are plenty of examples of other holders of high office dying in the saddle. Iain Macleod died in 11 Downing Street only a month after being appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1970, and much more recently Donald Dewar died while in office as First Minister of Scotland.

In the event of Mrs May’s death or sudden indisposition due to serious illness, there would obviously not be time to hold a leadership contest to find her successor. Rather, the Queen would have to send for someone else to form a government, either on Mrs May’s advice if she is at all able to give it, or based on who appears most obviously to be her deputy (contradicting myself slightly, if a PM is thoroughly indisposed due to illness and can’t actually resign, but hasn’t actually died, I suppose the Queen must technically dismiss them before appointing someone else — but I don’t believe there’s any other circumstance in which a PM would actually be dismissed; perhaps a more dignified form of words such as “the Queen notes the Prime Minister is unable to continue in office” would be used in such a scenario).

In recent years the title of First Secretary of State has become used to denote who this deputy would be, and at the time of writing the office is held by noted Half Man Half Biscuit fan Damian Green. (If there is a Labour government, in this scenario the elected Deputy Leader automatically becomes Leader and would be invited to be PM, although Labour First Secretaries of State have been created, separately from the office of Deputy Leader — presumably the party’s constitution would dictate that the Deputy Leader gets the nod over the First Secretary.) One would then expect a leadership contest to be held, and the winner of that, if different, to be invited to form a government, potentially leaving the previous appointee as a short-lived ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister. In fact, no PM has ever had such a brief time in office in this manner — the shortest serving PM to date has been George Canning, whose four months in post (also curtailed by his death) is probably a smidge longer than any modern caretaker PM would serve while a leadership contest is held.

2) Planned resignation and handover
On the assumption that Mrs May’s departure through death or illness is the very least likely scenario, let’s move into the different variations on resignation, starting at the less likely end of things. Probably the least likely form of resignation, unfortunately for Mrs May, is that she serves a ‘full’ term as Prime Minister, however she judges that, then chooses an appropriate moment to step down and trigger a contest for the election of a new leader of the Conservative Party. When that election has been held, Mrs May will visit the Queen, resign as Prime Minister and advise the Queen to invite the newly elected party leader to form a government. The chances of such an orderly handover, presumably after Mrs May has had a decent length of time in office, currently seem slim. But she could perhaps hand over after our exit from the EU in March 2019, depending on exactly how that pans out. For an earlier departure, one of the things below would have to happen.

3) Loss of a formal vote of confidence among Conservative MPs
This process for a Conservative leader leaving office is attracting much attention in the media at present, and probably with good reason — it is not wholly implausible to think that Mrs May might be defenestrated by this mechanism. The rules of the Conservative Party dictate that if 15% of its MPs write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee to express a loss of confidence in the leader, a formal vote of confidence must be held. If the leader loses it, a leadership contest is held, in which the defeated leader may not participate. Iain Duncan Smith lost the leadership after a confidence vote was triggered in this way.

These rules were brought in by William Hague when he was leader, and they preclude a leader from submitting themselves to the party’s membership for a renewed mandate as John Major did in 1995 (albeit to MPs not party members as a whole, in line with the rules at the time), and also preclude another MP declaring their candidature and forcing a contest as Michael Heseltine did in 1990. Currently 15% of Conservative MPs amounts to 48, hence this number being much discussed in the media. Labour have no such mechanism for their leader to be removed by MPs alone — otherwise the vote by the Parliamentary Labour Party that it did not have confidence in Jeremy Corbyn in 2016 would have ended his leadership — but MPs can trigger a leadership contest in which the leader may participate.

In the event of Mrs May being obliged to resign in this way, one would expect the same drill to be followed as in process (1): a leadership contest would be held, and Mrs May would step down as PM when her successor as leader had been elected. As this effectively requires a run-in period of at least a couple of months to get a new leader in place, it can’t sensibly be used in a pressing crisis — Mrs May would not actually leave office immediately.

4) Loss of confidence among the Cabinet
This is — sort of — the route by which Thatcher was forced out, although it was slightly distorted by the leadership contest that was going on at the time. Thatcher’s Cabinet advised her in individual meetings that they felt she would not win the upcoming second ballot of the leadership contest, although most — but not all — pledged their individual support to her, no doubt with varying degrees of sincerity.

A similar scenario for Mrs May might involve Cabinet ministers advising her that she does not enjoy the confidence of the Cabinet (but not, necessarily, that she does not enjoy their own confidence individually — a Cabinet minister saying as much to a Prime Minister really has to resign there and then). This would prompt her resignation and a leadership contest as above. For this to happen, circumstances would have to be such that Mrs May’s position is politically untenable: she might consult colleagues in order to weigh this up; or she might be unwilling to acknowledge it and the Cabinet might be obliged to point it out. The advice might take the form of saying that Mrs May would be unlikely to win a confidence ballot among MPs — the same form, effectively, as the advice given to Thatcher to tell her to go. Again, this won’t be any use in a pressing crisis in which a new Prime Minister is required immediately.

5) Loss of the confidence of the House of Commons
The business of confidence votes is now somewhat bound up with the circumstances in which a general election can be forced, but not entirely. Let’s look at plain old confidence votes first. Very simply, it’s the convention (and therefore, in our uncodified constitution, rule) that the Prime Minister must enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons. If they clearly do not, they must resign.

A vote of confidence may be formally tabled, or the government can let it be known that a vote on a specific issue represents a vote of confidence (as John Major did to get the Maastricht Treaty through the Commons) — this means that any government MP voting against the government knows that if the vote is lost, the government will resign.

The loss of a formal vote of confidence triggers the workings of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, of which more in a moment. But what’s not entirely clear is whether the loss of a confidence vote of the second variety — a vote on an issue of substance, which the government lets it be known it considers a confidence vote — would trigger the start of the two week clock under the FTPA — there are plenty of commentators who argue that it would not (which is plausible), and that therefore only a formally tabled vote of confidence now represents a vote of confidence of any sort. The latter assertion is clearly not true — Mrs May could still stake her premiership (and her entire government’s existence) on surviving a particular vote, irrespective of whether the FTPA would become engaged. In that circumstance, she would have to resign immediately and advise the Queen to invite the Leader of the Opposition to form a government. This is unlike a vote of confidence in the party leader, where only the person of the Prime Minister (as party leader) is at issue; when the whole House votes on an issue of confidence, it is voting on the government in toto. (Technically individual secretaries of state can lose the confidence of the Commons without bringing down the government, but that’s not what we’re talking about here — plus William Hague’s non-resignation after the loss of the Syria vote suggests this mechanism may effectively have vanished anyway.)

It would also be possible for Mrs May to win a vote of confidence (of either sort) but for the margin to be unconvincing, to the extent that she feels politically obliged to resign, even though no such formal obligation exists. This is what happened to Neville Chamberlain.

A further variation on this might be for the DUP confidence and supply deal to end. If this happens, it may become obvious that the government does not enjoy the confidence of the Commons, particularly if the DUP indicate that they would support a Corbyn government in a confidence vote (hard though this might be to imagine). In this situation, Mrs May might not put the issue to a formal division in the Commons, but instead resign and advise the Queen to invite Jeremy Corbyn to form a government. This is, in concept, not dissimilar to what happened to Lloyd George in 1922: effectively, an arrangement between two parties collapsed and it was therefore obvious that the Prime Minister’s position was untenable.

6) Defeat in a general election
This is the ‘normal’ route for Prime Ministers to leave by. In this scenario, after a general election if it is clear that the PM does not have a majority in the Commons, they resign and advise the Queen to invite the Leader of the Opposition to form a government.

In addition to the convention (rule) that a PM must resign if they no longer enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons, there is a further convention that the PM must not resign unless and until it is clear who they should advise the Queen to invite to succeed them, that person being whoever has the best chance of commanding the confidence of the Commons. Hence Gordon Brown remained in office until it was clear the Lib Dems would not support Labour to remain in office, but before they had agreed to enter a coalition with the Conservatives — by that point, it was clear that Brown did not have the confidence of the Commons, and that the only person who feasibly could was David Cameron, whether in a formal coalition arrangement or otherwise. Hence also Mrs May had first crack at securing a working Commons majority after the 2017 election, and was entitled to remain in office unless and until it became clear that the Commons did not have confidence in her, but would probably have confidence in somebody else — which, in the end, wasn’t the case.

If the election result is especially tight (ie there’s a hung parliament with particularly awkward arithmetic), a formal vote in the Commons — either simply a vote of confidence, or a vote on the Queen’s Speech which is by convention a vote of confidence — might have to be held, but most of the time the politics will be more clear cut than that.

Of course, for Mrs May to leave office in this manner, there would have to be another election. So, much as I’ve tried to put it off, this is where we have to consider the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, under which the loss by the government of a vote of confidence triggers a two-week countdown, after which either a new government must be in place and win another formal confidence vote, or Parliament is automatically dissolved.

The interaction of these terms with the two conventions noted above is unclear and has yet to be put to the test: if Mrs May loses a confidence vote, is it acceptable for her to use the two weeks to attempt to stitch together a new base of support among MPs and ‘run down the clock’ to secure a dissolution and election; or is she under an obligation to resign and advise the Queen to invite the Leader of the Opposition to form a government (albeit that if the new PM also fails to win a vote of confidence, the election will be triggered at the end of the two weeks anyway)? The terms of the FTPA suggest the former, but politically it’s not clear that ‘squatting’ in Downing Street in this way would be acceptable — in such a scenario, Mrs May could perhaps succeed in making it to a general election, but would the electorate perhaps punish her even further for her behaviour? Even so, she might have a strong incentive to try it: the alternative could be that an election happens after Jeremy Corbyn has formed a government but failed to secure the confidence of the Commons in vote — but nonetheless, he would be entering the election as Prime Minister.

The second way to trigger an election under the FTPA is for two thirds of MPs to vote for a dissolution, as happened in 2017. It seems less likely that Jeremy Corbyn would agree to whip Labour MPs in favour of such a request in current circumstances, but would instead probably call for Mrs May to resign and advise the Queen to invite him to become PM.

7) Loss of a referendum
David Cameron’s departure did at least demonstrate that it’s still possible to find novel reasons for a Prime Minister to be obliged to resign. It is the only example of a PM resigning after a rebuff from the electorate at anything other than a general election — in essence, if the Prime Minister has advocated a particular course of action to the electorate, and the electorate rejects it, the PM can’t stay. This wasn’t necessarily obvious to everyone ahead of the referendum, but Cameron’s position would have become more and more politically absurd had he stayed and tried to implement a decision that the electorate had taken against his express advice as Prime Minister.

8) Some novel reason
Well, if Mr Cameron found an innovative way to get kicked out, maybe Mrs May will too. By definition, it’s hard to predict what this might be. Perhaps some sort of personal scandal will engulf her — while it’s hard to see Mrs May of all people having sordid secrets relating to sex, drugs or money, perhaps she could get implicated in someone else’s mess, for instance by having covered it up or at least turned an inappropriately blind eye. However, unless Mrs May were to decide to get out in front of such a story by stepping down promptly (and triggering a leadership contest as above), such a situation would probably involve a vote of confidence among her MPs or a succession of quiet words from her Cabinet colleagues making her position plain to her. Still, I can’t think of a Prime Minister having resigned in the past as the direct result of a personal scandal.

9) Collapse of her government
This is the biggie, so I’ve left it till last. As mentioned above, British governments tend not to collapse wholesale — indeed, much as the phrase might be bandied about, most people probably don’t know in any detail what a ‘collapse’ would involve. This must be more than simply the PM falling — that’s not uncommon — but rather, the PM falling and their party being unable to continue in office under another leader, and this being so obvious that the confidence of the House of Commons isn’t directly the immediate problem (as it would be in the election and confidence vote scenarios above).

What we’re talking about here is the resignation of a substantial portion of the Cabinet, in circumstances where it is clear that Mrs May cannot possibly construct a new one — in essence, a split in the Conservative Party that renders it incapable of governing. This needn’t necessarily happen in the context of a larger crisis: with such big decisions over Brexit still looming, and still being dodged, it could be that any effort to confront them properly would result in a chunk of resignations and the emergence of well defined factions within the Conservative Party, with one side or the other refusing to serve in office. Either Mrs May would succeed in forming a Cabinet out of one wing of the party and then face a confidence vote among MPs triggered by the other, or she would fail even to do that and resign as PM, with a leadership contest following after the party leaves office.

However, it’s more likely is that such a showdown will continue to be dodged, or that if it does come along the PM will go along with the extremists in order to remain in office, and a breach will only be forced when taking the extreme position isn’t viable. It’s perhaps important that the only proper collapse of a government was in a crisis where a politically feasible solution wasn’t possible as a matter of policy.

The one clear-cut example of this having happened before in modern times is the fate that befell Ramsay MacDonald’s second minority Labour government in 1931, when a sustained period of turmoil on the financial markets left ministers essentially obliged to institute major public spending cuts (whether that really was necessary in a policy sense is debatable, but it was generally held to be at the time). This was ideologically unacceptable to a portion of the Cabinet, and they resigned. The Conservative Party, and some Liberals, joined MacDonald and his remaining rump of ministers to form a national government.

The distinctive factor here is that there must be some time-sensitive pressure facing Mrs May, such that the she and the Cabinet have to face up to an inescapable and crucial decision. It requires a situation in which it is not sufficient for her to resign as party leader and then step down as PM when her successor has been selected — we are talking about a scenario where a new PM is needed immediately in order to halt an urgent policy crisis.

Is such a situation imaginable in the near future? Yes, it is: just suppose a failure in the progress of Brexit talks prompts many businesses to activate their contingency plans and move large chunks of their operations into other EU member states; and just suppose that sets off a death spiral in general economic confidence — stock markets fall, the pound falls (further), yields on government bonds shoot up, perhaps the ability of the government to finance its debt even comes into question. In this scenario, the government’s Brexit policy will be seen to be poisonous to the economy: much like how in 1931 the only solution to the turmoil was to pledge significant spending cuts, so the solution this time might be to pledge some combination of continued membership of the single market and customs union either for a lengthy transition period or indefinitely, a request to extend the time period of Article 50 talks by several years, or even a revocation of Article 50. Without such policy pledges, economic confidence would not return.

It is clear that Mrs May’s cabinet would not be able to agree to such a package of measures: either the hard-line Brexiters would resign, or Mrs May would recognise that was how things were going, and advise the Queen to send for Mr Corbyn without waiting around for the collapse of her government to play out. This is an extreme scenario, but we appear to be living in an age of extreme political scenarios coming to pass. A failure in the Brexit negotiations to progress to trade talks in December, which would delay such progress until at least March 2018 and signal that effectively those talks cannot be completed at all, would certainly cause some businesses to implement their contingency plans; whether this would have a dramatic and immediate impact on the economy or more of a slow-burn effect is hard to say, but the former could well prompt a political crisis if it happens.

A variation in this scenario would be for the Cabinet to remain united in support of its Brexit policy in the face of market turmoil, and therefore for the economic crisis to continue, but for a minority of Conservative MPs to decide that action must be taken, and join with the opposition parties in voting against the government on a formal motion of confidence, which would then take us into that scenario instead and truly put the FTPA’s operation to the test.

In more or less every permutation, the upshot would be the Queen inviting Jeremy Corbyn to form a government (if she loses a chunk of her Cabinet, and backbenches with them, Mrs May could, I suppose, appeal to Mr Corbyn to prop her up in a national government, Ramsay MacDonald style, but it’s impossible to see him agreeing to this, and she’d have to leave anyway). If there is such an outcome, it will be interesting to see what Mr Corbyn chooses to do. He could form a minority Labour government (which may or may not survive a vote of confidence itself), or form a national government to see Britain through to a stabilised Brexit process with an election then to follow (6–18 months, say?), inviting all MPs to take the whip and in particular striking a deal with the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and Caroline Lucas. This would have the major advantage, from a Labour point of view, of formally splitting the Conservative Party, as one would expect the likes of Anna Soubry, Ken Clarke, Heidi Allen and no doubt some others (but probably the minority of Conservative MPs — perhaps the Telegraph’s cast list of ‘mutineers’) to take its whip, though probably not to be ministers. A government of that sort might even be well placed to see the current parliament through to 2022 and the next scheduled election.

(For those who like really wild speculation: it’s possible a Corbyn-McDonnell government might not be the soothing balm the markets require. In that situation, a PM is required who might attract support from across the House, maybe an elder statesman type figure with some experience of government, but neither Labour (it’s impossible under Labour’s constitution to have a Labour PM who isn’t the Leader) nor Tory (which Labour MPs would never support)… perhaps that’s what Vince Cable was thinking of when he said he could become Prime Minister?)

So, there are all the ways I can think of for Theresa May to leave office. Have I missed any? Or got the processes wrong in some way? I will of course welcome (polite) correction. The confidence vote triggered by 48 letters from Conservative MPs and the ‘collapse’ scenario seem the most likely threats to Mrs May given the current state of politics, but we all know that politics can change quickly and dramatically at present. But in the absence of crises along those lines, the processes by which Mrs May might be obliged to resign are quite limited, and mostly not all that useful as pressure valves for the current strains in British politics — so she could yet be in office for some time to come.

Working in public policy and writing here about politics, infrequently, in a purely personal capacity.

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