The UK’s exit from the European Union is proving difficult for the unwritten British constitution. Major constitutional change has required either bloodshed, as in the 17th century, or a party with a popular leader in command, as with Harold Macmillan (Conservative prime minister, 1957-63) or Tony Blair (in power for Labour in 1997-2007).
Robert Peel, the pioneering 19th century Conservative prime minister, had to break up his party to force through the corn laws, intended to keep corn prices high to protect English farmers from cheap foreign imports.
Theresa May, foundering badly, facing a massive vote of disapproval in Thursday’s UK European parliament elections – in which the country, against all expectations two months ago, will take part – cannot follow Peel, nor can she aspire to be Macmillan.
For many months, May thought she had a perfect gamble. Her plan was to propose a Brexit deal which would frighten the Remainers into accepting it to prevent a ‘no deal’ nightmare, and cajole ardent Brexiteers into line by threatening them with ‘no Brexit’.
Alas, rationality has fled Westminster. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which holds the balance of power in the House of Commons, has refused the prime minister’s compromises over the ‘backstop’ arrangements for the border with the Republic of Ireland. May, like her Labour counterpart Jeremy Corbyn, and indeed any current party leader, lacks a Commons majority to break the impasse.
Fortunately for her, the 2011 fixed-term parliaments act has disrupted the normal routes for removing a prime minister by a simple vote of no confidence. Changes in party procedures have further blocked off efforts to switch leaders in either of the two main parties. Corbyn is as unsuccessful as May in harnessing his party. This reflects his inability to change his mind on any issue of policy whatever, or even pretend to believe anything but his 1970s Trotskyism.
With neither leader powerful or removable, and time running out, one possible escape route lies in the peaceful ‘March revolution’ engineered by Conservative and Labour MPs Oliver Letwin and Yvette Cooper, and John Bercow, the House of Commons speaker.
This empowered backbenchers to take over the procedure for passing bills which can force the executive to implement parliamentary decisions. The policy bore fruit in March when both houses passed a backbencher bill to force the prime minister to seek an extension to the-then 29 March Brexit deadline.
May’s ‘new, improved’ Brexit deal has drawn considerable backlash from both sides. Although there is considerable scepticism about the possibility of getting a Commons victory at the fourth attempt, the machinery could result in a deal which should have come out of nearly two months of largely time-wasting negotiations (now ended) between the Conservative and Labour parties.
Such a compromise may just garner numbers for a slender Commons majority. However, there are many imponderables. The local election results earlier this month, where the Conservatives fared disastrously and Labour performed much worse than expected, have not instilled any Conservative urgency to accept their leader’s deal. Corbyn is in denial about the outcome. The European elections will further humiliate the two main parties. The Conservative drubbing will be much more severe than for Labour.
In the next few weeks, in a bid to meet the new end-October exit deadline, a compromise may prove workable, perhaps with a new Conservative leader. If not, Britain may stay in the EU – with or without a referendum.
Let that be a predicament for the Conservative leadership candidates anxious to replace May. They can start Brexit negotiations all over again.
Lord (Meghnad) Desai, a Labour peer, is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Chair of the OMFIF Advisers Council.