Politics can sometimes seem to be in a settled state for years. The successive Ascendancies of Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Blair were in many ways times of great solidity; durable political structures with governments having gained clear mandates from the people, carrying through their programmes and relying on solid parliamentary majorities. Other periods are more turbulent, with fragile governments in and out of office and with seismic shifts in political structures: 1846, 1866-8, 1903-1906, 1922-4, 1931, and 1970-4. My hunch is that since the last election, and particularly since June 23rd and the emergence of our accidental Prime Minister we are in for a period of rapid and potentially destructive change.
This administration, in office with such scant legitimacy, now finds itself sorely tested. Faced with the complexities of the Brexit inheritance the government has after nearly half a year failed to outline any coherent and plausible objective for a new European relationship beyond platitudes which have slipped from meaninglessness to embarrassing laughability.
Now Mrs. May has been told by the Courts that she has to submit the question of initiating the Article 50 negotiations to Parliament by means of a government bill. The High Court judges took the not entirely unreasonable view that parliamentary approval in a parliamentary democracy requires submitting to parliament possibly the most important question facing the country since the War – a point now conceded albeit reluctantly by Mr. Farage. The press hysteria at this outrage helps only to stoke the flames of division, anger and hatred which increasingly characterise our benighted nation. One is tempted to ask, in passing, whatever happened to ‘contempt of court’? Or is it now acceptable for the pro-Brexit press to hound judges in language which would seem to be inherited from the brownshirts?
Mrs. May ploughs on. She intends challenging the High Court’s ruling in the Supreme Court but it is thought unlikely that the highest of all courts will prove so amenable to pressure from the gutter press and from ministers as to disown the constitutional arguments of their colleagues in the High Court. If she is rebuffed again in the courts she will seek to suborn Parliament into rushing approval for recourse to Article 50; and she is now conducting a charm offensive (not, one would have thought, her usual default mode) with Mr. Juncker and European governments to assure them that Brexit is still on course.
Initially she had hoped that Parliament could be excluded from the whole process: for if she might hope to get MPs’ backing for the mandate for starting the negotiations (with some vague references to maximum access to the internal market), parliamentary support for the outcome will be another matter when it becomes clear that the only Brexit on offer is a very hard one as long as the UK insists that decisions on freedom of movement be repatriated.
So parliamentary rights are likely to be upheld over ‘triggering’ Article 50; over the outcome of the negotiations; over the subsequent possible new trading relationship with the EU; and, of course, over the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ which would allow future parliaments to undermine the entrenched protections for people at work, for consumers and for the environment which we currently enjoy. In other words, Brexit will dominate British public life for years, and the uncertainties and fragilities of this process will be awesome even if all runs to plan
If Parliament’s rights have been salvaged they need to be used, otherwise the quality of our parliamentary sovereignty is undermined and those hard fought fundamental rights wither on the vine. This is not just a question of accountability and transparency – getting the government to come clean over its game plan when it cobbles one together. If this is all some in the Labour party hierarchy and the Brexit shadow Sir Keir Starmer are looking for, then they have failed to take the measure of the situation.
Parliamentary democracy requires giving to Parliament the final word as to the negotiating mandate. If the parliamentary majority is serious about protecting Britain’s economic interests, its determination to have the greatest possible access to the internal market, its insistence on preserving the rights of Britons living in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK, it should amend any government bill to enshrine indelibly these points in the authorisation it gives to government, and make clear that failure to achieve these aims will make it inevitable that the outcome of the negotiations will be rejected. If this dialectic between parliament and the executive takes time so be it: parliament must be prepared to vote down any government bill which fails to take on board its priorities for the mandate. And a word of advice to the Labour leadership: you will not enhance parliament’s influence on the negotiations by announcing in advance that come what may you will back triggering Article 50. If so, then what was the point of taking up the time of the judges?
This all requires a modicum of courage, not necessarily a quality in abundant supply among our politicians. MPs who wish to exercise their judgment can expect to face hounding by the media jackals. There may well be attempts to place them in difficulty with their constituents. Mrs. May herself has set the tone. Labour, in particular, starts off with its confidence shattered by internal division and by fear that its pro-European stance has played badly in its northern fiefdoms. But Labour MPs would do well to remember that two-thirds of Labour supporters voted for Remain: and to ask themselves whether the voters in those northern seats will still be so Eurosceptic when inflation starts to bite and when growth declines? If the official Labour position shifts to support for Brexit subject to a purely formal exercise of parliamentary control it may once again wrong-foot itself with its own supporters.
Mr. Corbyn’s personal position sometimes appears to be support for Brexit but untrammeled freedom of movement which I think is called ‘getting the worst of all worlds’. His more encouraging statement today seeming to make support conditional on key Labour demands (full access to the internal market and protecting workplace rights) was then qualified to the point of meaninglessness by his loyal deputy.
Mrs. May has also now to face the third of three unnecessary by-elections caused by the disaffection or defection of sitting MPs. Her Brexiteer supporters are gung-ho for an early ‘Brexit’ election, fearful that the current Parliament with its ‘remain’ majority might just have the temerity to scrutinize the Brexit plan of the government. The pundits point to favorable opinion polls.
But Mrs. May and many of her colleagues voted a major constitutional change under the last government fixing at five years the length of the parliamentary term. A snap election would require parliamentary approval for this constitutional change which in itself would take time, making any election less snappy and more fraught with danger. Her predecessors Mr. Wilson and Mr. Heath both discovered that holding snap elections can end up with your backside getting bitten. By early 2017, the government’s record will be looking pretty threadbare: a mushrooming crisis about NHS funding, the threat of the reintroduction of selectivity in schooling, the return of inflation with prices outstripping wage growth and the mess into which the whole Brexit process has descended.
So Mrs. May now faces intractable problems which could threaten the survival of her government. She clings to the hope that with Mr. Corbyn as her opponent she has nothing to fear. But both would be well advised to look carefully at what is happening around them. They may treat with scorn the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, with their derisory representation in Parliament. The recent decision of the Greens not to contest the Richmond Park by-election so that the Liberal Democrats have a clear run on a progressive pro-European ticket may be just a footnote in this highly charged political season. But if Mr. Goldsmith loses his gamble, with the two minority parties now clawing back some ground in the opinion polls, they may start to look like an attractive haven for other progressives, disenchanted by Labour and appalled by this incompetent, mendacious and reactionary government. Then our times will have become more interesting.
In particular those within the Labour Party including many of the talented parliamentarians sitting out this particular dance on the backbenches may come to reflect that Labour with its diminishing electoral base, with the loss of its Scottish troops, should now be looking for a wider coalition of like-minded progressives either in new structures or through electoral cooperation with existing forces as the best means of reasserting the values of social justice, liberal enlightenment and equality, now under threat by populist forces abetted by a government which through sins of omission and commission is undermining a post war social and economic consensus and betraying its trust.
Labour needs to develop a new cooperative habit, and work with the SNP, with the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and progressive mainstream Tories whose votes at Westminster will all be vital to any attempt to influence Brexit. I am increasingly doubtful whether this government can survive its full term, and I believe we may see kaleidoscopic changes in political alignments.