15:16, March 25 135 0 theguardian.com

2019-03-25 15:16:04
The Guardian view on parliament and Brexit: take back control

Brexit is a revolution, so expect revolutionary consequences. It appears the UK has reached a potentially decisive turning point in the direction of the constitutional order. Parliamentary government is essentially a government by means of party, yet the complete breakdown in discipline on the Conservative benches sees ministers of the crown being guided by the decisions of parliament rather than guiding them. Once party organisation fails, leaders can no longer make a parliamentary assembly act steadily. Hence the tragedy of Theresa May’s premiership turning into farce.

The chaos is a direct result of a referendum imposing a decision to leave the European Union upon a parliament that had not worked out how to do so. The trouble is that no one can agree what the terms of departure ought to be. Theresa May’s deal has been resoundingly rejected twice; parliament does not want to leave without a deal and MPs are attempting to work out what the Commons could support. These options Mrs May described as her Brexit, no Brexit, or slow Brexit. She also said a hard Brexit would be taken off the table, which is a very good thing. Less encouraging was that Mrs May saying she will not pursue a softer Brexit, even if MPs vote for it, because no one would “support an option which contradicted the manifesto on which they stood”. This is counterproductive and wrong.

Mrs May’s strategy is to keep Tory hard Brexiters on board – and it has proved flawed with good reason. The prime minister acts in a high-handed manner, a political mode best suited to leaders who command sizable majorities. Leading a minority administration is different, as Mrs May’s European counterparts know, and this reflects why so many cannot understand why the prime minister refuses to compromise and to work cross-party. This behaviour has bred distrust. Rather than engaging in debate and listening, Mrs May has sought to manoeuvre MPs into backing her proposals, which she then smuggles into votes.

What backbenchers lack is the organisation and co-ordination of party to enable a clear choice for Brexit. A series of indicative votes on the different options does not guarantee that one emerges with clearcut support; nor does Ken Clarke’s preferential voting system. Brexit has created constitutional uncertainty, but also opportunity. Meg Russell, of University College London’s Constitution Unit, suggests a novel Commons procedure for breaking the deadlock. Professor Russell suggests holding two ballots. The first would ask MPs to rank in preference: a Brexit deal; a Brexit deal subject to a referendum; and last, revoking Brexit. The second would ask MPs to list, in order of preference, the varieties of Brexit deal. It is a novel idea worth considering for its clarity should the current process fail.

In politics, partisan character often wins out over collegiate character. Parliament is a creature designed, in William Gladstone’s words, “not to govern but to call to account those who govern”. Mrs May exploits this idea ruthlessly. Yet the political moment is unusual because MPs are not voting in a partisan manner. Governments assume that they have control of the Commons agenda. But in truth they only do so on the basis that a parliamentary majority supports the government. When it does not, politics gets stuck. Level-headed parliamentarians are trying to steer a course out of the mire. They ought to be supported by the prime minister, not jeered at for trying to help. Mrs May’s failure to win support from Brexiters for her Brexit policy has sunk her premiership. Let her not take parliament down too.

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