The challenge to Theresa May’s leadership of the Conservative Party may have provided the high drama of British politics but its outcome has changed little. The Prime Minister still faces a near-impossible task of getting her Brexit deal through Parliament.
The discipline in her party has descended to the point where at least one of those backbench Tory MPs who opposed her has said he might well back a Labour vote of no confidence in her government, and others have threatened to ‘go on strike’ so that the government couldn’t get any business done. Meanwhile the clock ticks to the moment when this country might well find itself leaving the European Union without any deal at all, potentially causing economic havoc and massive disruption to people’s lives. The world looks on aghast. Are we reaching the point where the very system of British government is breaking down?
Most of us have grown up thinking of politics as a form of boxing match. The main parties would slug it out in the ring and we, the voters, would support one or other of them as we fancied, often switching allegiance as we saw fit. Sometimes it could be a bit bloody but usually there was a ‘result’: someone was victorious and the business of government could carry on. And in all this noisy, antagonistic and uncertain business there was at least one constant we could always be sure would contain the fight and still be standing at the end. The referee and the ring. That’s to say, the constitutional set-up of Parliament, parties and the democratic vote. Not for us, we might smugly have suggested, the complicated, legalistic written constitutions of other countries: our apparatus of government had grown up organically over the centuries and as a result was far more robust and capable of withstanding even the most intractable political difficulties.
Can we still say that? There is plenty of reason to start doubting it and for many people it is a source of deep alarm.
The most obvious evidence of breakdown is the paralysis over Brexit. Our way of doing government is supposed to work like this. The constitution gives the power to govern to the party which can command a majority in the House of Commons. That party exercises its power by imposing discipline on MPs under the party’s banner and if that party messes up in government, there’s always another party, the official opposition, waiting ready for the voters to sweep them into power to get the first lot out. But it’s this system, it’s argued, that is breaking down.
The Brexit issue has divided parties for nearly seventy years – ever since the European issue first put itself on the agendas of government. Getting Britain into the old EEC in the first place required cross-party support and subsequent milestones in the history of the EEC’s transformation into the EU have required either similar cross-party cooperation or the governing party having a sufficiently big majority to see off its own rebels and get its EU business through with the exclusive backing of its own benches. The reason Theresa May called an unscheduled election last year was because she hoped (and expected) to win a big enough majority to play the same trick again and ram her chosen mode of leaving the EU through Parliament on Conservative votes alone. But the gamble failed.
Which is why we are where are now. It is pretty clear to everyone that there is no majority in the House of Commons for any of the options being put forward for how to proceed: the Prime Minister’s deal; a ‘softer’ Norway deal; leaving with no deal at all. The one certainty is that the status quo cannot just carry on. If there is no result ‘in the ring’ we shall leave the EU on 29 March of next year. Even the option of postponing that exit would not seem to command a majority, at least not at the moment.
At the same time, Brexit is consuming so much of the government’s energies and attention that it is fair to say that almost nothing else is getting a look-in. And within that ‘nothing else’ are the things that really matter to the British people: solving the housing crisis, finding a long-term solution to the social care problem, dealing with the rising levels of violent crime, responding to the emerging global trade war and the breakdown of relations between some of the big powers. And so on. In other words it would not be unfair to say that Britain’s system of government is largely failing to give sufficient attention to the issues that matter most to people while failing to solve the problem to which it is giving almost all of its attention.
Some might say that’s overstating the case and that what we’re seeing is just a little local difficulty (or perhaps a rather large local difficulty) but that the system itself remains sound. But is that true, or are we seeing something new: the boxing match as no longer simply just an unusually bloody and protracted affair but one in which the ring itself is beginning to collapse?
The evidence for the latter would lie, it might be suggested, in what is happening in both major parties. All governments require party discipline in order to function but at the same time can tolerate a certain amount of dissent. It’s the level of dissent in both parties that causes many observers to be worried about the viability of the whole system.
In the Conservative Party it is not just that 117 MPs – more than a third of the parliamentary party - voted for Mrs May to go. It’s that her victory has not been accepted by those who lost. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the European Research Group of Tory Brexiteers opposed to her deal, said she should resign as prime minister because she couldn’t command a majority in the House of Commons even though she had not even faced a Labour motion of no confidence, let alone lost one. One of his colleagues is reported to have threatened to vote with Labour if it did put down such a motion; others threatened to ‘go on strike’ to make governing virtually impossible.
The state of things with the official opposition may not be so different even if it’s attracting much less attention. In more normal times you might expect a government as paralysed as this one to face an opposition twenty points or so ahead in the opinion polls, desperate for an election. But Labour is at best neck-and-neck with the Tories. And even if there were an election and Labour won, a Jeremy Corbyn government would face all the same problems with a parliamentary party also divided on many issues. Some Labour MPs have been reported as saying privately that they don’t want to bring the government down because they don’t want a Corbyn-led Labour government anyway.
Some commentators will go this far with the claim that Britain’s system of government is breaking up but then offer a solution. Brexit, they say, is the cause of the problem but is unusual because it splits all parties so radically. The solution is to take the decision out of the hands of MPs and parties and have a second referendum.
But whatever the pros and cons of this idea it doesn’t really address the more fundamental issue of whether Britain’s system of government is collapsing. To some, the original recourse to a referendum on the issue of EU membership is the origin of our current woes. That’s because, they say, referendums put only a crude question to the people and Parliament still has to act on the result. In the case of the last referendum the system broke down, it’s argued, because while the public voted to leave, the most MPs wanted to stay in the EU. They struggled to square the circle of fulfilling the referendum result while minimising (as they saw it) the costs of leaving. Another referendum that got the same result would have the same problem, and one which reversed the decision would throw up its own constitutional problems.
One way of regarding the current problem with our system of government is to see it as a Christmas game of ‘Pass the Parcel’. Government is supposed to take decisions but can’t enforce them. It passes the parcel to parliament which can’t agree what to do. Then parliament passes the parcel (if there is another referendum) back to the people who come up with a decision that’s then passed back to government – and so it goes on. No one wants to be left with whatever is inside the parcel.
But to some the analogy with a party game is far, far too frivolous. The stakes are very much higher, they say. Professor Peter Hennessy, a constitutional historian and crossbench peer, told Radio Four’s The Briefing Room this week that this was a Grade-One listed crisis, the gravest in his lifetime. He cited Britain’s future relations with Europe, our place in the world, the Irish peace process, the integrity of the United Kingdom itself, and the sense of a growing division between the governed and the governing. He also said that the very future of the party system and the role of Parliament as an institution are at stake. But what worried him most of all was that the public would lose faith in the very institutions of government we have taken for granted as the means to maintain order and promote prosperity so that we can simply get on with our lives.
Is he right? Is the British system of government beginning to crack up? Or are the fears exaggerated?