With Westminster log-jammed, the country faces being led through a crisis by an undead government. If Labour is serious about forcing an election, it could start by implementing a forgotten pledge from the last Conservative manifestoby Tom Clark / January 16, 2019 / Leave a comment
The government has been crushed like no government in a century—and yet somehow it limps on. A confidence vote now follows, but the odds are that this will fail: the Democratic Unionists and Conservatives of every stripe have vowed to rally to keep Theresa May in office, even as they strip her of power.
This is not how British governance is supposed to work. As the scholar turned Tory MSP, Adam Tomkins, has written the “core” of our constitution since the 17th Century has been “a simple—and beautiful—rule… It is that the government of the day may continue in office for only so long as it continues to enjoy majority support in the House of Commons. The moment this support is withdrawn is the moment the government is required to resign. By this one rule, is democracy in Britain secured.”
Today, however—with the Brexit clock ticking down—Britain remains in the hands of an undead government, whose defining policy MPs reject by a more than two-to-one margin.
So how is it that Britain—a polity always known for strong government—is seized by sclerosis in the face of a diplomatic crisis? Many things have compromised Westminster’s traditional ability to exert control—deep splits in both political parties, and the mangled mixing of parliamentary and plebiscitary mandates. But the entrenchment of a defunct administration and premier owes even more to two sets of political rules that were, ironically enough, written with the purported aim of providing stability.
First, there is the peculiar protocol of Tory leadership elections. Never previously tested in government, the modern rules bear post-traumatic testimony to Margaret Thatcher’s divisive defenestration in 1990. Because May saw off a personal vote of confidence in December, they preclude any fresh challenge to her leadership until the very end of this young year, many months beyond the date when Brexit is supposed to be done and dusted. That is so even though the process revealed her to have lost the support of 117 of her MPs, which would be an awful lot even if she weren’t starting out as a minority prime minister.
And then there is the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which—in theory—pegs elections at five year intervals. Only in theory, because in practice the Act was short-circuited in one of the only two elections staged since it was…