They are already weak, and as Brexit legislation moves through parliament they are coming under immense strainby Jay Elwes / May 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
Two things are happening in Westminster at the moment. The first is that the Brexit carnival is grinding to a screeching parliamentary halt, and second, our nation’s two political parties are showing all too clearly that they are no longer fit for purpose.
First, Brexit—as I have been writing since 2016, the process has been doomed from the start for three central reasons. The first was the Brexit case was wilfully ignorant of all fact; second it was blind to the interests of the European Union itself; and third—most appallingly of all—it was based on the idea of a country that doesn’t exist, and which in fact has never existed: a sort of super-hi-tech, mid-Blitz, Churchillian Britain that “stands alone,” combined with a buccaneering “Britannia rules the waves” nation of Sir Walter Raleighs.
Not surprisingly then, the process has crashed on its first meeting with a body that asked basic questions—the House of Lords. Deeply flawed institution though it may be, the Lords has not done anything especially subversive, or even surprising. In voting against the government—14 times—it has simply asked whether the legislation in hand would hurt the country. The Lords have not considered whether any of it would harm British pride, or run counter to the “will of the people.” Refreshingly, the upper House has no truck with the metaphysical conceits so favoured by the illusionists of the pro-Brexit camp. Instead, they dealt in hard reality.
It was a systemic inevitability that this would happen. Britain has no written constitution, but there is a canny organising principle behind our parliamentary structure and we see it at work now. It holds that things should never be allowed to sail through without scrutiny, no matter how much certain newspapers whinge about it, or how many Foreign Secretaries have staked their careers on it.
Which brings us to the second point—the weakness of the political parties. In late May, the Brexit legislation will likely head back to the Commons, and the hard-Brexiteers will have their say. To get the legislation through the House and stave off disaster, Theresa May needs her party to hold together. She has a majority of 13, remember, meaning that seven of her own MPs could effectively scupper any vote (though when it comes to Brexit, several Labour MPs will take the government line.) But can she count on her own side? MPs will have noticed the Lords’ independent-mindedness. As Chris Patten, the Conservative peer put it, “There are times in one’s political career where what is alleged to be party loyalty comes way behind the national interest.” Other senior Conservatives have re-iterated that view to me in private.
And as for Labour, though Corbyn instructed Labour peers to abstain, at the last vote in the Lords more than 80 of them rebelled and voted against the legislation. Corbyn’s policy so far on Brexit has been one of “constructive ambiguity” on Brexit. He tried it in the Lords, and Labour peers ignored him in droves. It could happen in the Commons too.
On the single most important issue facing Britain today, political party lines have become all but irrelevant. That’s partly because Brexit is so divisive, but also because the parties themselves have lost any real defining characteristics. Neither party has a settled guiding identity—the Conservative Party, for example, contains the “Wets,” the rump-Cameroons, the liberal internationalists, the shire Tories and the reverse-Ukip takeover mob, to name but a few. Note well: that’s a political spectrum that runs from, effectively, Blair to Farage. That’s not a political party. It’s an agricultural show.
And as for Labour, the party is now inundated with all manner of sects, from the day-glo loonies of the ultra-hard left, through the hodge-podge of Momentum all the way over to the rump-Blairites (the few that cling on, at least.)
When the real business of deciding how—and whether—Britain is going to leave Europe gets underway in the Commons, the parties will come under immense strain. As the recent showing in the Lords has made clear, party leaders have very little sway in parliamentary votes when it comes to matters of Brexit. If groups of disgruntled MPs begin challenging the party line, a crack-up could begin.
The political parties as we know them may not survive this process intact. If that’s what it takes for democracy to run its course, then so be it.