Amid careless talk about the greatest constitutional crisis for a hundred years, we are in danger of forgetting that the Brexit drama is good for Parliament. What is said in the Commons, and how MPs vote, actually matter.
A friend of mine who commutes from Colchester to London by train said that on Tuesday, for the first time ever, he saw a fellow passenger following Parliament live on a mobile phone. The ludicrous idea that the entire question could be examined satisfactorily in a television debate seems to have been abandoned. It is in the Commons, in a debate lasting 40 hours instead of 40 minutes, that Theresa May and her colleagues are being held to account.
“What will happen?” people ask in an anxious tone. Sometimes I pretend to know the answer, but the truth is that neither I nor anyone else can tell. Even the experts, as Michael Gove was perhaps trying to intimate, quite often get what will happen in the future wrong. “What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass,” as Lord Melbourne put it.
And this uncertainty is a key element in our tradition of politics. If everything had already been decided, what point would there be in talking about it? As Bagehot pointed out in the mid-19th century, using the word “English” where it would nowadays be more correct to say “British”:
“English people, if they had no motive to attend to politics, certainly would not attend to politics. At present there is business in their attention. They assist at the determining crisis; they arrest or help it. Whether the Government will go out or remain is determined by the debate, and by the division in Parliament. And the opinion out of doors, the secret pervading disposition of society, has a great influence on that division. The nation feels that its judgment is important, and it strives to judge. It succeeds in deciding because the debates and the discussions give it the facts and the arguments.”
Just now, the fate of Theresa May hangs in the balance. She is a dull speaker, but her fate is interesting. Will she survive the day, the week, the year? Our tradition is that our Government, if it suffers a sudden or indeed slow loss of confidence, can be overthrown at any time. We at least have the right to throw the rascals out whenever we please. It is true that David Cameron tried to break with the spirit and letter of that tradition. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 was a necessary element in forming a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats which would last for the whole five years of that Parliament, with neither party worried the other was going to take advantage of it by precipitating a general election. Mr Cameron, the kind of English gentleman who seems honourable but is by no means averse to getting his own way, instead proceeded to take advantage of the Liberal Democrats at his leisure.
But in a second assault on our parliamentary system, he yielded to demagogic demands for an EU referendum. There was a certain poetic justice in soon afterwards seeing him hoist on his own petard. The sudden-death tradition in British politics reasserted itself in a different form. Within hours of the referendum result being known, he emerged into Downing Street to announce his own resignation.
Prime Ministers naturally try to fix things to suit themselves, and as naturally they quite soon fail. While writing brief lives of all 54 of them since Sir Robert Walpole came to power in 1721, I realised the secret of them is that except in their capacity to distribute patronage (i.e. government jobs), they are weak. They require, indeed, the fortitude to put as good face as they can on being weak, for a free people will not accept a dictator. Mrs May knew at once she was weak, and had a negotiation to perform which was going to prove extraordinarily difficult. She sought to strengthen her hand by calling a snap election. But to her surprise, the British people declined to turn her into an elected dictator.
The present, liberty-enhancing crisis flows directly from that election result. The views of individual MPs may now prove decisive in swaying other MPs. On Tuesday, we saw Dominic Grieve and Sir Oliver Letwin, on the Conservative benches, making common cause with figures like Hilary Benn, on the Labour side, to ensure that if Mrs May’s deal is voted down, the voice of Parliament will be heard. A centrist coalition is emerging which wants to tilt Brexit in the direction of Norway. One cannot tell whether this alliance will succeed, but it cannot be ignored.
Jeremy Corbyn, though Leader of the Opposition, has left a curious vacuum by declining to step forward and present himself as an alternative prime minister. He is a non-leader, and watching his non-encounter yesterday with Mrs May at Prime Minister’s Questions, one could not help feeling the two of them are well matched in their unforthcomingness, and prop each other up, with neither of them showing any real desire to get of the other. Mr Corbyn questioned the Prime Minister, not about Brexit, but about Universal Credit. He and his advisers no doubt tell themselves how clever they are to leave the Conservatives to destroy themselves over Brexit. But such tactical cleverness masks, at least from themselves, Mr Corbyn’s cowardice, his refusal even to attempt to take the nation into his confidence. The longer he behaves like this, the more he rules himself out as a possible prime minister.
On both sides of the House, MPs wonder who could take over. Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, has emerged as a formidable performer, able to stir the blood while advocating compromise. From the Labour front bench, Sir Keir Starmer has led with studious moderation, force and clarity the successful campaign to force the Government to publish Cox’s legal advice on Brexit. New reputations are being made as old ones decline, and it is in Parliament that this is taking place. Brexit has not yet happened, but already it has revived the British Constitution.