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.
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.
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.
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.
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.