LONDON – In the coffee shops and bars of Britain’s Parliament, the political conversation has already turned to the question that will define the country’s immediate future: Can Boris Johnson be stopped from pursuing a no-deal Brexit?
The options under discussion for Conservative politicians who want to avoid a no-deal split from the European Union are dramatic. They include quitting the party and mounting a rebellion to bring down the government.
The contest to succeed Theresa May as prime minister has seen a hardening of rhetoric around leaving the European Union. Johnson, the front-runner, and his rival to be prime minister, Jeremy Hunt, argue that only by threatening to leave the EU without an agreement can Britain get a good deal.
The fear among some members of Parliament is that Johnson, in particular, will find himself boxed into a corner where he has to carry out his threat. That’s why politicians who oppose a no-deal Brexit, from the cabinet down, are bracing themselves for battle.
There has been talk of a vote of no-confidence in the government, with the idea floated even of doing it as soon as Johnson takes office in late July. This is a “nuclear option” that could destroy Johnson’s administration as soon as it is formed, leading to a general election.
Any Conservative MP supporting a no-confidence vote would be expelled from the party and forbidden from standing as a Tory candidate, effectively ending their careers. Yet one veteran Conservative observed privately that he was ready to do it if necessary to avoid the economic disaster of a no-deal Brexit.
Most no-deal opponents argue that such a radical move would not be necessary. Instead, they plan to seize control of the Parliamentary agenda, putting them in charge of the draft laws and motions that are debated and voted on — matters that the government of the day usually decides.
There’s no formal mechanism for this to happen, but officials point to the Standing Order 24 in the parliamentary rule book, which lets the opposition force an emergency debate.
Parliamentary officials expect Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow to allow this rule to be used in an unprecedented way to set aside a whole day for debate. That day would give Johnson’s opponents a chance to pass a law blocking a no-deal Brexit.
Supporters of this plan are confident it would work. Rory Stewart, who ran for the party leadership but was knocked out, told journalists that “nearly 100 of my colleagues” would vote to prevent a move to leave the EU without a deal.
That’s a big increase on the nine Conservatives who voted to block a no-deal Brexit in March. But even if it’s an exaggeration, there are good reasons to think that more Tories will be willing to rebel against the government to stop a no-deal exit under Johnson.
He is such a divisive figure that some MPs could leave the party if Johnson wins and sit as independent MPs. Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve has said he will. In the final stages of voting for leadership candidates, two Tories spoiled their ballots, suggesting they found all the remaining options unacceptable.
Whoever is the next prime minister will find he makes enemies as quickly as he makes friends. The suggestion that some Johnson supporters voted for Hunt in order to put his long-term rival Michael Gove out of the race has created resentment in parts of the Tory party. And there are likely to be MPs supporting Johnson in hope of getting government jobs who find themselves disappointed.
The biggest group in the way of Johnson’s plan to leave the EU without a deal are the ministers he fires when he takes power.
They would feel liberated to vote as they liked. Along with Stewart, other ministers who vocally oppose no-deal are May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, Philip Hammond, the finance minister, and Justice Secretary David Gauke.
If Johnson is defeated on a vote about no-deal, he will face another choice: Back down and see his credibility further eroded, or call an election — and risk being thrown out of office only weeks after taking the job.