Deadlock at Westminster

Even in a time of extreme political drama, the events in Westminster over the last couple of days have been unparalleled.  In just 24 hours Mrs May has suffered the biggest defeat in modern times – possibly the biggest defeat ever – for a government on its main policy, and then bounced right back to win a vote of no confidence with relative ease.

One has to marvel at the mental gymnastics and contortionisms of the more than 100 Tory MPs who rejected Mrs May’s deal on Tuesday night but then expressed their full confidence in her just one day later.  But however the route, once again the unsinkable prime minister survives.

She is however “in office but not in power”, in the words of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont[1].  She has largely run out of ideas and run out of friends.   Given the magnitude of Tuesday’s defeat, her deal cannot possibly be revived as it stands, and it remains the position of the EU not to renegotiate it.

On the other hand, it is very late in the day for her to appeal across the House for help from other parties, even if she was prepared to show some flexibility in her demands, and it was striking that in Tuesday’s vote on her deal, only 3 Labour MPs were prepared to cross the floor and vote with her.

Even Ted Heath, whose social graces and interpersonal skills were almost non-existent, achieved more cross-party agreement and support than this, when the House debated the UK’s entry into the then EEC 45 years ago.

So Mrs May appears to have no obvious options available to her.  As we said in our essay last week, as soon as she made her move, she lost.

But Mr Corbyn is in no better a position.  He too has made his move, in calling for a vote of no confidence in the government.  And he too has lost.  With the option of an early election now no longer in his power to force, neither party leader now has any positive idea to offer the House.  The rules of Zugzwang have triumphed and from here, May and Corbyn can only observe and react to events and developments rather than control them.

Behind this stalemate, though, we believe there are two deeper conflicts taking place.  The first is between the political class and the electorate, and is a struggle between Representative Democracy and Delegate Democracy.  And the second is within the political class, and is a struggle between the Executive and the Legislature.

Let us consider the first.  In a Representative Democracy, legislators (in the UK, MPs) are elected as representatives of the electorate, and are tasked with deciding what is best for the nation on the electorate’s behalf.  In a Delegate Democracy (also called a Direct Democracy), the electorate itself takes the decisions and the legislators are reduced to being delegates, merely tasked with carrying out the people’s wishes.

The 2016 referendum was the epitome of Direct Democracy.  It told MPs what the people wanted and ordered them as delegates to make it happen.  But the UK’s tradition, and the basis on which the majority of MPs joined the House and have served their careers, is Representative Democracy.  They are used to, and expect to, think for themselves what is best for the nation, and many are finding it very challenging to have to enact a policy they fundamentally disagree with.

In short, the House of Commons and the UK’s entire parliamentary tradition and working practice is set up for MPs to “debate and decide”, and the referendum demands that they “accept and action” – even if they think the decision is irrevocably damaging to the country and wrong.

Note that this is not to say that one method is always better than the other.  Although most democracies operate as Representative Democracies, some, most notably Switzerland but also several US states, are closer to Delegate Democracies and have considerable success as such.  But what is problematic is to graft the tools of one system (eg the referendum) onto the operation of another (eg the Westminster system).  The result risks an incoherent dissonance – as the UK has found.

If that was the only conflict taking place at Westminster, it would still be difficult to predict the outcome.  Those who say that if parliament is in stalemate, the people must be given a chance to give their opinion are countered by those who say that the first referendum was clear and must be respected, and that British politics would suffer significant reputational damage if the electorate were asked to vote again “and get it right this time”.  And there is merit in both arguments.

But there is as we say a second conflict, between the Executive (ie the government) and the Legislature (ie Parliament).  The UK operates Parliamentary government, in which the Executive is in the Legislature and serves as long as it can get the Legislature to approve its policies.  This is the system Britain has had broadly since the Constitutional Settlement of 1689, and is the same as that in the majority of other democratic countries.  Crucially, under such a system, if the Executive cannot get the backing of the Legislature for its main policies, the Executive resigns and an election usually follows.

The alternative system is to separate the Executive from the Legislature.  The two most prominent countries with such a Separation of Powers are the United States and France, where the Executive – in both cases the President – is not part of the Legislature.  And under such a system, the Executive usually has a fixed term, and serves until the end of their term even if their policies are repeatedly rejected by the Legislature:  defeat in the Legislature for the President’s policies does not lead to an election for a new President.

The UK has followed the Parliamentary government system for over 300 years, and in that time, defeat of the order of magnitude as that suffered by Mrs May on Tuesday has always without fail led to the fall of the government and an election.  Except that since the introduction of the Fixed Term Parliament Act in 2011, the prime minister has lost the power to call an election – it needs a separate and specific confidence vote (and various further requirements after that) to lead to an election before the end of the fixed 5 year term.

And that opens up the possibility of a government that cannot get its policies approved but also survives votes of confidence.   Once again, the combining of elements of two different systems, Parliamentary government and the Fixed Term Act, has introduced an incoherent dissonance – the government does not necessarily fall on the rejection of its policies.

And this is what the UK now faces.  Mrs May cannot get her policy through but remains the government as she cannot be defeated on a vote of confidence.

Our American readers will recognise this – it is gridlock.  The Executive cannot get approval for its policies but they cannot easily be dismissed.  So nothing gets done.

In the United States, the way out of the gridlock is for the Legislature itself (ie Congress) to have the power to propose legislation.  A system based on Separation of Powers needs to have this solution if the Executive is impotent, and in the US the House majority party can propose legislation, and if House and Senate together agree, they can force their policies into law against the wishes of the White House, even overriding a presidential veto.  So the US does have a way out of gridlock.

However, because the UK has had parliamentary government for the last 300 years, there is no tradition of Legislature-led policy-making.  Under the UK system, no-one except the Executive can propose and invite votes on substantial policies.

It is this that some in the House of Commons are proposing to overturn.  There is talk of backbenchers seizing the initiative and (with the connivance of the far-from-neutral Speaker) initiating votes in the House.   For the moment they are coyly being called “indicative votes”, but few are deceived and the threat to the Executive’s prerogative as the sole originator of legislation is genuine.

And if the power of originating and proposing policy passes to Parliament, then nobody knows what might emerge or who might be in control of events.

It is the resolution of these two deeper conflicts, beyond the surface conflicts between Conservative and Labour and between Remain and Leave and going to the heart of the UK’s constitution, that will determine how the country resolves its political impasse.


[1]              Quoted in June 1993, shortly after his resignation.  Lamont was actually referring the Major government’s habit of forming policy reactively according to the latest opinion poll, but it has since been levelled at any politician who seems unable to control events.  Interestingly, a Google search on the quote shows more references to Mrs May than to any other single politician, the first coming more than 18 months ago, in the aftermath of the 2017 general election.