On August 29 2013, the British submarine HMS Tireless was somewhere in the Mediterranean, ready to go to battle. But unusually, its commanders were watching the House of Commons.
MPs were debating whether to authorise strikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Tracking events in parliament via the BBC website, the submarine’s commanders realised, before any order came through, that they would not be firing cruise missiles after all.
The Syria debate was the first time since the American war of independence that a British government had lost a vote on military action. Mindful of how little scrutiny had been applied to Tony Blair’s blueprint to invade Iraq in 2003, many MPs had wanted to avoid the same mistake. Some hadn’t wished to block strikes on Syria altogether, just to force David Cameron to revise his plan. Instead they not only inadvertently stopped the UK going to war: they also caused Barack Obama to abandon the US’s own plans to bomb Syria, leaving Assad’s regime free to commit further atrocities.
The events of August 2013 put the current crisis in perspective. Long before Brexit, MPs had started to take back control. Long before Brexit, they had learnt it was no simple task.
So, for all the hyperbole, this week’s votes to reject Theresa May’s Brexit deal and extend Brexit talks beyond the March 29 deadline were arguably not the most dramatic decisions that the Commons has made in the last decade, or even the most confused. Nor have the past three years been the unhappiest time in Westminster’s living memory. That prize goes to the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009-10.
What does make the Brexit crisis unique is its constitutional havoc. Never in recent times have so many parts of the British system been under so much strain for so long. The 1956 Suez crisis was over within a month; this has been two and a half years of parliamentary trench warfare.
Cabinet meetings have leaked, party discipline has disintegrated, parliamentary conventions have been rewritten. Strip away the chaos and the farce, and the Brexit process “has shown our unwritten constitution is basically broken”, says Stewart Wood, a Labour peer.
But the break did not start where one might expect — between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the executive and the legislature, or even the executive and the judiciary. It started with parliament versus the people. “When you have a referendum in a parliamentary democracy, MPs don’t know what to do — they don’t know what their job is,” says Lord Wood.
Referendums have never had much of a place in the British constitution. They are a recognition that the legitimacy of governments and parliaments goes only so far: that some issues, of national identity or cultural norms, do not fit on the left-right scale that governs our elections.
Clement Attlee called them “alien to all of our traditions”. Perhaps that reflected an idealised vision of parliament as a place where views were not merely represented, but moulded. As Edmund Burke told his electors in 1774, “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests . . . parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole.”
Whatever the reason, before Brexit only two UK-wide plebiscites had been held — one in 1975 on membership of the European Community, another in 2011 on changing the voting system for MPs. In both, MPs and voters agreed.
The Brexit referendum was the first time that Britain’s electorate has voted for an outcome with which its MPs disagreed. Nearly 52 per cent of UK voters backed Leave, while nearly 75 per cent of today’s MPs voted Remain. That was only half the problem. The other is that most of the 25 per cent of MPs who did vote Leave disagreed with how the government (led by former Remainers) interpreted the vote. So parliamentary democracy and direct democracy became incompatible.
One way out of this would have been to ask the people to rethink or accept revised terms. It happened in Ireland in 2008, on the Lisbon treaty, in Greece in 2015, on an EU bailout, and in Colombia in 2016, on a peace agreement with Farc guerrillas. But in June 2016, no one could become Tory leader on such a pledge (ask Jeremy Hunt: he tried). Instead, the division between parliament and the people morphed into a stalemate between parliament and the executive. Before this week’s losses, May’s government had already recorded the worst Commons defeat ever on her Brexit deal. In December, it also became the first ever to be found in contempt of parliament, over its initial refusal to publish a legal opinion on its Brexit deal.
You can find more spectacular stand-offs between executives and legislatures — Donald Trump and the US Congress, or Nicolás Maduro and the Venezuelan National Assembly. But Britain’s parliamentary system was never meant to work like that. The executive, almost by definition, controls the lower chamber. Parliament is always sovereign in the same way the customer is always right — that is, in principle. The real power lies with the governing party.
In the most famous test of its authority — the 1642-51 English civil war — parliament came out the clear winner. This time, its reputation may have undergone lasting damage.
Death threats against MPs are now the norm. Even beyond the lunatic fringe, there is bafflement. After MPs rejected May’s deal on Wednesday, the Confederation of British Industry called on parliament to “stop this circus”; the front page of the Daily Mail denounced “The House of Fools”. Asked if parliament is emerging from Brexit in a good light, only 6 per cent of voters say yes. That makes the US Congress’s approval ratings look healthy. Eurosceptic Tory MPs, who once championed parliamentary sovereignty, have called only half-jokingly for the Commons to be suspended to prevent a no-deal Brexit being blocked.
However the crisis ends, the verdict on parliament’s performance will be “pretty damning”, says Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society think-tank. “To some extent it’s been a lack of strategic thinking, imagination and initiative.”
By the time MPs voted on Wednesday to rule out a no-deal Brexit, it was 993 days since the referendum — and just 16 to the scheduled Brexit date. Why, after the Iraq and Syria debacles, has parliament taken so long to find its voice?
It could have been so much less painful. A few days after the referendum, a group of defeated Labour MPs went to see the then Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin. The MPs had a proposal: the government should form a cross-party group to agree a Brexit plan.
The idea was modelled on European practices, such as how Denmark’s foreign affairs committee drafts a mandate for the government’s international negotiations. “It would have been a sounding board for government,” says one of the Labour MPs, Stephen Kinnock.
But summer 2016 was not the ideal time for European-inspired ideas in the UK, and Theresa May, the least collaborative of politicians, was never the ideal person to receive them. “Too often politicians’ reaction to consultation is that it’s a sign of weakness. It isn’t,” says Kinnock.
In normal times, MPs have to balance at least two mandates — the party line and their conscience. In late 2016, however, Conservative MPs had at least four. There was David Cameron’s 2015 election manifesto, on which they had been elected. There was their conscience. There was the referendum result. And there was May’s own platform as party leader — an interpretation of the Brexit vote that prioritised an end to free movement of people, and a focus on state intervention to tackle burning injustices. This scenario did not become simpler after the inconclusive 2017 election, in which the Conservatives remained the largest party but lost their majority. May’s vision had neither been endorsed nor completely rejected.
Under a cross-party approach, these mandates might have been moulded into something coherent. In 2016, May had sufficient command over her party to force Eurosceptic MPs to compromise. Europhile MPs were still cowed by the referendum result: they too could have compromised. The gap between direct democracy and representative democracy might have been bridged.
Instead, the prime minister lost the opportunity to shape how parliament handled Brexit. She ploughed her own furrow, and in doing so planted the seeds of resentment and rebellion. “Theresa May seemed to think at the outset that she would be going to Brussels to negotiate, and would then present the deal to parliament on a take-it-or-leave-it basis,” says Meg Russell, director of the Constitution Unit at University College London. “We’re a million miles from that now.”
In February 2017 MPs did vote to invoke Article 50, mostly unaware that a two-year deadline would soon create the risk of a no-deal Brexit. But then the Conservative MP Dominic Grieve led a rebellion of MPs to ensure that the Commons would be given a final, “meaningful” vote. MPs used that vote to block May’s deal. MPs have forced ministers to hold debates, attend select committees, hand over documents and conform to deadlines.
This represents the swinging back of the pendulum from the New Labour years, when large majorities meant MPs acted as a weak check on power. It was only after Iraq and the expenses revelations — which showed that MPs had used taxpayer money to pay, among other things, for non-existent mortgages — that the Commons pulled itself together. In 2009 the clerk for legislation Robert Rogers, now Lord Lisvane, published a list of 75 actions to revive the chamber. John Bercow, elected as speaker shortly afterwards, has implemented more than 30 of them — including calling ministers regularly to the chamber to answer urgent questions.
More than anyone, Bercow sums up Westminster’s contradictions. He has reformed the Commons’ procedures, while celebrating its pomposity. He has stood up for lowly backbenchers, while facing accusations (which he denies) of bullying clerks. He makes sure all MPs have their turn to speak, while ensuring that he emerges as the real star.
It helped Bercow that in the 2010 election no party won a majority and the Commons saw an influx of independent-minded, constituency-focused MPs, who knew that their voting records could be scrutinised via various websites.
But holding the government to account is one thing, setting the agenda another. The Brexit crisis has shown this. In January and February, when MPs tabled amendments that would truly empower backbenchers — by giving them control of what is debated in the Commons, or setting up voting systems for MPs to rank different Brexit options — the majority stepped back. “I think the most remarkable thing is how unsuccessful we’ve been in taking control,” says one shadow minister. Faced with a choice of now or never, MPs generally decided it couldn’t be now. Only this week did they become bolder, rejecting May’s deal for a second time. In response, the government agreed to facilitate a vote on different Brexit options if they rejected it a third time.
“The last two years have thrown into sharp relief the things that parliament is good at and the things it is not good at. It is generally not good at legislating,” says Lisvane. “The things that have gone really well are select committees.”
True, the cross-party Brexit committee of MPs has regularly exposed government incompetence. But it has only agreed unanimously on one report, which was critical of May’s deal. Had a majority of MPs settled on a form of Brexit, May would have had to accept it. But it never has. The only instructions that parliament has passed to the executive have been incomplete-cum-impossible — rule out a no-deal Brexit, or “replace” the Irish backstop.
The British system used to have an escape valve: by convention, prime ministers would offer their resignation to the Queen when they were defeated on major issues. But 2011’s Fixed-term Parliaments Act, intended to ensure the stability of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, in effect means that MPs can defeat the government’s main policy without forcing a general election.
The act lays down specific conditions for an election — the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or a no-confidence motion backed by a simple majority. Thus it has robbed the government of a key weapon for party discipline — the threat that rebels will lose their seats. But the executive retains other tools, such as setting the Commons agenda. Most recently Downing Street pulled a debate on a financial services bill to stop MPs demanding tougher rules on secret company ownership. “We’ve learnt that the government has phenomenal power over the Commons, even if it doesn’t have a majority, as long as it can win a vote of confidence,” says Labour MP Chris Bryant.
The result is a stalemate: the government is too weak to govern, parliament too timid and too disorganised to assume the role. It’s the stoppable force versus the moveable object. It’s that scene in The Italian Job, where the bus hangs on a precipice, rocking gently forwards or backwards.
Democracies have short memories. Eight years after invading Iraq, the UK pursued regime change in Libya. After the Brexit crisis, could we have another referendum? Another EU vote, another Scottish independence referendum, even a repeat of the 1973 Northern Ireland border poll?
If we do, it will rely on MPs agitating and legislating for one. And perhaps they will consider examples of how parliamentary and direct democracy can be bound together. Ahead of Ireland’s vote on abortion, the government prepared a draft piece of legislation, so the meaning of the mandate was clear.
A more immediate question is where this crisis takes Britain’s political system. Will it create an appetite to reform or a desire not to reopen old wounds? At the very least, MPs could demand the right to determine the Commons agenda. Historian Vernon Bogdanor sees Brexit as a broader “constitutional moment” to correct years of tinkering such as the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
Others think the answer is for the Commons to be less assertive. A group of Conservative lawyers recently argued that MPs should not be given a vote over future military action, as they have been since the Iraq war. Two leading candidates to succeed Bercow as speaker — the Conservative Eleanor Laing and Labour’s Lindsay Hoyle — would be less reformist. Lord Lisvane argues that MPs will find they don’t have the capacity to run the government. “My guess is that in a year or two’s time a lot of this passion will have been spent. I think we’ll go back to the default setting.”
Except that a generation of MPs doesn’t know where the default setting is. They see the role of a backbench MP not as an extra, but a protagonist. They have been radicalised and have already started to rebel against the party system. “The discipline has collapsed and I suspect it won’t come back after Brexit,” says Lord Wood.
Scarred by Iraq and the expenses scandal, empowered by Bercow and hung parliaments, encouraged by weak party leadership, the Commons is restless. But its limitations remain. It is an odd assortment of people, lacking in mechanisms for building coalitions. It is a caretaker boss who doesn’t relish long-term responsibility. Perhaps we should not expect more. What the UK needs most of all now is not a stronger parliament. It is a half-decent government.
Henry Mance is an FT political correspondent