Theresa May just made history. Not, as some think, by suffering a record 432-202 Parliamentary drubbing over Brexit. By remaining Prime Minister regardless.
With left-wing lunatic Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn putting forward a non-confidence motion, Tory MPs shuffled nervously back toward May, giving her a 325-306 consolation victory. But at what cost to their Constitution?
Brexit is the issue for Theresa May. It allowed her to clamber over the political corpse of her former boss David Cameron into 10 Downing St. She repeatedly promised to deliver on it. It’s the biggest policy question facing Britain in at least a generation, far bigger than any budget or throne speech. And she went down in the hottest flames in modern Parliamentary history. What “confidence” can the House be supposed to have in her?
The problem is that we, meaning most citizens in every English-speaking country, no longer understand how Parliamentary self-government works. We think we elect a Prime Minister to rule unchecked, and MPs to yak pointlessly between bouts of compulsory backing of the guy or gal wearing the same jersey as them.
I got quite the smackdown from Twitter trolls two months ago for objecting to the term “government” for the administration in a parliamentary system. And to be fair, it is habitual to speak of cabinet as the capital-G “Government” as in “Her Majesty’s Government,” those persons now invariably drawn from the legislature who are entrusted with executing the laws made by the legislature. But the entire “government” consists of three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. And even the executive is far larger than just cabinet and frequently frustrates or ignores directives from above.
Former Labour firebrand Tony Benn, né Anthony Wedgewood Benn, once described the deflating experience of becoming a minister. “All my life I had dreamed of being a cabinet member and having all that wonderful power and prestige. I ran into my cabinet office and there were the levers of power. I grabbed them and pulled. Absolutely nothing happened. They didn’t seem to be connected to anything.” And in the background Sir Humphrey Appleby smirked complacently.
The same is true in the American system. In his memoirs Nixon speaks of ordering increased surveillance flights after a North Korean provocation and discovering belatedly that the Department of Defence had instead canceled them. But it’s also true that Americans increasingly attribute to the President capacities, benign or demonic, he does not possess.
As my National Post colleague Colby Cosh recently wrote, warning us not to underestimate Donald Trump’s political instincts, “The Constitution says that Congress shall control the federal purse, but the popular perception of American government is that the president is a sort of fierce primitive god who controls the economic weather and makes dams, bridges, armies, and walls appear.” Such confusion, dangerous even in a Congressional system, is far worse in a modern Parliamentary system where the checks and balances are in such grievous disrepair.
It is now difficult to recall that Parliament was created, and solidified in the centuries after Magna Carta, to give the populace control over the executive in defence of our rights. Significant landmarks include: 1297 Edward I promises no taxation without representation; 1346 Commons sits separately; 1376 Commons chooses own Speaker; 1400 Parliament insists on redress of grievances before granting “supply”, that is, money to the king; 1407 Commons asserts primacy over Lords on money bills because it represents those who must pay; 1414 Parliament forbids executive editing of legislation once passed.
Unfortunately, after the 18th-century crisis over growing executive power that triggered the American Revolution, Parliament gained such dominance over the other branches that the separation all but vanished in practice. But with the one branch citizens did choose in firm control of those they did not, what could go wrong?
Well, from the late 19th century on ambitious men, and later women too, realized that whoever controlled Parliament controlled the machinery of government almost entirely. So if they could secure executive office yet dominate legislators through party whips, a strong centralized extra-Parliamentary party organization including formal or informal vetoes on candidate nomination, and lucrative perks like junior ministers’ posts to keep potentially restive backbenchers in line, they could rule essentially unchecked. As they have, and do.
It seemed innocent especially because the new convention that ministers had to be sitting MPs meant these shiny new tin gods were all people we elected. But while cabinet struggles to control the civil service to which parliament (at ministers’ command) increasingly delegates quasi-legislative regulatory authority, parliament doesn’t even struggle to control the executive any more. Instead, confusing the executive branch with “the government” and thinking Parliament a quaint sideshow, we hold a referendum every four years on who shall wield largely arbitrary power. (That courts are increasingly usurping legislative functions too is a subject for another day, and less pressing in Britain than here.)
Theresa May remaining in office illuminates the new situation with a harsh and unlovely glare. As a practical matter I think she ought not to enjoy the confidence of the House, or the electorate, having half-on-purpose, half-stupidly backed her countrypersons into choosing between a bad Brexit and none at all. But in a way the practicalities no longer matter.
What matters is that a vast majority of MPs clearly do not believe she can conduct affairs of state satisfactorily. Many of her own party’s MPs no longer think so while most others never did. But the crucial divide here is not between the Red and Blue teams wherever seated. It is between the legislative and executive branches.
Since she no longer enjoys the confidence of a majority of legislators, or those who elected them, the plain fact is that May is no longer Prime Minister under the British Constitution. And plainly it no longer matters so the British Constitution, as we have known it since at least the 18th century, has ceased to exist.
Ironically, one of the big concerns of Brexiteers all along was the collapse of Britain’s traditional system of government. What bitter irony that even MPs unable to stand her bungling of Brexit no longer care to understand how it was meant to work.
If May’s crushing defeat over Brexit is not loss of confidence, what can the term even mean? Nothing. Thus the UK now has an elected head of government who does not require the confidence of legislators but, unlike the American president, can dictate budgets and make foreign policy without their advice or consent.
History has been made. King George, welcome back. Omnipotent and incompetent.
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