The chat in Westminster is all about crisis, yet the mood is strangely frivolous. As the final hours ticked down to the supposedly sacred date of Brexit it was postponed, not with a bang but a whimper. Things that had, only a matter of days ago, been held up as of fundamental and solemn importance were casually shoved out of mind. (Can you recall the gist of the attorney general’s supposedly fateful advice on the backstop? Don’t worry, nor can anyone else.) Boris Johnson, who had started the last week in March with the Biblical cry of “Let my people go” got wind that there was a vacancy for Pharaoh coming up, and had second thoughts about leading an exodus into the political desert.
It might seem futile and hopelessly earnest to distil any meaningful lessons from this fast-moving pantomime, and yet one has to try. Most immediately, the health of our economy is at stake, and so too is the world’s trust in Britain. The UK’s standing as a country that others can do diplomatic business with could be trashed if our shambling institutions fail to pull us back from the cliff-edge Brexit that virtually everybody says they want to avoid. But it’s important, too, to reflect on what the UK’s chaotic public life since the referendum has revealed about the way we are run, which is what I dig into here.
David Cameron was a nonchalant sort, disinclined to plan for defeat, and there was nothing in our political ground-rules to jolt him out of that complacency. As a result, the referendum left huge unanswered questions about what would happen next. The best way to answer these in a country split down the middle would have been through open discussion and deliberation. But the British constitution left the government with a free hand to narrow down the debate in parliament, at least until we were into injury time.
Time and again through the Brexit process our system has responded to pressure by attempting to busk its way through. At moments, we have seen dedicated parliamentarians—Dominic Grieve, Yvette Cooper and arguably speaker John Bercow—innovate in ways that justify the faith and the fondness Adam Tomkins still has for our elastic constitution. But other improvised responses to the crisis, especially from No 10, have worked against the accountability and the individual…