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‘Brexhausted’ by the latest shenanigans? There is good news

16 Jan 2019 - 15:42

‘Brexhausted’ by the latest Brexit shenanigans in the UK? Even for those of us who spend our lives studying Brexit it has been a difficult and intense period. That Theresa May is still Prime Minister after suffering the mother of all government defeats is a testament to how much we are living in interesting times.

The good news: it is possible to step back and look at this as a whole through three points. The bad news? The good news will tell you that Brexit is going to go on and on and the outcome remains deeply uncertain. You knew that deep down, right?

First, never forget that the political DNA of the House of Commons leads to majoritarian not consensus politics. This means that the politics of the most important arena in UK politics rarely leads to the style of consensus politics found in many other democracies, not least across the rest of Europe.

This does not mean UK politics cannot do consensus politics. To varying extents it can be found in all other areas of the UK’s political life such as in the House of Lords, local government, in Scotland, Wales, and London. And from 2010-15 the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats successfully held together the first peacetime coalition government since 1945.

The problem is that neither May or Corbyn are inclined to seek real cooperation or consensus

But this coalition failed to shift either the first-past-the-post electoral system of the House of Commons and the associated belief that a ‘winner takes all’ approach produces strong and stable governments. Such an approach runs into massive problems with an issue such as Europe that has long divided all of the main parties and produced a '52-48 Result' that has divided the nation. The problem is that neither May or Corbyn are inclined to seek real cooperation or consensus. They think ‘winner takes all’ can still work.

Second, some in the Commons do seek consensus, but in doing so they are testing the UK’s constitutional norms. Part of the fight in the House of Commons has become a good old fashioned struggle between the executive and legislature. It’s the sort we see all the time in most democracies, such as Trump versus Congress.

It’s not something we see often in Britain, however. The House of Commons ‘winner takes all’ politics, combined with one of the most centralised (and secretive) systems of government in the developed world, usually means that it’s Her Majesty’s Government that calls the shots and decides direction. It’s then for parliament to scrutinise and either agree or disagree, with agreeing being – in normal times – the inevitable outcome.

What we now have is a situation where the House of Commons has begun to try to set the direction. Whether this is sustainable, or even legal, is open to question. If the Commons were to vote for a second referendum, then in addition to a plethora of constitutional questions this would raise, it’s unclear whether politically a government could implement a policy if the prime minister and/or a majority of the cabinet did not support it. Usually, a government that cannot command the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons loses a vote of no confidence with the outcome being a General Election. But these are not normal times.

Third, if you dig deeper beyond the headlines about goings-on in the House of Commons you soon find that this all remains about what sort of country Britain wants to be. If you’ve found yourself discussing Brexit with Britons then it’s more than likely you’ve ended up arguing over the political, constitutional, economic and social setup of the UK. ‘Take back control’ is as much, and arguably more, about who (and who doesn’t) have power and wealth within the UK as it is about where powers lie vis-a-vis Brussels.

But the distribution of power in the UK has long been both contested and little understood outside the world of constitutional studies. Britons, and their representatives, are trying to face massive constitutional questions while arguing about UK-EU withdrawal and trade deals. British politics has yet to fully grasp that these deals are always a means to an end for any country, and that end is what sort of country the people and their representatives want it to be.


Tim Oliver
Senior Lecturer at Loughborough University London