Unity Government: Lead Before Choosing Leader

The Rebel Alliance has achieved remarkable things since it formed. But creating a Government, even on a caretaker basis, is far harder, far more complex, and risks incurring far greater costs.

Almost none of that is about who leads it.

What it Won’t do

While the big focus of public attention is on who might lead a unity government, in almost all ways the more important challenge is what it might do and therefore what it won’t do.

With so many disparate parties and independents involved, its agenda would have to be severely limited. It includes highly statist Labour and Green MPs alongside small state Conservative and Lib Dem MPs.

This would make policy trade-offs very challenging. So while many people might like to see austerity properly reversed or a Green Investment Bank launched, that sorting thing is unlikely. Only some relatively timid moves would be achievable because anything significant would likely be too much or too little for too many of the MPs involved.

In other words, there is little prospect of a domestic policy platform.

What it Would do?

The Rebel Alliance in opposition has passed legislation to block “no deal” brexit, forced the (limited) publication of Yellowhammer and has so far held firm that a general election must wait until “no deal” is safely sent packing longer term.

So brexit is safe ground for the rebel alliance and a rebel alliance government would likely build on this safe ground.

As such we would expect to see a lot of presently secret government papers published and a lot of non disclosure agreements voided. Both moves would likely see a lot of industry and other groups better able to detail the damage brexit represents – or at least “no deal” and “hard” brexit as pursued by the May and Johnson governments.

Then there would need to be a public vote.

A General Election?

At some point a General Election would be needed but it would be an odd government that, having taken office, quickly put its position and agenda at risk.

With the Conservatives still ahead in polls and with the alliance itself unlikely to agree a policy platform beyond the issue of remain/leave, the introduction of domestic politics seems highly risky.

Domestic policy will be an issue at a General Election when millions of voters who aren’t motivated about brexit “switch on” to politics. Labour benefited from that in 2017 and their strategy is to repeat the trick next time around. But with the risk of a “no deal” Conservative win, it is hard to see a diverse rebel alliance agreeing to take the chance.

Besides, a hung parliament remains a likely outcome and that would resolve nothing.

A Referendum Then? So When?

A referendum is something almost all of the rebel alliance agrees should happen – with only a handful of former Tories and current Labour rebels reluctant. So it would be pursued, but perhaps not quickly.

There is little cause to rush a referendum if the rebel alliance forms a government. Those hoping for a remain win have nothing to fear from more and more bad brexit news emerging over several weeks and months.

The risk in that, however, is that from opposition the Conservatives can play up the “anti-establishment” angle of leave, while the rebel alliance may find day-to-day government hard to manage without falling out over things like spending plans and other domestic policy.

And time on its own won’t resolve the detail of a referendum either.

A Referendum on What?

At present it isn’t clear what people would be asked to vote on. Labour’s policy of a referendum including a “credible” leave option has drawn ire from many Remainers, but something other than a vague and ill-defined “leave” needs to be put to the people.

Two real life brexits now exist. One is Theresa May’s hard brexit. The other is “no deal” brexit.

Given the efforts to block “no deal”, the rebel alliance would be highly unlikely to accept that as one of the options. Widespread opposition to Theresa May’s deal (both in Parliament and across the public) is also unlikely to see it deemed “credible”.

So what would the alliance propose goes up against remain? If they are confident of remain winning they need not fear this question. But if they feel there is a risk of losing, a new alternative – such as remaining in the single market and/or customs union –  wouldb be an imperative. That could take months to negotiate.


There might not be a rebel alliance government government for the foreseeable future, but if one is formed it will probably need an agenda and timetable agreed before taking office.

That agenda and timetable will likely depend heavily on expectations of who would win a referendum, and what it asks.

That is the big negotiation either underway or that needs to happen, and the outcome will inform who leads it rather than result from who does.

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