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Everyone at Westminster is very cross and very tired. Senses of proportion and perspective have been jettisoned in favour of shouting, abuse, apocalyptic warnings about the state of democracy and the end of Parliamentary government as we know it. Meanwhile, outside of the SW1 bubble, we all look on in amazement, with increasing bewilderment and, let’s be honest, with quite a few of us shrugging our shoulders.
It is worth re-stating – so please do bear with me – that no lives are at stake here. The country is not facing attack or invasion. Britain has existed, is existing, and will continue to exist as a strong independent sovereign nation. Brexit, for all the hoo-ha, is not a first order crisis. There are too many members of the House of Commons, and let’s be frank journalists reporting on politics, who lack any meaningful pre-Tony Blair experience, let alone knowledge and understanding of parliamentary process and our constitution.
Rule one of politics is you never tell the electorate they have made a wrong decision, even if you think they have. Rule two is that a Prime Minister who cannot persuade MPs to approve their key bits of legislation cannot go on being Prime Minister. There are in fact very few actual, vitally critical bits of legislation. A Finance Bill is one. The Withdrawal Act is, for Theresa May, another.
The actual constitutional foul up here is the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Introduced by the Coalition Government at the insistence of the Liberal Democrats as a device to keep themselves in power by curbing David Cameron’s right as Prime Minister to call a General Election when he wanted to. He should have never agreed to it. This constitutional abomination should have been, and should be, removed from the face of our politics. Now it is stopping the Prime Minister doing what is perfectly obviously the way forward in the Brexit quagmire – she should bring the Withdrawal Bill back to the Commons, tied to a vote of confidence. If she won she would be strengthened. If she lost we would have a General Election. This is the way things are meant to work. We would have our say. As it is we now have a Prime Minister who cannot prevail and will not give in.
There are many other routes to Brexit, and a huge range of options the government could have pursued and could still pursue. It is simply not true to say that the Prime Minister’s way is the only way. Because it is not true, and we know it not to be true, we do not believe it when we hear it.
What is required, especially when a government has no majority in the House of Commons, is high principle allied to noble purpose shackled to low cunning, guile, and political agility. This has always been and will always be the recipe for successful political leadership in a democracy, where people have to be persuaded, inspired, cajoled, led, pushed, convinced and pulled in any given direction.
We know it when we see it. Generally speaking when we see it we vote for it. Simply trying to bludgeon Members of Parliament into a course of action and then abusing them when they do not do what you want is not a recipe for success.
Interestingly enough, important as Brexit undoubtedly is, the issue of the relationship between the government and Parliament is fast becoming even more important to us as citizens. We have become used to, maybe even a bit complacent about, the strength and resilience of our Parliamentary democracy. We like to moan about it, criticise MPs, question why we have an enormous number of unelected and unaccountable members of the House of Lords, but our Parliament has through the ages somehow managed to protect us from over mighty rulers.
In Number 10 today I doubt there will be anyone who feels they are being over-mighty and many who feel very cross and some very much aggrieved. The lesson that we are seeing being administered, not for the first time in our long island history, is that no leader – monarch or Prime Minister – can, or should try, to force their will on an unwilling people or, as our elected representatives, on our House of Commons. This is not an arid constitutional point; it is fundamental to our freedom and liberty as citizens of the United Kingdom.