Policy differences are normal in democratic politics but Brexit...
British politics is in an almighty mess and there are no quick or easy ways to sort it out. Brexit is obviously one of the causes of this mess, but it’s not the only one. The result of the 2016 Referendum exposed a deep division in the nation, but it is how the political system has failed to cope with it that is more serious.
First, there was the unnecessary 2017 General Election. The Conservative Government had a majority of 12 and Theresa May thought handling Brexit would be easier if she had a larger one. The voters decided otherwise and she has had to manage with a minority Government, propped up by the 10 DUP MPs. That worked until the significance of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic became the most intractable issue in the Brexit negotiations.
A second issue has been the divisions in the two major parties. Brexit has split the Conservative Parliamentary Party and caused four of its MPs to leave. Three have joined eight Labour MPs to form Change UK and Minister Nick Boles resigned to sit as an Independent. Ian Austin has similarly resigned from the Labour Party to sit as an Independent. Rumours suggest that up to 20 other MPs might also quit their parties.
These resignations are symptoms of deeper divisions in the major parties. The European Research Group of Conservative MPs, loosely supported by up to 70 or 80 others who back a ‘no deal’ Brexit, are virtually a party within the party. Similarly, the Labour Party has a left wing group who back Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist agenda whilst the social democrats in the parliamentary party are critical of Corbyn. These divisions have meant that the Whips have been unable to maintain party discipline. The result has been a failure to deliver majority votes for any of the Brexit options, except a rejection of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
One consequence of this has been the Government losing control of the House of Commons and backbench initiatives to find ways of finding majority support. Cross party action by the Conservative centrists such as Sir Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve have worked with Labour centrists Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn, all former Ministers, to take control of procedure in order to find majority support for solutions to the Brexit dilemma. The role of the Speaker, John Bercow, has been crucial in these initiatives. In his time as Speaker he has been a champion for the ordinary backbench MPs, much to the chagrin of Ministers - but it has made sense in light of a minority Government.
The conduct of the Cabinet has been another factor in the current confusion. The normal principle of collective responsibility has frequently broken down. The senior Ministers are as divided over Brexit as their back benchers and leaks and open disagreements have become frequent. Theresa May’s leadership style has not helped and a number of her Cabinet Ministers have anticipated her imminent resignation and begun campaigning to be her successor.
Some commentators see a General Election as the only way of sorting out the mess, electing a Government with a majority and a mandate to settle the Brexit issue and restore orderly government and politics. That is easier said than done. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act requires either a vote of no confidence in the Government or two thirds of MPs voting for an election. Neither seems likely for the foreseeable time. New parties – the Change UK and the Brexit party – have emerged and could split the vote, preventing any party winning a majority of seats that is necessary to form a sustainable Government. The opinion polls suggest that another referendum would reverse the 2016 result, but that would leave many Brexiteers deeply angry and disaffected.
The importance of prayer for the healing of the nation and for wisdom for our MPs and Government is obvious. Perhaps the lack of prayer in the past is one of reasons we are in this mess now.