A year ago I warned in a column that Britain was heading for a major political and constitutional crisis. Sadly that crisis is now arriving. Its root cause is not the actions of any one individual or party, but the historically unprecedented inability of a Parliament to agree on, let alone implement, any course of action at all.
To illustrate the severity of this, consider what would happen if any particular outcome prevails in the coming days or weeks. If Boris Johnson pulled off the unlikely, but not impossible, feat of a last-minute deal with some major change to the Irish backstop, could we all be confident that deal would then pass the House of Commons? No. Some Brexiteers are so ardent that even that would not be enough, and the bulk of the Labour Party would once again place partisan advantage over the national interest.
What if MPs and Lords this week successfully legislate against a no-deal Brexit and force an extension of EU membership after October 31? Could the UK Parliament then agree on a deal it did want? Or on a new referendum? Or any next step at all? I don’t think so.
We have a Parliament that cannot go backwards, forwards, or agree to sit still. It is unable to agree on the best or prepare for the worst. While we should not blame all the individuals in it, many of whom have striven to avoid this paralysis, the collective effect of this Rubik’s Cube of a House of Commons is that it cannot properly serve the country in any scenario that we can now construct. It is the most seriously defunct Parliament of modern times.
There is only one solution to that. It is the one adopted in each of our serious constitutional crises of recent centuries. The argument was settled by the electorate being asked to choose a new Parliament.
The right course for Boris Johnson is not to prorogue Parliament but to seek to dissolve it. And if that is what he is actually trying to bring about, in a roundabout fashion, he would lose fewer friends along the way if he just went straight for it.
Of course, doing that is fraught with risk, and some of us who advocated calling an election two years ago did not anticipate that the Conservatives would then fight their worst campaign in living memory. But each of the great crises of the past were resolved because the voters elected MPs who reflected their views, and in the end no one could argue with that.
The alternative approach — the one on which Number 10 is now perilously embarked — is to use ever more extreme weapons in a fight to the death among the current MPs. The trouble with this daily escalation of all-out political warfare is that much worse can follow. If half the Commons decides to sit elsewhere, or if ministers refuse to ask for Royal Assent for Bills passed by both Houses, it would undermine or destroy some of the basic understandings of how our democracy works.
Just as seriously, terrible precedents are being set for the future. It is easy to see why, faced with this Parliament, ministers decided to prorogue it. But I will wager that within a decade, a Left-wing administration will use the same technique to ram through measures that Tories bitterly oppose. In politics, you can deploy a secret weapon. But once you have done so, you have handed its design to your enemies and given them permission to use it.
Defusing the crisis
I like many things about the Boris administration — the focus on health, crime and education is excellent, and the extra spending on defence much needed. The Prime Minister is able to communicate well, and is taken more seriously abroad than some critics allowed. A long suspension of Parliament as a political tactic is not, however, something that I for one can defend. If it is so divided and incapable, and so irreconcilable with the Government — all of which it is — this Parliament needs to be replaced with a new one.
It is the responsibility of a government to defuse a constitutional crisis, not stoke it. Above all, that is because the outcome needs legitimacy, with some chance of the nation recovering its balance and holding together. A no-deal Brexit would be a massive event in British history. It cannot be right that it is ultimately settled either way by a procedural ruse or clever trick — the situation to which this Parliament is now reduced. Without acceptance and widespread legitimacy, the outcome threatens to make it harder for the United Kingdom to hold together and democracy to function effectively in the future. Each shock tactic employed, each threat to deselect MPs, reduces that acceptance of the outcome.
An election on October 17 was said to have been “war-gamed” in Number 10. If so, it was the right and better course. The current course, of maintaining this Parliament but making sure it can’t function, can only contribute to a deeper crisis, not just about Brexit, but about whether this country survives and how it is governed.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2019
William Hague is the former foreign secretary of the UK.