Britain’s Parliament Square has returned to a kind of peace. MPs are off on their Easter break, thanks to the latest Brexit deadline extension. Most of the protesters are taking an Easter break too, it seems, and have suspended their pageantry of 12-foot banners and elaborate costumes, competing for the world’s attention.
But the presumption, now commonplace, that the UK’s constitution and political system are broken has remained. That seems an unnecessarily fearful conclusion, as well as a misreading of what has changed. There have been some shifts in parliamentary procedure. They may turn out to boost parliament’s powers in the future. But the deadlock owes everything to the peculiar, divisive nature of Brexit and to minority government. Many of the apparent improvisations would not outlast the return of a government with a majority.
The real change is in politics itself — in the disintegration of the big political parties and of voters’ allegiances. That is not a death knell for Britain’s ability to govern itself. It is the requirement for its politics to flourish in the future.
What we have seen for two years is a battle between parliament and the executive. Undeniably, some aspects have been startling. Before the 2011 law that set parliamentary terms at five years, it was unthinkable that a government might lose a vote on its main policy (never mind several) and simply not leave. A piece of legislation intended to remove power from governments, namely the ability to call elections to a timetable that suited themselves, appears to have strengthened it.
But it is hard to argue that this really gives governments more than a tactical edge at certain moments. The opposition still has the ability to call votes of no confidence. What does deserve more attention is one of the key aspects of that act, now much on parliamentary minds: if a government loses a vote of no confidence, but rival groups claim an ability to form a government in the two-week period that follows, who decides? Please, not the monarch, Buckingham Palace has quietly said.
The Brexit drama may yet force an answer to that question, in which case we will indeed have an important innovation. But many of the other novelties of Brexit would not survive the return of majority government. The breakdown of cabinet collective responsibility? Of the party whipping system? Party discipline might well return quickly if whips and the prime minister were able to dangle the lure of promotion and cabinet jobs. More interesting but subtler is whether MPs retain a sense of independence. “I’ve come to think of the party whip as advisory,” one MP said recently, a mindset that would have been unthinkable before Brexit.
New precedents may also turn out to have changed the balance of power between government and parliament. The volume of secondary legislation required by Brexit seemed to give the government more freedom to avoid scrutiny. But parliament countered with tools to extract information, from the antique “humble address” to a motion holding the government in contempt of parliament. So far, though, these tactics have represented a tug of war, with no permanent shift of powers either way.
The paralysis over the decision to leave the EU doesn’t, however, reflect a broken constitution. The deadlock accurately reflects the peculiar political circumstances: a deep split within a minority government and no majority in parliament for any version of Brexit. The deadlock will be broken in the end by the passage of events, even if we cannot foresee whether a general election, EU deadlines or even the emergence of House of Commons support for a second referendum is the catalyst.
What is really changing is politics. The result of the local and European Parliament elections next month will show whether the big parties can still command widespread support and whether the newly formed Change UK group or Nigel Farage’s Brexit party can make headway.
That kind of fracturing of parties is entirely appropriate for a complex country with a population approaching 70m. If another coalition government is elected, you could see the question of proportional representation rising up again, even though the main parties have no incentive to encourage it, and the nation expressed a shrug of indifference in the 2011 referendum on the voting system.
But the deadlock of Brexit is a political failure, not a constitutional one. The voting system and the state of the parties are a better cause for reform in 21st-century Britain than the constitution.
The writer is director of the Institute for Government, a think-tank
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