British democracy still starts with Westminster. Brexiter Tories will not get a grip until they accept that, and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership will continue to crumble until he does the same.
Editorial, 28 junio 2016 / THE GUARDIAN
The British constitution was traditionally summarised in a single sentence: “The crown in parliament is law”, which is to say that things passed by the Commons and the Lords and then signed by the monarch would come to pass. Like every one-liner, it was an over-simplification, blurring over the role of international treaties and the role of the courts among other things, but – at this time of tumult – it is useful to recall the most fundamental of our ground rules. Britain is a parliamentary democracy, and though we do not love our MPs, the law of the land, the taxes we pay and the hands that hold the levers of power are all inescapably questions for them.
The chaos cascading through both the UK’s main parties just now is because they have, in different ways, forgotten this basic truth. The referendum came about because David Cameron could see no other way to manage an irreconcilable minority of Europhobes among his ranks. But in taking such a weighty decision away from parliament, and then producing an answer that the overwhelming majority of MPs disagreed with, he has ended up destroying his premiership, his government and – for the moment, at least – the governability of the realm.
With the European foundation stone of the Cameron government’s foreign and economic policies shattered, the logic of the referendum is that a new administration must be established – built upon new Brexit policies. There is, however, currently no majority among the MPs – who would have to constitute that government, and then sustain it through confidence and supply – for these new policies. Thus there are rising expectations that the new Conservative leader now set to be installed on 2 September will engineer an early election to seek a fresh mandate, even though this would involve circumventing the law on fixed five-year terms, and going to the country a mere 16 months after it made a decisive choice for Mr Cameron. What a mess. Friends of Theresa May are, reportedly, whispering that as the continuity candidate, she might be able to avoid the early dash to the polls. In truth, even if this low-key remainer can prevail, there could be pressure because, thanks to party rule changes since the 1990s, she would be the first ever prime minister in British history to be chosen by party members out in the country, rather than MPs. And in a parliamentary system, that raises questions of legitimacy.
These are questions that Labour activists also need to think through, as they consider the future of Jeremy Corbyn, after the total collapse of his authority at Westminster, which has been wrought by the mass resignation of his shadow cabinet. If he wishes to carry on, he will surely now be required to fight a fresh leadership election. The Labour party rule book explicitly puts the choice of the leader in the hands of the members who elected Mr Corbyn in such numbers last year. It would thus be sharp practice, even if – which is doubtful – it were legally possible, for parliamentarians to block his name going forward to the ballot. The members, however, will need to reflect on the job they would then be choosing someone to do.
In the early years of Labour history, the leader was simply called the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, and the MPs alone made the choice right up until 1981. Even in opposition, the chief day-to-day task is to lead the members on the green benches, as they challenge the government. If a general election is in prospect, attention inescapably turns to whether or not an aspiring PM could ever command a post-election Commons majority, because without it they could pass no law, raise no taxes nor survive in post.
Some, but not all, of those who have walked out of the shadow cabinet have personal or ideological axes to grind, and there has been a dismal collective failure to explain who and what they believe should be put into the place of Mr Corbyn and his programme. That failure is now the greatest reason many members will see to stay loyal if he stands his ground. Weighed against it, however, must be his own failure to dispatch the core duty of holding a shadow ministerial team together.
Brexiters can hail the popular will in the referendum, just as Tory and Labour activists alike can talk about their own “sovereignty” in picking a leader. None of this rhetoric, however, gets around the reality that parliament is indispensable in getting anything done. Neither policies nor politicians who forget it are likely to endure.