Sunday 25 November 2018

Come the Hour, Come the Woman?

We have now come to a crucial and critical political point in the United Kingdom. The European Union top end has approved the draft withdrawal agreement that, subject to European Parliament approval, can (from that end) become a treaty. It also needs sovereign parliaments in the twenty seven to agree, and, most crucially, the Parliament for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Normally the Democratic Unionist Party for Northern Ireland give the government ten positive votes: on this agreement they become ten negative votes. There are about ninety to a hundred negative or no votes in the Conservative Party for the whips to whittle down. I would not be surprised if upwards of twenty Labour MPs vote for the government, but the rest won't, including the Labour leavers who usually vote with the government. Only loyalist Tories, the government benches (probably depleted further) and those convinced the deal is the best under the circumstances will vote for. All others will vote against. The House of Lords is a certainty for its stance.

On this basis the vote is doomed; but, being a "meaningful vote", the government could bring it back. It would only lose again.

So what is the procedure after such a vote is lost? The first thing is that the government has to come to the House of Commons and make a statement. Nevertheless, there is real politics ahead, rather than just formal procedures, and no one has yet set out the scenario as I see it.

A problem is that with a 'Brexit failure' the Tories will not vote for a General Election and it won't get the two thirds majority as required by the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which also removed calling an election by the Prime Minister, a one time monarchical power held by the Prime Minister. There is not a majority for a second referendum, and no one would know the questions to ask or have the rapid mechanism available to decide these. A Tory Party leadership election takes time and would be riven by division.

Oh dear oh dear? What will happen. There is a road forward, and no one has set this out. it is based on the fact that there is no requirement for a party leader to be the Prime Minister, and who is Prime Minister remains a monarchical power, this is to say the Prime Minister can be anyone who will present to the House of Commons and carry the vote in the house.

So we have the formal statement. The government may pledge to find a way to present the agreement back. Suddenly those 48 letters appear, to have a vote against Theresa May, but she would still win because Tories cannot agree on anyone else.

However, what matters is that the Cabinet itself implodes. In effect, the Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond faction of the cabinet, along with Jeremy Hunt and more, realise there is a crisis of an unprecedented kind, and effectively the five exiters (plus) resign - to begin with. The exiters cannot themselves force a cabinet coup. They can be replaced.

Theresa May also goes; and in the chaos it takes someone with a plan and flexibility to come to the fore. I am suggesting Amber Rudd as the most likely, because she is new (again) into the Cabinet and has a recent history of talking cross-party and thinking out of the box. She can go out and bring people into the Cabinet across the board, picking people from the Labour right or 'remainers' (e.g. Liz Kendall, David Lammy) and from the SNP even and even Liberal Democrats to come in on what would be a non-Tory Cabinet simply to manage this one issue.

The plan would be to select across the House of Commons, bypassing the party system for the time being, among MPs to get what there probably is a majority for - an 'off the peg' EEA/ EFTA solution. Pulling in a 'Cabinet of National Unity' in this deep constitutional crisis could lead to a 'for now' acceptance that we need government and we need government to produce legislation (because motions and amendments are not enough to change the crash-out legislation in place at present.)

The EU will only extend Article 50 not for negotiation but for reconsideration. This includes the off the peg option, but it may also and further involve, after all, a referendum with a remain option.

The majority to allow this Cabinet to function, and a Prime Minister such as Amber Rudd to function, would be slim, transitory, and to the task in hand. Labour might support it in general if it has the referendum option in it.

The question will then be EEA/ EFTA or remain. There would not be a crash-out option: the rump government would be the means to prevent the crash-out by legislation.

After this comes about the rump government itself would collapse into a General Election, after all it would not simply be Tory failure.  If the two thirds still does not appear, the government itself could legislate to remove the Fixed Term Parliament Act and replace it by a simple majority: Henry VIII powers once removed don't go back. No one would accept a Prime Minister having monarchical powers to call a General Election again. After all, a lot of the fight over leaving the EU has been about not restoring monarchical powers to the Prime Minister and Cabinet (the executive branch).

In deep crisis, then, a Cabinet can draw on monarchical powers to produce a caretaker Prime Minister. There is government to produce and pass legislation necessary. All the dedicated Tory and few Labour exiters are sidelined. The result is we either stay in or go to the EEA/ EFTA solution.

Afterwards the country will be deeply divided and politically traumatised. Referenda do not bring people back together: they divide.

Years ago I blogged that the effect of the narrow 'leave' vote was Labour split first but the Tories would later. Had it been marginally to 'remain', the Tories would have split as its exiters went self-defined, even United Kingdom Independence Party. Now we see the Tories split, and it is equivalent to 1846 (repeal of the Corn Laws where the liberal end of the Tories proper formed the modern Conservative Party). The Tories are heading for electoral destruction for utter incompetence and causing all this in the first place. It does not mean Labour marching to the socialist tune either: the obvious opposition in the defiance to all this fetishising the referendum would be the Liberal Democrats, as one time Tory partners in government and thus a refuge for Tory votes (and where they are mostly second). A Labour government is most likely, but those centrist Labour MPs aren't going away, nor does it follow that being in a government of national unity will cost those who participated.

We are now heading for earthquake politics. This must be so when a government so obsessed by 'Brexit' and with an international agreement ready finds itself defeated. The need to avoid perceived disaster, the need for government to produce legislation after its collapse forces radical and unseen before measures, based on the available constitutional forms. This is why, out of the remains of the Cabinet, has to come leadership from the Cabinet, reaching into the wider House of Commons, to act to avert disaster back into the European Union.

A lesson will be learnt here about fantasy politics and realities: and Prime Ministers like David Cameron who cannot gamble a country on the basis of solving one Party's tribal politics. For this his party deserves to be destroyed.

By the way, given her majority in Hastings, Amber Rudd is unlikely to survive the next General Election. Nevertheless, Theresa May will have set the benchmark for 'doing public service' and on that model Amber Rudd (can be someone similar - but she has the contacts) can do public service until she then moves on in another career.

This political disaster was always coming. I predicted it as the means not to leave the European Union, and either I am right on this or we will have the next best thing. But the crisis is coming and it needs people with strong political stomachs.

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