Principles and beliefs could scupper moves towards an emergency government with Brexit looming, writes Ian Swanson
Voters apparently like politicians working together across party lines. The noise of elected representatives point-scoring while a crisis rages regularly prompts complaints that everyone should be co-operating for the common good.
The demand often ignores the fact that there are fundamental differences of principle and belief over the matter at issue, which mean the politicians could never come together and agree a joint approach.
Talk of a possible temporary cross-party government as a way of stopping a no-deal Brexit makes no pretence of trying to include the extreme Brexiteers, but it does envisage bringing together a diverse band of MPs from Tory dissidents and Labour defectors to Corbyn diehards.
Labour’s insistence that its leader should lead the proposed government of national unity (GNU) has not gone down well with many of those opposed to no-deal. Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson was the most outspoken in saying she would not have any part in making Jeremy Corbyn prime minister, even temporarily. Nicola Sturgeon made clear the SNP was ready to co-operate, but various Tory rebels have also ruled out supporting Mr Corbyn.
There is no certainty, however, that alternative names like Tory elder statesman Ken Clarke or the longest-serving female MP, Labour’s Harriet Harman, would command majority support either. National governments, formed on a cross-party basis as opposed to a coalition between two parties like the Tories’ deal with the Lib Dems in 2010-15, have been few and far between in the UK.
Apart from the First World War government under Lloyd George and then Winston Churchill’s in the Second World War, there has only really been the National Government formed by Labour’s Ramsay MacDonald in 1931 after his own party’s minority administration could not agree on proposed tariffs and benefit cuts. MacDonald, once the hero of the Labour movement, has never been forgiven for his betrayal.
There have occasionally been calls for a government of national unity in more recent times, but never any serious move to form one.
Many believe there are alternative, more likely ways to stop a no-deal Brexit – although parliamentary procedures do not seem guaranteed to achieve that and Boris Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings says that even if the Government loses a vote of confidence, Mr Johnson will delay a general election until after October 31 to ensure the UK does leave the EU as he promised.
But if the GNU idea is to take off, another problem is exactly what its purpose would be.
Most agree it would be for a very limited period and many see its role simply as securing an extension of the Brexit deadline, some say to allow a general election, others to enable a second referendum. Ken Clarke, however, has talked of going further and negotiating a new deal with Europe. The remit of a temporary government could be another stumbling block on top of who leads it.
Meanwhile, as Boris Johnson prepares to meet German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron, leaked government papers warn no-deal is likely to mean shortages of fuel, fresh food and medicines, delays at airports and a hard border with Ireland.
It is a sober reminder about what will happen if the politicians fail to stop Boris Johnson in his tracks.