Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Historic defeat for May and the Withdrawal Agreement

Last night the government suffered an unprecedented defeat. Theresa May's withdrawal agreement with the European Union was voted down by a majority of two hundred and thirty. The size of the defeat would have brought down any previous government. Yet without even a moment's reflection, Theresa May made it clear that she intended to carry on.

Theresa May has proved to be a remarkably resilient prime minister. Again and again, she has brushed aside events that would have brought down any other prime minister and government. Only last month, brushed off a vote of no confidence in a her leadership of the party. Whilst it is true that technically she had won the vote, she only did so because of the convention that all members of the government have to vote for the leader. A similar result had famously brought down Margaret Thatcher.

Whilst May brushed off the biggest defeat in history as though it were nothing more than a minor set back, it is not the end of her troubles. Later today she faces a vote of no confidence in her government. Downing Street and the corporate media are all pushing the line that she will win the vote. The basis for this judgement is the assumption that her own party will vote for her (in preference to the fear of Jeremy Corbyn, who they affect to see as a dangerous Marxist) and the DUP will (albeit somewhat ironically) vote for her because her withdrawal agreement has been defeated, removing their fear of the Irish Protocol.

The prediction that May will win the confidence vote may well be correct (although it would only require a handful of abstentions in her party to bring her down). Yet it is bizarre that a government that cannot command a majority in the House of Commons and cannot get its flagship policies through the House can struggle on from one crisis to another as though nothing of significance has happened. Worse still, it seems obvious that the government does not have the creative capacity to think of any way of leaving the European Union that could command a majority in the House.

This impasse means that the legal default position - that the United Kingdom leaves the European Union on 29th March without a deal - is the most likely scenario. This is especially ironic, as of all the possible options, it is the one that has the least support in parliament. Yet, it is probably the only way this weak government can still implement the decision of the 2016 referendum.

Leaving without a deal is, of course, precisely the worst possible outcome in the view of the elites, both in this country and in the European Union. Thus, the hysteria and panic are ramping up. There are constantly reiterated assertions that parliament must not allow a no deal. There are constant demands that the government must rule out no deal. There are constant demands that there must be a people's vote. There is an air of unreality to all these shrill demands. The corporate journalists, the pundits and the politicians making them generally do so without any indication of what they would involve.

The call to re-run the referendum, for instance, is made without any apparent recognition that it would require the government to initiate it, or that it would take six months or so to organise, or even what the question on the ballot paper would be (although they obviously want remain). Similarly, those demanding that parliament rule out a no deal do not seem to appreciate that parliament does not have the capacity to do so, as it would require the government to bring forward the necessary legislation. And those who demand that the government rule out no deal do not seem to understand that the government was elected on a manifesto that promised to implement the result of the referendum and that they are therefore demanding that the Tory party commits political suicide. Indeed, the only way to prevent the country leaving without a deal would be for the remainers to capture the executive.

According to Sky News sixty-one percent of people think the country is in crisis. Frankly, I doubt it: but answers depend on how you ask the question. However, what I do not doubt is that the political elite is in crisis. It is a crisis of its own making. Parliament delegated the decision as to whether to leave the European Union to the people, fully expecting the decision to be  remain. The people decided otherwise, and ever since, the political elite have been grappling with the insoluble problem of how to appear to leave whilst actually remaining. There simply is no solution to this problem, and as the March deadline draws ever closer, the panic and hysteria rise ever higher.

It is an open question how far their desperation will drive them. The Speaker of the House, John Bercow, has already shown that he is not above overthrowing the constitution. Doubtless others in parliament will be tempted down the same path. Indeed, there has already been mutterings of using an all party backbench committee to capture control of the executive, which would be a truly revolutionary move.

The clash between direct democracy and representative democracy set in train by the result of the referendum is testing the constitution to the limit. Should the political elite fail to implement the result of the referendum even greater tests may follow.

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