Mention to anyone that you are a teacher or student of politics at the moment and you are usually met with the response ‘oh goodness, what an interesting time to be studying politics’, or the alternative ‘can you explain to me what is actually going to happen with Brexit. I do tend to agree to an extent that it is a wonderful time to be studying the subject, far better than my own experience as a university student of Blair in the early naughties (thankfully this was eventually spiced up by an illegal war in Iraq, which did more than enough to end the endless drudgery about modernisation and decentralisation policy.
However in terms of the second question on Brexit, we are all at a loss. Professors, journalists, pundits, bloggers, ministers, MPs and even Cabinet members all do not have, in the words of Danny Dyer, “a scooby” about what is happening or indeed what is going to happen. However what it has presented is a wealth of wonderful up to date examples of politics being turned on its head in the UK that current 6th form students should be tucking into with gusto in the run up to their final A Level exams. To give a helping hand to the poor, tired, overworked, time-poor 6th form students, I have compiled some of these into a short list below:
- Collective Responsibility – as of last night, this has essentially gone out of the window. 4 Cabinet Ministers defied a 3 line whip last night and ended up abstaining in a vote against the government on an amendment to keep a ‘no deal’ option off the table. Essentially this means that they have broken the convention of ‘collective ministerial responsibility’ as they have not backed government policy. However the 4 (Amber Rudd, David Gawke, Greg Clark and David Mundell) are all still in their respective positions of: Work & Pensions Secretary, Justice Secretary, Business Secretary and Scottish Secretary. They have not resigned, or been fired. Theresa May has therefore lost all power and authority.
- The balance of Power has firmly shifted from the Executive to Parliament – this has really happened since the 2017 election when Theresa May lost her majority and had to go to the DUP to back her up in a confidence and supply deal. Her withdrawal agreement has now been voted down twice. The first time was the largest ever defeat by a government. The second on Tuesday was the 4th largest defeat by 149 votes. These included over 70 Conservative MPs that voted against their own government. The whips currently have no control over rebellious backbenchers, such as the powerful European Research Group that includes Rees-Mogg, Cash, Redwood, Bone etc. Theresa May has therefore lost all power and authority.
- There are no united parties in the commons – apart from maybe solo Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, unless she has started to suffer from bipolar syndrome. Take the time to look at any of the amendment votes that have happened in the past few weeks. Each time we have both Labour and Conservative backbenchers defying the orders of the party whips and voting with their opponents. Fringe members of both parties have now resigned to form ‘The Independence Group’ which claims it is not a party, but if it looks like a duck, talks like a duck and gets external funding from wealthy, anti-Brexit businessmen like a duck, it is probably a duck….or a party in this case! Surely the newly formed TIGs are united? Well they are on Brexit, but not much else. You have three former Conservative MPs who voted consistently for more austerity policies from 2010-2015 siding up with former Labour MPs who owed their election victories in 2017 to directly opposing these policies. Each of them have also called for a 2nd referendum to take place, whilst at the same time refusing to hold a by-election in their constituency since resigning from their parties – the TIG democratic paradox as it will now be known.
- Presidentialism is still there – despite the fact that Theresa May has literally no authority over her Cabinet (see point 1), or indeed over Parliament (see point 2) or even her party (point 3), there is still some evidence to show a Prime Minister acting more like a president than a ‘first among equals’. She has taken centre stage in all aspects of Brexit and been the focal point for all the critical meetings with the EU, including the supposed ‘breakthrough’ meeting on Monday which turned out to be a damp squib. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill is known widely as ‘Theresa May’s Deal’. There is either, dare I say it, a hint of an ‘ism’. Mayism, not quite Thatcherism part 2 as some had hoped, or indeed the more reformist 3rd way Blairism of the late 90s, but rather representing absolute blunt stubbornness in the face of total annihilation and a refusal to listen. It is rumoured that she is going to try to get her deal through the Commons at least 2 more times in the next week. Just like President Trumps endless demands for funding to build a wall, May simply does not know when she is beaten. So in some ways the Prime Minister does still inhibit some aspects of a President, but more like a ‘lame duck’ president in their final days in office when they have little power left to action anything of considerable value what so ever.
- Parliament is growing in stature and confidence, suggestion sovereignty has returned – the recent spate of amendments have all sounded rather like the title of the next, poorly written Dan Brown novel – ‘The Spellman Amendment’, ‘The Malthouse Compromise’ etc. These have been predominantly driven by backbench MPs rather than the government, highlighting that a change has taken place in terms of the legislative process as of late. The Executive is still just about clinging on to controlling the schedule of house business, but have had their wings clipped by the fact that Speaker John Bercow has been able to select the amendment motions for the Commons to vote on in the aftermath of the first failure of May’S deal. Even tonight, the government only just survived a motion which would have handed control of Commons business to backbench MPs, which really would have sounded the death knell for Theresa May.
So what has really changed. Everything and nothing really. We are still in the dark about Brexit and the future of our current government. However, students, you are now equipped with some marvellous new examples to add to your every growing political factual arsenal. Aren’t you really lucky to be studying this wonderful subject at such an interesting time!