Many UK voters, looking at the choice before them, wish they could tick a box labelled “none of the above”. The Tories, by right, ought to be on their way out, with austerity having run its course, Brexit still barely started after three years, and our Union with Northern Ireland about to be shattered.
But the country correctly sees a Corbyn government as a menace to our security, prosperity and moral fibre. An Ipsos Mori poll released yesterday put Boris Johnson on a net satisfaction rating of minus 20, and Corbyn on minus 44. Holding the Tories accountable, therefore, opens the door to a greater evil.
These miserable options have persuaded some voters that a hung parliament would be the best outcome. This week, The Economist endorsed the Lib Dems, admitting they could not win but hoping they would restrain whoever does. The FT endorsed no one, but suggested voting for “internationalist, pro-business MPs”.
The New Statesman could not bring itself to endorse Labour, but suggested voting tactically against the Tories. The idea has taken hold, in certain circles, that the best answer to poor government is weak government.
Instead, the main parties have all declared they will refuse to form coalitions and will thereby ignore the basic constitutional imperative that a Cabinet must command a majority in Parliament, whether by coalition or a functioning confidence and supply arrangement, in order to be a legitimate government
This is a wholly misguided idea. A hung parliament resulting in a minority government would be a disastrous result this time, just as it was in 2017. Back then, it sucked all of the momentum out of Brexit, emboldening Parliament to try and reverse the referendum result.
This created a vacuum that hamstrung our negotiations. The resulting power struggle put all other important business into deep freeze and locked us into an interminable rerun of all the referendum’s arguments, in which opinions hardened into identities and then into tribes.
Toxic effect on body politic
The effect of this on our body politic has been toxic. It has destroyed any sense of solidarity between voter groups. Opinions are no longer just opinions, and policies no longer just practical schemes. Everything is cover for treacherous vested interests — Russian espionage, corruption, rapacious US corporations, capitalist exploitation, and so on.
Parliament as an institution has suffered a catastrophic decline in prestige, its members derided as arrogant, deluded and useless. The tit-for-tat abuse of our constitution has resulted in a ratcheting cycle of polarisation.
Those desiring another minority government are in effect arguing for more of the same. Like a spurned lover who won’t accept rejection, they have entered a psychological spiral of denial. They lament the lack of trust in politics while advocating precisely the course most likely to exacerbate it.
What the country desperately needs is a government with the authority to do things. If it does not have a clear mandate, the major strategic choices it makes will have no legitimacy and will poison our democratic process.
The problem is, the referendum’s unbridled passions have broken our constitutional conventions. Parliament and the courts now think nothing of issuing orders to the government on the finest details of its activities. The legislature’s role is not to boss about ministers, but to pick the government and let it govern, unless or until it withdraws its confidence.
Instead, the main parties have all declared they will refuse to form coalitions and will thereby ignore the basic constitutional imperative that a Cabinet must command a majority in Parliament, whether by coalition or a functioning confidence and supply arrangement, in order to be a legitimate government.
Governments cannot rule by “dare”, as the shadow chancellor has suggested, or any other nightmarish processology dredged up from past centuries. Under our constitution, a minority government is essentially an oxymoron.
The need for functioning government is all the more important because the list of strategic decisions that need making is growing longer and more urgent. Brexit is the most obvious. The next government must decide whether it wants to pursue a model of closeness to the EU, aligning itself with many laws and regulations on the continent, or take the high-risk — perhaps high-reward — path of divergence.
This will involve painful trade-offs. Are we prepared to risk tariffs on industrial products in order to protect our fishing rights? Is there some clever fudge or compromise that can get us the best of both? Only a government confident of passing legislation will have the political capital to make these decisions.
But Brexit is not the most important issue in the long term. There are pressing questions piling up, about our approach to security, migration, US isolationism, global trade, data privacy, the rise of China and other foreign powers whose authoritarian models are seeking to infiltrate and undermine our democracy.
Our economy needs attention and reform; a new framework to replace austerity. We simply cannot afford to spend another five years messing about, arguing furiously about whether the Speaker was right to disregard a “notwithstanding” convention.
The real reason so many anxious voters and intellectuals are arguing for a hung parliament is that they want to wash their hands of all responsibility.
The primary concern of voters thinking this way is the need to escape blame for whatever comes next. But what is needed is the exact opposite of this approach. Blame is a risk inherent in taking any action. If there is no one to blame, there is no democracy. Rather than defending liberal democracy, a hung parliament would only endanger it more.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London
Juliet Samuel is a noted columnist. She writes columns on politics and international affairs