How no-confidence votes work in Britain

Boris Johnson, Britain’s alleged prime minister, survived a vote of no confidence this week, and we could get all mopey about that if we wanted to, but instead let’s take the opportunity to have a good old crawl around the dusty corners of the British political system and see what we can find. Old coins? Abandoned rulebooks? Spiders? 

Nope, sorry. We find the no-confidence vote, in all its convoluted glory.

 

What is the no-confidence vote? 

The one Johnson just survived was an internal party affair, run by the Conservatives, the party with a majority in the House of Commons. That’s because what they’re voting on isn’t just the leader of the country but the leader of their party, and what takes precedence is the party, since–as should be clear to everyone–that’s more important. So it was only Conservative members of parliament who got to vote.

The same was true last time they held a no-confidence vote, back when Theresa May was prime minister. We could go back further, but I’m getting full of cobwebs so let’s head off in another direction. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: a peony

While Conservative MPs cast their votes, the rest of the country got to sit back and wonder how many would vote which way. It’s like catching the clowns crawl out of that tiny car at the circus and wondering how many more there’ll be. Except the clowns are running the country.   

If it strikes you as odd that a single party gets to choose the head of the country, we’re nowhere near the center of the issue yet. The party also gets to set the rules on when and whether there’ll be a vote and how it’ll be run.

Yes, this business of having an unwritten constitution’s a barrel of laughs. I recommend it to any country that feels like the fun’s gone out of politics. 

 

The rules

Under the party’s current rules, if 15% of the Conservative MPs send a letter of no confidence in the prime minister to something called the 1922 Committee, then the committee has to call a vote.

At least I think it has to. What I’ve read goes a little hazy there. Maybe they have to and maybe they don’t but always have. So far, they’ve always called a vote.

The 1922 Committee, by the way, is called that because it was set up in 1923.

We’ll move on before we get upset, okay?

The committee’s an arm of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons and seems to insert its nearly-hundred-year-old hand into every Conservative leadership battle. It meets weekly, gathering up the backbench Conservatives–and by backbench I mean the MPs who don’t hold government positions, the ones down the food chain who aren’t personally in power even when their party is.

So the committee gathers the backbench Tories (Tory means Conservative but takes less time to type) and gives them a forum, allowing them to “air their concerns” and be a pain in the keyhole of Number 10 Downing Street, where the people who really have the power both govern and (since we’re talking about the current bunch), drink, fight, party, and vomit. 

To repeat myself, since I’ve wandered: Once the committee collects the letters from 15% of the Conservative MPs, it calls for a vote. Given the current breakdown of the House, it took 54 letters to trigger a vote. Once that happens, a prime minister then has to win a majority of the Conservative MPs plus one–in the current situation, 180–to stay in office.

The letters can be anonymous or the writers can make them public. They can also withdraw them if a) they decide the timing’s wrong, b) they were threatened thoroughly enough, or c) they were offered a juicy government post. 

Government posts? Johnson had already handed out 173 government jobs, making his MPs everything from members of the Cabinet to junior ministers to dog wranglers to extras who don’t have any lines but do hang around the edges of the scene in costume and then hope they don’t get edited out of the final cut. 

If you happen to hold one of those jobs, you’d think two or three times before voting yourself out of it.

Johnson carried 60% of his MPs–211 votes–which was a smaller-than-expected number according to at least according to one newspaper.

The party’s rules say that, having survived the vote, a prime minister is safe from another challenge for a year.

So is he in the clear? Well, no. The last time the Conservatives held a no-confidence vote, Theresa May was the prime minister and she scraped together a larger proportion of her party than Johnson has, but within eight months she was out on her ass.

How’d that work? Well, the committee threatened to change the rules and allow another vote before the year was up unless she set a date for her resignation. 

Better to jump than be pushed, she figured. Johnson, however, will need to not only be pushed, he’ll need to be wrapped in canvas, tied, and thrown overboard.

But there’s talk that the MPs who voted against Johnson may not wait for that. If they refuse to vote with the government–not necessarily voting against it but abstaining–they’ll deny Johnson hte powerful majority he’s had in Parliament, paralyzing him. Since they represent all the available wings, feet, and claws of the party and refer to themselves as a coalition of chaos, it’s hard to know if they’ll do anything that coordinated.

 

What happens when a prime minister loses a no-confidence vote?

They limp on as prime minister until they’re replaced, because the country has to have a prime minister, however vague and ineffective. Meanwhile, the party that tossed them out selects a new one–according to its own rules.

But that’s if it has a majority. If it doesn’t–say if two parties governed as a coalition–or if the party’s so badly split that it can’t come up with a candidate, it gets messy.

You thought it was already messy? Ha. Shows what you know.

I’ll simplify this, but basically if someone–anyone–can gather enough support for a new candidate, there’s a confidence vote held in 14 days. If they survive that, they’re the prime minister. If not, there’s a general election and all the MPs have to run for their seats again–something they very much don’t want to do unless, of course, they think their party can come back with a big majority, but that’s always a gamble. It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, as Yogi Berra is said to have said.

If no candidate emerges, then somewhere along the way the prime minister has to advise the queen that there’ll be an election, because the queen needs to know stuff like that.

The queen says, “Oh.”

Then everyone involved tears off their clothes and runs around Westminster Palace playing either banjos or tubas and throwing confetti.

Okay, I made some of that up. If you want a full (and sane) explanation of how it works, go look at the BBC’s graphic.

 

How other parties run a no-confidence vote

So far, I’ve only talked about how the Conservative Party holds a no-confidence vote, but since each party sets its own rules, they have no bearing on what other parties do in a similar situation. So let’s take a wider look.

Labour: Okay, this is awkward. I haven’t found a clear explanation of how the Labour Party holds a no-confidence vote. Possibly because it doesn’t really hold them. When Jeremy Corbyn led the party (which was the opposition then, not the government), his fellow MPs held a no-confidence vote but he didn’t resign since the party doesn’t have any rules governing what that meant or what to do about it if it should happen. He argued that his support among the members outweighed his lack of support among MPs. And you know what? Why shouldn’t it? When your party doesn’t have any relevant rules, it doesn’t have any relevant rules.

Liberal Democrats: I couldn’t even find that much for the Lib Dems. 

Other Parties: I gave up, leaving a few parties floating free.

What does it all mean? I haven’t a clue. A party being able to dump its leader, as the Tories can, sounds democratic but in practice it seems to give a lot of power to small groups within the party, such as the extreme Brexiteers. If that’s true, you could argue that the forms of democracy are giving a great deal of power to a minority at the expense of the majority, but I’m raising that as a question rather than offering it as an analysis. 

 

Parliamentary votes of no confidence

It’s also possible for parliament as a whole, not just the majority party, to hold a no-confidence vote, and if the government loses, that would, once upon a time, have triggered a general election. But the rules changed when David Cameron was the prime minister. He introduced a new system called-fixed term parliaments. Since then, nobody has a clue what happens. 

As the House of Commons Library explains it, “The consequences of a government losing what would have been considered a question of confidence before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act have not been tested since the Act was passed.”

In other words, it hasn’t happened since the rules changed. Maybe everyone moves one seat down the table and cries, “No room, no room.” Maybe we go back to the scenario with the confetti and the musical instruments. We’ll all just have to wait and see. 

Remember what I said about how much fun an unwritten constitution is?

 

The important stuff

Can we get to the stuff that really matters now? Sooner or later, Boris Johnson will be carried out of Number 10 kicking and screaming and wrapped in canvas, and the question on everyone’s mind is, What will happen to the wallpaper? 

What wallpaper? The horrible and very expensive wallpaper that Johnson and his wife paid for, but only after they were caught trying to have a major party donor pay for it.

I’m not prone to imagining myself in public office, for oh so many reasons, but I can’t help putting myself into  his successor’s comfortable slippers–you know, the ones she or he puts on after work when he or she tries to turn back into her or his real self if (could we use the plural here, please?) if they still remember who that is.

Where were we? I was putting myself in that person’s slippers and  looking at the wallpaper that Johnson will leave behind (but only because you can’t take it with you). On the one hand, it was ruinously expensive–£840 a roll. You can’t just tear that down, can you? On the other hand, it’s awful. Who could live with it? And what sort of impression does it give other heads of state? You couldn’t have a serious conversation in front of it. I’m not sure you could eat a frozen pizza in front of it either.

I’m not sure what you can do in front of it other than run.

Is the next prime minister going to have to break with tradition and live somewhere else? I wouldn’t rule it out.

By now, of course, you want to see it. You’ll find a couple of photos here, along with a discussion of the money and who’s related to who in what way. It’s all deliciously scandalous and, except for the occasional wallpaper joke, has been pretty much forgotten by now.

British prime minister fires British prime minister’s brain

On Friday, Boris Johnson fired Dominic Cummings, who’s functioned as Johnson’s brain since Johnson took office. This leaves a major gap not just at 10 Downing Street but between the prime ministerial ears, since we’re doing body metaphors.

Everyone in government will be rushing to fill it. 

This all started with Cummings’ ally, Lee Cain, resigning. Johnson had been about to promote him but seems to have been shoved onto a different track by Allegra Stratton and Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, a woman with a considerable political background of her own. 

They had some help, and we’ll come back to that, but first: Stratton got into the picture when she was appointed to lead government press conferences and came into conflict with Cummings and Cain over whether they should be real press conferences or what they’re calling White House-style briefings, where no real questions are answered. She considered the White House-style briefing cosmetic and pointless.

Potentially relevant photo: Cummings and Cain will have plenty of time on their hands. They could take up a fine old English tradition and join a morris dancing side. You don’t actually get to hit anyone with the stick, which I suspect will disappoint them, but you do at least get to pretend.

Symonds’ influence raises an interesting issue. She’s not an elected member of government, which makes it easy to rear back and think, Hold on. Who the hell is she to have so much influence just because she’s in a relationship with the prime minister? And some of the cheesier papers are doing that. What the hell, she has no job title and she’s a woman. Women make a tempting target. 

One the other hand, Cummings and Cain weren’t elected either. Who the hell were they to have so much influence? We could argue that Symonds is saving the country a lot of money by not drawing a salary. Or we could skip making that argument. My point is that we can’t draw a clear line between Johnson’s special advisors and his fiancee. It’s murky–and interesting–territory, full of  moral ambiguities.

Johnson is said to  have been furious that Cummings and Cain were briefing against him and Symonds. “Briefing against” translates to undermining their reputation.

Assorted other personalities and factions within the government and in the Conservative Party also got into the push-and-shove over who was going to have the prime ministerial ear. Factions seem to be the latest thing in the Conservative Party–something I’d thought only Labour was good at. Backbenchers–

Hang on. Time for a definition. Backbenchers are Members of Parliament who haven’t gotten the top government jobs (or the shadow jobs that the opposition party hands out). They sit at the back of the room when parliament meets, playing with their phones and throwing spitballs. Every so often, they get to jeer the opposing party, which has the virtue of waking everybody up, but otherwise they’re supposed to vote as instructed and shut up (or say what’s expected) the rest of the time. 

They don’t actually throw spitballs. They do jeer and carry on as if their development stopped at spitball-throwing age.

With the explanation out of the way, we’ll go on: Backbench Conservatives have been forming pressure groups. It worked for Brexit, they figure, so why not start groups opposing Covid lockdowns or accusing the National Trust of having a Marxist agenda because it’s acknowledging that role of slavery in creating the properties it manages and opens to the public?

Cummings and Covid are taking the blame for Johnson not having kept good relations with his party’s MPs. As one backbencher said, new MPs never got a chance to know Johnson and “they have spiralled off into orbit, and if the party isn’t careful, they will become serial rebels, never to be seen again.” 

With Cummings going, some of them are hoping for a fresh start, but a former staff member said, “The contempt for MPs does not come from Dominic Cummings, he’s just a harder version of the smiling frontman. The basic contempt comes from Boris Johnson.” 

What happens next? Don’t I wish I knew. Cummings and Cain are old political pals of Johnson’s from the Brexit campaign, and they formed the hub of the hard Brexiteers in Number 10. With them gone and Brexit looming, it’s hard to say which way things will go. Britain’s still in talks with the European Union and there isn’t much time left to put together a deal before we leave the EU without one.

The same staff member I quoted a couple of paragraphs back said about Johnson, “This is a guy who gets blown around by whatever storm; he has no political compass.” And advisors–presumably Cain and Cummings–had complained about Johnson not being able to make big decisions. 

That makes it particularly important who’s getting to whisper in his ear.

Whee.

And did I mention anything a pandemic? Somewhere in here, some actual work needs to be done. 

Whoever’s left at Number 10 is expecting Cummings to take public revenge and is–or possibly are; surely there’s more than one–preparing responses. One official was quoted as saying, “It’s the last days of Rome in there.” 

I’m’ sure the most interesting dirt hasn’t been dished yet. Have patience, my friends. It will leak out eventually.

Feeding hungry kids: the English public strikes back

After the government voted to deny £15 vouchers to low income families in England so that their kids wouldn’t go hungry during the school holidays, a local pub banned the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, from its premises.

For life.

It did the same to three other local MPs who voted against the vouchers with him.  Pubs can do that here, but they usually reserve it for the kind of customer who sets off fireworks on the bar or pulls the plumbing out of the men’s room. But I guess it’s a question of who does more damage in the long run.

The ban was posted on the pub’s Facebook page, which also reproduced a menu from one of the House of Commons’ many restaurants, where steak and chips are going for £11.77–a price subsidized by the taxpayer.

Don’t usually do politics but here goes,” the Facebook page said. “I have never known a Government which is consistently the wrong end of every argument.”

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Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

In tweeting about against the vouchers, Conservative MP Ben Bradley wrote, “At one school in Mansfield 75% of kids have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. Their estate is the centre of the area’s crime.

“One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending FSM doesn’t reach these kids.”

FSM being free school meals. This is shorthand for the voucher program. Which is also shorthand.

Don’t worry about it.

When he started catching flak for that and a few other tweets, he complained that they’d been taken out of context. I’m still trying to figure out how to squeeze any context at all into 280 characters. Short of writing in Japanese, Chinese, or Korean, where a single character can be a whole word. 

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In the meantime, players from Leeds United donated £25,000 for kids’ meals over the school break, and the club they play for has announced that it will match that.  

Businesses, restaurants, and local governments (including at least a few led by the Conservative Party–the party that voted against the £15 vouchers) have also stepped up with offers to help, and Conservatives are beginning to say that the government misjudged the feelings of the country. Not that kids need to eat and they want to do the right thing, but that people are mad at them.

They don’t even know how to say, “Ooops,” right.

All of it goes a good distance toward restoring my battered faith in humanity, but it’s worth remembering that whether kids get fed will depend on where they live. In some places there’ll be multiple offers and in others there’ll be none.

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This morning, I listened to Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care, interviewed on the radio. I was driving and it was him or nothing. We eventually realized that nothing was much better, but before we did I was interested to hear that he’s not singing Ben Bradley’s tune. I doubt even Ben Bradley’s singing Ben Bradley’s tune anymore. It didn’t go over well. What he said was that of course the government’s making sure every child gets fed, but local governments are better at that than central government and we’ve given them money for it.

But, the interviewer said, that was way back when and it was spent long ago.

We’ve given them money, he said in seventeen different ways.

It’s an approach I’ve heard a lot in the last few years. Ask a government minister why the NHS / social care / the schools / fill in the blank is so short of money and they’ll tell you how much money they already spent on the NHS / social care / the schools / fill in the blank. It doesn’t answer the question, and sometimes they’re talking about money that was allocated before William the Conqueror’s boat first touched England’s southern shores, but it sounds like an answer and can usually be counted on to derail the conversation.

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Since as a nation we’re not handing low-income parents £15 to waste on feeding their kids, let’s review another spending program. No one tweeted that the £12.7 billion program to help the self-employed through the pandemic was pouring spaghetti sauce into crack dens, but a study from the Resolution Foundation says it gave £1.3 billion to workers who hadn’t lost any income while successfully missing 500,000 who did. The study blames a combination of strict eligibility rules and weak assessment. Basically, they excluded lots of categories of the self-employed and then didn’t ask people in the categories they accepted to document their losses. 

The  study also said that the self-employed were hit even harder in the first six months of the pandemic than employees were. Three out of ten stopped working during the worst of the crisis, and one in six is still out of work. 

About 5 million people count as self-employed in Britain, although some of them, inevitably, will be the mythically self-employed. It pays for corporations to offload the expenses of employing people by calling them freelancers, and people are desperate enough to accept that.

Do you remember when life was going to get endlessly better? 

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The lockdown in Wales is tighter than England’s, and it’s closed shops that sell nonessential goods, which has had the odd consequence of restricting supermarket sales of the same items. They’ve had to have had to cover shelves to hide the socks, the decorative hair thingies, the–

Actually, it’s hard to decide where to draw the line. The cake decorations? They’re edible, so maybe they can stay. The birthday candles? Non-edible but on the same shelves as the cake decorations. The mugs that say, “You’re the best”? The ones that say, “I changed my mind. You’re a cockwomble”?

Let’s turn to the experts: Nonessentials include electrical goods, telephones, clothes, toys and games, garden products, and homewares, and the decision on individual items depends on what part of the supermarket they’re in rather than their inherent essentialness. So forget the cups, but you can probably buy birthday candles.

Supplies for the “essential upkeep, maintenance and functioning of the household,” such as batteries, light bulbs, and rubber gloves, are okay. Because who could function without rubber gloves?

It’s easy to make fun of, and I’m having a hard time holding myself back, but there is a logic to it. To slow the virus, you need to shut down everything you can, but they don’t want to hand supermarkets the business they’ve denied to small shops. Yes, it’s crazy. And yes, it makes sense anyway.

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While we’re talking about the odd places that rules lead us into, England’s rule of six limits gatherings–indoor, outdoor, underground, and hallucinated–to six people unless they’re all from a single household (it’s slightly more complicated than that, but close enough for our purposes). But some of London’s fancier restaurants have discovered that if people are talking business they can gather in groups of thirty.

Wheee. Take your foot off the brake and don’t be such a scaredy cat. 

One of the restaurants emailed its client list to let them know that “when the topic is business you can still meet over a fabulous working lunch or dinner without the restriction of the ‘single household rule.’ ” 

You will, however, need to employ at least one overcooked adjective and a full set of quotation marks, however unnecessary and aesthetically offensive they may be. 

At one expensive restaurant, the Sexy Fish, caviar sushi sells for £42 a piece, and you can buy a £16,000 Armand de Brignac champagne if you really need to. The reporter who scouted the place and asked diners if they were discussing business got himself thrown out. Which was lucky, because I doubt the Guardian’s budget stretches as far as the sushi, never mind the champagne.