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Parliament has been prorogued, the benches are empty, and Boris Johnson finally has a chance to rule without scrutiny from MPs. The perfect time for a thread about constitutional crisis.
The term is everywhere these days - Reuters have even done a helpful guide reaching back to Magna Carta. For once I think the circumstances probably justify the hyperbole. What’s the problem and how did we get here? uk.reuters.com/article/uk-bri…
The political problem is Brexit. The constitutional problem is the relationship between the executive, legislature & public. (Which is why last night's Commons debate was so fractious.) There’s an internal and external dimension to this — let’s start with the internal.
In the US system, the relationship between the President and Congress is defined by the Constitution. The UK system has evolved more loosely (over centuries) from a super-strong executive (the monarchy) to today’s largely ceremonial sovereign.
BUT executive power is still there — it’s effectively wielded by the prime minister, not the Queen, which is where things get complicated.
It can seem as if the UK parliamentary system doesn’t have an executive: the PM is an MP, after all; the largest party tries to form a government. (PM only gets votes from her constituents.) Laws are voted on by parliament; a Commons majority means you pass laws. Simple.
But being PM also gives you executive powers to control business in parliament: the government effectively sets the agenda and decides which bills come forward, and so on.
(Yes any MP can propose a bill; but the government has huge power over the timetable, so opposition parties rarely succeed in passing laws. Between 2010 and 2017 there were 45 successful ‘private members’ bills; 43 were sponsored by MPs from the governing party.)
Usually we don’t think about executive power because governments have majorities: a ruling party wins votes in the Commons, the executive & legislature are aligned. This can produce bad outcomes — say, a decade of austerity - but not constitutional chaos. theguardian.com/society/2018/n…
But since 2017, when Theresa May lost her majority, we’ve had a government which can’t get its major policy - Brexit - through the Commons. Some Tories won’t accept a Hard Brexit or No Deal; a larger number won’t accept soft Brexit/remain. Limbo ensues. news.sky.com/story/live-mps…
Theresa May knew this in December 2018, when she came back from Brussels with her withdrawal agreement and it was immediately clear she didn’t have the votes to get it through the Commons. If you have the stamina, here’s a thread from that dark moment.
A politician with the national interest in mind might have resigned and called a general election to break the impasse: but May knew that the splits among Conservatives over Europe were so huge that her party could fall apart in an election campaign. ft.com/content/0dee56…
(The Europe debate has always been, at heart, a question of party management for Tories; it took austerity, xenophobia and a compliant media to elevate this to a national crisis, but it began (and may still end) within the Conservative party.)
So in the three months before the 31st March 2019 deadline for leaving the EU, Theresa May pressured MPs with the threat that the UK might leave without a deal (scaring Remainers) or impose a lengthy delay on Brexit (scaring extreme Brexiters) if they rejected her agreement.
And here’s where the wheels started to come off. Our political system depends on governments having a stable majority, or calling a general election to look for one. But May forced her opponents to block a No Deal Brexit by raiding executive powers. bbc.co.uk/news/uk-476894…
Her opponents had a formidable ally in this: the speaker, John Bercow (who has just announced his retirement). Bercow helped MPs who wanted to avoid No Deal to seize control of parliamentary business and pass a law to push the March 31 deadline to Oct 31. nytimes.com/2019/03/19/wor…
I can’t overstate what a big deal this was. Governments make laws; if they can’t make laws, they hold a general election. But with Theresa May refusing to resign and the March 31st deadline established as the date we’d crash out of the EU, the opposition had to take back control.
Part of the problem is the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011, a wheeze from David Cameron (and the Liberal Democrats) which made it harder to call an election. But the major reason we didn't get one in Dec 2018 is that May knew her party could implode. researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefi…
This spring, the success of the opposition in passing a law to postpone Brexit finally forced Theresa May to resign. But she and her party still didn’t support a general election; instead, Tory members voted for a new leader who’d automatically become PM. bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politi…
The process by which you can become prime minister via a primary without a general election is bonkers but relatively well established. But to elevate a new PM by this fragile route at a moment when the governing party is falling apart was problematic, to say the least.
And since Johnson took over, we’ve seen an acceleration of the dangerous dynamics unleashed during May’s tenure: the government doesn’t have the votes it needs in parliament, and the opposition is forced to make laws against the wishes of the government. politicshome.com/news/uk/politi…
This is dangerous for a couple of reasons. First, the PM has executive powers that don’t depend on winning votes in the Commons. A major one you’ve just witnessed: he can prorogue parliament without a vote. theweek.co.uk/63099/parliame…
He can also spend public money looking for legal mechanisms to ignore or override the law just passed to avoid a No Deal Brexit. Note the reports this weekend that Britain Trump was considering ways to break the new law preventing No Deal. theguardian.com/politics/2019/…
Even more insidiously, Johnson can use the bully pulpit of the executive to address ‘the people’ and insist that parliament is the real enemy. Here’s a sober article about this; I would break more hysterical myself but this is a good read. theguardian.com/commentisfree/…
Which brings us to the external part of our constitutional crisis. The 2016 referendum, the collapsing norms of parliamentary process and the supercharging of populist rhetoric has allowed unscrupulous politicians to suggest that parliament is opposed to the ‘will of the people’.
Right-wing newspapers have relentlessly attacked the Speaker, the judiciary, opposition MPs (and Tory rebels), and anyone invested in the rule of law and parliamentary sovereignty - all are accused of defying ‘the will of the people’.
A huge amount of blame for this goes to David Cameron, author of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and ringmaster of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Apart from the sheer folly of holding a referendum, it was Cameron’s government which offered no detail on what ‘Leave’ actually meant.
Cameron assumed he’d win a referendum; he’d won two previously, defeating proposals for electoral reform and Scottish independence. But this time he lost, resigned, bought a £25k “shepherd’s hut” for the sprawling grounds of his country house, and embarked on his memoirs.
(The book is out this month, by the way, which is either spectacularly bad timing or Galaxy-level trolling on his part.)
So the UK now has a millionaire Etonian PM who’s lost all seven of his Commons votes telling everyone that he’s “the man of the people” fighting opposition MPs who want to “surrender to the EU”. The super-wealthy men and women who own our media are happy to report this as fact.
And then there’s a huge irony: Johnson’s multiple defeats last week meant that he finally had to ask for an election. But thanks to Cameron’s Fixed Term Act he now has to get Commons approval for this. And opposition MPs (and his own rebels) didn’t trust him enough to grant one.
This is a crucial detail: if an election could solve everything, why would his opponents deny him one? Especially since they’d then be vulnerable to Johnson and his media allies decrying them as cowards and circulating truly terrible chicken memes.
Here we’re back to another problem of executive power: although Johnson can’t command a majority in parliament, he _would_ be able to change any election date agreed by parliament - potentially allowing the UK to crash out of the EU on 31st Oct against parliament’s wishes.
And so opposition MPs have taken the view that it’s only safe to hold an election after Johnson has been forced to seek an extension — until then, they aren’t willing to vote for one in the Commons. theguardian.com/politics/2019/…
I think we’ll still get that election - probably in November - and with luck Johnson won’t be able to break the law in the meantime. If Johnson loses the election, any new government would likely back a 2nd referendum on Europe and there may be a window on ending this nightmare.
But this is going to be a general election of unprecedented toxicity and demagoguery. Given Johnson’s easy borrowing of fascist language and imagery, and his elevation of adviser-Rasputin Dominic Cummings, it will also threaten the fabric of our politics. nytimes.com/2019/09/08/wor…
It seems absurd to think that the British state can’t ride out the current crisis. But the recklessness of the Tory right (and their media enablers/cheerleaders) has no precedent. It’s as if some Tory supporters won’t let their party go down without taking the country with it./
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