An unconfident government
What does the PM confidence vote mean for how government is going to really work...
Imagine your boss says they’re leaving in a few months time, and you’re told you’re meant to get on with a project that is personally very important to them but it will take at least a year to do… What do you do? Are you that professional that you continue to put a 100% of your energy into that work despite the likelihood that it will never see the light of day? Or do you hold back, find reasons for delay, and prepare for their successor? These are the questions dozens of Ministers and thousands of civil servants are asking themselves as a result of tonight’s massive vote: “Why bother, the PM is finished…”
Technically of course the PM isn’t finished. Technically he survived the vote and has the support of a majority of his party (just). Technically the Tories can’t hold another such no confidence vote for another year. Technically nothing constitutionally or practically has changed. Technically it’s a political matter about conduct and the next leader could have the same agenda. But that’s all rubbish. Historical precedent suggests that the Prime Minister doesn’t survive a year after a non confidence vote, it eats away at their authority so they cannot do their job. Some may argue Boris constantly trumps historical precedent but - no matter what anyone says - really, he is done.
The reason for that goes back to what I said in How No.10 Really Works. Our entire system of government is based on precedent, convention, assumption, some proscription, and a bloody lot of presentational authority. Precedent and convention suggests a PM without the full (or at least majority) confidence of their Party should stand down. Assumption suggests the PM will fight on. Proscription says he should go on until told otherwise. Presentationally the PM is weakened. In a political system that relies heavily on precedent and convention, has very little proscription, and most of the people in it going along with things simply because they assume that’s how things it is done - when the PM is presented as weak, and when people who work for government assume he won’t last, then the power of the PM effectively dissolves.
It is like in a sports team that know the manager is going at the end of the season - Ralf Rangnick at Man Utd for instance - where the players psychologically down tools because they don’t need to impress him anymore. Government is similar. Ministers will stop volunteering to defend the PM in the press or sell unpopular policies or defend failures. Some Ministers will start to look for new jobs, thinking that the next PM won’t appoint them - encouraging flirtations with business and consultancies and enabling minor corruption. Some Ministers won’t bother doing their day job because they think the next PM will change the priority, so they won’t scrutinise activity or take well thought through decisions. Some Ministers might actively try to tie up their successors with purposefully bad decisions - Chris Grayling infamously did this at the Department for Transport thinking that Labour would win the 2015 election, then found himself having to go back to the Department where he had signed off a series of dreadful-by-design procurement contracts. Special advisers, whose jobs are attached to Ministers, will start fleeing the ship like rats - worried that they’re all going be fighting over the same jobs if they all go at the same time when the government finally falls.
Every government policy with a political tinge could change - when the PM has no clear ideological bent there is no clear continuity candidate that keep this government’s drunken dartboard policy platform intact. Hunt would take things back in a Cameroon direction, Truss in an Thatcherite, Zahawi would be more of a modern day John Major that’s desperate to be liked and nod to both wings of the party with no singular vision. Ministers will all be trying to second guess this, and those that want to continue in the jobs will start to be vocal about the areas their anticipated successor cares about rather than want the incumbent wants.
The government ministerial apparatus that is built to serve the PM, selected by the PM and No.10, steered by No.10, will no longer bend to its master and cause administrative chaos. Departmental officials in meetings will be told conflicting things by No.10, Treasury officials and Ministerial office and won’t know which to take forward - No.10 is no longer the final voice, and the Treasury it’s also at it’s weakest point in the cycle with a lame duck Chancellor and months from a Budget and years from a Spending Review (see How HM Treasury Really Works). The Cabinet Office, which acts a broker, has just been neutered through the creation of the Office of the Prime Minister (see how the new Office of the Prime Minister will really work). The whole government will go into stasis at a time of a war in Europe and a cost of living crisis…
It’s not just the political side of government that will start to take their eye off the ball. Civil servants will start to do the same. Civil servants working on any policy associated with this government will all be going through the motions and assuming the direction will change as soon as the next PM is in place. They will have no reason to invest their energies in the priorities and policies of Ministers that think they won’t be around next year, no matter how Ministers or seniors keep telling them what they’re working on is an “important priority”. They all read the news, they mostly all have experience of working through May’s depressing dying days in power, they will all be waiting for this government to keel over. Worse, some will be worried they’re part of “the 92” (the proposed 92k civil service job cuts) and be desperate to move to a team working on a policy area that may survive the axe. Just imagine you’re told to work on something that you think will never see the light of day, and that might be culled at a time of unprecedented job cuts in your organisation... would you give your all?
In practice it will mean policies get delayed by internal reviews, or intentionally long consulting phases, or by business cases that get constantly revised but never concluded. Senior civil servants will be on manoeuvres looking for more stable posts, while holding up recruitment for vacancies, or even winding down their teams by encouraging staff to move on. Some policies will be indirectly or even directly blocked by Permanent Secretaries (the civil servant heads of departments) either claiming insufficient resource or perhaps even directly surmising that a policy will fail to get through parliament or Treasury approval. The Treasury meanwhile will block everything, political uncertainty means they can capitalise on a chance to do nothing but bide their time and prepare reasons for to the next PM why what they want done is unaffordable - they’ll even ignore their own Chancellor if they think he’s done for. The whole administration of government will close up like a porcupine.
This is why the Prime Minister can’t survive… everyone that works for him won’t believe he will and, with that assumption, they’ll prove it so. When Ministers and officials doubt he’ll be there, the government will get less and less done, more mistakes will be made, and key persons will leave - increasing the political and practical case for him to go. When power is presentational, then any projection of that power waning renders that mirage true. Boris is done, because you believe it, they believe it, and we believe it - and soon he will have to believe it too.