Who governs Britain? | Financial Times

Who governs Britain? | Financial Times

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On August 29 2013, the British submarine HMS Tireless was someplace within the Mediterranean, able to go to battle. However unusually, its commanders have been watching the Home of Commons.

MPs have been debating whether or not to authorise strikes in opposition to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Monitoring occasions in parliament by way of the BBC web site, the submarine’s commanders realised, earlier than any order got here by means of, that they’d not be firing cruise missiles in any case.

The Syria debate was the primary time for the reason that American battle of independence British authorities had misplaced a vote on navy motion. Aware of how little scrutiny had been utilized to Tony Blair’s blueprint to invade Iraq in 2003, many MPs had wished to keep away from the identical mistake. Some hadn’t wished to dam strikes on Syria altogether, simply to drive David Cameron to revise his plan. As a substitute they not solely inadvertently stopped the UK going to battle: in addition they prompted Barack Obama to desert the US’s personal plans to bomb Syria, leaving Assad’s regime free to commit additional atrocities.

The occasions of August 2013 put the present disaster in perspective. Lengthy earlier than Brexit, MPs had began to take again management. Lengthy earlier than Brexit, they’d learnt it was no easy process.

Time to rebuild democracy? Repairs to the Homes of Parliament obscure the tower that’s dwelling to Massive Ben © Laura Hynd

So, for all of the hyperbole, this week’s votes to reject Theresa May’s Brexit deal and lengthen Brexit talks past the March 29 deadline have been arguably not essentially the most dramatic choices that the Commons has made within the final decade, and even essentially the most confused. Nor have the previous three years been the unhappiest time in Westminster’s residing reminiscence. That prize goes to the MPs’ bills scandal of 2009-10.

What does make the Brexit disaster distinctive is its constitutional havoc. By no means in current occasions have so many components of the British system been underneath a lot pressure for therefore lengthy. The 1956 Suez disaster was over inside a month; this has been two and a half years of parliamentary trench warfare.

Cupboard conferences have leaked, get together self-discipline has disintegrated, parliamentary conventions have been rewritten. Strip away the chaos and the farce, and the Brexit course of “has proven our unwritten structure is principally damaged”, says Stewart Wooden, a Labour peer.

However the break didn’t begin the place one may count on — between the Home of Commons and the Home of Lords, the manager and the legislature, and even the manager and the judiciary. It began with parliament versus the individuals. “When you may have a referendum in a parliamentary democracy, MPs don’t know what to do — they don’t know what their job is,” says Lord Wooden.


Referendums have by no means had a lot of a spot within the British structure. They’re a recognition that the legitimacy of governments and parliaments goes solely to this point: that some points, of nationwide id or cultural norms, don’t match on the left-right scale that governs our elections.

Clement Attlee referred to as them “alien to all of our traditions”. Maybe that mirrored an idealised imaginative and prescient of parliament as a spot the place views weren’t merely represented, however moulded. As Edmund Burke informed his electors in 1774, “Parliament will not be a congress of ambassadors from completely different and hostile pursuits . . . parliament is a deliberative meeting of one nation, with one curiosity, that of the entire.”

Regardless of the motive, earlier than Brexit solely two UK-wide plebiscites had been held — one in 1975 on membership of the European Neighborhood, one other in 2011 on altering the voting system for MPs. In each, MPs and voters agreed.

The Brexit referendum was the primary time that Britain’s citizens has voted for an final result with which its MPs disagreed. Almost 52 per cent of UK voters backed Depart, whereas practically 75 per cent of right this moment’s MPs voted Stay. That was solely half the issue. The opposite is that many of the 25 per cent of MPs who did vote Depart disagreed with how the federal government (led by former Remainers) interpreted the vote. So parliamentary democracy and direct democracy grew to become incompatible.

A technique out of this could have been to ask the individuals to rethink or settle for revised phrases. It occurred in Eire in 2008, on the Lisbon treaty, in Greece in 2015, on an EU bailout, and in Colombia in 2016, on a peace settlement with Farc guerrillas. However in June 2016, nobody might turn into Tory chief on such a pledge (ask Jeremy Hunt: he tried). As a substitute, the division between parliament and the individuals morphed right into a stalemate between parliament and the manager. Earlier than this week’s losses, Could’s authorities had already recorded the worst Commons defeat ever on her Brexit deal. In December, it additionally grew to become the primary ever to be present in contempt of parliament, over its preliminary refusal to publish a authorized opinion on its Brexit deal.

Telephone strains and a utilities hall within the basement of the Homes of Parliament. There was a disconnect between parliament and the individuals it represents © Laura Hynd

You will discover extra spectacular stand-offs between executives and legislatures — Donald Trump and the US Congress, or Nicolás Maduro and the Venezuelan Nationwide Meeting. However Britain’s parliamentary system was by no means meant to work like that. The chief, nearly by definition, controls the decrease chamber. Parliament is at all times sovereign in the identical means the shopper is at all times proper — that’s, in precept. The actual energy lies with the governing get together.

In essentially the most well-known take a look at of its authority — the 1642-51 English civil battle — parliament got here out the clear winner. This time, its popularity might have undergone lasting harm.

Loss of life threats in opposition to MPs are actually the norm. Even past the lunatic fringe, there’s bafflement. After MPs rejected Could’s deal on Wednesday, the Confederation of British Trade referred to as on parliament to “cease this circus”; the entrance web page of the Day by day Mail denounced “The Home of Fools”. Requested if parliament is rising from Brexit in a superb mild, solely 6 per cent of voters say sure. That makes the US Congress’s approval scores look wholesome. Eurosceptic Tory MPs, who as soon as championed parliamentary sovereignty, have referred to as solely half-jokingly for the Commons to be suspended to forestall a no-deal Brexit being blocked.

Nevertheless the disaster ends, the decision on parliament’s efficiency might be “fairly damning”, says Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society think-tank. “To some extent it’s been a scarcity of strategic pondering, creativeness and initiative.”

By the point MPs voted on Wednesday to rule out a no-deal Brexit, it was 993 days for the reason that referendum — and simply 16 to the scheduled Brexit date. Why, after the Iraq and Syria debacles, has parliament taken so lengthy to search out its voice?

It might have been a lot much less painful. Just a few days after the referendum, a gaggle of defeated Labour MPs went to see the then Cupboard Workplace minister Oliver Letwin. The MPs had a proposal: the federal government ought to kind a cross-party group to agree a Brexit plan.

The concept was modelled on European practices, corresponding to how Denmark’s overseas affairs committee drafts a mandate for the federal government’s worldwide negotiations. “It will have been a sounding board for presidency,” says one of many Labour MPs, Stephen Kinnock.

However summer season 2016 was not the perfect time for European-inspired concepts within the UK, and Theresa Could, the least collaborative of politicians, was by no means the perfect particular person to obtain them. “Too usually politicians’ response to seek the advice of­ation is that it’s an indication of weak point. It isn’t,” says Kinnock.


In regular occasions, MPs must stability not less than two mandates — the get together line and their conscience. In late 2016, nonetheless, Conservative MPs had not less than 4. There was David Cameron’s 2015 election manifesto, on which they’d been elected. There was their conscience. There was the referendum consequence. And there was Could’s personal platform as get together chief — an interpretation of the Brexit vote that prioritised an finish to free motion of individuals, and a deal with state intervention to sort out burning injustices. This state of affairs didn’t turn into less complicated after the inconclusive 2017 election, wherein the Conservatives remained the most important get together however misplaced their majority. Could’s imaginative and prescient had neither been endorsed nor utterly rejected.

Speaker of the Home of Commons John Bercow, centre, is an instance of the chamber’s contradictions, reforming its procedures whereas celebrating its pomposity © UK Parliament/Mark Duffy

Below a cross-party method, these mandates might need been moulded into one thing coherent. In 2016, Could had enough command over her get together to drive Eurosceptic MPs to compromise. Europhile MPs have been nonetheless cowed by the referendum consequence: they too might have compromised. The hole between direct democracy and consultant democracy might need been bridged.

As a substitute, the prime minister misplaced the chance to form how parliament dealt with Brexit. She ploughed her personal furrow, and in doing so planted the seeds of resentment and riot. “Theresa Could appeared to suppose on the outset that she can be going to Brussels to barter, and would then current the deal to parliament on a take-it-or-leave-it foundation,” says Meg Russell, director of the Structure Unit at College Faculty London. “We’re one million miles from that now.”

In February 2017 MPs did vote to invoke Article 50, principally unaware two-year deadline would quickly create the danger of a no-deal Brexit. However then the Conservative MP Dominic Grieve led a riot of MPs to make sure that the Commons can be given a ultimate, “significant” vote. MPs used that vote to dam Could’s deal. MPs have pressured ministers to carry debates, attend choose committees, hand over paperwork and conform to deadlines.

This represents the swinging again of the pendulum from the New Labour years, when massive majorities meant MPs acted as a weak examine on energy. It was solely after Iraq and the bills revelations — which confirmed that MPs had used taxpayer cash to pay, amongst different issues, for non-existent mortgages — that the Commons pulled itself collectively. In 2009 the clerk for laws Robert Rogers, now Lord Lisvane, revealed a listing of 75 actions to revive the chamber. John Bercow, elected as speaker shortly afterwards, has carried out greater than 30 of them — together with calling ministers repeatedly to the chamber to reply pressing questions.

Greater than anybody, Bercow sums up Westminster’s contradictions. He has reformed the Commons’ procedures, whereas celebrating its pomposity. He has stood up for lowly backbenchers, whereas going through accusations (which he denies) of bullying clerks. He makes positive all MPs have their flip to talk, whereas guaranteeing that he emerges as the actual star.

Bleak view: requested if parliament is rising from Brexit in a superb mild, solely 6 per cent of voters say sure © Laura Hynd

It helped Bercow that within the 2010 election no get together gained a majority and the Commons noticed an inflow of independent-minded, constituency-focused MPs, who knew that their voting data could possibly be scrutinised by way of numerous web sites.

However holding the federal government to account is one factor, setting the agenda one other. The Brexit disaster has proven this. In January and February, when MPs tabled amendments that would actually empower backbenchers — by giving them management of what’s debated within the Commons, or organising voting methods for MPs to rank completely different Brexit choices — the bulk stepped again. “I feel essentially the most outstanding factor is how unsuccessful we’ve been in taking management,” says one shadow minister. Confronted with a selection of now or by no means, MPs usually determined it couldn’t be now. Solely this week did they turn into bolder, rejecting Could’s deal for a second time. In response, the federal government agreed to facilitate a vote on completely different Brexit choices in the event that they rejected it a 3rd time.

“The final two years have thrown into sharp reduction the issues that parliament is sweet at and the issues it isn’t good at. It’s usually not good at legislating,” says Lisvane. “The issues which have gone rather well are choose committees.”

True, the cross-party Brexit committee of MPs has repeatedly uncovered authorities incompetence. However it has solely agreed unanimously on one report, which was important of Could’s deal. Had a majority of MPs settled on a type of Brexit, Could would have needed to settle for it. However it by no means has. The one directions that parliament has handed to the manager have been incomplete-cum-impossible — rule out a no-deal Brexit, or “exchange” the Irish backstop.

The British system used to have an escape valve: by conference, prime ministers would provide their resignation to the Queen after they have been defeated on main points. However 2011’s Fastened-term Parliaments Act, meant to make sure the steadiness of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, in impact signifies that MPs can defeat the federal government’s foremost coverage with out forcing a common election.

The act lays down particular situations for an election — the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or a no-confidence movement backed by a easy majority. Thus it has robbed the federal government of a key weapon for get together self-discipline — the risk that rebels will lose their seats. However the government retains different instruments, corresponding to setting the Commons agenda. Most just lately Downing Road pulled a debate on a monetary companies invoice to cease MPs demanding harder guidelines on secret firm possession. “We’ve learnt that the federal government has phenomenal energy over the Commons, even when it doesn’t have a majority, so long as it could possibly win a vote of confidence,” says Labour MP Chris Bryant.

The result’s a stalemate: the federal government is just too weak to control, parliament too timid and too disorganised to imagine the function. It’s the stoppable drive versus the moveable object. It’s that scene in The Italian Job, the place the bus hangs on a precipice, rocking gently forwards or backwards.


Democracies have brief reminiscences. Eight years after invading Iraq, the UK pursued regime change in Libya. After the Brexit disaster, might we’ve got one other referendum? One other EU vote, one other Scottish independence referendum, even a repeat of the 1973 Northern Eire border ballot?

If we do, it would depend on MPs agitating and legislating for one. And maybe they may think about examples of how parliamentary and direct democracy will be certain collectively. Forward of Eire’s vote on abortion, the federal government ready a draft piece of laws, so the which means of the mandate was clear.

A extra instant query is the place this disaster takes Britain’s political system. Will it create an urge for food to reform or a need to not reopen previous wounds? On the very least, MPs might demand the appropriate to find out the Commons agenda. Historian Vernon Bogdanor sees Brexit as a broader “constitutional second” to appropriate years of tinkering such because the Fastened-term Parliaments Act.

Hitting backside: sewage works within the basement of the Palace of Westminster © Laura Hynd

Others suppose the reply is for the Commons to be much less assertive. A bunch of Conservative attorneys just lately argued that MPs shouldn’t be given a vote over future navy motion, as they’ve been for the reason that Iraq battle. Two main candidates to succeed Bercow as speaker — the Conservative Eleanor Laing and Labour’s Lindsay Hoyle — can be much less reformist. Lord Lisvane argues that MPs will discover they don’t have the capability to run the federal government. “My guess is that in a yr or two’s time loads of this ardour can have been spent. I feel we’ll return to the default setting.”

Besides era of MPs doesn’t know the place the default setting is. They see the function of a backbench MP not as an additional, however a protagonist. They’ve been radicalised and have already began to insurgent in opposition to the get together system. “The self-discipline has collapsed and I believe it gained’t come again after Brexit,” says Lord Wooden.

Scarred by Iraq and the bills scandal, empowered by Bercow and hung parliaments, inspired by weak get together management, the Commons is stressed. However its limitations stay. It’s an odd assortment of individuals, missing in mechanisms for constructing coalitions. It’s a caretaker boss who doesn’t relish long-term accountability. Maybe we must always not count on extra. What the UK wants most of all now will not be a stronger parliament. It’s a half-decent authorities.

Henry Mance is an FT political correspondent

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