Prime Minister Theresa May is now officially on the clock: If she can’t strike a deal to maintain power in the next week or so, her government will fall apart.
A speech given by Queen Elizabeth on Wednesday morning — called, appropriately enough, the Queen’s Speech — has created a roughly one-week deadline for a crucial vote in the House of Commons. If May loses that vote, she’ll likely be forced out of power. Unfortunately for the sitting prime minister, it’s not clear if she will be able to muster enough political support to win.
The prime minister’s standing has been hammered lately by a series of catastrophes — most notably her poor showing in the election and a deadly fire in a London public housing building. Negotiations with the Democratic Unionist Party, a far-right Northern Irish outfit whose support seems necessary for her to win the vote, have not gone well.
If May loses the post-Queen’s Speech vote, the most likely outcome is that the UK holds yet another election to try to put together a more functional Parliament. If that happens, it’s months of chaos, with the UK government paralyzed by electoral politics when Brexit negotiations are just getting underway.
In the longer run, a May defeat in the coming vote could have major ramifications for the US and the rest of the world. The favorite, if elections were held later this year, would be the opposition Labour Party, led by far-left firebrand Jeremy Corbyn. He has, among other things, suggested the UK should get rid of its nuclear weapons and withdraw from NATO. Even if he weren’t to act on these radical ideas, a Corbyn-led UK would further unsettle a Western alliance already buckling under pressure put on by President Donald Trump.
Now, most experts believe Corbyn won’t get his shot, that May and the DUP have too much in common to stay at loggerheads for long. But UK politics has been incredibly unpredictable lately, and May really is an extraordinarily weak prime minister, so no one can really be sure what will happen.
The collapse of Britain’s government next week may not be likely — but it’s a real possibility. Buckle up.
It all comes down to a handful of far-right Northern Irish extremists
To understand the ticking clock now looming over British politics, you need to understand a bit about the Queen’s Speech itself.
The speech is a set of formal remarks that Queen Elizabeth delivers, typically annually, to Parliament. The speech isn’t actually written by the queen, and doesn’t reflect her thinking or proposals. Instead, it’s put together every year by the prime minister’s staff to outline his or her administration’s priorities at the start of the legislative term.
The speech, in typical British fashion, is full of nearly comical pomp and circumstance. The queen usually rides to the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament filled with actual lords, in a horse-drawn carriage. She typically wears ultra-formal white robes and a diamond crown while delivering it.
This year had “reduced ceremonial elements” due to scheduling constraints, the government has said. The queen rode over in an automobile rather than a carriage, and in place of her crown wore a blue hat that looks suspiciously like the European Union flag. But never fear: The crown was brought over to Parliament from Buckingham Palace in its own car.
Only in the UK could a "dressed-down ceremony" involve a hat made of diamonds being chauffeur-driven from one massive palace to another.— Jamie Ross (@JamieRoss7) June 21, 2017
The speech itself was, by contrast, rather bland. Normally, the speech is supposed to reflect the core priorities of the governing party — sort of like a State of the Union address. Unsurprisingly, this year’s focused on Brexit-related laws — setting up new British rules to replace the European regulations after departure. But this one also omitted some of the more prominent Tory ideas proposed during the campaign, like cutting pensions and fuel subsidies. It’s a bit like Trump leaving the border wall out of the State of the Union.
These omissions speak to the fundamental weakness of May’s post-election political position.
Unlike America’s presidential system, where the chief executive is directly selected by the voters, the British system is parliamentary: Whichever party wins a majority of seats in the UK House of Commons, Britain’s more powerful equivalent of the House of Representatives, gets to pick the prime minister. Members of Parliament (MPs), like members of the US House, represent specific places (called constituencies) and stand for election in them.
Before the June 8 election, Theresa May’s Conservatives controlled 330 of the House of Commons’ 650 seats. This was a very narrow majority, but still a majority that would allow her to sail through a post-Queen’s Speech vote. Now the Conservatives control 318 seats, seven shy of an outright majority. This is a situation called a “hung Parliament” (think hung jury), and it means May will need to form a partnership with another party to win the upcoming vote on “accepting” the Queen’s Speech (as it’s called).
This vote is scheduled to happen on June 29 — one week from now — in order to leave time for debate on its contents. That could change. Catherine Haddon, an expert on British politics at the UK’s Institute for Government think tank, says that “there are all sorts of parliamentary procedures and mechanisms that can be used to delay it or bring it forward.”
But it can only be delayed so long. May now has a limited amount of time, roughly a week, to make a deal that would get her over the magic number of 326 seats.
Most of the other parties in Parliament are various shades of left of center, and thus have no interest in backing May’s Conservatives. Talks have come to focus on the DUP, a party that opposes Northern Irish independence and wants to ban abortion. They’ve got ten seats in Parliament — enough to swing a majority in a vote to the Tories — and despise Corbyn. Immediately after the election, it seemed like they were certain to back May in a Queen’s Speech vote.
“We want there to be a government. We have worked well with May. The alternative is intolerable,” a DUP source told the Guardian after the election. “For as long as Corbyn leads Labour, we will ensure there’s a Tory PM.”
However, the Tory-DUP talks have yet to produce a formal agreement to cement the DUP’s support in the vote. The DUP has demanded huge payouts to its Northern Irish constituents, in the form of increased public spending and tax breaks, which don’t sit well with the Conservative Party’s leadership. Until the DUP and the Tories come up with some kind of mutually agreeable concession, the latter can’t count on the former in the vote.
If the two sides can’t come together in the coming week or so, then May’s government could well fall apart.
What happens if May loses the vote — and why experts think she won’t
Legally speaking, a failed Queen’s Speech vote doesn’t require Theresa May to resign. Rather, the issue is that the political pressure would be so overwhelming, especially right after her surprise losses in the election and the controversy over her government’s handling of the Grenfell Tower fire, that she would likely be forced to resign. If this happens, it’s anarchy.
“We don’t really know what happens if the government were to lose the vote on the Queen’s Speech,” Haddon says.
It’s possible the Conservatives pick a new leader — Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, for example — and then try again to strike a deal with the DUP. It’s also possible that the other major party — left-wing Labour — would get a shot at delivering their own Queen’s Speech and forming a government that could command majority support. It’s hard to see where the votes for that would come from in Parliament; there just aren’t enough natural Labour allies with lots of seats.
More likely, though, is that there would simply be another election this year.
Under something called the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, Corbyn could propose a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons against the Conservative leadership. If the vote goes through — that is, the Commons votes to say it has no confidence in the current leadership — then the Conservatives have 14 days to put together a government that could command the confidence of Parliament. If not, it triggers a new election, one that would hopefully deliver one party a majority and thus put an end to this mess.
Corbyn would be the favorite. Two major polls in recent days show Labour with a lead in the national polls, and UK observers tend to think May’s failure to form a government would weaken support for the Conservatives even further.
The ramifications of this would be massive for Britain — and the rest of the world. The mere fact of a Corbyn premiership, given his views on global politics, would send a clear signal that Britain was about to retrench in some way — further weakening a Western alliance already reeling from Donald Trump’s refusal to commit wholeheartedly to its defense.
“As far as I know, Mr. Corbyn says that NATO should give up, go home, go away,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former secretary general of NATO, said in a BBC appearance last year. “If he [Corbyn] were to carry out what he said, it would tempt Mr. Putin to aggression, to test the resolve of NATO.”
To be clear: The expectation among experts is that we won’t have to think about such contingencies anytime soon. The DUP can read the polling data as well as anyone else, and they really don’t want to see Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn.
“The Tories feel sure, as they should, that the DUP won't vote down a Queen's Speech,” says Matt Williams, a political scientist at University of Oxford. “The DUP don't want another election anytime soon.”
If push really came to shove and there was no Tory-DUP deal by the time the vote needed to happen, other parties might bail May out simply to avoid uncertainty. “Even without the DUP, I doubt the other parties would want to defeat the Queen’s Speech and risk yet another general election,” Tony Travers, director of the London School of Economics' Institute of Public Affairs, tells me.
But we can’t be sure about anything playing out as expected. All we know right now is that British politics is entering a critical new phase — and that the feelings of uncertainty will increase unless and until a deal is announced.