Too much short-termism, too much reacting to events…

From Mark Bennister (Reader in Politics, CCCU) and Ben Worthy (Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck, University of London). This commentary was published first on PSA Insight blog.


Politics watchers in the UK can take a deep breath as Parliament staggered over the line to the recess last week following a particularly frantic period of topsy turvy politics. Cabinet resignations, more knife edge votes (including a government defeat), a breakdown of the ‘usual channels’ for pairing, and at last a white paper as negotiating position that has seemed to satisfy no one. The Prime Minister is hanging on in power, just. As the SNPs Angus MacNeil said at Liaison Committee ‘You are a survivor, Prime Minister. I often think of Gloria Gaynor when I look at you’. We may never know if Theresa May also quoted the song to Boris Johnson, ‘(‘Cause) you’re not welcome anymore, weren’t you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye’. ‘I will survive’ is apt, released as it was in 1978, a time of comparable political upheaval. Survival is however not an end in itself. How did we get into such a shambolic political mess? British politics used to be so dull and predictable.

One answer is weak leadership. Of course all prime ministers need to count when the parliamentary arithmetic is so tight, but it is possible to drive the agenda in a minority (just ask Helen Clark how she did it in New Zealand). As prime minister, you have the trappings and resources of office and can utilise them to shape the agenda. Likewise the opposition Labour Party has a party machine at its disposal and has space to set out an alternative path. Both main parties are stuck in an unhealthy inertia. In the wake of two high profile resignations it is worth reminding ourselves of the words of Norman Lamont on resigning in 1994:

‘…there is too much short-termism, too much reacting to events, and not enough shaping of events. We give the impression of being in office but not in power. Far too many important decisions are made for 36 hours’ publicity. Yes, we are politicians as well as policy-makers; but we are also the trustees of the nation.’

Let’s not forget, the Liberal Democrats couldn’t even arrange for their own leader and former leader to vote on the Customs Bill last week. Nicola Sturgeon has also struggled with her own leadership in Scotland with a botched reshuffle and ditched education policy plus the party has struggled to gain any traction at Westminster. British politics used to have certainty and order, now we have indecision and obfuscation. Parties and leaders are suffering from an existential crisis, unable or unwilling be the ‘trustees of the nation’, not leading but awaiting events. Why is this?


Personal failings

We have written that three core elements work to ensure leaders have a stock of leadership capital. However you wouldn’t buy shares in Corbyn or May at the moment, or Vince Cable for that matter. They fail on all three aspects: skills, relations and reputation. On skills, leaders cannot seem to articulate a persuasive vision of where we are heading or how we will get there. They have failed to ‘teach reality’ regarding where we are heading and how we will get there. There is little positive direction being mapped out. Instead we are trapped, forever repeating knife edge votes, mantras about the will of the people and complex ‘novel’ customs ideas that are all destined to fail and then fail again and again. On the government side we can return to that Lamont speech for one explanation…

‘There is something wrong with the way in which we make our decisions. The Government listen too much to the pollsters and the party managers.’

On relations, they have failed to build alliances inside or outside their own parties. Therefore political parties are at the mercy of small groups of rebels and the government depends on the DUP to stay in power. Relations beyond parliament, for instance with business and pressure groups are fractured. On reputation, they have struggled to get things done. The context of minority government and Brexit may constrain, but they are following as paralysis sets in on domestic policy.


Representative confusion

The Referendum result has altered the way MPs and indeed parties and leaders interact and engage with voters. The lines of accountability used to be clear but now in whose interests are leaders acting? They appear hamstrung by the result, unable to forge positive narratives or make decisions as Lamont bemoaned in 1994. Time after time politicians, most notably the Prime Minister, hide behind ‘delivering on the people’s vote’ – whatever that is. This is following not leading. As Ronald Heifetz famously observed the essence of exercising leadership is about disappointing people at a rate they can stand, rather just office-holding. Political capital needs to be spent. Yet occupying office is what is happening. There is a crisis of representation. MPs continually cite the will of their own constituency to justify a leave or remain or soft or hard Brexit stance. Others such as Iain Duncan Smith and Kate Hoey – two MPs openly causing trouble for their own leadership – choose to ignore their constituency voices on Brexit as they inconveniently contradict their own entrenched positions.


No control

Back seat (or even front seat drivers) are currently working against the ethos of public leadership. Leadership binds parliamentary parties together, which are after all amalgamations of factional interests. They must also inspire members, supporters and voters. Ideology of course cuts across parties, but now approaches to Brexit have added a new faultline. So we see the government win a crucial third reading division with the support of 4 Labour votes, while Anna Soubry and Nicholas Soames call for a centrist ‘sensible’ alliance across parties. All of this undermines party leadership and policy direction as backbench MPs and cabinet ministers act as autonomous agents. Parties become more fractured and political leadership disconnected. The sight of whips chasing around the chamber persuading their own side not to rebel is a desperate example of how little control parliamentary parties have at present.

And so on control, there is a deep irony as the ‘take back control’ refrain has been shown up as a mirage. Who is taking back control? Of what? As 1978 may have felt the end of days for Labour, at the mercy of events, 1994 saw Major too only surviving, now May is in a similar bind. The Conservative party and parliament as an institution have neither the capacity nor leadership means to exercise real authority and control. Indeed someone really does need to accumulate and spend political capital and soon, perhaps it is the Prime Minister as the Government in a written statement announced that she will lead negotiations with the EU, taking resources from DEXEU. So perhaps the stirring of the exercise of authority from the centre?


The July 2018 White Paper: Carte Blanche or Tabula Rasa?

From Amelia Hadfield (Professor in European and International Relations) and Christian Turner (CEFEUS Research Assistant)


It finally came. The day prior to her two-year anniversary as Prime Minister, Theresa May finally unveiled the 104-page document on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union. The White Paper, officially entitled ‘The Future Relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union’[1] which has to date caused the resignation of two Secretaries of State, 3 junior Ministers and two Vice-Chairs of the Conservative Party, is threatening to split the Tories in a way not seen since the Maastricht Treaty did during the 1990s. This reflects the tough balancing act May has been forced to strike throughout her Premiership, between Tories old and new, left and right, and fundamentally, pro and anti-Brexit.

The Brexit spectrum has hardened in the past two years, both within Parliament, and in the country at large. For some, the rudimentary in/out polarity still determines their stance. For others, the spectrum consists of May’s speeches[2], and her red lines: extracting Britain from both the EU Single Market and the Customs Union, ending freedom of movement and the jurisdiction of EU courts, reducing net payments to the EU budget, and striking free trade agreements.

The White Paper’s Chequered Past

This brings us to the histrionics of the Chequers Cabinet summit on 6 July. Designed as the foundation for the subsequent White Paper, the Chequers agreement is made up of 12 key principles for future UK/EU negotiations. From May’s perspective, the Chequers deal had to be palatable for the full spectrum of the Conservative Party, clear enough to resonate with Parliament more broadly, and persuasive enough for Brussels to buy it. To do so, the deal also had to retain May’s infamous red lines, while minimising disruption to British jobs and British trade.

Substantively, the Chequers deal represents a last-ditch attempt to solve the fiendishly tricky customs and border issue. Those of us fascinated with the differences between the two models proposed initially last summer by the Department for Exiting the European Union will recall both New Customs Partnership (NCP), and the Maximum Facilitation Agreement (Max Fac). The former closely aligns Britain’s approach to the customs border with that of the EU, effectively removing the need for UK-EU customs border (cost: £3.4 billion with a five year set-up); the latter continues some of the existing arrangements, but relies more heavily upon technology and trusted trader status (cost: £20 billion, 3 years to implement).

Combining the two produces the current Facilitated Customs Agreement (FCA), an evolved Mansion House model[3] that retains the NCP’s goal of levying a UK import tax on finished imported goods entering or leaving the UK and collecting EU import taxes on behalf of the EU (refunding the difference to the EU). This model is combined with MaxFac’s technology-intensive tool to track the avalanche of incoming goods to the UK.

A Whiter Shade of Pale  

Procedurally, May’s balancing act relied upon the parliamentary arithmetic needed to get the bills[4] through. This was laid asunder a day or two before the White Paper even reached Parliament, with the resignation of Brexit Secretary David Davis and FCO Secretary Boris Johnson, both of whom resigned in protest at the nature of the Chequers deal, essentially viewing it as too closely aligned with the EU. When the White Paper itself arrived in Parliament under new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, the central talking point was the creation of a Customs Union of Goods and the overhauled Facilitated Customs Agreement. Supporters argued that the eventual goal of a combined customs territory would ultimately minimise friction and reduce the cost to business. Critics argued that the overall connection with the EU was still far too close, with a bureaucratically nightmarish twin-track approach. As we suggested recently in our evidence to Parliament, for Kent, a friction-free, ‘customs-lite’ deal is crucial to ensure the 4.2 million lorries that currently travel through the county continue to move freely without damaging delays[i].

Underlying the customs deal is the White Paper’s suggestion to create a common rule book establishing a free trade zone for industrial and agricultural goods that essentially follows the EU’s regulations for goods. Supporters here argue that EU rules and regulations on goods have over the past 40 years evolved and remained stable, and that British businesses have no desire to see them changed. Opponents argue that again, the relationship with the EU remains too cosy, and may alter the nature of prospective free trade deals with other countries and regions.

There is also the issue of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The White Paper insists that overall EU jurisdiction would end. In reference to the Common Rule Book for instance, a Joint Committee would be formed by the EU and UK to handle disputes. However, should the Committee be unable to resolve an issue, the matter could be referred to the CJEU for ‘interpretations’. Brexiters fear that this could create a situation where the EU constantly refers matters to the CJEU, and in turn, essentially keeps the UK tied to the canon of EU law. However, it should be noted that it is difficult to see how else a deep free trade agreement with the EU, in particular with a bespoke Customs Union, could operate without a joint legal entity. Even the European Free Trade Association has its own court[5] to settle issues, and it may be that the UK way have to work within something similar.

Finally, the Government has outlined its views on immigration post-Brexit, once again insisting it will end Freedom of Movement for EU citizens. However, the White Paper does offer concessions. Firstly, it calls for visa-free travel for tourists and ‘temporary workers’. Also – importantly for those of us in academia – the White Paper also broadly supports student mobility, with a reference to UK and EU citizens being able to move reciprocally to study and work, presumably on the basis of a visa or waiver system. The White Paper also supports both the EU and UK being able to ‘move their talented people’. There is however an unappetising degree of UKIP-style rhetoric on immigration in the White Paper, with its focus on high-skilled Western Europeans rather than low-skilled multi-sectoral, multi-regional citizens, both west and east.


When is an Association Agreement not an Association Agreement?

Beyond key issues regarding the economy and communities, the White Paper makes clear references to avoiding a hard Irish border, devolving appropriate powers, and the removal of Britain from EU institutions. It also outlines Britain’s wish to continue standards convergence on goods (see above), its ongoing participation in EU agencies (chemical, aviation and medicines), is gloriously vague on the types of equivalence to facilitate trade in services (80% of the British economy), and makes further overtures about a UK-EU security partnership. Taken together, the template is one that many non-EU states currently have with the EU, called an association agreement with the EU.

Ironically, Association Agreements[6] are a long-standing tool that the EU has developed with neighbouring states (e.g. North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe) to facilitate and deepen relations with the EU. Prime Minister May famously ruled out an EU-UK Association Agreement in her 2017 Lancaster Speech, but the July 2018 White Paper looks stunningly like one at present. Indeed, with the clear objective of establishing a relationship with the EU that is “broader in scope than any other that exists between the EU and a third country”[ii] (p.7), the White Paper seems to be suggesting an advanced Association Agreement.

Parliament Redux: The return of the ‘bastards’

As outlined in Part 1 of this blog, the White Paper, and the Chequers agreement before it, represents both the most detailed explanation to date of the UK’s future relationship with the EU, and the embodiment of the enormous domestic tensions that surround this issue. Nowhere is the atmosphere more febrile than Parliament itself. May’s various Brexit set pieces – speeches, red lines, D’EXEU papers, etc. – have done little to heal the rifts in the House or in the Conservative Party.

Euroscepticism remains a key component of the contemporary Conservative Party. It greatly hampered John Major’s Premiership in the 1990s, with Major himself labelling his rebellious colleagues ‘bastards’, believed to be referring to Michael Howard, Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo. In terms of transforming the White Paper into legislation, May too has her own bastards to contend with, the most convincing of which is the increasingly authoritative European Research Group (ERG), chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg.

As the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill returned to the House of Commons on Monday 16th July, the ERG sponsored three major amendments, with a fourth amendment led by Labour’s Kate Hoey on the Northern Irish border[iii].

The two most controversial amendments sought to prevent the UK remaining in the Customs Union overall unless the Government introduced primary legislation through Parliament, and secondly, EU-wide reciprocity in the collection of VAT and some tariffs. The former represented a clear signal that a large proportion of the Conservative Party will still not tolerate a ‘soft Brexit’ (by providing MPs an opportunity to vote it down). The latter undermined the White Paper’s customs union proposal by insisting that all 27 EU member states would have to collect the appropriate taxes on the behalf of the UK, as the UK itself was proposing to do for the EU (rendering the model increasingly impossible in practice).

The amendment argued for a British VAT regime independent of the EU, while the Hoey amendment rejected wholesale the concept of a border in the Irish Sea between the UK and Northern Ireland, and. The VAT issue opens the door for post-Brexit Britain raising or lowering VAT on certain products, which could cause border delays for certain goods.[7] The Irish Sea amendment meanwhile effectively scuppers the government’s approval of the Commission’s current proposal for a Brexit Backstop plan for Northern Ireland (i.e. allowing it to remain in the Customs Union and if possible, the Single Market).

Nil Desperandum Auspice.. Negotiations?

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Apparently. Sensing imminent defeat just hours before the votes, May (again) struck (another) deal and stated that the amendments (conveniently) matched ‘Government Policy’[iv]. However, Conservative Remainers, including Anna Soubry and Kenneth Clarke, in turn threatened to rebel, insisting that the amendments made the White Paper unworkable. The conclusion? A win of just three votes on the Customs Union and VAT amendments. Indeed, the vote was so tight that had certain events unfolded differently (e.g. Liberal Democrats Vince Cable and Tim Farron attending the votes, Conservative Chief Whip Julian Smith actually upholding the Parliamentary pairing agreement, Ian Paisley’s suspension), May could easily have lost on the veru amendments she had accepted at the last moment.

In the days that have followed, May saw off the Remainers on all tabled amendments, bar the European Medicines Agency[v], although happily the latte corresponds with Government policy (at least for now). In truth, this has been a bruising month for the Prime Minister. She has lost a profusion of ministers, while the 1922 Committee continues to keep alive the threat of a leadership. Labour remains riven on Brexit and ideological matters, and the Conservatives themselves remain polarised, amidst indications of a recent rise in UKIP support[vi].  To ensure that the White Paper and its legislation survives the summer, May and her ministers have undertaken a spate of diplomatic forays to Germany, France, Spain and Italy and beyond, to highlight its practicable aspects, despite chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier suggesting that much in it remains unworkable[vii].  The White Paper may have much to recommend it, not least its softer Brexit components. But with just nine months left to negotiate Britain’s departure, and time still needed to navigate the departure bill through the UK and EU Parliament, it is possible that the White Paper is simply too little, too late.

[1] ‘The Future Relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union’, HM Government,

[2] Lancaster House, 17th January 2017; Florence Speech, 22nd September 2017; Munich Security Conference, 17th February 2018, Mansion House speech, 2nd March 2018


[4] European Union (Approvals) Act, 7th December 2017; EU (Withdrawal Bill), 29th June 2018; Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Act 2017, 20th July 2018



[7] Despite Switzerland having a Customs Union with the EU for instance, goods still require processing at the border to ensure that the necessary VAT is paid. Whilst Switzerland has a land border with four EU member states, the vast majority of goods currently travel by sea and rail via busy points such as Dover and Folkestone. Any delays could bring serious repercussions to the British economy.








A Tale of (Two…?) Borises

From Max Stafford – PhD Candidate in Politics 


Other than Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn, it is quite likely that no other individual has attracted British political interest in the same way that Boris Johnson has in recent years. If, as Churchill once claimed, Russia was ´…a riddle, wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma…´, then Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is a paradox, wrapped inside an ego inside a crumpled suit. The very reaction to his resignation – from Max Hastings´ excoriating demolition of Boris´ character in The Times through to Priti Patel and Sajid Javid´s ostensibly warmer views – has been an exemplar of the perplexity the very mention of his name can trigger. Indeed, he is one of the very few British politicians who is instantly recognisable just through the mention of their first name alone.


For those of us who find ourselves spending time researching him, it is often advisable to take a significant step (if not leap) backwards and ask: “Just who or what is this man and what is his overriding vision?”


The first part of this question is perhaps more easily resolved, though it can still throw up further confusion. Johnson is, of course, world-famous for having been the first (and, thus far, only) Conservative Mayor of London. His natural gift with languages and apparent love of all things London lent themselves well to this role and its globally-orientated cultural features. Nevertheless, delve just below the surface and you´ll seen feel that he was much more a delegator than a visionary leader of a dynamic populace. Whilst he was able to turn criticisms into being lauded (as he did with his “Broom Army” response to the 2011 riots), he lacked obvious interest in the main challenges facing the city. A sample checklist of such issues might appear as follows:


Problem Paradoxical Solution
Airport capacity in the South-East Support the resurrection of a 60-year-old plan for a controversial and largely impractical airport in the Thames Estuary and then hire someone else (Daniel Moylan) to deal with the difficulty of actually selling the policy


Desire for more green leisure space in the centre of London


Adopt Joanna Lumley´s proposal of an expensive Garden Bridge across the Thames and stand by the project in the face of increasing public ridicule


Spend the 2008 election campaign discussing how predecessor (Ken Livingstone) had allowed the cost of City Hall to balloon Increase the number of deputy mayors from the one statutory one provided for in the original legislation and leave office with 4 in place



Similarly, Johnson´s heritage suggests Europhilia that subsequently failed to transpire in his ideological positioning. His father is a former Member of the European Parliament (having previously worked for the Commission), his brother (a current government minister) is viewed as having strong “Remain” sympathies and his sister recently joined the Liberal Democrats to fight against Brexit. Yet Boris led the Leave campaign with the ferocity of rather overly-confident lion who has just spotted the possibility of killing off a much-weakened prey (David Cameron). On the other hand, he had previously proven to be a fairly Eurosceptic correspondent for The Telegraph´s European bureau and so, one might argue, he has actually maintained a consistent position throughout this period. Except he hasn´t. The two alternate drafts of his 2016 newspaper article announcing his decision on which side to support in the referendum don´t so much undermine this view as leave it with the credibility Johnson´s consistent claims to be supportive of Theresa May…


As to the second part of the afore-mentioned question – the desire to understand what his overriding political vision might be – one is probably as well-served by asking for “answers on a postcard” as seeking to scientifically deduce what lies at the nub of this aspect. Whilst solid in his promotion of a “Global London” political brand (clearly the blueprint for his “Global Britain” agenda), Boris was less clear as to what his vision was as Mayor. In part, this was because he was firmly amongst those who did not expect victory in either of his two elections (2008 and 201). Much more fundamental, however, is that he increasingly approached the mayoralty as a springboard for an eventual leadership bid.


What makes this all the more remarkable is that, 10 years on from when his star began its steady rise (and occasional fall) on this ambitious trajectory, we are still none the wiser as to what Prime Minister Johnson´s political vision would be. Certainly, it would contain some sort of lionised version of Brexit (blue passports and sundry red buses to boot) but what would his wider programme for government look like? Despite his having spent 2 years in the Foreign Office, can anyone hand-on-heart pick a non-Brexit issue and clearly outline what was “uniquely Johnsonian” about it? In domestic policy, what are Johnson´s clear views on mental health services, the railways outside of London or a strategy for maintaining the union? Do we have answers to these that could be communicated clearly to a sceptical public, without recourse to Latin or claims plastered across buses?


These might sound like flippant remarks but strip away Boris´ undoubtable skill in erudition and drum-beating and one might be forced to conclude that the cupboard is surprisingly bare. His skill in systematically undermining Theresa May is rendered rather futile (assuming that he still believes that his aspirations towards leadership can be realised) by a lack of bread-and-butter policy work.


Is Boris a blunt opportunist or a Machiavellian figure with a more cohesive plan than we might at first believe? Is he better at the narrative and tactics of daily political point-scoring than the ability to set clear objectives which are, in turn, underpinned by workable strategies? Do his best days in politics lie ahead of him, or is he already too weathered by the past 2 years to be able to become the “Man of the Moment”? With Boris, there are always more questions than there are clear and concise answers.


Clearly, this is not to say that he lacks a “big beast”-style presence or impact. The fact that the news media were able to string out 3 hours´ worth of “Where´s Boris” coverage yesterday attests to the continued fascination with his impact and potential. We will continue to follow his career, whether through excitement or trepidation, for some time yet (whether or not he mounts a leadership bid in the months to come). Similarly, he will always be a draw for those Conservatives who feel that they need to rediscover the party´s ability to act in unexpectedly unconventional ways and shake up political norms. Few symbolise that more than the man who gave zip-wires prominence in our political discussions.


However, for now at least, the Member of Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip must return to the world of the constituency surgery, the Summer fete and the warm prosecco of the political silly season. Whether his resignation will turn out to be a career-elevating masterstroke or an Eton mess is still a matter to be decided.

Full time approaches, Brexit remains Brexit


From Dr Sarah Lieberman – Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations

Understanding the events of this week may be key to understanding the whole Brexit debacle. The key players remain the same, the key arguments remain the same, and two years on the state of play remains the same. The EU’s negotiating position also remains the same. The Four Freedoms –freedom of movement of: people, services, goods and capital – can still not be split.  Yes, the UK is welcome to negotiate a departure from the European Union, but no the UK cannot take the parts of the Union that it likes, for free, and abandon those aspects of the Union it dislikes. The Chequers Agreement / Statement / Cabinet-destroying-brouhaha is therefore nothing more than yet another suggestion by the increasingly desperate government. This must now be passed to the Article 50 negotiators in Brussels who are waiting for the UK to propose something which does not involve the EU abandoning its four founding freedoms and the UK accessing the common market without paying to do so.

This is what the government agreed at Chequers: the UK would retain free-trade with Europe and would therefore also retain regulatory alignment with the EU. However, this was agreed only among UK Conservative Cabinet Ministers: it has not been presented to the EU’s heads of states, nor to the negotiators who will advise on its legality.

Furthermore, it turns out that Cabinet Ministers did not agree. The Prime Minister stipulated that the time for Ministerial freedom was over and that Collective Responsibility (where the Government speaks as one – one of the oldest and most important unwritten norms of the British constitution) must now be applied. However, the resignations of David Davis the Minister for Brexit and Boris Johnson the Foreign Secretary demonstrate lack of unity. And, under the principle of collective responsibility, you agree, or you go.

But still, puzzles abound. If Davis and Johnson knew they could not accept the ‘soft’ integrationist Brexit it proposed, why did they put their name to the agreement before resigning? If May cannot demand Collective Responsibility what now for her leadership? And what about Brexit… we only have eight months?

It would be comforting to see this week as part of a grand strategy for departure from which the UK would emerge flag waving and stronger but in all honesty the government does not look that organised. On the plus side, neither Davis nor Johnson will be greatly missed. Davis has since appointment failed to negotiate with Europe and failed to answer the most basic of questions relating to European regulation, UK sectoral risk assessments and Brexit strategy. Johnson, who held a position that requires diplomacy and understanding has shown neither trait and has embarrassed the country far and wide.

Why sign? Perhaps they wanted to leave the meeting. Perhaps they didn’t read the document. Perhaps they didn’t understand the jargon. Perhaps they are triggered by confrontation.

Why then resign? Although the two are bundled together in a mega cabinet confusion, their modus operandi differ greatly. Davis is a long-term Tory MP with strong Brexit beliefs. His resignation letter suggested he believes in a harder Brexit than the agreement proposed (and clearly his job is impossible given his boss keeps changing direction on his brief). Johnson on the other hand is a career politician who resigned because Brexit is an economically unviable albatross for which he is responsible (who remembers the bus?) And what for Theresa May? If she cannot enforce Collective Responsibility within the Cabinet then things do not look rosy. This week has demonstrates that she has neither the power to align her government Ministers to do her bidding, nor does she have the answer the big question, what to do about Brexit?

We have eight months, a divided government, an opposition with no united position, a PM who cannot galvanise her cabinet and a general public whose only current concern revolves around eleven sportsmen and a song from 1996. If you understand this week, you have the key to Brexit. If you don’t… well join the club.

Is Parliament Fit for Purpose?

From Mark Bennister – Reader in Politics. This blog was originally posted on the PSA Parliaments Group blogsite (You can find the it here).

There has been plenty of procedural drama and political intrigue in the UK Parliament in the last fortnight. Mark Bennister, who is an academic fellow in the House of Commons, discusses why these events pose a challenge to how Westminster is perceived by the public.


Parliament behaving badly?

Each of these in turn represents a challenge to how Parliament is perceived by the general public and highlight some of the arcane process issues that have stubbornly resisted reform. Taking first the walkout by the SNP during PMQs on 13 June, while a piece of orchestrated theatre designed to gain the SNP a wave of publicity (and an unintended boost in membership), it highlighted – as Louise Thompson has written – the challenge for smaller parties in getting a voice in the chamber, when procedure is so weighted towards the two main parties. Denied time to debate the contentious devolved consent aspect of the EU (Withdrawal) bill, the SNP were livid and took their largely symbolic action. The following day the FT published an in-depth feature detailing cases of sexual harassment in the Commons as the result of a series of interviews with parliamentary staff. Since these allegations surfaced, Parliament has struggled to put in place the very necessary reforms to provide for even a reasonable complaints and disciplinary procedure. The day after, Tory MP Sir Christopher Chope became a household name for all the wrong reasons when he blocked the progress of a Private Members’ Bill to ban upskirting, sponsored by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse and supported by the Government. There are few routes for MPs to initiate legislation and Private Members’ Bills (PMBs) and other devices (this one started as a presentation bill) stand little chance of progressing without government support and even then, depend on time being found in the business schedule. Chope, an old-fashioned libertarian Thatcherite has a history of blocking PMBs, objecting to ‘nanny state’ measures, but also as a means to protest against backbench bills being nodded through. Perversely his actions made legislation more likely, as the Government, with the Prime Minister’s support, will now find business time for a bill of their own on upskirting, but it highlighted the arcane practice and procedural limitations on backbench time. It also looked bad for Parliament.

Too Grieve or not

This brings us to the so called Grieve 2 amendment, tabled when the EU Withdrawal Bill returned to the Commons on Wednesday 20 June. For the procedural nerds (my parliamentary studies students take note) see Jack Simson Caird’s excellent explanation of the amendment. For those outside the Westminster bubble, however, you had the absurd situation of the Grieve amendment being rejected by Grieve himself, the rebel leader of the anti-Brexit Tories who is neither a rebel nor evidently a leader, and seemingly not even that anti-Brexit. Even though the Tory rebellion melted away, the Government were sufficiently worried to suspend usual ‘nodding through’ voting arrangements which meant that we had the unedifying sight of Naz Shah MP being wheeled though the lobby in a wheelchair, wearing pyjamas and dosed up on morphine, and heavily pregnant MPs having to vote in person. The Government’s victory meant the rejection   of the Lords amendment – the episode is wonderfully summed up by this clip from the Lords – and the completion of the Bill’s passage through Parliament.

Who’s in control?

The amendment of an amendment may have a comical ring to it, but what to make of it all? Is this what taking back control looks like? Largely procedural questions over what happens if there is no deal, or a deal is voted down by Parliament, have centred on the status – amendable or otherwise – of motions in this event and the potential role of the Speaker in determining the status of subsequent motions. Important (though technical) this may be, it essentially amounts to a fudge to avoid a defeat for the Government who can stumble on and keep malcontents on the hard and soft Brexit wings on board. The Government managed this, but it is all still political. Portrayed as a battle between Parliament and the Government for control of the Brexit process, I tend to agree with Jill Rutter that it was more a battle within the Tory party. In the end Parliament may have a little more say in the matter than it might have done, thanks to Grieve’s threats of rebellion, but the Tory rebels have been flushed out as unwilling or unable to assert themselves sufficiently. They are not fringe MPs as the Maastricht rebels were under John Major, but are largely loyal former ministers reluctant to place ideals above party. With Labour Brexiteers like Kate Hoey and Frank Field prepared to vote with the Government, the influence of the Tory remainers is weakened. The emphasis on what happens after a no deal or defeat in Parliament suggests that it is these scenarios that are looking more likely now. Indeed, while the Government has been preoccupied with such arcane internal party management, the clock continues to tick.

We are a long way from anyone taking control. The Government has seemingly little idea of its negotiating stance, still at odds within cabinet. The Prime Minister cannot assert any authority or even vision on where we are going. Parliament is merely the site for party differences laid bare and can provide little institutional direction or control of the process. The two Houses of Parliament seem more remote than ever: though their Lordships are free from any constituency pressures to raise some legitimate issues, the Commons is in a quandary of representation, uncertain whether to act in national, party or referendum-mandated interests. Furthermore, the inability of the Commons to reform itself to make it fit for modern politics allows complexity, bad practice and weakness in the face of the executive to remain. A degree of clarity over who controls the process could however be found at the Brexit Select Committee on the same day as the Bill staggered through parliament. Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s chief negotiator set out how the EU is in control, setting the timetable, terms and conditions of withdrawal. This is perhaps where Parliament’s greatest public service may come, in exposing the external reality away from the game playing in the Commons chamber.