Saturday, 4 February 2017


The House of Commons was not at its best this week. John Mann's pursuit of Diane Abbott for apparently throwing a sickie to avoid the vote on triggering Article 50 serves to emphasise that the "momentous occasion" was about gesture rather than decision. Jacob Rees-Mogg's invocation of St Crispin's Day simply made the theatricality explicit. The government was always going to win, hence most MPs have been more concerned about posturing to satisfy their constituents or local party members than their consciences, despite claims to the contrary (many of the Labour "rebels" were among those who followed the whip and shamefully abstained on the government's Welfare Reform and Work Bill in 2015). Meanwhile the media have prioritised Labour dissension over the government's blithe disregard for a coherent Brexit strategy. The ensuing white paper, which the government has had 7 months to prepare but apparently failed to proofread, was aptly described as "the political equivalent of a cat coughing up a hairball".

Had the vote on the 'European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act  2017', a bill little longer than a doctor's note, been along party lines - i.e. had all MPs obeyed their whip - then the government would have won. Had the vote sought to accurately represent constituency opinion, then the government would still have won, presumably on something close to a 52/48 split to reflect the popular division last June. Had Labour whipped its MPs to vote against the bill, whether as a matter of principle (the absence of a coherent plan) or as a tactical manoeuvre (to lay down negotiation red lines), then the government would still have won, notwithstanding Ken Clarke's rebellion and even assuming the improbability of Labour leavers like Gisela Stuart, Graham Stringer and Kate Hoey observing the whip. The only circumstances under which the government could have lost would have been a free vote, and that in turn assumes that MPs would have remained largely consistent with their preferences as expressed in the days leading up to the referendum when a clear majority were in favour of staying in the EU.

Of course, a free vote might still have led to a government win if enough MPs had converted from remain to leave since last June. Some might have sincerely changed their minds because of the referendum outcome, perhaps having been won over by the leave campaign's persuasive arguments and incontrovertible facts, but any insisting that they were now obliged to vote against their own belief by a superior need to reflect that of their constituents would be abrogating parliamentary sovereignty, the very principle for which many leavers insisted that we must quit the EU and the same principle confirmed by the Supreme Court's Miller judgement. Had a free vote led to a defeat for the government, this would have been a clear reassertion of parliamentary sovereignty but also a clear rejection of the referendum; i.e. confirmation that not only was the popular vote last June advisory - in effect treating it as a second opinion - but that the advice wasn't decisive in Parliament's final consideration.

If nothing else, this sorry sequence - marked by the naivety of remainers as much as the hypocrisy of leavers - should make crystal clear that parliamentary sovereignty is a myth. A positive result of last year's referendum is that a plebiscitary dictatorship remains remote, not least because the danger of a popular vote backfiring will make future governments reluctant to take the risk. Remainers calling for a second referendum are wilfully ignoring this point. Should the negotiations with the EU lead to an obviously bad outcome that turns popular opinion, you'd hope the Commons would seize the initiative and "represent" this rather than offload the problem to another referendum. A less positive result is that executive dictatorship has been reinforced through the immediate erosion of parliamentary sovereignty and the ongoing weakening of scrutiny under cover of Brexit planning and negotiation. In retrospect, MPs were foolish in not understanding what David Cameron had staked in calling last year's referendum. This was certainly a vote on parliamentary sovereignty, but one in which the real threat was not the EU (as the white paper implicitly and ruefully admits) but the executive, both in its cavalier misjudgement and its lust for the covert.

Looked at in the context of the centuries old struggle between Crown (the executive) and Parliament, it is the Crown that is winning, as it has been since the "great centralisation", started under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, began to erode the diffuse sovereignty of local government, unions and public corporations. New Labour's commitment to managerialist opacity and media manipulation ensured that Thatcher's legacy was consolidated, rather than challenged, with the Commons famously marginalised during the build up to the Iraq War by "sofa government". While Cameron took a more "chillaxed" approach to public presentation than the famously anguished Blair, this obscured the further institutionalisation of executive power behind the scenes, not least in Theresa May's domain at the Home Office. The fear is that the effective exclusion of the Commons from proper scrutiny of the government over the next two years, with "commercial confidentiality" becoming as prevalent an excuse as "national security", will lead to a growing acceptance that the House should have only a weak power to interrogate or curb ministers, and one best achieved through narrowly-focused select committees (whose creation in 1979 now looks ever more obviously to have been an inadequate compensation for the subsequent weakening of civic society).

The failure to hold a free vote was entirely down to the decision of pro-remain Tory MPs, with May at their head, to pursue a hard Brexit for essentially opportunistic reasons. The moment the Prime Minister said "Brexit means Brexit" the pass was sold and this week's vote became little more than a formality. The Supreme Court judgement was notable for not presenting the government with any problems: it insisted on the pomp of a Commons vote but rode roughshod over the circumstance of devolution. The Tories have compromised parliamentary sovereignty for the sake of preserving executive power - first in Cameron's decision to allow a decisive referendum and then in the vote this week. Insofar as a strategy can be discerned, it is to pay lip-service to perceived public opinion in the areas of immigration and "foreign control" (as interpreted by the press); accept a degree of economic damage as the necessary cost of divorce (but look after the City); and then push through economic and social "reforms" hitherto impeded by the EU (which means weakening worker rights and consumer protection more than increased state support) with the justification that this will make us more competitive and thus defray the cost.

Leave won the referendum for two key reasons: most Tory voters opted to quit the EU, offsetting the majority of Labour and minor party voters who opted to remain; and the leave campaign mobilised a reactionary element that does not usually vote - i.e. they got the bulk of the increased turnout. It was the latter that was decisive. The Conservative Party appears to believe it can tempt this element into the polling booth more often, essentially by making all future elections centre on Brexit. To this end, a hard Brexit (and a focus on immigration and "control") makes electoral sense. It also explains why the government is reluctant to articulate its strategy, as it boils down to deliberate self-harm. The obvious lesson to draw from this is that the Tories remain the party of power for whom conscience is a luxury and collateral damage is simply somebody else's problem, while Labour remains the party of dissent for whom a plurality of opinion is inevitable. Criticising Corbyn for this is as otiose as criticising May for being unprincipled.

In the circumstances, I'm genuinely surprised that the government's laughably naff white paper on Brexit hasn't immediately snatched the title from Labour's 1983 manifesto as "the longest suicide note in history". At best it serves as a compelling if accidental diagnosis of some particularly morbid symptoms (the lack of facts around immigration, the havering around employment rights), but it is utterly inadequate as a prognosis let alone a course of recommended treatment. This failure is ultimately not the fault of a government that appears simultaneously clueless and malign, but of a House of Commons that has been on life support for decades, failing in its responsibility to fairly represent the electorate and ever more cringeing and subservient in its attitude towards the executive. Diane Abbott may well have bottled the vote on triggering Article 50, but it is short-sighted fools like John Mann who have done most to bring Parliament into disrepute.


  1. I would have expected more MPs to be farsighted and to have opposed Cameron's referendum outright. A principled abstention from last year's farce would have made it so much easier for them to vote against 'Brexit' on democratic grounds. As it is, it looks like sour grapes now.

    As you say, MPs themselves have brought parliament into disrepute with their fixation on immediate term electoral interest. That was what surprised me so much about Corbyn's stance. When he had allowed free votes on issues like Syria and Trident, to provoke a rebellion just for the sake of gaining votes in two by-elections seems like the kind of politics he had set himself on opposing. I think his adaptation to 'normal' leadership traits since last year's re-election will quickly be his downfall. I suspect another 'coup' in a few months would not receive quite as big a response in terms of support for Corbyn's continuance.

    1. I'm not sure Corbyn imposed a 3-line whip just to boost votes in the Stoke and Copeland by-elections. I suspect the purpose of the whip was to publicly draw a line in the sand - i.e. accept that Brexit will happen and then try and make the best of it.

      The problem is that this can only really be done once Labour is united on what a post-Brexit UK should look like. The dog that didn't bark last week was a Labour white paper superior to the mess served up by the Tories. The lesson from history is that Labour is quite good at coming up with punchy, imaginative plans that capture the national mood (e.g. 1945). The problem arises when they attempt to accommodate too many interests (e.g. 1983).

      On the face of it, the two wings of the party are pretty close on the substantive issues. For example, the right want to make gestures on controlling immigration but aren't going to piss off business, while the left aren't going to die in a ditch over the principle of free movement. Likewise, both could accept the single market with tweaks. Compare and contrast to the gulf on policy between the left and right of the party in 1975.

      The moral of "banana-woman" is not that the electorate are morons but that many of us have opinions that are weak rather than being strongly-held. There is probably a majority in the country for an 80% EU solution - i.e. pretty much as is but with enough substantive change (and plenty of symbolic differences) to satisfy the decisive minority that were ambivalent about the project.

      This being so, and given the Tories pell-mell rush towards the "hardest" of exits, you have to ask why Labour hasn't yet crystallised a "sensible Brexit" plan. I doubt it's incompetence or distraction, so I suspect it's non-cooperation by the party right and centre, many of whom appear to still hold out hope that a by-election reverse might yet decapitate the leadership.

      I suspect this will continue until the triggering of Article 50, which perhaps explains why Corbyn is keen to hurry the process along.

    2. "On the face of it, the two wings of the party are pretty close on the substantive issues."

      I think that's a good point, but bizarrely the divide is so broad due to issues of presentation and strategy- who to appeal to, who not to offend, which issues to prioritise, who makes the decisions on tactics.

      That's why, contrary to your last sentence, I think Corbyn is safe only while Article 50 is still an issue. This is largely because the big divide over Europe is mainly on the Labour right and, though largely a cosmetic one, it basically involves several stances. There is the position that opposes Brexit outright, the opinion that it should be accepted in name but all else should remain the same, the hope of preserving the single market but appeasing racists on immigration, and a few that wouldn't object to a 'hard' Brexit.

      The reason Labour has no plan on Europe is that there is no way any of these positions can be combined to form a strategy that is acceptable in electoral terms to the whole party. Any new leader from the right of the PLP would be just as powerless as Corbyn to unify the party on Europe, so it is much better for them to leave Corbyn in position for the time being and let him be the fall guy.

    3. I'm not convinced there is a desire on the right to keep Corbyn in situ as a fall guy, nor that the circumstances would be any better for a coup once article 50 was invoked.

      As you note, there are varied opinions in Labour, from full remain to hard leave, but all know that a compromise is necessary and I suspect one could be forged that would satisfy most of them, i.e. a soft Brexit.

      The current situation looks like MPs minding their constituencies rather than collectively working towards a party line, which suggests a wish for, or expectation of, disintegration.

    4. The Labour Right is particularly incoherent here, or rather having their cake and eating it. They are both pro-EU and pro-Very Real Concerns over immigration, and need to be called out on it. Of course it helps them that, whatever strategy Corbyn picks, they have a stick to beat him with.

  2. Couldn't the argument that since there was no chance of defeating the government in the vote, it was otiose to vote against it, have been used by Harman during her interregnum to the effect that there was no point in opposing the notorious welfare bill since they were only going to lose it anyway.

    1. I wasn't suggesting it was otiose to oppose or even to support the bill. I used that word in respect of criticism of Corbyn for Labour not being of one mind.

      The shame of Harman relates to abstention: an unwillingness to express an opinion. Having a view, or at least arriving at one, is surely the sine qua non of representative democracy.

      My overall issue in this post is not with MPs who have an opinion, but with those who lack the courage of their opinion.

    2. Otiose ... nice one centurion.

  3. How will the labour right react if a hard brexit is agreed upon with the EU?

  4. I guess the leavers will bite their tongues and the remainers will blame Corbyn

  5. Interesting insight about the Select Committees. At the time, they were heralded as a new more rigorous form of accountability. But recent experience shows them to be more interested in grandstanding and largely toothless, reduced to haranguing not-very-apologetic capitalists while having nothing to back up the bluster.

    1. The select committee system was essentially the brainchild of Norman St John-Stevas, an admirer (and editor of the collected works) of Walter Bagehot, who in turn coined the constitutional dichotomy of the "dignified" and the "effective". The select committee system, with its top-notes of waspishness and camp obscuring its general ineffectiveness in the restraint of power, was not an accident.

      It's worth noting that St John-Stevas went on to become the senior non-executive director of BSkyB and helped appoint James Murdoch as CEO. I have no evidence that he coached father and son before their appearance in front of the media select committee in 2011 (St John-Stevas died in 2012), but the theatricality of the event ("the most humble day of my life") is suggestive.

    2. Obviously still seen by the Labour Right as a useful addition to their CV, though.

    3. They get a little empire plus a higher profile when in opposition. Keith Vaz got much more publicity between 2010 and 2016 than if he'd been Shadow Home Secretary.