ANALYSIS: Collective responsibility must be restored

Posted On: 
20th March 2019

The government cannot unite behind the Prime Minister’s deal because there never was a collective position in the first place. Once collective responsibility was set aside it was never likely to come back, writes Tony Grew

"The Prime Minister has taken embattled to a new level. It’s hard to imagine any of her recent predecessors taking defeat after defeat and not throwing in the towel."
Credit: 
UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

The unprecedented scenes of last week will linger long in the memory. A late night statement as talks continued in Brussels. The Commons rejecting the Prime Minister’s deal the next day by 149 votes. The acrimony and blame the day after when ministers defied a three line whip and abstained on a vote on whether the UK should leave without a deal. The day after that, the government coming within one vote of losing control of the process.

“How many journalists in history have covered a spring statement, a major government defeat and the total breakdown of cabinet in one day?” asked ITV’s Paul Brand. “We are living on fast forward.”

You may have forgotten the spring statement in all of last week’s machinations, but for many voters the health of the economy is more important than Brexit. Whether or not your mortgage is going to go up. Whether or not there is a decent school place for their child. Whether or not their child will be safe from knife crime. The minority of MPs who obsess about constitutional matters are in their element, while others struggle to be heard on these important day to day issues.

Last week was supposed to provide a resolutions to the Brexit impasse. Unfortunately it did not. There will be more of it this week, and the next. Meanwhile we are told the electorate is up in arms about it. Furious emails and tweets, some of them abusive, are sent to MPs on this issue. It is hard to gauge how much of this anger is actually about Brexit. The vote itself was an expression of displeasure with politics.

A weak government does not help. Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election spectacularly backfired. She was forced to seek support from the DUP, whose robust views on Brexit emboldened her ERG colleagues to seek a hardline approach. They all know what they don’t want, but are less clear on what they do.

One lesson from last week has to be that collective responsibility must be insisted upon. That rule is even more important for a minority government. To allow cabinet ministers to defy the prime minister is never going to end well. Allowing free votes on matters of collective policy makes discipline more difficult, not less.

The government came dangerously close to losing control of the entire process last week. The Prime Minister’s own voice seemed to be in rebellion against her. She has taken embattled to a new level. She rightly has admirers on both sides of the House. It’s hard to imagine any of her recent predecessors taking defeat after defeat and not throwing in the towel. She might yet be forced to take more drastic action to get a deal through the Commons. Perhaps it is these qualities that explain why a government in total crisis is still ahead in the polls, what Nicholas Soames referred to as her diligence, doggedness and determination. The alternative view is that her secretiveness, single mindedness and scant regard for working with others have created a monumental crisis.

Perhaps she should have sought to do a deal with MPs on all sides before seeking a deal from Brussels. Hindsight has the wonderful advantage of always coming to the correct course of action. On the other hand there are a group of her own MPs are determined to leave with no deal. How might they have reacted to an olive branch to Labour on Brexit?

The truth is that for all her faults and admirable qualities there has been a grim inevitably in the way the process has proceeded. That inevitably stems back to David Cameron’s decision in 2016 to allow cabinet ministers to campaign against him in the EU referendum and stay in their jobs. The early drafts of history such as Tim Shipman’s book All Out War and Craig Oliver’s Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit are filled with the frustrations of cabinet ministers about the conduct of their colleagues on the Leave campaign. Mrs May accepted the winning narrative without challenging it. She took on the mantras and mantle of a campaign she opposed. She appointed ministers to her government who have publicly opposed her without sanction and many of them thanked her by resigning. The government cannot unite behind the Prime Minister’s deal because there never was a collective position. Once collective responsibility was set aside it was never likely to come back. Last week the Brexit secretary urged the House to back the government motion, then voted against it, an absurd and almost surreal situation.

Collective responsibility must be restored if our politics is going to function effectively, and that is twice as important for a government with no majority.   

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MPs are well used to celebrities. Some even imagine themselves to be one. So it was refreshing to see how star struck some of them were last week when one the actors from Channel 4’s breakout comedy was in Parliament. Derry Girls very own Sister Michael – Siobhan McSweeney – was attending a St Patrick’s Day reception for the charity CHAMP. Afterwards she joined some of Ireland’s finest in the Stranger’s bar. There was a steady of admirers eager to have a photo taken with her. Happy to report that like all good actors she is nothing like the character she portrays.

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What did we do to deserve Lord Dubs? The beloved peer was filling in at the despatch box in the Lords last week, at 86 years old. Labour Lords were delighted. “Inspirational legend that is @AlfDubs (probably?) becomes the oldest frontbencher in the history of Parliament - @UKHouseofLords & @HouseofCommons - guesting for us in @DefraGovUK SI debate on ‘food & feed’ post-#Brexit”’ they tweeted. Lord Dubs was at the Irish embassy drinks on Thursday along with political figures from the main parties (and TIGgers) including Alison Thewliss, Kevin Brennan, Mike Gapes, Therese Coffey, and Steve Baker. The craic was mighty.