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Sir John Major calls for national unity government amid Brexit ‘constitutional chaos’

4 min read

The Conservatives and Labour may have to set aside their differences and form a national unity government to avoid years of “constitutional chaos” over Brexit, Sir John Major has said.

The Tory ex-prime minister said a cross-party pact may be needed in “the national interest” to give ministers a “clear working majority” for the next round of tough negotiations with the EU.

But Cabinet minister David Gauke warned that such a plan would not be “workable”.

The intervention from the former prime minister comes after Labour’s Tom Watson hinted that he would be willing to serve in a unity government and “do what’s right” to break the UK’s current Brexit deadlock - which comes before talks on its future relationship with Brussels have even begun.

Sir John told the Andrew Marr show there were still “years and years” of negotiations with the EU to come, and warned that Brexit would involve “very difficult choices” for the country that would be hard to navigate with a weak governemnt.

“And so we are going to need a government that has a clear majority or we're going to have the sort of constitutional chaos we have at the moment stretching for a very long time ahead,” he said.

He added: “Now there are only two ways to get such a government: one is a general election that produces a clear working majority for one for the parties. [It’s] not impossible, but [it’s] very unlikely that it would produce a clear working majority.

“The other alternative is to have some form of unity or national government. I don't think that is imminent.

“But if we have a general election in the autumn which I think is possible… and we don't get a government with a clear majority, then I think it would be in the national interest to have a cross-party government so that we can take decisions without the chaos that we're seeing in Parliament at the moment when every possible alternative is rejected.”

While the Conservative ex-leader rejected comparisons with the UK’s last national unity government, formed in 1940 under Sir Winston Churchill at the height of World War Two, he said the UK now faced a “constitutional and political crisis” on several fronts.

“In 1940 our very existence was at stake,” he said. “That was a unique set of circumstances. But if you consider what is at stake at the moment, the living standards of the British nation, the world-wide reputation of Britain, which has not done well during this argument about Brexit, the unity of the UK and whether we lose Scotland and Northern Ireland and the very structure of our politics which is now threatened.

“Now if that doesn't collectively constitute a constitutional and political crisis then I cannot imagine what does."


However, Justice Secretary David Gauke immediately downplayed the idea of parties teaming up in a joint administration to try and find a way through the Brexit impasse.

He told the same programme: "I don’t, in all honesty think it is practical.”

The Cabinet minister added: “I think it is the case we are in a national crisis and in such time there is a need for cross-party cooperation.

“But I think the idea of a national government - I'm really not sure its workable.

“There may be a majority in the House of Commons that neither wants to leave without a deal or put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. But I don't think there's the makings of a national government as such.”

Labour’s Emily Thornberry meanwhile heaped scorn on the idea of forming a cross-party pact without first going back to the voters in an election.

“I think if there’s going to be change of government then there should be an election,” the Shadow Foreign Secretary told the BBC’s Pienaar’s Politics.

“I do think we need to have an injection of democracy, so we either have a meaningful vote that means something - or we have a people’s vote [on Brexit], or we have a general election.”

The former prime minister's call for cross-party cooperation comes just days after MPs voted for a third time to reject the EU withdrawal agreement that Theresa May has spent years negotiating with Brussels.

The Commons will on Monday vote again on a raft of alternative plans after last week failing to give its backing to eight different options, including a second referendum, a customs union with the EU, and revoking Article 50.

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