Parliament has returned from its non-prorogation and the Brexit impasse is more heated than ever. The prime minister has said he will "obey the law" but will not – despite the Benn Act compelling him to do so – ask for a Brexit extension if he can’t secure a Brexit deal. And if he doesn’t ask for an extension, then opposition parties won’t agree to an early general election. This stalemate has prompted the opposition alliance – the cross-party collection of MPs which passed the Benn Act – to look again at whether they can agree an alternative who the Palace could appoint in Johnson’s stead.
Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader in Westminster, has said his party could support Jeremy Corbyn as a temporary prime minister – but the Lib Dems insist they would not. Neither would the former Conservatives who supported the Benn Act. If Labour accepts that Corbyn is out of the running, then who could they agree as an alternative? Sir Edward Davey has suggested Ken Clarke and Harriet Harman are candidates that the Lib Dems would accept: Clarke has said he “wouldn't object” to the job while Harman has avoided comment. Margaret Beckett has also been touted as someone who might have Labour's support.
But even if opposition parties can agree on a unifying PM, what about everything else that would need to be agreed before a caretaker government could operate? It is not as simple as getting into No.10 – even a time-limited, policy-limited caretaker government would have to agree the other basics of a functioning government.
An alternative caretaker PM would have to form a government – the formation of the 2010 coalition offers a few lessons – and even a ‘caretaker’ administration requires many ministeral posts to be filled. The coalition government took five days to negotiate, in May 2010, but this caretaker government might not have that time if it needs to go to the Palace with a clear plan of action.
The first question is who is in this government? It would presumably involve a bulk of Labour MPs, but would other parties join to show unity? If he was not interim PM, then Corbyn would need to consider if he wanted a post – deputy PM perhaps – or whether anything but the top job is beneath him. Labour might insist on holding the post of chancellor, but that creates the extraordinary situation of John McDonnell being in government while his leader is not. And if he was not in the government, then Corbyn – who as a privy counsellor has access to foreign policy and security briefings – would not have access to all the other government papers that would be seen by any Labour ministers.
If this interim government was a cross-party arrangement, then there would be bigger questions about sharing out ministerial jobs. And if they decide to take part, then some parties might need to get the say-so of their wider party – as the Lib Dems did before forming the coalition.
Reshuffles are complicated enough when the incumbent PM is deciding who to appoint. Any cross-party free-for-all as to who gets what departments and jobs, or how the government whips office operates, might see a breakdown of whatever unity was built up choosing a preferred PM. The 2010 rose garden love-in between Nick Clegg and David Cameron would look easy compared to forming this government.
The proposed purposes of any interim government has focused on extending the Brexit deadline and taking the country through an election campaign. Some, recently including Labour’s Barry Gardiner, have pondered putting a caretaker government into power for the six months that it might take to run a referendum. Such a long period would, among other things, mean the need to present a budget – but it is hard to see a Clarke premiership presiding over a McDonnell budget.
An extended stay in power would also mean much bigger questions about the policy direction of this government. The parties involved could face dilemmas about how much to bargain over their big policy pledges. Lib Dems might ask for proportional representation (as Clegg did with the alternative vote) and the SNP could demand a Scottish referendum. Corbyn could also present a lengthy list of Labour demands.
A short-term caretaker administration would, presumably, try to avoid these sorts of problems. But if this proposed alternative government was in post for longer – perhaps in an attempt to hold a referendum – then this becomes difficult. There is also the very different positions that the parties have on Brexit between pro-revoke, pro-deal, and pro-referendum. Holding together a long caretaker coalition, particularly through a referendum campaign, seems impossible.
Even during election periods, when there are restrictions on government activity, there is still a role for ministers. This would be the same for any caretaker government installed to deliver an extension and a general election. The civil service could, as happens during elections, stall many decisions, appointments and contracts that need to be signed off. Barring an unlikely outbreak of consensus, a short-term, single-purpose government might place everything else on hold – which would, for example, mean delays to reviews of HS2 or any reform of social care. But not everything can be controlled or predicted, and any unexpected emergency or foreign policy – indeed any decisions that cannot be delayed – would require ministerial action.
Like a coalition government, this caretaker government would still have to institute collective cabinet responsibility and agree positions across party lines. As we saw with the 2010–15 coalition government, it would also need to find ways to mediate disputes. Some sort of ad hoc method might work for a short-term arrangement, but it won’t be easy to govern through an election campaign while ministers are campaigning against each other.
After watching the Conservative administration’s contorted attempts to break the Brexit impasse, the idea of a caretaker government may seem like a tempting choice for opposition parties. But sketching out a fantasy Cabinet is one thing; turning it into a reality will be anything but straightforward.