28 March 2017
The Birds are Coming Home to Roost
Chaos in Commons.
By J R Thomas
If there is anything that any competent business person knows, it is that you cannot run a business by committee. Or run an army. Or an expedition. And certainly not a country. One of the great strengths of the non-existent British constitution is the evolution of the primus inter pares – the minister equal to, yet superior to the others.
The Prime Minister is just a minister, but he, she, or it, is also the boss minister with in practice remarkable powers over colleagues and in the House of Commons. The restraints on her (and we will stick to “her” but without any intention of judgementalism or discrimination against any other form of gender presentation) are mostly convention and practice. The PM can hire and fire ministers, sign agreements, commit to courses of action, and make many other executive and far reaching decisions without requiring any second signature or other authority. (The approval of the monarch is sometimes required, it is true, but convention is that the monarch signs whatever is placed before her, and to change that practice would indeed be extraordinary and revolutionary.) This has evolved over many centuries, as Chancellor Merkel noted sneeringly last week, but it works. There is a reason why Britain has this and Germany doesn’t, Angela, but for the sake of a beautiful friendship, let’s not go there.
But so weak has our current premier’s grip on events become, that on Monday the House of Commons decided to take over her job, and run things by itself, if it can but agree who and what and when. The only remedy to an overbearing or wrongly headed Premier is to fire her. The monarch could do that, but it is impossible to envisage circumstances in which that power would be used. The Premier’s party in the Commons (or in the case of Labour, also in the country at large) could dismiss her, but that is not so easy, as recent events show. Or the House of Commons could pass a vote of no-confidence, in which case the Prime Minister would normally resign. Though maybe not; she might argue that the loss does not strike to crucial matters and carry on; it is not entirely clear what then would happen but presumably the Speaker could suspend the sittings of the House.
Readers who can still bear to pick up a daily paper or switch on the TV or even Google the news stories, will find the discussion above is not as theoretical as it might have been a year ago. (If you are looking on Google the relevant stories are about thirty five down, when you have exhausted those about footballers and popstars of whom you have never heard.) Mrs May is tacking her own constitutional course at the moment, and getting into some very odd water indeed. Last week she instructed our Ambassador to the European Union, Sir Tim Barrow, to agree an extension to Britain’s exit from the EU under Article 50, to April 12th, with further extensions if required. She has no power to do that without the authority of the House of Commons, and the instruction given to Sir Tim appears not to be legal. Our man in the chocolate and chips capital seems unfazed by this and did as he was told, something he may come to regret.
It is also very clear to everybody except Mrs May that she has lost the confidence and support of her political party in both the country and in the Commons, of her cabinet, and of the Commons overall, and even without due votes and process it would be normal at this point to step down, or at least invite confidence to be shown (or not) formally. But Theresa is not like other primus inter pares, and appears to be converting herself to pure primus. In fact, she seems in danger of edging towards the assumption of semi dictatorial powers, an extraordinary situation. She has not yet appeared in the House with soldiers seeking to arrest unruly and dissident members, and if she does, she will find, unlike Charles I, that the birds are not flown, but are sitting on the back benches shouting abuse. Boris and Ian and Bill and Jacob and Steve are sitting it out, with rumour being that Boris and Jacob in particular, men who know their history and their political convention, are increasingly concerned by the smashing of constitutional china in 10 Downing Street and becoming more concerned at the danger to British political stability than mere Brexit problems.
So is Mrs M become a Cromwell; but without the strength, intelligence, or strategy that forced Oliver to suspend the constitution and make himself a relatively benign dictator? Oliver had reason, as a means of bringing stability back to a country riven by civil war. Theresa is doing it without thought or reason to try and force though a measure without majority support. Though without any known viable alternative, to be fair. She is not, we hope, aiming at dictatorship and no doubt is doing it because she thinks she is right, and everybody else wrong. But she is in very dangerous water indeed; indeed, she is utterly wrong in what she is doing, however well-intentioned.
That is the opinion of the majority of the Commons also. But their answer is to find a can of petrol and throw that on the pyre of constitutional law. On Monday night the Commons took the initiative, threw off the convention of cabinet government, and will proceed on Wednesday to ask itself a series of questions as to what sort of Brexit might command the support of the House. (We presume Mr Speaker, a strange mixture of poisonous partisanship, pompous bilge, and a surprisingly strong grip of constitutional propriety, will allow such a process.)
The House of Commons can talk to itself all it likes, says the cabinet, the only deal on the table is the May deal, as agreed with Michael Barnier, Jean-Claude Junker, Uncle Emmanuel Macron, and all. Indeed, the ministers peddling that line, no doubt on the instructions of the boss, are essentially right. And as we must go to press before these votes, we have to assume that further rancorous stalemate will indeed be the only outcome. So the government will simply ignore any deal approved by the Commons which is not that one. Or pursue a no-deal exit on Friday; they have not said, though that is the only legal and approved deal in existence at this point.
Perhaps this is Mrs M’s secret strategy, the masterplan of a devious and great mind anxious to achieve Brexit by sheer effrontery, and be praised in history as St Theresa, the liberator of Great Britain, the out-witter of the Brussels terror. That does not seem any more far-fetched than what is happening now as the clock ticks towards…, well towards we don’t know what, as we don’t even know whose clock we are watching.
One thing is for sure, this hour has failed to produce any woman, man, or person of unspecified gender to get a grip on things. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Speaker, many cabinet ministers, and even our Ambassador in Brussels (who should have resigned on receiving his instructions) are not up to the times. The birdhouse is in chaos; but will the fox come?