Theresa May's Hat-Trick of Defeats Left Her Dangling By a Thread
In just over an hour Parliament asserted itself over the beleaguered Prime Minister.
Theresa May in Parliament yesterday
It may rip up the cobbles of our politics, our cities may go up in hot teargas by the spring, but at least Brexit has done a really swell job of strengthening the institution of Parliament.
In the age of Blair, Parliament was held to be in decline, a dull talking shop, a rubber stamp. But in times when the politics is tight and changeable, Parliament gets teeth. It develops a spine, a brain, a conscience of its own, and starts grabbing back power from the executive.
First there was Gina Miller’s legal challenge to the government – which lead to Parliament getting the “meaningful vote” on the deal that we’re due on December 11.
And yesterday, in the span of barely an hour, we had three moments where Parliament reared up and bloody bit the executive.
For a good couple of weeks, May’s Government had been refusing to release the legal advice it had received around Brexit. The reason was simple. Attorney-client privilege. The notion that the government’s lawyers should be free to say tough things, to act non-politically. Compromise that principle, they said, and you wreck the whole institution forever.
MPs disagreed. They needed to have the fullest picture, they reckoned, to make the best possible decision. Government tried for a compromise. The Attorney-General was brought to the House to answer questions – this almost never happens. And they published extracts.
MPs still disagreed. In the end, they used a strange, dusty institution called the ‘humble address’ to pass the contempt motion – by 321 votes to 299.
This was a historic day on its own. In 400 years of active Parliaments, no government has ever been found “in contempt of Parliament”.
In fact, the Leader of The House, Andrea Leadsom, said that this was so procedurally odd that she would be referring the matter to a rules committee, to see whether the increase in use of something as obscure as “humble addresses” could be justified. They’re meant to be direct pleas to the Queen to side with her Parliament over the government – a neat way of bypassing the executive. But also one that uses the Sovereign like a pawn. Liz was said to be very miffed when she was dragged into the last use of the “humble address”, in late 2017, so this doubles down on everyone’s misery.
Within 20 minutes of that defeat, Dominic Grieve, the Tory ultra-Remainer, was on his feet and introducing a motion designed to let the air out of Brexit’s tyres. It said that If the deal they’re about to debate – the Draft Agreement – is voted down (very likely), then whatever Parliament comes up with next, MPs will be able to amend it.
That makes a No Deal Brexit much less likely. There aren’t enough Parliamentarians who would want it. Thanks to Grieve’s motion, the Government would need to have another vote, on some other proposal. And many Brexiteers may now choose to side with May’s deal, rather than run the risk Grieve has introduced – of something even softer.
It does not, however, “cancel Brexit”. Although EU legal advisers somehow chose the same day to declare that Britain would be legally allowed to cancel Brexit unilaterally – in other words, the EU would not have to give them permission to do so.
Thanks to Gina Miller’s legal challenge, there has been one act of Parliament to trigger Article 50. There would need to be another one to reverse it. And again – there is no Parliamentary arithmetic for that either. In fact, if there’s one thing we know about this Rubik’s cube it’s that there is almost no Parliamentary arithmetic for any big decisions. But, as with Grieve’s motion, there is a Brexit taking shape by a thousand tiny cuts. A range of things-you-can’t-do rather than a masterplan of what we should do.
A third defeat, related to the contempt issue, made it a hat trick of misery, and a day with few precedents in modern times. You have to go back 40 years, to 1979, and the final staggerings of Callaghan’s government.
For the No Confidence vote Callaghan lost then, the one that heralded the dawn of Thatcherism, Labour whips had to rouse one MP from his deathbed. This government may wish to get their palliative care nurses booked in for the next ten days or so.
Meanwhile, The Labour Party, happy jackals, stand on the sidelines and lick their lips. Giddy to watch; elated not to be in charge. Yesterday was a big wound. Now, five days of debates will climax in what can only be another big wound in May’s premiership.
She can’t go on much longer.