A ‘National Unity’ Government Would Only Lead To National Disunity, And All Sides Would Suffer | Bradley Goodwin
Looking at the Brexit saga as an observer, the only image that remotely seems to resemble the chaos is that of the Old Roman Empire. As collapse became more and more inevitable, the gladiatorial games became wilder and more spectacular.
The past three years have been both a combination of our political representatives grappling with an outcome out of tune with their ideological vision, and a Parliament fractured, legislative power lying with all sides and none in equal measure where no Commons majority exists to carve up that power between Government and opposition.
Every sinew of our constitution has been tested, scrutinised and weakened from the moment the referendum occurred. The Judiciary has been tested by its’ consistent politicisation from those who disapprove of the referendum result. There has been Gina Miller’s Supreme Court appeal making the triggering of Article 50 only possible by Parliamentary consent, and countless reviews of Brexit’s legitimacy such as the review into the £350m a week for the NHS claim.
Even worse than one cornerstone being strained by Brexit, is having the other two pitted against each other and mutually undermined in the process. In normal times, such a situation would be confined to a mere fantasy an imaginative political theorist would devise. A time such as ours, in which normal is thrown of out of the window, means this is the reality we face.
The emboldened opposition in the Legislature has thrown every arcane political device at the executive in the Brexit age. We have had votes of no confidence, deadlocks broken by the Speaker’s casting vote, the Speaker ignoring constitutional tradition, votes of government being in contempt of Parliament. All this has taken place in the Commons alone. The chaos of the House of Lords ongoing politicisation, not caused by Brexit, but certainly fast-tracked as a result of it, has been running side by side the chaos in the Commons.
Our Parliament has become a compression chamber of constitutional vandalism. The path this chamber has travelled in the past three years I fear may be coming to a devastating end, a cliff-edge. And no, by cliff-edge, I do not mean no deal. No deal is a fate not catastrophic compared to the constitutional cliff-edge we may arrive at.
What I refer to is the horrifying prospect of a ‘National Unity’ government, an idea forged by those opposed to leaving the EU (dressed up as opposition to No Deal, which if anyone believes is their real enemy rather than Brexit itself, then all I can say is where have you been for the past three years?).
The idea, as is being reported by the media as a potential option for opposition to Boris Johnson’s October deadline, is rooted in the provisions of the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 (itself a terrible piece of legislation that deliberately restricts the Constitution’s privileging of power to the executive, the problems however could constitute another article altogether).
The plan’s very success depends first and foremost on winning a Vote of no confidence against the Government. If this vote is successful, under the provisions of the Act, an alternative government would have two weeks from the vote being won to win the confidence of the House in order to gain legality under the Act. If this second part of the plan fails and two weeks pass, a General Election must be called.
The problems with such a proposal, if it were to go ahead, can be described in one word, the virtue that has ran through the anti-Leave parliamentarians for the past three years: arrogance.
The over-arching arrogance in the plan is the notion that this grouping could defeat the incumbent government on a Vote of no confidence AND win its own vote of Confidence.
The vast majority of Conservative MPs are convinced that if we are still in the European Union by October 31st, the Conservative Party will have no chance of winning any General Election that would result. The majority of the Parliamentary Party, 160 MPs, backed Boris Johnson to be PM largely (if not solely) because of this shared belief. This majority know that their disastrous council elections, the Brexit Party’s annihilation of them at the European elections, mean their very political future rests on Brexit’s hasty conclusion. This majority simply will not sign a suicide note on their political careers.
And then there is the Labour Party, the so-called opposition. The irony here is that Her Majesty’s Opposition is the biggest opposition to Her Majesty’s Opposition. If the characteristic defining the anti-Leave grouping has been arrogance, then Labour’s must certainly be ineptitude. The only strain more intense than that on the Constitution has been the Labour Party’s cohesiveness.
The Constitution may be failing its test, but Labour has already failed its own. Since the 2017 General Election we have had all sorts of Brexit policy: a ‘hard’ Brexit, a ‘soft’ Brexit, a deal with a referendum attached, with one policy never staying in place for more than what feels like 2 seconds. Even on the announcement of a National Unity Government, Labour has responded with its now trademark ineptitude, as demonstrated in Channel 4’s interview with Rebecca Long-Bailey.
When Cathy Newman put the idea to her, Long-Bailey responded by arguing it would allegedly serve Boris Johnson, since the National Unity Government could take the blame from what resulted and he could return afterwards. This completely ignores the point that the National Unity Government would only be in place because Boris Johnson’s government has lost the confidence of the House and the National Unity Government would have won that confidence of its own accord. Quite simply put, Mr Johnson could not simply walk back into Downing Street after the National Unity Government and pick up where they left off.
Labour officially oppose such a plan, as more clearly put by John McDonnell, since they would rather a General Election and a Labour government. The irony is that by opposing a vote of no confidence they actually oppose their aim of a General Election. Labour has no other method of achieving a General Election outside of a vote of no confidence, and time is running out if they want to do something about the calamitous consequences they predict from a No Deal Brexit. I think their best hope of getting one would be to back a vote of no confidence if one is triggered, and hope that the vote of confidence necessary for the ‘National Unity’ government fails to happen.
The possibility of succeeding on the first vote against Boris Johnson’s government and then failing to establish a National Unity Government is a much more attainable possibility for Labour. The current Government is seriously considering the possibility of a defeat in a vote of no confidence, especially since their parliamentary majority now stands at just one. The second vote is the part of the plan that would be near impossible without Labour’s support. The majority of the Conservatives would vote against it for obvious reasons, the DUP would also vote against, seeing it as an attempt to reach a Brexit they would see as unacceptable, not a real Brexit at all. If Labour added to the numbers of opposition, the chances of a National Unity Government would be impossible.
Aside from the Labour leadership (or lack thereof) scoring a massive own goal, even if it were to back no confidence, another challenge for the plan would be the rump of Labour MPs likely to defy such a call. This would be the solid group of 30-40 Labour MPs who share the desire to be out of the EU by October 31st. Some of them Brexiteers by belief (like Kate Hoey for example), and others due to practicality in knowing their constituents want Brexit, largely in Northern constituencies, such as Caroline Flint or Sarah Champion for example.
The complications to such a proposal are clearly many then, all daggers to the plan’s success. However, the most fatal risks of such a plan are not the hurdles, but the consequences of its success.
Think about it, the actual prospect of such a Government in power. Consider the prospect of the government you have elected being subjected to a humiliating putsch by those who have not been elected to government. The meaning behind such an act would be extremely clear to the voter. You do not make the decisions if we do not approve, we, the ruling class, will not be subject to the whim of democracy if we do not approve of its outcome.
No action would be a bigger spit in the face to the electorate than to appoint a leader such as Caroline Lucas, as is being reported in the media. In fact, it would sum up the plan’s contempt for democracy perfectly. A party with a mere one Member of Parliament that has won no national election in its existence, leading Parliament against the outcome that has won the largest democratic legitimacy in history.
Perhaps the only benefit of such a move taking place, is that the truth, though repugnant, would no longer be possible to hide. Since the referendum verdict, they have had a moderately fair argument in their arsenal, that taking back control from the EU means restoring it to Parliament and not just governments. Anyone serious about our constitutional practices could not merely reject such an argument, even when knowing that their motivations may not have been purely Parliamentary procedure.
This move, however, cannot cushion its ulterior motive in Parliamentary procedure. There would be no serious argument they can make that Leavers would need to answer for. It would quite simply be a betrayal of the desire to leave the people’s desire to leave the EU according to democracy. There is no democracy in such a measure. The British people would see that loud and clear.
Even the emphasis for such an action that people have changed their mind, another routinely spouted argument, would make even less sense in such a scenario. If they wanted to claim to act for a nation’s people that have changed their minds, they would still have to answer for the fact that people’s minds may have changed the other way too. If that argument didn’t stand before such a move, it would be a hopeless defence afterwards.
The British people, like most democratically minded people, do not like to have their decisions betrayed. When rulers overstep their power, the people retaliate at the ballot box. It’s almost unbelievable that the European elections that took place a mere three months ago, have already been discarded. When results don’t get delivered, people vote accordingly, in that case the Brexit Party delivering this hammer blow.
If such Parliamentarians resent the rise of the Brexit Party and fear its success so far, they should be terrified if their plan comes to fruition. Such a betrayal would only benefit the Brexit Party, of that there is no doubt.
Being outside the Westminster bubble, they would be the only ones free of the stain of Parliament’s failure to obey the democratic mandate. If anyone has the talent of excelling as the outsider candidate it is Nigel Farage, the man who took a minority position of advocating our departure from the EU, and made it the mainstream majority one. The party leader who took his party from the fringes, to being the only Party other than the main two to win a national election in over 100 years.
I am not a fortune teller but I would predict the polls would not look bright for any party after such a nuclear option. It would become a deep source of regret when the people finally get their say on such chaos. The opposition to Nigel Farage will be at a serious disadvantage, not only having to fight the label of betrayers and enemies of democracy, but doing so against a contender on his home turf, as the man standing up for the people against the establishment.
If that happens then who knows where we would end up, although there would eventually be an election. If that ends as I believe it might, with the vote split in all ways and no Party seeming to command the public’s confidence outright, the future of our whole constitutional arrangement could be at threat.