All change in Westminster?
October 6th, 2023
While Westminster-watchers have been glued to the high drama playing out in Downing Street and the House of Commons over the past 48 hours, businesses and campaign groups up and down the country are seeking to understand what the change of Prime Minister will mean in practice. Here’s our take on what happens next.
PM Boris Johnson has today announced that he will step down as soon as a new leader is in post. The Conservative Party will swing into action with a rapid leadership contest. The timetable for this will be published early next week, but at present, we are expecting that the party’s 1922 Committee will move to start and end the parliamentary element of the leadership process, where MPs nominate candidates, before summer recess in three weeks’ time.
Reports suggest that the threshold for candidates, currently set as a proposer, seconder and ten supporters from the Conservative parliamentary party, will be raised in order to prevent a broad field of candidates, as MPs will need to whittle down the nominees to a final two to be presented to the membership. In this stage, members of the Conservative Party will be asked to choose between these final two candidates, and this process is likely to take 4-6 weeks. We should expect a new Conservative leader to be in place ahead of Party Conference in Birmingham in early October.
Bills and legislation
The almost unprecedented raft of ministerial resignations since 6pm on Tuesday have effectively paralysed Government business in the House of Commons in particular. On Thursday, three Bill Committees were cancelled owing to a lack of Ministers. Twenty-three Bills are currently making their way through both Houses of Parliament, from the Product Safety and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill, which is close to finishing its passage through the Lords before Royal Assent, to the Energy Bill [HL], a crucial piece of legislation to bolster Britain’s energy security, which had just been introduced on Wednesday.
The Government’s legislative programme, pre-leadership crisis, was already acknowledged to be ambitious and was already behind schedule, so the further delays caused this week are likely to lead to a re-phasing of legislation once Parliament returns post-Summer Recess, as a new Prime Minister moves to get Government back on course. This could go much further, with Bills being dropped and new legislation introduced if a new Prime Minister wants to signal a change in direction from the Johnson premiership.
Runners and riders
At this stage, a small number of candidates have definitively thrown their hat into the ring – Attorney-General Suella Braverman announced live on ITV’s Peston on Wednesday night that she would be standing for the Conservative Party leadership, while arch-Brexiteer and chair of Conservative Way Forward Steve Baker said on Thursday morning that he is likely to put himself forward. Other likely runners and riders include Nadhim Zahawi, Chancellor of the Exchequer since Tuesday night, who is understood to have been working with external advisers to build a campaign plan over the past few months, as well as his predecessors Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak. Both Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and International Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt rank highly with Conservative members and have long been rumoured to be interested in standing for the top job, but remaining in their posts during the slew of resignations may hurt their chances of progressing through the parliamentary shortlisting stage of the leadership process.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace currently tops ConservativeHome’s membership survey of favoured leaders, but has kept his distance from the ongoing political parlour games. Health and Social Care Committee Chair Jeremy Hunt, who lost the last leadership election to Boris Johnson, is clearly positioning himself for another campaign.
But what about Labour?
At the same time, the main opposition party may be about to face its own leadership crisis. Both Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer and Deputy Leader Angela Rayner have promised to resign if fined by Durham police for breaking Covid rules. In this situation, Labour’s National Executive Committee is mandated to order a ballot of party members, and in consultation with the Shadow Cabinet may choose to appoint a current Shadow Cabinet member to serve as party leader in the interim.
What this means for businesses
In the short term, our advice to businesses and campaign groups is to let the high politics play out. MPs and peers from both main parties will be preoccupied with the internal politics, and on how their parties are presenting themselves to voters over the coming weeks. Any immediate requests to parliamentarians should be time-sensitive and absolutely critical.
Over the leadership contest, there will be plenty of opportunities to offer visits and photo opportunities to candidates who will be keen to tour the country and demonstrate their appeal. Building and strengthening relationships with key parliamentary allies of the leadership contenders will also help to position organisations effectively with a new administration.
In the meantime, civil servants will be keeping the day-to-day operations of Government going. At a time when Ministers and their special advisers may change roles very quickly, building strong working relationships with relevant civil servants should help to provide continuity and certainty for business.
This year’s party conferences will be crucial in helping to understand how both the Conservative and Labour parties will position themselves for the next election, and we expect to see a significant rise in attendance for both conferences.