In an effort to pressure Parliament into backing her Brexit deal, Theresa May adopted the surprising tactic of blaming MPs for failing to support her. The electorate, said the Prime Minister, was “tired of the infighting…the political games…the arcane procedural rows”. But many MPs saw this prime ministerial attack as yet another failure to engage with Parliament throughout the Brexit process.
Theresa May’s approach has, in part, been shaped by her response to the Article 50 timetable. Putting a two-year time limit on the Article 50 process was a calculated move by its architects, designed to strengthen the EU’s negotiating position and prevent the Union from being tied up for years in negotiations with any departing member state. But what perhaps they did not anticipate was the effect that the strict timetable would have on the domestic strategy of a departing government – particularly when that government does not have a parliamentary majority and is attempting to implement the outcome of a referendum decided by a narrow majority.
Minority governments – even those governing with the support of a confidence and supply agreement with another party – are susceptible to parliamentary defeats. Ministers and civil servants who have served in past minority administrations frequently articulate the importance of cross-party negotiation and compromise for achieving government objectives in such circumstances. These strategies are often used behind the scenes before policy proposals are brought forward but may also be deployed once legislation has been introduced into Parliament. On Brexit, the Government, it seems, has deemed such negotiations unnecessary.
If the process of leaving the EU had had no timetable attached, Theresa May’s minority government would have been forced to find ways of persuading a sceptical Parliament to agree to its negotiating objectives and deal. This might well have resulted in a better understood and agreed version of the indicative votes process that Parliament is belatedly constructing for itself. We might have seen debates and votes on different versions of the UK’s future relationship with the EU, designed to identify where parliamentary consensus lay. Labour MPs might have been persuaded to work with the Government on a long-term strategy, rather than urged to support it tactically in return for short-term cash boost for their constituencies. Of course, the Government might well have had a preferred destination from the start of the process, but it would have worked harder to persuade different parliamentary factions from across the House of the merits of that end point.
The time pressure created by the need to be seen to act on the outcome of the referendum would have given an urgency to this process with, at the very least, the duration of the Parliament providing a significant check point – but without Article 50 there would have been no hard stop to use as a threat against recalcitrant MPs.
Theresa May’s track record as Home Secretary demonstrated that she is not naturally inclined to a consensus building approach. The Article 50 time-limit, however, presented the PM with the tempting prospect of being able to persuade parliamentarians to back her deal, without the need for meaningful negotiation or compromise. This was precisely the government strategy outlined by the PM’s chief negotiator Olly Robbins in a Brussels bar: using the threat of two outcomes that would be unpalatable to different sets of MPs – a no deal exit or a prolonged extension to Article 50 – to construct a majority for the Government’s deal.
Since the referendum, numerous backbenchers have called on the Government to engage in a meaningful way with Parliament, to identify where consensus might lie and shape its negotiating strategy accordingly. Even if the Government had adopted such an approach, the dividing lines of party politics would inevitably have collided with efforts at cross-party compromise and some MPs would have refused to cooperate. But the existence of the Article 50 deadline allowed the Government to decide that such engagement was not even worth attempting.
Time, Theresa May believes, will eventually force MPs to support her. As she contemplates the prospect of asking MPs for a fourth time whether they might support her deal, this strategy will turn out to be either a masterstroke or the most major miscalculation.