14 March 2019

The Government has compounded its loss of control of Parliament with a loss of control of Cabinet – but the Prime Minister could yet found a way through, argues Jill Rutter

Brexit has put most conventions on how UK government runs under huge strain.

The Executive can – with a few exceptions – get its business through Parliament. Not anymore.

A government which cannot get its business through does not command the confidence of the House. But when the Commons was asked whether it had no confidence, it said it did have confidence in the Government.

The Prime Minister’s power to hire and fire gives her authority over her government. No longer.

It is the duty of Ministers to support government policy – or resign. Er, no.

It is the British government who negotiates for the the UK with international institutions. The EU27 will question whether they are really negotiating with the Government any more.

Yesterday's series of unfortunate accidents was avoidable for the Government 

The first rule of minority government is to have decent business managers to ensure that the Prime Minister avoid defeats in the House. The Prime Minister doesn’t seem to have them.

By tabling a vaguer motion on no deal and avoiding the need for Dame Caroline Spelman’s amendment, which removed the acknowledgement that no deal was still the legal default, the PM could have avoided some of her problems. She didn’t.

The Whips should then have realized that whatever pressure they put Spelman under to withdraw, another signatory could move the motion. Which they did.

And having given the Cabinet a free vote on the Government’s own motion and on the amendment on Kit Malthouse’s alternative Brexit plan, the Government should have allowed a free vote on all the selected amendments. Nothing would have changed, as the votes were not binding, and the PM would have emerged today with her authority (slightly) more intact.

Has the PM created space for Jeremy Corbyn and Philip Hammond to occupy?

The Chancellor did not abstain on the amended Government motion last night. But at the end of his Spring Statement he suggested that the way forward was to try to build a consensus – a sentiment echoed later by his Cabinet colleague Greg Clark. Spring Statements would normally be shown to No.10 – but it is far from clear that the PM sanctioned the Chancellor’s words, as they were emphatically not what the PM set out in her statement after the votes. The person who offered to pick up the Chancellor’s baton was not May but Jeremy Corbyn, with the Labour leader suggesting that he would start to convene cross-party talks.

Will the Government's latest defeat be another boomerang vote?

The Brexit Parliamentary process has often turned losers into winners. The Prime Minister has benefited hugely from being forced to get Parliament’s consent to triggering Article 50, while Brexiteers have benefited from the need for a “meaningful vote” – imposed on the Government by a combination of Brexitsceptic rebels. Last night the PM was the beneficiary of the vote on “Malthouse”. This showed that the so-called Conservative unity compromise commanded the support of only half the parliamentary party and a quarter of the Commons. It’s just possible that this will finally convince some Tory rebels that the PM’s “deal” is the “best” Brexit on offer.

The PM could today show that she is genuine about asking Parliament to make a choice

MPs have been very good at telling us what they don’t want. But that doesn’t get Parliament, or the country, very far.

The latest round of amendments are starting to spell out some of the substantive Brexit alternatives, and the Speaker should be prepared to test the will of Parliament – something he has appeared reluctant to do.   

The PM could, however, pre-empt him by offering indicative free votes before the third meaningful vote on her deal – and make clear that she is open to listening to Parliament on the future relationship. She herself has said that the Political Declaration is compatible with a “spectrum of options”, and the EU has indicated that its negotiating position can change if the UK’s red lines were to move.

Convention suggests that a Prime Minister who appears to have lost total control of her Government, her Cabinet and her Party has little hope. But the conventions of British politics seem to count for little in the case of Brexit.

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The conventions of British politics are perhaps more instructive than Jill's last line suggests.

In 1931, the Macdonald Labour cabinet was unable to agree on economic measures and Macdonald tendered his resignation. George V convened a conference and told the politicians "stop buggering my people about". They duly obliged and Macdonald re-constituted the government on non-party lines.

In May 1940, the day after the Norway debate which ended with a serious fall in the government's majority, the Chief Whip told Chamberlain that on a vote of confidence he would lose. Chamberlain decided to step down so that a Prime Minister acceptable to Labour could take over and after Halifax refused the office Churchill became PM.

In both cases, what was at issue was the necessity of a government that could demonstrably command the confidence of the House of Commons. In the first instance, the Prime Minister continued in office but brought in ministers from other parties. In the second, the Prime Minister changed and the new PM brought in ministers from other parties.

A third precedent is summer 1914. As the European powers mobilised but before war broke out, the Asquith cabinet was divided while the Unionists (actually the larger party in the Commons - the Liberals depended on Irish and Labour MPs) were adamant that Britain must support France. Only the German invasion of all Belgium allowed Asquith to get his cabinet to agree to war. Asquith was able to limp on with tacit Unionist tolerance until 1916.

Theresa May has rightly said that a choice has to be made. It may be that the EU will grant (and the Commons agree) a long enough extension for a modified Withdrawal Agreement (or an agreement on what it is that we are to transition to) to be agreed with the EU and by the Commons. That makes the situation different from 1931 and 1940 - in both cases the problem was the inability of a government to execute a policy on which there was pretty general agreement .

However it does not look as if a long extension and re-thought Withdrawal Agreement is acceptable to anyone at this moment. This may of course change. Otherwise a policy will have to be decided soon - perhaps before 19 March; certainly by late May.. If the Commons agrees to the existing deal (MV3 or MV4) and the European Parliament also agrees then there is a policy line. At that point the disintegration of cabinet collective responsibility and discipline in the Conservative parliamentary Party generates a problem similar to that in 1931 and 1940 and 1914-1916.

Currently Theresa May is doing what Asquith - not known as "wait and see" for nothing - did - hang on until something changed a bit. While for all the reasons Jill gives above a Prime Minister in this situation would normally resign, Theresa May is no more prepared to advise the Queen to send for Corbyn than Asquith was willing to advise George V to send for Bonar Law. And like Bonar Law Corbyn cannot actually force the Prime Minister out. Bonar Law acquiesced in the survival of Asquith once Asquith (with the help of the Kaiser) had sent the BEF to France. Corbyn may well acquiesce in Theresa May's continuation in office if she takes the UK out of the EU in the hope that Labour divisions will heal while Conservative divisions widen. My guess is that Labour divisions will widen and Corbyn will never be able to form a government himself.

Sooner or later the government's position will become impossible. It may happen quickly - the government may lose MV3 and MV4; or it may not be able to get the legislation necessary to perfect the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament. It is clear that MV3 at least cannot be won without some Labour support and will that continue if Conservative MPs continue to withhold their support? Indeed will the government survive a confidence vote?

Even if this government survives long enough to see the Withdrawal Agreement perfected, is it realistic to expect the cabinet to hold together once choices have to be made on the Future Partnership?

I cannot see how a general election could resolve anything. Corbyn has made Labour visibly unfit to govern while Blair made Labour visibly highly fit. An election will most likely leave the Conservatives as the largest party in the Commons and Labour under Corbyn will remain badly divided. Aldo with the collapse in political authority we have witnessed and huge market uncertainties there are compelling reasons to avoid an election that would mean a certain 6 weeks of anarchy and possibly months of anarchy.

Sooner or later, Theresa May will have to make a choice. She could follow the examples of Asquith and Chamberlain and surrender the seals of office to another who could command confidence but it is not clear who that might be. Or she could do what Macdonald did, and re-constitute her cabinet on national lines. My money would be on her doing the latter.

I agree that is what it would be sensible for her to do. But it seems she doesn't really want to change her deal and prefers to use the alternative of a long extension of Article 50 to get her recalcitrant backbenchers and the DUP to vote for her deal. A pretty high risk strategy as it would mean dozens of people who've been on record as saying her deal was unacceptable, suddenly coming round to accept it. Much as the sort of compromise "softer" Brexit hinted at by Hammond would probably command a majority in the House of Commons, I'm sure Mrs May believes it would split the Conservatives which is why it would have to be imposed on her. (To my mind, it would also split Labour too). The alternative - a vote for May's deal on condition that it is put to the people in a second referendum with remain as the other option - is equally unpalatable to her.
I guess we can but hope that if she loses the third "meaningful vote", either she, Cabinet members or Parliament takes a decisive move to ensure we don't leave the EU without a deal by inadvertence.

yes- I thought she should schedule them before we have MV3 to show that nothign else has support.. but she didn't

Thanks both .... can't see PM as a national unity P<M - but who knows.. I thought that was where she should have pivoted straight after the election when she lost the majority - much better strategy than relying on the DUP in a confidence and supply arrangement..