15 March 2019

How Brexit could shatter Britain’s two-party politics

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On the day the coalition government was formed, I found myself briefly alone with an exhausted David Cameron as he was about to enter Downing Street. So I took the chance to suggest he use this seismic moment to remould politics by giving ministers and MPs far more freedom to speak their minds. I argued the era of spin should end since technology was breaking down traditional barriers. He paused for a moment’s thought, then shook his head. “It would never work,” he replied.

Fast-forward nine years. That groundbreaking coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats feels like a faded time of stability compared with the squall shaking British politics at present. The cause of this current crisis was the 2016 referendum, a consequence of Cameron’s unexpected election victory the previous year in which he lost the Liberal Democrats ability to restraint his right wing. That foolish ballot, offering a simple binary choice on such a complex matter in a campaign riddled with lies, ripped open divisions in the country while rendering Parliament incapable of doing anything except for bickering over Brexit.

The result has been the dismal sight of a once-respected democracy turning into a demeaning joke as if feuds over its future. It is impossible to ignore the damage this debacle has done to our global reputation. Britain stands just days from European Union departure with no agreement over how to turn the glib slogans of Brexit into grim reality. We have a prime minister who looks a perennial loser. She has lost control even of her cabinet as her party engages in civil war on the issue that has tormented it for decades. Across the despatch box stands a clueless Labour leader who has failed to provide effective opposition to a government in meltdown.

It is hard not to be depressed by this grotesque political failure, especially given the consequences for businesses, jobs and societal harmony. Theresa May’s lost voice is painfully symbolic of her loss of power. We live in weird times when a chancellor openly challenges the prime minister on the key issue facing the country in his delivery of a set-piece, as we saw on Wednesday with the spring statement. This was underscored by four cabinet ministers abstaining on the three-line whip to reject no deal; a Brexit secretary voting against a plan to extend article 50 he had just been urging colleagues to back; then the chief whip abstaining in defiance of all parliamentary norms.

These moments damage the reputation of Westminster, especially when crass tribalism has driven Britain into this messy situation and parties show an inability to find a workable consensus on such a vital issue for our future. There are welcome signs the two main parties are breaking down, highlighted by defections to a new centrist force from both Labour and the Tories. Given despair on both sides of the Brexit debate over the performance of the traditional parties, fostered by the lack of leadership and deep fissures driven open across the country, this might just be the start of profound change — especially if the Tory right complete their party takeover when May is finally ousted and the hard-left cling on after Jeremy Corbyn goes.

This process has revealed the anachronistic nature of Britain’s political system as the two big parties, both historic coalitions, struggle to hold together and Parliament is stymied. We need to see the introduction of proportional representation to fuel disruption at Westminster by forcing it to modernise and offer more choice to voters at election time. Who can now believe the claim that first-past-the-post delivers strong and stable government? “Throughout history it has risen to the demands of the time, often with a brutal decisiveness,” claimed Cameron before the 2011 referendum on this issue. If only that were true. Instead, we see how the Brexit contortions tear apart this conceit – and it is more corrosive in an unruly digital age.

But let us try to be positive as we stand trapped in this quagmire. For if there is a boon to this Brexit crisis then it has been seeing the strength of Parliament in its efforts to wrest control from a floundering prime minister. The much-maligned speaker John Bercow deserves credit for preparing the ground with his efforts to empower MPs since taking over the chair a decade ago. Then came Gina Miller’s courageous legal triumph that enabled the House of Commons to take back control from the Prime Minister. Yes, this has worsened the log-jam we are enduring over EU departure – yet with the usual wisdom of crowds, the parliamentary arithmetic bequeathed by the 2017 election only reflects the reality of a riven nation.

Now consider a broader question. If this outbreak of parliamentary muscle-flexing carried on beyond Brexit, with MPs in shifting alliances making temporary pacts across tribal boundaries to drive through measures, would that really be so terrible? There is a strong basis to argue our political system has failed in recent years, from backing the Iraq War through to persistently ignoring crises such as those in health, housing and social care. And ask what message does it send voters when Chris Grayling retains a place around the cabinet table despite trailing costly disaster in his wake? This fuels the toxicity of party politics, leading to public frustration and loss of faith in Westminster.

Much of the problem boils down to an over-powerful executive in a heavily-centralised system. Now imagine if leaders could no longer rely on patronage and party loyalty to deliver policies, let alone the pretence that a many-paged manifesto gives them a wide-ranging mandate, and instead had to trust the force of their argument and power of evidence in a far more fluid chamber. We have seen a flickering of parliamentary revival with the strengthening of select committees and use of public petitions. But how much better if careers depended more on pursuing reform, especially on cross-party basis, rather than asking patsy questions and toadying up to whips. If combined with reform of the voting system and further devolution of power around the country, we might even end up with a smarter political system that was more consensual and responsive to public need.

Technology is transforming politics, just as it is changing other aspects of life, but our political system is stuck firmly in the past. The electorate is tired of politicians who duck questions and chant cynical mantras dictated by spin doctors. Voters are not stupid; they know people do not think alike on all issues just because they wear the same coloured rosette at election time. Politicians need to treat people with more respect – and one way is to air their arguments in public, thereby embracing wider debate rather than fearing internal party discussion. The old approach is no longer sustainable in the social media age, as seen by the rise of politicians such as Jess Phillips and James Cleverly who dare expose their personalities in public rather than adopt the standard robotic pose. Even Corbyn’s popularity with younger voters was also down to being seen once to offer something authentic.

This Brexit paralysis is a bleak moment for Britain. We are a diminished nation with our bickering politicians, tarnished democracy and inability to find a sustainable solution at a time of national trauma. But if there are grounds for optimism, let us hope Cameron’s ultimate legacy with this divisive disaster is to shatter the two-party system and restore real power to a more responsive parliament over the executive. Ironically, it is possible he may have delivered the idea I suggested when standing in his office all those years ago – and this might just end up restoring a little of the lost trust in Westminster.

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Ian Birrell is a contributing editor to The Mail on Sunday.