ANALYSIS: Theresa May needs to recognise that Parliament, not the prime minister, is sovereign
Theresa May’s misguided and dangerous statement last night has simply stiffened the resolve of MPs to oppose her Withdrawal Agreement, writes Tony Grew
It was possibly the most constitutionally illiterate speech ever made by a British prime minister. Standing in front of two Union Jacks in Downing Street, the prime minister told the people that “Parliament has done everything possible to avoid making a choice”.
She claimed that “motion after motion and amendment after amendment has been tabled without Parliament ever deciding what it wants”. She declared that “you, the public, have had enough”.
A British prime minister claiming that Parliament is frustrating the Brexit process, appealing to the people above the heads of MPs that enough is enough.
Let's start with the basics. Theresa May is prime minister because she can command the confidence of the House of Commons. She was re-appointed by the Queen after the 2017 general election because she assured Her Majesty that she could command that confidence, despite losing her majority. The prime minister then struck a bargain with the DUP to secure herself confidence and supply.
A politician with more creativity and leadership may have sensed at that point that there would not be, would never be, a way in which she could secure support for a Brexit deal without the help of the opposition parties. This is a calculation that John Major made over Maastricht, and one that Ted Heath made in getting the legislation that took us into the then EEC in the first place.
Theresa May thought she could get a Brexit deal through the Commons by stealth. At the very point where she could have appealed to the national interest, she chose instead to frustrate parliament at every turn. She leads a government that has been found in contempt of parliament.
She finally brought forward a deal from the EU that was defeated by 230 votes, proving definitively that she cannot command the confidence of the House of Commons – on the most important issue facing the country for decades. Logically at that point she should have resigned and called a general election.
Unfortunately other constitutionally illiterate politicians, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, had injected a virus into the system. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, only an explicit motion of no confidence can trigger that process of removing a prime minister and a government. The FTPA then gave cover to this prime minister, allowing her MPs to vote against her deal without triggering an election. The coalition could have easily passed legislation guaranteeing there would not be a general election until 2015 without tinkering with the constitutional arrangements that have been in force for centuries. Instead they attached a millstone around the neck of the Commons.
The government has huge power in the House of Commons. It decides when the House will sit, what it will debate and how long it will debate it. The government can kill any private members bill it does not like.
For a prime minister to tell the country she can't control the Commons should lead to her resignation. Instead she has the audacity to say to the people “I am on your side”.
She narrates their frustrations, and paints herself as an innocent bystander. “You're tired of the infighting, you're tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have real concerns about our children's schools, our National Health Service, knife crime.”
Many MPs were infuriated by this speech. That is understandable. Backbench MPs have very limited opportunities to debate these real concerns, in contrast to the government.
Speaker Bercow has tried to increase the opportunities for backbenchers, through a generous use of urgent questions and SO No.24 debates, in the face of a government that has called off votes in the middle of debates and resisted MPs seeking clarity at every turn.
That the UK's political system is in a mess is inarguable. The Labour party apparently wants a second referendum, a Labour Brexit and to stay in the customs union. They are all over the place, an unfortunate situation at the best of times, but it is not unknown for there to be a chaotic and inchoate opposition.
The crisis is much greater than that. We have a government that can't get its will passed by the Commons and a prime minister who refuses to budge, thinking she can instead appeal to the people that we have all had enough of these MPs.
It is shocking that this has to be restated, but the United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy. A prime minister by definition must command the confidence of the House. Parliament is sovereign, not the prime minister. Appealing over the heads of MPs is dangerous and stupid, and will only stiffen their resolve to keep opposing the prime minister's deal.
The Speaker's loquaciousness is legendary. He was concerned at the momentary absence of John Baron from the chamber last week. “Suffice it to say that there can, in extremis, be a reason why someone has – very, very, very briefly – to leave the chamber,” he told the House. “When the call of nature sounds, that person cannot pretend to be deaf. I do not say that in a pejorative spirit; I simply mean that one cannot pretend not to be aware of the immediate requirement.” Mr Baron, a plain speaking kind of fellow, was more pithy. “I was relieving myself, Mr Speaker.”
Whatever you think of The Independent Group or the official opposition's decisions to remove their MPs from select committees, nobody can question Mike Gapes's commitment to his now former membership of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The Member for Ilford South served for 19 years on the committee, with five years as chair. As Joan Ryan pointed out last week, he took evidence from the Dalai Lama, despite Chinese protests, visited Guantanamo Bay, and exposed corruption and intimidation that led to the UK Government suspending relations with the Turks and Caicos. It is a record of which he should be very proud.
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