Panic in Downing Street

Motives are powerful things. When they change, politicians can become quite erratic quite quickly. The last week has seen that play out on an epic scale. Here’s how.

Tuesday 27 August: Rebel Alliance

On Tuesday there was an unusual meeting. The leaders of the diverse opposition parties in Parliament got together and agreed to set their long-standing motives aside in order to stop “no deal” brexit. This is, to this writer’s knowledge, unprecedented.

The motives set aside were diverse but broadly sit within three groups. Firstly, Labour agreed to delay its aim of getting into power. Rather than seek a “rebel alliance” vote of no confidence – with Jeremy Corbyn taking a caretaker role as Prime Minister – it agreed to simply stay in opposition and work on legislation to stop the UK leaving the EU without a deal.

In the same meeting Lib Dems, SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru all agreed to give up the aim of stopping brexit. Instead of using “no deal” as a sort of ‘match point’ opportunity to bring the whole endeavour down, they ceded to Labour’s discomfort on that by agreeing to use legislation to halt “no deal” instead. Alongside that, Change UK and the Lib Dems – who have had CUK MPs join them – agreed to give up implacable opposition to working with Labour’s leader who they see as an extremist. They did this in order to pursue the same legislative changes to stop “no deal”. This likely made it easier for Tory rebels to agree to support the new alliance because, frankly, if Anna Soubry thinks something is a good idea, people like Grieve and Clarke are unlikely to find it objectionable.

All of this represented an unprecedented shift of motive towards simply stopping “no deal”, uniting an otherwise deeply fractious opposition in Parliament.

Wednesday 28 August: Closing Parliament

If the events of Tuesday were remarkable, the response from Downing Street was truly breath-taking in its haphazard and dramatic nature.

Wednesday saw a move to close Parliament in order to stop the rebellion. Controlling one’s own party, and thus being able to run the country, is pretty much the first and only motive for any PM when that control is threatened. Almost all other motives cease because no other motives can be served without control.

Such drastic action, however, harks back to some of the worst periods in English history. While half-hearted attempts were made to present this extraordinary action appear less extraordinary, the idea of closing Parliament for so long under the pretence of mere logistics for a Queen’s Speech simply hasn’t been manageable. Protests kicked off and the opposition appeared to strengthen its resolve to work together.

An additional motive underlying the move might be that going to such extremes and setting up a “no deal v Parliament” dynamic for a future General Election plays well in some quarters. Indeed, trying to appear a “strong man” leader by doing extreme things may underpin whatever strategy was being applied by Johnson’s team throughout the week. If so it was a risky move because ‘commanding strength’ can quickly become ‘panicky tantrum’ when things go wrong.

Thursday 29 August: Expulsion Threats

The next move from Downing Street – amid a growing sense that closing Parliament simply might not work – was actually much more conventional, albeit still very extreme. They threatened to punish Party MPs who rebelled.

This sort of approach is pretty normal. A change of leader often results in some tension – as seen within Labour when Jeremy Corbyn become leader – but ultimately the vast majority of MPs still feel their party is the best party for the country, which makes punishment an effective tool.

Punishments vary. Typical punishment is the sense of mistrust an MP has to live with within their own party, limitations on career progression, denial of support for local causes, or refusal for selection to committees they care about. In that light, we have to understand what motivated the more extreme approach of threatening expulsion.

Several motives might be at work here. Much of the Cabinet has very recently rebelled with great abandon despite more conventional punishments being in play, so they may simply feel those punishments are now worthless anyway. The severity of the situation – with no workable majority in Parliament – is also a likely motivator. Appearing to be a “strong man” may also motivate a new Prime Minister who is, despite a normal new-leader-bounce in polls, not actually riding very high in public opinion for a new PM yet.

There is a problem here for Downing Street, however. The threat might be hollow.

It is not at all clear that Downing Street can deselect MPs within the Conservative Party. It can withdraw the whip in Parliament but with Runneymede and Weybridge Conservative Party subsequently announcing the reselection of expected rebel Philip Hammond as its next candidate, the notoriously localised Tory Party simply doesn’t have to do what a PM says – not even a new Tory one.

Friday 30 August: Normality Resumes

By Friday things started to settle down a bit and a further motivation for deselection was raised – albeit with the caveat that deselection might not be possible.

That motivation was that in a subsequent snap election those rebel MPs could be replaced with (hopefully) less rebellious candidates in what are mostly safe seats. Hints of this may have been done more to test the water than because the timing was right. That is something close to politics as normal by the unusual standards of the week.

Meanwhile the opposition recovered from the shock of Parliament potentially being closed. It thus started to set out and formalise its original plans from Tuesday – finding legislative means to halt “no deal” that they hoped could pass a week later (crucially before the shutdown took effect).

The Weekend: Crazy Moments

Politics is a funny thing at the weekend. The work of legislative process stops and the focus shifts to television interviews. If the fledgling ‘rebel alliance’ was going to crumble, this was when the first fault-lines might emerge under questioning by senior interviewers and reporters. Likewise, as daily grind largely ceases, a flustered government can breath easily at the weekend, calm itself down, and with well managed media appearances it can set out more clearly the battles ahead.

Then the opposite happened.

Keir Starmer – Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary – said in interview that if a caretaker government is eventually needed to halt “no deal”, Labour’s first choice would be for Jeremy Corbyn to lead it. That should surprise no one because Jeremy Corbyn is literally the Leader of the Opposition, not just Labour. This might have led to disquiet among other opposition parties wary about Labour’s intentions but Starmer eliminated that concern by adding that if Corbyn as caretaker proved unworkable, Labour was open to other choices.

For Labour to even hint at supporting someone other than its own leader as Prime Minister – even in a caretaker role – is truly astounding and suggests the motive of stopping “no deal” is genuine for Labour, and thus potentially for the whole ‘rebel alliance’.

And while things went well for the ‘rebel alliance’, the government injected more fluster from their ranks.

In a separate interview Michael Gove – a member of the UK Government – equivocated over whether the government would obey the rule of law. The particulars of the situation largely amount to whether they would ask the reigning monarch to disregard Parliament if Parliament passed new legislation. The answer to this should be “no” because since Magna Carta, since the civil wars, and since democratisation, it is a gross absurdity to even imagine such a move happening.

So why did he equivocate? The motives with something so bizarre are hard to fathom. In theory, rebels who believe they will lose anyway (by whatever means) are less likely to throw careers away on a lost cause. But it is highly unlikely anyone in government actually thinks such a suggestion would be believed by MPs. Similarly, perhaps some “strong man” motivation was there, wanting to present the government as willing to go to extremes ‘if needed’. But to equivocate undermines that objective completely.

This may genuinely be one of those times where a Minister fluffed his lines because he just hadn’t been told what to say.

Monday 02 September: General Election Threat

The motives behind the PM’s late statement on Monday are pretty straight-forward. Historically, when all else fails, a PM has been able to call a General Election. If possible the PM will do so with a bit of a lead time beforehand for the sort of spending pledges we’ve seen from the Conservatives lately. It would also be expected to coincide with some indication from the polls that said General Election would be won. This particular announcement also comes with a degree of threat – knowing rebel Tory MPs may lose their seats if deselection turns out to be possible.

However – this was not a move made at the PM’s time of choosing.

While rumours went around that any election agreed by Parliament might have the date changed to make “no deal” inevitable, the prospect of a General Election faded fast. Indeed with the PM’s new-leader-bounce not proving very big yet by historic standards, and with a tentative electoral pact among ‘remain’ parties having proved successful in Brecon and Radnorshire already, an election does not look like a natural win for the Conservatives – at least not by sufficient scale to safely provide a new majority.

There is also great risk for the Conservatives here – as Theresa May found – that while many people will vote about brexit, hundreds of thousands of Labour campaigners will hit the doorsteps and find many many more who will vote on more traditional issues like the NHS, policing, and so on. After nine years in charge that may not play well for the Conservatives. We should always remember that there is a reason snap elections are rare and often turn against governments.

Tuesday 03 September: General Election Cancelled?

A week after all this dramatic activity started, that original development on Tuesday – the ‘rebel alliance – resumed a degree of control over the agenda.

In all normal circumstances, getting the required 2/3rds majority in Parliament to call an election should be easy. It is almost unimaginable that the main opposition party would vote against it. For Labour or Tories in opposition to vote against a chance to get into power simply defies all normal motivation in politics.

But that seems to be happening, or at least under serious consideration. With stopping “no deal” made paramount among opposition motivations, Labour has indicated that it does not want to vote for an election until “no deal” is safely locked away – even if only on a temporary basis.

At the same time the Conservatives were put in a difficult position by the leader of the Brexit Party. He offered to stand no candidates against the Conservatives if the Conservatives do what he tells them – i.e. make “no deal” the policy aim, not just a possible outcome if negotiations fail.

That all of this is effectively about “no deal” anyway might make this seem a smaller issue than it is – but the UK is not one electorate, it is 650 electorates. For the Conservatives to mitigate lost votes to the Brexit Party it is being told to give up more moderate voters who may in fact prove more critical to winning marginal seats. For a lot of Tories on either side of “no deal”, that is a tough motivational dilemma.

Conclusion

It is hard to imagine the relative powerlessness of Downing Street being displayed any more comprehensively than by its attempts to appear powerful this week. It has threatened an election it can’t call without Labour’s permission. It has threatened punishments against MPs it might not be able to deploy. It has equivocated over the rule of law. It has hardened the resolve of opponents by trying to close down Parliamentary debate.

There is of course a lot more to play out as Parliament legislates in earnest but calmer heads are needed all round within Cabinet. It was caught off guard by the ‘rebel alliance’ last Tuesday – and a bit like a defence undone by Lionel Messi being Lionel Messi, its attempts to equalise have so far left it exposed to yet more Lionel Messi.

The next few days will thus be interesting as motives and resolve are tested further and the big question now is whether Labour can be enticed into helping the Tory government by agreeing to an election.

That question will determine a great deal in British politics.

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